Hey, guys! Welcome to today’s Monday Muse! And welcome to the conclusion of my month-and-a-half long Brontë-off! Three sisters, three books, one winner!
Now, I really did come up with a points system for this. I even stuck to it! So, let me briefly explain that before I go forward and discuss my likes and dislikes and reveal the prize-winner.
Oh, shit. I didn’t create a prize. Well… I guess the prize will just have to be a re-read in the not-too-distant future. Or tracking down an adaptation and watching it because it can actually be difficult to find them for at least one of the books.
So, I basically created a system of points from 1-5 in the following categories: Characters, Plot, Writing Style, and overall Readability. That’s kind of vague, I know, but those are the kind of things I consider when I read books. Unless it’s fantasy, in which case there’s the “Holy Shit, That’s Awesome!” effect. But these aren’t fantasy (except the idea that Byronic heroes make good lovers), so that category isn’t all that important. In the end, I added up the points and, well… I think this part’s obvious.
Let’s start with Jane Eyre. You’ll be surprised to see how little my dislike of Charlotte Brontë has affected my opinion of her book. Or maybe you won’t be because you know I’m a historian and being disinterested is kind’ve our thing. I don’t have to like someone to acknowledge they’re good at what they do. And Jane Eyre is a great book. Jane is a wonderful character. She’s the kind of heroine we want our daughters to look up to: strong, passionate, self-possessed, and self-aware. She knows who she is and lives her life according to that knowledge. We seethe for her when she faces injustice and feel sorry for her when that whole secret-wife-in-the-attic thing happens. And, of course, I’ve always like that she takes delicious revenge on Rochester by telling him all about St.John Rivers. Now, this is the worst case of author manipulation for marriage plot in the history of ever (hearing his voice? really? really, charlotte? really?), but it is in keeping with Romantic ideals. And I can’t help but dislike Rochester. He made bad decisions and then decided he should be able to ignore them because he deserves to be happy? He was going to enter into bigamy and, in Jane’s belief, doom her to Hell all for his own feelings. Again, though… it’s good writing. And in keeping with Romanticism. But the biggest problem with Jane Eyre? The writing itself. It’s terribly dense, especially compared to her sisters, and it has a definite effect on the readability score.
So, let’s do this:
Characters: 4 out of 5. I take a point off because some of the characters (especially the Riverses) exist solely to further Jane’s story. I get she’s the main character, but everyone should exist for themselves.
Plot: 3 out of 5. I took points off of this one because there are some really damn obvious cases of things being unbelievable for the sake of the plot. Jane takes off into the moors and ends up being found by the only people in England who happen to be her long lost family? Seriously? I get that these are all Romantic tropes, I really do, but Charlotte does it too much.
Writing Style: 3 out of 5. Again, especially when compared with her sisters, Charlotte’s language can feel clunky and dense. It starts out with a great first line and then nary a period for what feels like forever. So long, dense sentences that attempt to say too much. Compared to her sisters (for different reasons I’ll cover), Charlotte’s writing style is my least favorite.
Readability: 4 out of 5. There are periods in this book I just want Jane to shut up and move on. The part where she’s wandering in the moors after running from Rochester is one of them. The part with the Riverses is another. Actually, the entire second half of the novel needed tightening. And that made it, on occasion, difficult to slog through. Honestly, I prefer adaptations to the book sometimes for this very reason.
Total. 14 out of 20.
Now on to Wuthering Heights. This book suffers a lot for me from having such high scores for readability and writing style and yet awful characters and a somewhat… overwrought plot. As I discussed in the pairing, I hate every character in this book. I hate them all. Heathcliff isn’t a romantic hero. Catherine blames everyone for her own weakness. They’re terrible together and apart and everywhere. And the thing is… they aren’t real. None of this is real. It’s so overwrought and so full of the dark side of Romantic sensibility that it loses any and all of its realism. If Emily Brontë had wanted to look at the dark side of Romanticism or in what can happen to people when they don’t do what their soul is telling them to do, she could have done so without delving into a nightmare Gothic world and I think her thesis would have been much more powerful. That said, this is the book I actually enjoy just reading most, if that makes sense. The language is spectacular. Emily is the best writer of the three sisters, in my opinion. Her poetry is powerful, her prose is evocative, and if she had been the one to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I think no one would ever talk about Jane Eyre.
Then again, no one would talk about Anne, either… and that’s sad. I like Anne. I like the whole concept of Gondal that she and Emily created.
Characters: 3 out of 5. OK. Are they well-written? Yes. But they’re… they’re almost caricatures of real people. They’re like Gothic archetypes. Like… you know how Commedia dell’Arte is all about archetypes and the characters are differentiated by their masks and costumes? Yeah. These characters feel like all the villains from Gothic romance put together into one novel. They’re well-constructed, but… I just like a little more realism in my work.
Plot: 3 out of 5. Yeah. I know. But… guys. The plot is so unrealistic. I mean. Yes… people are awful. They marry the wrong people and are then unhappy. They try to get revenge on one another. But it’s like Emily decided she wanted to take EVERY TROPE in Romantic literature and then explore the dark side. It’s just one awful thing after another until, in the last few pages (literally, like 9 pages from the end), Heathcliff dies and people can be happy. Sort of.
Writing Style: 5 out of 5. Emily is the best Brontë. She can WRITE. Enough side.
Readability: 4 out of 5. I only take a point off because, as well-written as the whole thing is, it’s sometimes hard to keep reading when all you want to do is murder everyone in the book. And then you realize you’ve become Heathcliff. And you hate yourself a little bit.
Final Score: 15 out of 20.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The book that, in the interests of disclosure, was my favorite. But, in the interests of disinterest, I have some problems with. Like I said above, if Emily had written this book, I think it would have been the greatest masterpiece in the history of ever. EVER. EVER!!! But that’s because it’s my favorite book, but Emily is the best writer. That being said, Anne’s no slouch. Something I marveled was her ability to characterize so well in only a few words. One line and you knew a character, especially in the case of secondary characters. This allows her to focus on the main players. In fact, of the two biggest weaknesses of the book, one is something Anne couldn’t really help because of the time in which she wrote (Arthur’s affair, for example, could be dealt with in a much more… open manner), and the other is at the heart of the novel. If you’ve been keeping up with the Brontë-off, you’ll know I disliked the constant moralizing and Bible-quoting on the part of the main character. It got to be… a bit much. But, also… the point was it didn’t work. And, once Helen realized it wouldn’t work, she stopped quoting the Bible. So I think Anne just went too far. One final weakness is the final portion of the novel, where it goes back to Gilbert’s POV and we’re treated to being told what is going on with Helen (and on occasion reading her letters) instead of seeing it. But because of that framing device choice, I got treated to Gilbert falling in love with a Byronic heroine (of sorts), and that is worth everything.
Characters: 4 out of 5. I have to take points off for Helen’s moralizing. During these portions, I found myself sympathizing with her husband… and we’re not meant to do that. Now, maybe the constant Bible quotes wouldn’t bother someone for whom religion forms a big part of their life (does that clause even make sense?), but it bothered me. I hate being proselytized to and it made me sympathize with Helen less. Plus, it was SO OBVIOUS. If you want to make a bad person better, you don’t quote the Bible at them. That just makes you seem obnoxious.
Plot: 5 out of 5. I wanted to give it 6. I really did. But that would be breaking the rules. Guys. A woman tries to save her husband for love, realizes it can’t be done, and leaves him. She takes her son and runs off to become a painter. In 19th century England. And a dude falls in love with her AND RESPECTS HER WISHES WHEN SHE SAYS NO, LET’S JUST BE FRIENDS. (There’s also a Toxic Nice Guy who doesn’t, and we’re meant to hate him. No sympathy from Anne.) Guys. Can I just give this six points out of five? PLEASE.
Writing Style: 4 out of 5. Just because she isn’t as good as Emily. Sorry, Anne… I love you. But I can’t give you the same score as Emily. I mean, she’s your sister… you definitely understand. That being said, aside from a tendency to just, throw, punctuation, in random places; everything was really good. And it’s clear, evocative, and gets the point across. Which leads to:
Readability: 4 out of 5. It’s an easy novel to get into. Except for the parts I had to push through because Helen was just throwing constant Bible quotes around. I think I was supposed to understand what they meant. But I’ve never finished the Bible. So I didn’t, and they kinda just felt… plugged in there. Once those few pages were done with, though, and they became much more judicious, I plowed through this book like it was a summer, poolside novel.
Final score: 17 out of 20.
OK. Maybe it’s a bit anticlimactic, but… ANNE WINS! Yeah, I know, you probably knew that coming in, but, really… it was the book I enjoyed reading the most. And it’s the book that has the most realism and the most staying power. I mean, seriously… women can’t change problematic, abusive men through their love? That’s still so damn relevant!
So. Go read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Realize why it’s the best. It’s been settled now.
Emily Brontë is still the best writer, though.