Top Ten Tuesday: Ten books to read if you love the Brontës

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Books to Read If You Love/Loved X (X can be a genre, specific book, author, movie/TV show, etc)”.

I have chosen to list ten books with connections to the Brontë family – a mixture of non-fiction, historical fiction, classics and retellings! These are all books that I have read and reviewed on my blog.

1. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – My favourite of the ten books listed here, this is a beautifully written fictional biography of Charlotte, Emily and Anne with strong characterisation bringing all three sisters to life.

2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – This is probably one of the best-known Brontë-inspired novels, giving a voice to Mr Rochester’s wife Bertha, and has become a modern classic in its own right.

3. Sanctuary by Robert Edric – A fictional account of the life of Branwell Brontë, a young man who starts out with so much potential only to find himself living in the shadow of his sisters.

4. Ill Will by Michael Stewart – In the middle of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff disappears for three years. This novel imagines what may have happened to him during that time. An interesting idea, but the anachronistic language ruined this book for me!

5. The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – A contemporary novel about a young American woman who is the last living descendant of the Brontë family and finds herself searching for the lost Brontë literary estate.

6. Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks – Another fictional biography of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, published in the 1970s. There’s a sequel covering the final years of Charlotte’s life, but I haven’t read that one yet.

7. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – Part historical crime/part Jane Eyre retelling, this is the story of Jane Steele, a murderer whose life seems to mirror that of the heroine of her favourite Brontë novel. I loved all the Jane Eyre parallels, but found the crime aspect less successful.

8. Nelly Dean by Alison Case – A retelling of Wuthering Heights with a focus on the life of the housekeeper Nelly Dean. I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped; I liked Nelly, but her story wasn’t as interesting as Cathy and Heathcliff’s – which is why Emily Brontë wrote that book and not this one!

9. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier – Another book about Branwell Brontë, but a non-fiction one this time – and written by another of my favourite authors! Several of du Maurier’s novels also show a strong Brontë influence.

10. Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker – This version of Jane Eyre is written from the perspective of Mr Rochester. I enjoyed the earlier sections of the novel that imagine Rochester’s childhood and time in Jamaica, but the final part – retelling the familiar events of Jane Eyre – didn’t work as well.


What do you think? Have you read any of these? What other books have you read that are about or inspired by the Brontës?

Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks

As someone who loves the work of all three Brontë sisters, I have been interested in reading Dark Quartet for a long time. I have read some more recent fictional accounts of the Brontës’ lives and work, such as Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow and Robert Edric’s Sanctuary, but this is an older book, first published in 1976, and I was curious to see what it was like.

Lynne Reid Banks’ novel tells the story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne – and their brother, Branwell, who makes the fourth of the ‘quartet’. It begins with the Brontës growing up at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire in the care of their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, and their Aunt Elizabeth, who helps to raise them following the early death of their mother. The four children are very close, with particularly strong bonds between Charlotte and Branwell and between Emily and Anne, who entertain themselves by writing stories set in the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal. There are also two elder Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who die of tuberculosis early in the novel while attending Cowan Bridge School along with Charlotte and Emily.

As the three surviving girls reach adulthood, they find work as teachers and governesses, with varying levels of success, but they each continue to write, drawing inspiration from their experiences and surroundings. As Branwell, having suffered a series of disappointments and setbacks, descends into alcoholism and drug addiction, his sisters go on to achieve their ambition of becoming published authors, albeit under male pseudonyms.

I have given a very brief summary of the plot here, but I think that’s enough. If you’re already familiar with the Brontës’ lives and work, you won’t need me to go into any more detail; if not, and if you’re planning to read Dark Quartet, I’m sure you’ll prefer to have a few things left to discover for yourself. Banks does stick closely to the facts, but it’s important to remember two things: first, however biographical this book may feel, it is a work of fiction; and second, a lot of research into the Brontës has taken place since the book was written, so interpretations and opinions will have changed in that time. As the author says in the foreword to the novel:

…I have not let my imagination run riot. I have kept it harnessed to the truth. For the rest, I offer my answers to some of the mysteries.

Probably the most controversial area of the book is the portrayal of Branwell, particularly a scene, which was presumably invented, in which he meets a group of Irish labourers in a tavern. I saw this scene, and what happens in it, as the author’s way of providing an additional explanation for Branwell’s sense of hopelessness and disillusionment with himself and his life, so I accepted this as her ‘answer to one of the mysteries’, but I suppose it depends on how far you think a biographical novel should deviate from historical fact. For the rest of her treatment of Branwell, Banks acknowledges Daphne du Maurier, who wrote The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, as one of her sources and, like du Maurier, she clearly has some sympathy for Branwell. He is a frustrating and infuriating character who wastes every opportunity he is given, but he is often his own worst enemy, and his story, as it is told here, is quite sad.

Of the three sisters, Charlotte is given far more attention than either Emily or Anne, but this is usually the case in books about the Brontës and I can understand why. Charlotte lived longer than the others, she had more of her writing published (four novels as opposed to Anne’s two and Emily’s one), and her life was more closely documented – she was the subject of a biography by Elizabeth Gaskell in the 19th century. However, I find Emily – solitary, independent and intensely private – a much more intriguing personality and I would have preferred to have spent more time with her and with Anne rather than Charlotte.

Lynne Reid Banks doesn’t explore the Brontës’ novels in much depth, but I think she does a good job of showing how the sisters’ work was influenced by people, places and events from their personal lives. Cowan Bridge School, with its damp, unhealthy location, inadequate food and strict discipline, was the model for Lowood School in Jane Eyre; the badly behaved children in the households where Anne serves as governess find their way into Agnes Grey; and Emily’s beloved Yorkshire moors become the setting for Wuthering Heights. There are also several chapters devoted to Charlotte’s time as a teacher in Brussels, which will be familiar to anyone who has read Villette or The Professor.

Dark Quartet has recently been made available in a new ebook edition from Sapere Books and I was delighted to receive a copy for review through NetGalley a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed reading it and, although my favourite Brontës are no longer living by the end of the novel, I am still tempted to read the sequel, Path to the Silent Country, about Charlotte’s final years.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs As someone who loves the work of the Brontë sisters, I was both intrigued by and wary of a book described as “A witty modern love story which draws from the enduring classics of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights”. Modern novels inspired by classics can sometimes be very good, but they can also be very bad, so I was interested to see what this one would be like. I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it, but with one or two reservations.

Our narrator, a young American woman called Samantha Whipple, is (supposedly – this is fiction) the last living descendant of the Brontë family. The novel opens several years after the death of Samantha’s father, the eccentric author Tristan Whipple, from whom she is believed to have inherited a vast Brontë estate which includes previously unseen drawings and manuscripts. Samantha knows this is untrue; her inheritance consists of something known only as The Warnings of Experience – what exactly this may be, she has no idea.

Arriving at Oxford University to study English Literature, Samantha is told that there’s a shortage of accommodation and is given a room on the fifth floor of a windowless tower decorated with an eerie painting she calls The Governess. Things become eerier still when her father’s old copies of the Brontës’ novels start to mysteriously appear in her room – novels which she believed to have been destroyed in the fire that killed her father. It seems that Tristan Whipple, from beyond the grave, is sending Samantha on a literary treasure hunt – and with the reluctant help of her tutor, James Timothy Orville III, she begins to follow the clues.

There’s so much in The Madwoman Upstairs for a Brontë fan – or a fan of literature in general – to enjoy. Samantha and Orville, who have very different views about reading, have lots of fascinating discussions, asking questions to which there is no right or wrong answer, such as whether the intentions of the author or the reader’s own interpretation is more important. In particular, they talk about the Brontës and their novels, exploring the themes and symbolism and how the sisters drew on their own lives and experiences for inspiration. I liked the fact that Anne, who is usually given less attention than Charlotte and Emily, was the most prominent of the sisters in this book, and Catherine Lowell has some theories about her which I had never come across before. This was all very interesting and I liked this aspect of the book much more than the mystery element – or the romance, which was quite predictable.

My main problem with this book was the character of Samantha herself. Homeschooled by her father and with no friends her own age, she’s awkward, outspoken and lacking in important social skills. I didn’t dislike her; some of the things she says are quite funny, and I particularly liked her response when asked if there are any leading men in her life (“several, but they’re all fictional”). However, I couldn’t understand why someone who appeared to have no passion for literature and claimed not to like any authors had chosen to study English Literature and how she could possibly have been offered a place at one of the world’s top universities. I thought her conversation with Orville at their first tutorial session was unrealistic – I couldn’t imagine speaking to a tutor like that!

Of course, the whole portrayal of university life in this book is unrealistic. Apart from her one-to-one meetings with Orville, Samantha seems to receive no other form of tuition and doesn’t have any interaction at all with any of the other students. And would Oxford really house a new student alone in an ancient tower which is part of a weekly tour? [Edited to add: maybe some of this is more normal than I’d thought]. Luckily, I was able to overlook the more implausible parts of the plot and concentrate on enjoying the literary analysis and Brontë references. If you can do that too, I think you’ll find this an entertaining read with some fascinating insights into the lives and work of Anne, Emily and Charlotte.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Sanctuary by Robert Edric

Sanctuary Set in Haworth, West Yorkshire, in 1848, this is the story of a frustrated, unhappy young man whose life has been a series of disappointments, rejections and unfulfilled promise. In poor health, with no job and mounting debts, he has returned to the family parsonage where he remains completely dependent on his father, the only person who still sees his potential. To make things worse, his three sisters have succeeded where he has failed, having had some of their poems and stories published (under male pseudonyms). Disillusioned and miserable, he turns to alcohol for comfort.

The young man’s name, as you may have guessed by now, is Branwell Brontë and his sisters are Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Sanctuary is a fictional account of the final months of Branwell’s life leading up to his death in September 1848 at the age of thirty-one. Branwell himself is the narrator of the story, giving us some insight into his state of mind as he tries to come to terms with seeing the success of his sisters while his own literary ambitions come to nothing.

As a fan of the Brontë sisters I have always been intrigued by Branwell and the possible influence he may have had on their work. Earlier this year I read Daphne du Maurier’s biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, which I thought was quite a sympathetic portrayal. It was much more difficult to have any sympathy for the Branwell we meet in Sanctuary; he spends the whole book feeling sorry for himself and wallowing in self-pity without making any attempt to change things. However, I didn’t need to like Branwell to appreciate that his character was well written, complex and believable. As a portrait of an intelligent, talented man who had wasted his potential and thrown away opportunities through his own self-destructive behaviour, it was very convincing.

Unfortunately, none of the other characters in the book were as well developed as Branwell. Charlotte, Anne and Emily all felt like the same person rather than three strong, separate personalities, which was very disappointing (especially when compared with their portrayal in Jude Morgan’s excellent The Taste of Sorrow). For the same reason, I thought it was hard to distinguish between Branwell’s friends, several of whom appeared in the story and, like his sisters, felt bland and lifeless. On a more positive note, I did like the setting – we learn a lot about life in a small Yorkshire community in the middle of the 19th century.

Because of my love for the Brontës, I found this an interesting and worthwhile read, even though the slow pace and weak secondary characters meant that I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I like the sound of some of Robert Edric’s previous novels, though, so I would consider reading another one at some point.

I received a copy of Sanctuary for review via NetGalley.

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte I’ve been interested in reading this book since I read Daphne by Justine Picardie in 2011. In Daphne, among other storylines, the fictional du Maurier is researching a biography of Branwell Brontë, hoping to find evidence of his talent and the possibility that he may have contributed to his sisters’ famous novels. This book, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, published in 1960, is the result of that research.

Even without reading Justine Picardie’s novel, I would have known du Maurier was a fan of the Brontës as their influence is obvious in some of Daphne’s own novels, particularly Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I can understand why she may have been fascinated by Branwell, whom she probably saw as a tragic and misunderstood figure. His story is certainly quite a sad one, though a lot of his problems were self-inflicted. As the only boy in a family of girls his father had high hopes for him (to the Victorians it was probably unthinkable that a brother would be outshone by three of his sisters, but with the Brontës that was exactly what happened) and du Maurier suggests that this put him under a lot of pressure to succeed.

As a child, Branwell, like Charlotte, Emily and Anne, was bright and imaginative. He and Charlotte worked together on a set of stories set in the imaginary world of Angria, while Anne and Emily created the fictional land of Gondal. His future seemed full of promise, but as he grew older everything he did seemed to end unhappily. Unlike his sisters he was not sent to school (possibly because his father thought he was too sensitive) and plans for him to study painting at the Royal Academy never came to anything. He tried repeatedly to have some of his poems accepted by Blackwood’s Magazine and was ignored every time; du Maurier tells us that he even wrote to William Wordsworth but didn’t receive a reply. After being dismissed from his job as a clerk at the railway station and then his next job as a tutor (where he possibly had an affair with his employer’s wife), he descended into alcohol and opium addictions and died in 1848 aged thirty-one.

This doesn’t feel like a particularly academic biography and I’m sure there will be more up to date information about Branwell that has come to light since 1960, so I can’t really comment on its accuracy. Du Maurier was a novelist first and foremost and I get the impression her main concern was to capture the essence of Branwell’s character and explore the reasons why he failed where his sisters succeeded and why all his hopes and dreams came to nothing. She also spends a lot of time discussing and analysing Branwell’s work. I was surprised that so many examples of his writing have survived – a lot of his poems are included in this book and some of his prose and letters.

Du Maurier clearly has a lot of sympathy for Branwell, which is not surprising as she has obviously set out to try to restore his reputation and help him gain the recognition he never had during his lifetime. I always think it helps when you can tell that a biographer is genuinely interested in the person he or she is writing about! However, even with du Maurier’s enthusiasm for her subject she never tries to claim that Branwell’s writing was something it wasn’t and she comes to the conclusion that although he did have some talent, his poems were nothing special. His biggest contribution to the literary world may have been the influence he had on the writing of his three sisters.

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, but this is the first of her non-fiction books I have read. Since I also love all three Brontë sisters (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my favourite Victorian novels with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall not far behind) this seemed a good choice to begin with. I did find it interesting and the style of the writing is not too different from du Maurier’s novels. I’m not sure how much appeal it would have to people who don’t share my interest in both du Maurier and the Brontës, but for those of you who do want to know more about Branwell and the other Brontës, I definitely think it’s worth reading. I would also highly recommend Jude Morgan’s novel The Taste of Sorrow – it’s a fictional account of the Brontë family (including Branwell and the two older sisters who died as children) but it sticks very closely to the known facts.

The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

The Taste of Sorrow is a fictional retelling of the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, beginning with their childhoods and ending just after Charlotte’s wedding. Before I started reading this book if you’d asked me how much I already knew about the Brontës, I would have said I knew very little. And yet a lot of the story felt familiar to me – their early attempts at writing stories set in the fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondal, their experiences of working as governesses, their brother Branwell’s alcoholism – so I must have known more than I thought.

Although The Taste of Sorrow does seem to stick to the historical facts as far as I could tell, it’s important to remember that this is a novel and not a biography. Jude Morgan brings the Brontë sisters to life by giving us insights into their feelings and emotions, their hopes and dreams. His fictional Brontës are realistic, complex and three-dimensional, and would have been interesting characters to read about even if they had not been based on real people. We can obviously never know exactly what thoughts would have gone through the minds of the real Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but I had no problem believing that they may really have said and done the things that Morgan has imagined them to have said and done. And that’s the highest praise I can give to an author writing this type of historical fiction.

The Taste of Sorrow, as the title suggests, is not the happiest of books. The Brontës had a lot of sorrow in their lives, beginning with the death of their mother and two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. They also had to deal with the usual challenges and obstacles that came with being a woman in the 19th century. When Charlotte suggested that she would like to be an author she was discouraged by her father simply because she was female. Instead, Mr Brontë pinned all his hopes on his son, Branwell.

I had read very little about Branwell before I started this book, though I knew he had caused his family a lot of pain because of his drinking. I thought Morgan portrayed him quite sympathetically, attempting to show the pressures and disappointments that contributed to his downfall, and how his sisters struggled to reconcile their love for him with their despair in him. Although I couldn’t like Branwell, his character felt as real to me as the characters of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

The book itself is very well written, although the style is unusual and takes a while to get used to, but the strong point of the book is the characterisation and each sister is shown as having her own distinct personality. Morgan does focus more on Charlotte than the other two, though I can see that as the sister who outlived the others it probably made sense to tell most of the story from her perspective. But my favourite Brontë book is Wuthering Heights (I love it even more than Jane Eyre, which I know puts me in a minority within the book blogging world) and for that reason, the sister I was most interesting in reading about was Emily. Although we don’t get to spend as much time with Emily as we do with Charlotte, I thought Morgan’s portrayal of her was excellent and I could easily believe that his Emily was the person who wrote Wuthering Heights.

I was also pleased to see that Morgan does give Anne a lot of attention and she is not shown as being in any way inferior or less important than her sisters. Personally I loved both of Anne’s books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, and I think it’s sad to see how often she is overlooked or dismissed.

The Taste of Sorrow will obviously be of particular interest to Brontë fans, but I think it would also be enjoyed by a wider audience as an interesting and compelling historical fiction novel in its own right. Now I just need to read the remaining two Brontë novels I still haven’t read: The Professor and Shirley.