By Sarah L. Courteau
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; C03
From the moment the last of the preposterously gifted and cursed Brontë sisters was laid in the ground in 1855, others have been intent upon rewriting their lives. It's not hard to see why. First, there's the freakish literary talent of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, the daughters of a curate in a remote parish in Yorkshire, England, who spent their childhoods spinning elaborate tales set in make-believe kingdoms and then focused their imaginations on the corporeal world.
Then there are the family tragedies that beggar belief. Two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died from illnesses contracted at a cut-rate boarding school where all the sisters were sent after their mother breathed her last. The only boy in the family, Branwell, a charming but dissolute fellow, died at age 31 from what appears to have been chronic bronchitis, complicated by alcoholism and an acute case of self-pity. Within a few months, Charlotte's two younger sisters were dead, too, Emily of consumption at age 30, and Anne after developing the same racking cough. Charlotte lived on alone for several years, caring for her aging father, until she finally found love, or something like it, with her father's curate. They married, she got pregnant and less than a year after her wedding day, she and her unborn child were dead.
At once, the writer Elizabeth Gaskell took up her pen and wrote a biography of her friend Charlotte, the first of many books about the lives and work of the Brontës. Three of the latest are novels that demonstrate the remarkable variety of approaches to re-imagining this family.
1 Juliet Gael, a Midwesterner who has spent many years abroad, has written a dutiful tale that centers on Charlotte and culminates in her courtship and marriage. It's written with the species of careful love that produces long analyses of the heroine's books, including lesser-known titles, such as Charlotte's final complete novel, "Villette." But Romancing Miss Brontë (Ballantine, $25) is more dreary than inspiring, in part because it picks up the tale too late, after the Brontës are grown, when the imaginative games that sparked their fiction had largely ended and their adult troubles began.
2 Jude Morgan wisely begins Charlotte and Emily (St. Martin's; paperback, $14.99) with the death of their mother, and he artfully evokes the wonder that animated the lives of the young Brontës even in a world pocked with grief. Adulthood forced them to take work as teachers and governesses, though they always returned home. "Here they were around the table again, we three; and again that peculiar rightness in it," he writes, describing one of the interludes when the young women were together, having left or been fired from their genteel gigs. The tension and affection between Charlotte, who is eager to please and hungry for a little literary fame, and Emily, who refuses to play by the world's rules, are wrought with particular sensitivity. Morgan, the author of several historical novels, is a fine writer in his own right, and "Charlotte and Emily," foregone as its sad conclusion is, often surprises and delights.
3 The publication last year of Seth Grahame-Smith's "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" changed the literary scene in a small, weird way: Now the ultimate confirmation of a dead author's place in popular culture is granted by a zombie, a sea serpent or some other supernatural being. And Charlotte Brontë gets her due with Jane Slayre (Gallery; paperback, $15), a mash-up of "Jane Eyre" and the bloodthirsty imagination of Sherri Browning Erwin. In this version, the mousy governess is a vampire slayer, the dreadful charity school she attends as an orphan is populated by zombies, and Mr. Rochester's crazy wife in the attic is a werewolf. It's a clever conceit, with more than a few humorous moments, but ultimately the vampires suck the narrative dry of the blood that animated the original novel. Devotees of "Jane Eyre" thrill to the rich interior life of its heroine, whose thoughts and dreams buffer her against her straitened circumstances. Jane Slayre, on the other hand, is a woman of action, with a tongue as sharp as her wooden stake, chained to the story line of a meeker maid. What some hell-bent rewriter needs to do instead is get hold of "Wuthering Heights." The misanthropic Heathcliff: Now there's a monster to work with.
Courteau is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.