Chances are, there’s a book by at least one of the Brontë sisters on your bookshelf. It might be gathering dust, but it’ll be there, and it might be time to dig it out.
New BBC1 drama To Walk Invisible tells the story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s great novels and extraordinary battle for recognition, set against a backdrop of family struggle focused around their wayward brother Branwell.
Written by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), it takes readers back to the parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire where Charlotte, Emily and Anne first turned to writing in the 1830s as escapism from their increasingly bleak-looking futures.
If you find yourself wanting to read the Brontës’ books or learn more about them after watching it, here’s our pick of the offerings:
Books by the Brontës
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Kate Bush’s warbling hit makes it impossible to forget this one, not that Emily needed her help. Literature’s most devastating anti-love story is a passionate, gothic masterpiece, but Cathy and Heathcliff’s obsessive, self-destructive relationship plays a supporting role to the evocative setting: the haunting Yorkshire moors. Far from a beach read it may be, but Emily’s sole novel is certainly a rewarding one.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre may be a school curriculum staple but don’t let that put you off giving it another exam-free shot. Tenacious underdog Jane is the ultimate literary heroine, perhaps even more so than Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet. If nothing else, a read of this will leave you feeling a ton more thankful for your lot in life.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Charlotte branded youngest sister Anne’s second novel “an entire mistake” (ouch), but Brontë fans have judged it much more kindly. The story follows brave ‘tenant’ Helen Huntingdon, who defies rigid social convention and leaves her alcoholic husband to protect their son from his influence, before carving a career as an artist. Feminism at its finest.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte’s final finished novel is her most depressing – steer clear if you need cheering up – but it’s a top choice if you find yourself craving a Valentine’s Day antidote come February. Protagonist Lucy Snowe may prove too complex a character for some, but the writing is undeniably sublime.
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Charlotte’s Jane Eyre rather cruelly eclipsed Anne’s earlier novel, which also focuses on a plain governess’ search for fulfilment. The romance takes a backseat in this one, which sees Anne pick up her pen as a merciless social observer. Spoiler: Agnes does find love, but this story is about her career first and foremost, and it’s as cold, hard and real as a book about 19th century life gets.
The Brontës: Selected Poems by Everyman’s Poetry
The Brontes may be best known for their novels, but their enviable talents extended to poetry too. This is a selection of some of the finest examples, from studies of nature to “character portraits, dark musings and deeply emotional reflections”.
The Poems of Patrick Branwell Brontë edited by Victor A Neufeldt
Branwell Bronte’s spiral into addiction is well-documented, but he did show literary promise as a child. Sadly, he struggled to handle rejection from publishers and soon dissolved in the trail blazed by his sisters. Still, Branwell has not been entirely forgotten, as this collection of his poetry attests.
Books about the Brontës
The Brontës: A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker
To Walk Invisible’s intriguing title comes from a letter Charlotte sent to her publisher about the joy of privacy afforded to her by her pen name, Currer Bell. “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?” she wrote. “One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” The Brontës’ letters allow us to hear their authentic voices as they progress through childhood, adulthood struggles, illness, grief, loneliness and finally, for Charlotte, literary acclaim, love and happiness. Barker has done the hard graft for you, compiling a selection of the best in this new release. Her 1994 biography, The Brontës, comes highly recommended too.
The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller
It’s almost impossible to count the number of Brontë biographies published over the years. Miller addresses this, tracing the ways the authors have been interpreted through time in response to changing attitudes. Prepare to be disappointed if Anne is your favourite sister – Charlotte and Emily take centre stage here, as does the art of biography itself.
The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier
The obvious choice for fans of both the Brontës and du Maurier, this biography sees the author of Rebecca bring the shadowy figure of Branwell into the light in a bid to save him some face. The Brontës’ brother seemed destined for great things as a boy but adulthood spun him a different, troubled tale. Branwell’s descent into drugs and alcohol after an ill-fated affair is hard-hitting and deeply moving, especially in contrast with the dazzling successes of his sisters.
Something a little different
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Rhys wrote this 1966 postcolonial novel as a prequel response to Jane Eyre, which sounds like a terrible idea but in this case thankfully wasn’t one. Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of “madwoman in the attic” Bertha Rochester, who is finally given a voice and identity as Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway. Gender and race relations are central themes to a book well worth delving into.