A hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf sat down to re-read Jane Eyre for Charlotte Brontë’s centenary. She was worried it would seem antiquated, but instead, she was so absorbed and exhilarated she couldn’t put it down, and when she did, she wondered how Charlotte had done it.
How had she written a novel that still seemed so fresh after so many years? The secret was, she decided, the heroine, who pervaded every line and every image. “Think of Rochester,” wrote Woolf, “and we have to think of Jane Eyre. Think of the moor, and again there is Jane Eyre. Think of the drawing-room, even, those ‘white carpets on which seemed laid brilliant garlands of flowers’, that ‘pale Parian mantelpiece’ with its Bohemia glass of ‘ruby red’ and the ‘general blending of snow and fire’– what is all that except Jane Eyre?”
Another hundred years have gone by, and Jane feels just as present. Her demands for justice and for happiness seem just as authentic, as vital, as urgent as they did to Woolf and, perhaps, to Charlotte herself.
Can Jane’s tale of hard work, patience and marrying her boss compare with the high drama of Wuthering Heights? (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Woolf liked Wuthering Heights too – she thought Emily the better poet – and found the two Catherines in Wuthering Heights “the most lovable women in English fiction.” It’s a startling description. Wilful, contrary Cathy is not conventionally lovable. But that is the point. That’s why she’s the heroine for good girls who want to imagine being bad; to imagine running around the moors in a high wind, loving a villain with a heart of flint, who loves them back so hard that he gnashes his teeth and dashes his head against a tree until he bleeds. And for die-hard Wuthering Heights fans, Jane’s tale of hard work, patience and marrying her boss just can’t compare.
Cathy is the heroine for good girls who want to imagine being bad
It is rare to find a reader who loves both heroines. Janeites point out (and they are right) that Cathy is a snob. She is selfish and violent. She spends most of the book miserable, some of it mad, and does not get a happy ending.
Jane talks to Rochester “as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal – as we are!” Credit: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo)
And Jane is so bold! She is clever, and not afraid to show it. She sticks to her guns. She gets what she wants. And it’s hard not to love her when she asks Rochester, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” Or when she insists she is talking to him “as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal – as we are!” It’s a stark contrast to Cathy’s declaration “I am Heathcliff!” which makes love sound like a rather terrifying merging, a loss of self. And yet (and I confess that for a long time, Cathy was the only heroine for me) love sometimes feels that way.
‘Hunger, rebellion and rage’
One reason the Brontë heroines have stood the test of time is because they are such fun to argue about. They can’t be pinned down. They are dazzlingly complex. They are messy, flawed and difficult and all the better for it. When Charlotte tried to simplify things in Shirley, giving all the passion to one heroine and all the denial to another, she drained the life out of both. And neither Shirley nor Caroline inspires the same devotion as Jane or Cathy.
In Villette, Charlotte went back to what she did best, creating a heroine, Lucy Snowe, whose lust and fury are perpetually at war with her vehement attempts to be cool, unruffled. “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm” she says and we know she is lying through her teeth, and it is that conflict that makes us keep on reading. This was the novel that made Matthew Arnold say Charlotte’s mind contained nothing but “hunger, rebellion and rage”.
Lucy hasn’t been as popular as Jane, perhaps because she is so incredibly prickly, so deeply unlikeable; an unreliable narrator who locks the reader out, a heroine who refuses to be a heroine. But I wonder if her time is coming. There has been a backlash against likeable heroines. From Claire Messud’s sour female artist in The Woman Upstairs, to Gillian Flynn’s psychopathic Amy in Gone Girl, to the man-stealing Jenn in Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, novelists have been championing mean girls, villainesses and anti-heroines. Perhaps Lucy might yet eclipse Jane.
Novelists have been championing mean girls, villainesses and anti-heroines – like the psychopathic Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Credit: Hachette UK)
If the Brontës had written more straightforward heroines, they wouldn’t inspire such excellent fan fiction
Or perhaps Anne Brontë’s heroines might get a look-in. Always in her sisters’ shadow, Anne was in fact the first to write about a governess finding fulfilment, in Agnes Grey. And in her fierce second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s heroine Helen Graham escapes an abusive marriage to forge an independent life. Charlotte hated the book, and did her best to suppress it after Anne died, but feminists have rediscovered it, and Sam Baker recently gave it a clever remix in her thriller, The Woman Who Ran, about a war photographer hiding out in Yorkshire.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys turned the madwoman in the attic into the heroine (Credit: Penguin)
This is another reason the Brontë heroines are still being read so fervently; they are constantly being rewritten. We can’t decide how we feel about them so we keep going back into the stories, trying to spin them different ways. And the novels are robust enough to take any number of rewrites. Jean Rhys found Jane Eyre so problematic that she flipped the perspective in Wide Sargasso Sea, turning the madwoman in the attic into the heroine. And last year I was thrilled to discover Alison Case’s Nelly Dean, which puts Wuthering Heights’s pragmatic housekeeper centre stage. There are rewrites galore in Tracy Chevalier’s new short story collection, Reader I Married Him, in which 21 writers respond to Jane’s most famous line. If the Brontës had written more straightforward heroines, they wouldn’t inspire such excellent fan fiction. It is because they confound us and intrigue us that they don’t let us go.
‘Three weird sisters’
It is also because the Brontës themselves have become heroines. Meet Jane, Cathy and Helen and you also meet Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Ever since Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1855, Charlotte and her sisters have seemed as vivid as anyone they put on the page. And even Charlotte, who once said she wanted “to be forever known”, couldn’t have imagined 70,000 people a year paying to wander round her home, staring, awestruck at her stockings in a vitrine (admiring the darning–“such tiny stitches!” said a woman from Missouri on my last visit); or couples, hand in hand, following signs in Japanese to what is now called the ‘Brontë waterfall’.
The Brontës themselves have become heroines. Meet Jane, Cathy and Helen and you meet Charlotte, Emily and Anne (Credit: The Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)
Right now, a film crew is building a replica of the parsonage where Charlotte grew up on the moors, and I am not the only Brontë fan breathlessly following its progress on the Keighley News website. The “three weird sisters”, as Ted Hughes called them, and their heroines, still fascinate.
And which modern heroines will we still be reading in 200 years? I don’t think we’ll care much about Bella Swan, of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Bella’s favourite novel is Wuthering Heights, but her vampire boyfriend hates it. For him, “The characters are ghastly people who ruin each other’s lives.” (He is, it must be said, a nasty piece of work himself.) The Twilight love triangle owes much to Cathy’s story of being torn between two men, but unlike Cathy, Bella is a clumsy drip.
Unlike Cathy, Bella is a clumsy drip
There are more echoes of Wuthering Heights in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss Everdeen lives in a dystopian future where children have to fight to the death on TV. She has to choose between two men, a kind baker called Peeta (who is basically Edgar) and a rebellious hunter called Gale (who owes much to Heathcliff). The choice is complicated by Katniss’s struggle to survive, and by her political awakening. You can argue that the ending is too conventional, you can argue about whether Katniss makes the right choice, you can argue about the politics – but the very fact there is so much to argue about makes me think that Katniss is a heroine who will last.
Could the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen be a heroine who endures? (Credit: Lionsgate)
Virginia Woolf thought that Charlotte Brontë was one of those writers powered by “some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions.” In her own novels Woolf would create heroines like To the Lighthouse’s Lily Briscoe (another keeper), who finds her voice, who recognises her own ardour, whose passions can’t be contained, not even in the pages of the book. And maybe that is really why these heroines last, because they make our own long-buried feelings come to life.
Samantha Ellis’s book, How to be a Heroine, is published by Vintage. She is writing a book about Anne Brontë.
This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.