Literature lovers have debated the respective merits of Jane Austen’s novels versus those of the Bronte sisters with fever-pitch fervor over the years. If you look at the fiction shelves of any library today, you’ll find many copies of the original works of all four authors. When it comes to spin-offs, however, Jane Austen wins hands-down. These novels range from stories like Jo Baker's Longbourn, which examines life below stairs at the Bennet home, to Stephanie Barron’s mystery series featuring Jane as an amateur lady detective.
It isn’t as if there haven’t been notable books inspired by the Brontes. Jean Rhys’ novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, is acclaimed for her post-colonial, feminist interpretation of Edward Rochester’s first marriage to the madwoman in the attic. In general, however, fewer authors seem to be willing to take on adding new works to the stark, passionate worlds of the Bronte sisters. I suppose it’s hard to imagine Jane Eyre solving mysteries or any of the Bronte sisters settling servants’ quarrels in lives of leisure. So, it was exciting this year to see no less than four new works, all inspired by the Brontes. These novels are fun, fictional - and as varied as the Bronte sisters themselves.
The governess in Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele: A Confession doesn’t rage against the villains in her life – she murders them. Her charmingly gutsy orphan, inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s denunciations of critics who found the character Jane Eyre too independent, is determined not to be bound by hypocritical societal mores. Jane’s return to her childhood home at Highgate Hall opens up new avenues of intrigue, adventure and romance. Chris Columbus' 1492 Pictures has already picked up the movie rights to this darkly humorous tribute.
Author Tracy Chevalier challenged 20 of her female colleagues to use Jane Eyre’s most famous line as a springboard for original short stories. Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, edited and introduced by Chevalier, includes more loosely-based contemporary interpretations as well as stories set in 19th century England. You’ll see some very well-known names in the list of contributing authors, including Audrey Niffenegger, Tessa Hadley, Jane Gardam, and Emma Donoghue.
Samantha Whipple finds herself unable to escape the notoriety that comes with being the last surviving descendent of the Bronte family in Catherin Lowell’s debut novel, The Madwoman Upstairs. Her studies at Oxford’s Old College are complicated by rumors that she has inherited a secret stash of Bronte artifacts. Lowell packs in intrigue, humor, romance and a fair amount of literary analysis into this homage to Anne, the least well-known of the Bronte sisters.
Alison Case lets the long-suffering housekeeper of the original novel tell her side of the story in her debut novel, Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights. Nelly Dean spent her childhood as a companion to Hindley and Catherine but must take on the role of a servant soon after the wild orphan Heathcliff arrives. Despite personal betrayals and tragedy, Nelly remains witness to the emotional storms of the Earnshaw family.
-Rebecca Wolff, Centreville Regional Library