Why those subversive Brontë sisters still hypnotise us

They are beloved by everyone from misunderstood teens and fools for love to the serious-minded middle-aged and those of a critical bent. Now the Brontë sisters are taking centre stage again as the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth next month brings a host of events at their Yorkshire home and elsewhere.

At Haworth parsonage on the bleakly beautiful Yorkshire moors, where Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne lived and wrote and now home to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the bicentenary will be marked by a full programme from the Brontë Society. Highlights include Charlotte Great and Small, an exhibition curated by the novelist Tracy Chevalier, which combines new art works with existing pieces, and the launch of Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories.

But it’s not just the Brontë Society that is succumbing to Brontëmania. The National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition, Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816-1855, which will display personal items including previously unseen paintings, letters and journals from the parsonage museum alongside portraits from the gallery’s collection. BBC Radio 3 recently paid homage to Charlotte with the series I Am Yours Sincerely, in which a number of her letters were read, and Radio 4 has been dramatising Jane Eyre in 15-minute slots on Woman’s Hour this month.

On Saturday night, BBC2 screened Being the Brontës, in which presenter Martha Kearney, journalist Lucy Mangan and novelist Helen Oyeyemi debated their favourite sister and examined their continuing appeal. Claire Harman’s well-reviewed biography of Charlotte is published in paperback next month, while three new novels will also consider the Brontë legacy: Catherine Lowell’s much praised debut The Madwoman Upstairs, which centres on a young woman who is the Brontë family’s last living descendant; Sam Baker’s hugely anticipated thriller, The Woman Who Ran, a modern-day retelling of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; and Lyndsay Faye’s “satirical romance” Jane Steele, which riffs on Jane Eyre for its tale of a Victorian female serial killer. Later this year Sally Wainwright will follow her crime series Happy Valley with To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama focusing on the Brontës’ lives between 1845 and 1848 “when they were all either drawn or forced back to the family home”.

So why exactly do the Brontë sisters, these rural curate’s daughters with only a handful of novels between them, continue to fascinate us? From the moment Jane Eyre was published in 1847 they have exerted an almost hypnotic pull: where other literary sensations flash bright, then fade to earth, the Brontës endure, their stories adapted again and again for both stage and screenJane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

“I think a lot of it is that we’re fascinated by the idea that these three women living in a cold, cramped house in Yorkshire wrote these extraordinary novels about the most intense human experiences,” says author and playwright Samantha Ellis, whose book, Take Courage, about Anne Brontë, will be published early next year.

“There’s something very appealing about the idea that they pushed back against the limits of their world. There are lots of neater, better planned books, but the Brontë novels work because they’re open-ended. We don’t know what Anne, Emily and Charlotte really wanted us to think and that means we take away something new each time.”

Certainly it’s true that there’s something almost mythical about the Brontë creation story, the idea of these three isolated young women writing so desperately that the words were almost flung on to the page. Ted Hughes called them the “three weird sisters”, intentionally summoning Macbeth’s blasted heath to Haworth parsonage. To his wife Sylvia Plath, who paid homage in a poem named Wuthering Heights, they “wrote … in a house redolent with ghosts”. Daphne du Maurier was so obsessed that she paid homage twice – to Jane Eyre with the sharp-edged and haunting Rebecca and to Wuthering Heights with the wild menace of Jamaica Inn – and writers from Jean Rhys and Muriel Spark to Emma Tennant and Fay Weldon have reimagined their lives and work.

“I think their tragic real-life experiences [the deaths of their mother and older sisters and later of their brother Branwell] undoubtedly give added appeal to readers,” says Kearney. “It’s amazing to think that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are still so popular. I think it’s the sheer power of the storytelling – who can forget the madwoman in the attic or Heathcliff?”

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