- Teaching the Brontës Today:Notes from a Roundtable
The Brontës live, both in popular culture and in the classroom. Proof of this statement lies all around us. Just pick up a copy of Jasper Fforde's popular novel The Eyre Affair (2002) and learn what really happened to Mr. Rochester and Bertha Mason Rochester during the deadly blaze at Thornfield. Or rent Mike Leigh's charming film Career Girls (1999) and watch two young British women randomly opening Wuthering Heights to play a kind of sortes Virgilianae with Emily Brontë's text. Students today also find the Brontës alluring and tend to know the popular culture that surrounds the sisters and their texts. So how does one teach the Brontës to college- and university-age students? Through popular culture and film? As a part of literary history? As women writers? As a remarkable literary family? Close readings are fine, but contemporary students seem to want more.
Questions like the ones posed above were addressed and others were proffered during a recent roundtable at Pace University (17 April 2004), part of a day devoted entirely to discussion of the Brontës' work. For a gathering of Brontë experts and aficionados, panelists participating in the roundtable discussion were asked to present short papers about their own experiences with teaching—papers meant to be of general interest and to stimulate further discussion among members of the roundtable and its audience. What became clear during the course of this roundtable was that not only do the Brontës live, but that studying them today presents more challenges than ever before. Begin with language: the language not just of Joseph in Wuthering Heights [End Page 445] but even of plain speakers like Jane Eyre presents some students with difficulties. So too does the Brontës' expectation of reader familiarity with British culture in the nineteenth century and with the English Bible. In addition, recent scholarship by academics like Christine Alexander has made available Brontë juvenilia and artwork, both of which are of special interest to many of today's students. Can these be included in courses that are not devoted exclusively to the family? And what of the Brontë canon? Interest in Anne Brontë has also grown, particularly in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which depicts the struggles of a woman wed to an alcoholic and abusive spouse. If one includes this Brontë's work in one's course, must one exclude the more famous novels of the older sisters? How much additional nineteenth-century culture and how much contemporary psychology is necessary in order to illuminate Anne Brontë's complex novel? Biographical details? With the burgeoning of biographies like Juliet Barker's monumental, thousand-page The Brontës (1994), even the experts must revise their view of the sisters. How much of this information do students need to enjoy and assess Brontë writing? Genre? When one adds renewed fascination with the Brontës's poetry, particularly Emily's, there is little doubt that a sharing of ideas about syllabi and approaches to the sisters such as the sharing at Pace can be valuable to most teachers of the Brontës.
The range of the responses that follow here and of the discussion stimulated by the papers suggests something of the range of teaching situations and kinds of courses that involve the work of the sisters. In the first essay, Kathleen Conway discusses the place of the two most famous Brontë novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in a course in the nineteenth-century novel. Next, Mary Bradley McElligott writes about her experience teaching Brontë novels in a number of different classroom contexts, including courses in women writers, an introduction to English literature, and the Victorian novel. And in the third essay, Barbara Gates takes a close look at the Brontë myth and how it is changing semester-long courses devoted exclusively to the Brontës.
Barbara T. Gates is Alumni Distinguished Professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Delaware. She is author and editor of numerous books, essays, and reviews, including Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë (1990...