Children's Literature Association Quarterly 30.3 (2005) 314-332
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Brontë for Kids
In this essay I want to focus on a handful of novels that together comprise a curious subgenre: novels for children (and, in particular, novels for adolescent girls) in which the protagonists imagine themselves into the Brontës' lives and fictions: novels that appropriate the plots of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The History of the Young Men, and novels which represent adolescence by inserting their juvenile heroes and heroines into the plots of the heavily-mythologized biographies of Emily and Branwell. In looking back to the Brontës, these writers of twentieth-century children's novels find ways to plot the passage between childhood and maturity and strategies for narrating the force of an emerging sexuality. This essay, then, seeks to redefine the role and function of the quixotic in novels for children and young adults, and in redefining the quixotic, it also reveals the crucial role the Brontës' fictions (and the fictions we have made out of their lives) play in our twentieth and twenty-first century understanding of adolescence and adolescent sexuality. In order to convey the conventions that order the subgenre we might call "Brontë for Kids," I offer the following plot summaries.
In Pauline Clarke's The Return of the Twelves (1962), eight-year-old Max Morley finds a set of wooden soldiers in the attic of the old house his family has just moved into. With the help of the parson who lives next door (who just happens to be what Max calls a "Brontyfan"), his mother (enough of a Brontyfan herself to have some Brontë juvenilia conveniently at hand), and his sister Jane (who proclaims that "Jane Eyre's the best book I've ever read" and wants to read it again as soon as she has finished it), Max learns that his soldiers are actually Branwell Brontë's: they are the toys whose exploits he and his sisters chronicled in The History of the Young Men (37). Of course, the other [End Page 314] thing that helps Max figure this out is the fact that the soldiers are alive and thus can refer him to The History of the Young Men so that he can help them get back to Haworth.
In Jane Gardam's The Summer After the Funeral (1973), sixteen-year-old Athene Price comes to believe that she is Emily Brontë, and the summer after her father (who is, not unimportantly, a rector) dies, she experiences a series of events reminiscent of moments in the Brontës' lives and novels. Or, to put it more accurately, in the aftermath of her father's death, she acts out her belief that she is Emily. Whereas before her father's death she tried to repress her growing conviction that she is a Brontë, after he dies, she indulges herself in this fantastic identification and allows herself to behave as willfully as Catherine Earnshaw, as selfishly as the Emily that Elizabeth Gaskell portrays in her biography of Charlotte, as independently as Shirley Keeldar (the protagonist of Charlotte Brontë's Shirley). That is to say, firmly convinced that she is Emily, Athene patterns her behavior after the heroines associated with and created by Emily Brontë.1
In Sheila Greenwald's It All Began with Jane Eyre, or, The Secret Life of Franny Dillman (1980), Franny is so wrapped up in Jane Eyre that she imagines its plot unfolding in her own school: she believes that her principal suffers as Rochester does, that his wife is mad like Bertha, and that their housekeeper is her caretaker, a sort of Grace Poole. And of course she fantasizes that she is Jane. While she practices the piano,
a pure and serious Jane-like smile played upon her lips. She swayed over the keys, picturing the elegant room at Thornfield Hall, letting its atmosphere drench and suffuse her till the ordinary living room of the Dillmans' house was obliterated, picturing Rochester's hot, passionate gaze upon her, picturing herself, humble serious Jane, playing until he...