Charlotte Brontë is justly famed for her "poor, plain, obscure, and little heroine" whom she blessed with an independent spirit and deep seated self-reliance. But Brontë wrote two additional novels before she died. Her second work, Shirley
, set against the Luddite uprisings in Yorkshire, has two sets of love interests. Though popular when published, Shirley
is considered by some to be a misfire. Social novel or love story? Either way, it indicates that Brontë was willing and able to write from a larger perspective and to create multiple unique characters.
Villette, on the other hand, has Brontë back on more familiar territory. Even Virginia Woolf considered Villette to be greater than Jane Eyre and it is easy to see why. Brontë composed Jane Eyre at lightning speed while caring for her father as he recovered from eye surgery. With Villette we have an author who is very sure of her abilities and knows she has an audience that appreciates her work. Here Brontë was able to hone and perfect her technique within the framework of an adult fairy tale with a cast of highly complex characters. Villette is Brontë's darkest, most complex novel and its heroine, Lucy Snow, is the anti-Jane. Lucy lacks Jane's inner resources and would gladly fade into the shadows at every opportunity. She is not plucky. She is not spirited. She expects nothing and has only a modicum of desire to survive. She is in love with two men and only one of them has the power to recognize the fire within her, which she continually strives to snuff out. Lucy's feelings constantly overwhelm her and she continually curbs her desires in a world she knows would never accept the passions she feels. She evens goes a little mad. Unlike Jane, Lucy reveals little to us, often glossing over years in her existence she'd rather soon forget. For every step forward, she takes two steps back. Lucy Snow is not an easy heroine to love and it was brave of Charlotte Brontë to create her.
See also: Anne Brontë, the youngest sister. While slightly less talented than Charlotte and Emily, Anne's novels were, in their way, more shocking to a Victorian reader's sensibilities. Agnes Grey is her novel of what it was really like to be a governess, unlike the more romanticized Jane Eyre. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Penguin Classics) has its heroine (at a time when women had no rights, least of all to their own children) kidnap her son rather than have him raised by his abusive, alcoholic father.
And for even further consideration: The Brontës by Juliet Barker. Every literary biography is considered "definitive" but this one really deserves that description; encompassing the entire family, it makes for fascinating reading. Is it just me or are some so-called famous lives really boring and repetitious when you scratch the surface while other more monotonous lives are riveting when you look underneath? And so it was with the apparently drab Brontës. So much was seething behind that parsonage door! Also consider The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller for a detailed history of how every generation reinterprets the sisters.