HSL Book Deal of the Day 6.1.17: The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family

It's no secret that we at HSL totally buy into Brontes mania, but the three sisters of literary legend make a great high school lit study, especially if you add this academic biography to your reading list. Even if you think you know all about Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (and Branwell—don't forget Branwell!), you'll discover new details in this deeply researched study. One of the best ways to learn how to write intelligently about literature is to read intelligent writing about literature—this book definitely fits the bill.

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Reading the Brontes: The BookNerd’s Official Guide

Reading the Brontes: The BookNerd’s Official Guide

I loathe Wuthering Heights. I should probably tell you that right up front. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I had to read Emily Bronte’s (so-called) classic first in high school and hated every ridiculous humorless violent hateful brooding moment of it. Being a person who typically enjoys nineteenth century classic literature, though, I figured that it probably was my fault, so I tried it again in college, and once again despised every ridiculous humorless violent etc. moment. I gave it one last try a few years later and finally decided, nope, it’s not me. Wuthering Heights is indeed an terrible garbage fire of a book. (Except for all those people who inexplicably love it. I promise not to judge you if you’re one of those people. I mean, you’re clearly wrong, but we can still be friends.) 

That said, I’ve been a big fan of Charlotte Bronte’ s Jane Eyre since the very first time I read it, around age 13 or so. As I’ve reread it over the years I’ve found that I particularly enjoy different parts of it—my first time though, I was obsessed with Jane’s experiences at Lowood, the Boarding School From Hell, but during later reads I’ve been more interested in Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester, or the strength of will she finds to run away from Thornfield Hall. 

Recently, I had a wonderful time doing Jane Eyre as a read-aloud with my daughter, and that experience set me off on a reread through Bronte works, Bronte history, and Bronte miscellany. From that, I’ve come up with this list for anyone - homeschool student, homeschool parent, or interested bystander - who’d like to take a deep dive into the world of the Brontes. I’m happy to present: 

The BookNerd’s Official Guide to Reading the Brontes
(NOTE: Wuthering Heights NOT Included) 

1. Read Jane Eyre. If you’ve already done that, reread Jane Eyre. Better yet, find a 13-year-old (or thereabouts) girl to read it with you, so that the two of you can enjoy Jane’s near-constant fury at the circumstances of her life (not to mention her occasional snarkiness) together. I’ve found that 13-year-old young women in particular have a real connection to Jane’s anger. Plus you’ll need someone to talk with about how St. John is THE WORST. 

2. Read a biography of the Brontes. The lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and supposed-to-be-the-Golden-Boy-but-never-got-his-act-together brother Branwell are at least as fascinating as their most famous novels. Claire Harman’s Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart and Rebecca Fraser’s The Brontes: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family are both very good. Spoiler: Branwell is THE WORST. 

3. Read more Charlotte. Both of her other major novels, Shirley and Villette, are good reads, though I’ve found that Villette stays with me longer and has more of an impact. Plus, after reading Villette, you can join in the great literary game of gossiping with your 13-year-old about what exactly happened in Belgium between Charlotte and her mentor, Constantin Heger. 

4. Read some Anne. Poor Anne. Poor neglected Anne. Posterity seems to have entirely forgotten about Anne, which is utterly unfair. Plus, if this To Hark a Vagrant strip is historically accurate (IT IS and I refuse to entertain any discussion to the contrary), she was the most awesome sister of all. I’ve enjoyed both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but if you only read one, make it Tenant, which—with its plot of a woman escaping an abusive husband with her child, not to mention all the arrogant entitled would-be suitors of the heroine, who get really really angry with her when she chooses not to love them back—feels (sadly) contemporary at times. 

5. Read some fanfic. In this case, by fanfic, I mean some of the professionally published retellings of and homages to Bronte works that have appeared over the years. From Jean Rhys’ classic Wide Sargasso Sea (which tells the story of Bertha Rochester pre-attic), to Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair (set in a world where people can jump in and out of books to change the narrative), to my new favorite, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele (“Reader, I murdered him”), there are plenty to choose from. 

6. Finally, as a reward for all that reading—not to mention all those moors and all that brooding—read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, in which a very sensible young woman visits the broody family Starkadder on their gloomy farm in deepest, darkest Sussex and proceeds to set everything right with a few common-sensical changes. I strongly suspect that Charlotte and Emily would have loathed this book (not Anne though, because she’s awesome), but it is enormously funny and one of my top-ten comfort book rereads. As a bonus, it was made into a wonderful movie with Kate Beckinsale as the heroine (and Stephen Fry as a delightfully smarmy Branwell fan). 

EXTRA CREDIT  This past year I finally got around to reading The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar . This book is a classic work of feminist literary criticism, first published in the 1970s, so I was a bit intimidated, but even as a layman I found it a fascinating read. I’m not exaggerating to say that it has changed the way I read novels written by women. But if that sounds a bit too much to tackle at the moment, you can pick up (the much shorter and much funnier) Texts From Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg for your homeschool (sample here ), secure in the knowledge that anyone who gets all the references in this book—conversations in text from literary figures including Medea, Hamlet, Lord Byron, Jo March, and Nancy Drew—can definitely consider themselves a well-read student of Western literature. 

Happy reading, everyone!

New Books: Worlds of Ink and Shadow

Papa was very wise when he called my writing a childish habit, and I think he understands that, for me, its a dangerous one as well.

Here’s the thing you should know about me: I cannot resist historical fiction. I eat it up. I cannot get enough. Honestly, I still credit much of my knowledge of actual history to reading Sunfire romances in middle school. (Caroline was my favorite.) Also, like a big chunk of the literary world, I am a little obsessed with the Bronte sisters. (Working on the Charlotte Bronte reading list for our spring issue was definitely one of the highlights of my year so far.) I tell you this so that you will know how sincere I am when I tell you that I wanted to love this book, which is historical fiction about the Bronte family. Sadly, for me, it didn’t quite do it—but if you haven’t spent as many years obsessing over the Brontes as I have, you might like it more.

Because, really, we know a lot about the Brontes. We know that their prim, parsimonious father was suspicious of their creative drives. We know that they grew up, poor and obscure, in far-from-London Yorkshire. We know that Charlotte was plain and passionate, and that Branwell was troubled and tempted by easy comforts. We know that Emily was a romantic drawn to the wildness of the moors, and that Anne was sensible. We know that the most lived parts of their lives were in their literary works. And we don’t really learn much else about the Brontes in the course of this book.

I liked the idea of Worlds of Ink and Shadow, which is that the imaginary worlds created by Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell become real. In their created worlds, the young Brontes are like gods, controlling the actions of their characters while lurking in disguise on the sidelines. (And in their imaginary worlds, you can see hints of great Bronte characters, like Jane Eyre’s Rochester and Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, begin to emerge.) But the pull of the imagined worlds is too strong, and the siblings begin to lose their hold on reality and to realize that the price they must pay for their vivid imaginations may be too high. 

But the story falls flat—perhaps because Coakley’s Brontes feel like rough sketches of what most of us already know—there’s nothing revelatory or surprising about the internal lives of the four siblings. Even the mystery of how their imaginations come so vividly to life falls flat, trading a superstitious deus ex machina for a more nuanced examination of the cost of an authentically creative life. Some parts—the ever-present ghosts of their dead sisters, the angry criticism of their father, the hints of the Brontes’ novels-to-come—are well drawn. But in the end, I closed the book, unsatisfied.

I wanted to love this book and I didn’t—but it’s worth a spot on your YA library list to see if you feel the same way.

Stuff We Like :: 4.22.16

home|school|life's Friday roundup of the best homeschool links, reads, tools, and other fun stuff has lots of ideas and resources.

We will be making matzo balls all afternoon so that we have matzo ball soup all weekend long. I hope your weekend plans are equally delicious! (A little housekeeping note: Apparently, not everybody's RSS feed is working since we updated the site, so you may have to resubscribe to keep getting updates. I'm sorry about that!)

around the web

More reasons to make time for art in your homeschool: What children’s drawings can teach us about history

I am late to the party, but if you haven’t seen Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emma Watson sort the cast of Hamilton into their proper Hogwarts houses, you should.

Obviously this ranking of every meal in Jane Eyre in order of severity is the perfect accompaniment to our Charlotte Bronte reading list in the spring issue

You don’t have to read everything by an author—and maybe sometimes you shouldn’t


at home | school | life

on the blog: Have you been following the updates on our online classes? I want to take them all!

in the archives: These planning tips are definitely inspiring me as I freak out about homeschooling high school. (We start 9th grade this fall!)

on instagram: Love this quote!


reading list

With high school planning at the top of my to-do list, I unearthed my old copy of An Incomplete Education, which I used as the basis for a year-long independent study for myself in 10th grade. Reading it again, I’m kind of amazed by how much it shaped my post-high school intellectual pursuits.

What is up with Malorie Blackman’s books not getting U.S. releases? I had to order my copy of Chasing the Stars from Book Depository, but for a gender-swapped version of Othello set in space and written by the author of the Naughts and Crosses series, I will wait. Impatiently.

So I finally read Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son about, essentially, the experience of being a black man in the United States today. It is as good as everyone says it is. It is also uncomfortable—uncomfortable to read, uncomfortable to talk about, uncomfortable to write about. (I’ve been adding it to and taking it off this list for weeks now.) I think you should probably read it, too.


at home

We’re having a pretty chill Passover this year, but I’m pretty excited to make these matzo fritters. 

Time for the annual spring kitchen dishcloth update! I use this Mason Dixon pattern and whatever random leftover cotton yarn I have lying around. 

We made a batch of these candied citrus rinds to use up some leftover grapefruit, and now I just want MORE MORE MORE.