The Famous Sisters Break Free from the Dusty Pages of History in The Badass Brontës

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The Badass Brontës
by Jane Satterfield
(Diode Editions, 2023, 80 pp. $18)

As someone who taught the novels Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre for many years, I was always striving to share with my high school students my own fascination with the Brontës. I presented lectures, shared intriguing tales of their lives, pointed out connections between those lives and the characters they created, but though I may have whetted the interest of a few, I suspect there were likely many who were more interested in surreptitiously scrolling through their phones than in contemplating the world of these sisters whom they felt had nothing in common with the world today.

It hasn’t been only teenagers who have been dismissive of my beloved Brontës. Plenty of adult acquaintances have turned their noses up at my mention of their novels. Boring, they say. Too wordy. And especially in regard to Wuthering Heights, I have heard more than once that it is full of irritating characters that are impossible to like or understand. 

If only Jane Satterfield’s The Badass Brontës had existed while I was still teaching! I would surely have woven its stereotype-toppling poems liberally throughout my units on Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. In these delightful and often surprising poems, Emily and her sisters Charlotte and Anne leap from the 19th century into our own, upending erroneous images of them as stuffy old scribblers of dusty literature and illuminating them as the iconoclasts they were. Satterfield’s deep research into these acclaimed writers informs the poems, many of which are based on diary entries, correspondence, or the novels themselves, while still allowing for ample imaginings and leaps of speculation.

The title poem, “The Badass Brontës,” sets the tone and reveals to readers immediately that the women they had imagined as buttoned-up and out-of-date were anything but. Here we see them as “up to here with aunt’s old-time religion,” with Anne “canoodling / in the crypts with her father’s curate,” Charlotte writing love letters “full of pretty filthy stuff,” and Emily making “time for pistol practice.” They hike for miles “slinging sweet iambics” and “go commando when they can.”

Emily is imagined as tattooed in “Emily Inked,” Satterfield drawing upon her knowledge of Emily’s skill as a visual artist and her love of nature and animals. We consider the possibility of Emily’s body emblazoned with “a hawk kiting” or “a wind-gnarled fir tree,” perhaps a “a hedgehog, all inky-spined” or “a girl, her brother fleeing / from the palaces of instruction.”

The poem “Spellcasters” springs from the poet Ted Hughes’s reference to the Brontës as the “three weird sisters,” an allusion to the witches in Macbeth. “Weird, you say? Well, fair enough” they saucily reply here. 

………………………If jumping stiles is weird, we’ll take it—tired of seams and taming, watch us curl into a snooze with foxes, wake up mouthy and magnificent.

They happily embrace their weirdness, revel in it and boast of it, because they “grew up / tossing elf-bolts, watching them skim / the surface of the stream, muslin dresses / hiked thigh-high…”

When introducing the Brontës to my students, I always highlighted how they both acquiesced to the sexist constraints of their time and rebelled against them simultaneously. Their novels pushed back strongly against the era’s social conventions, but as women during that time, the odds against their achieving any kind of writing success were steep. Realizing that their only sure path to publication and serious consideration by the literary community was to assume male pseudonyms, they adopted the pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

“The Brothers Bell Plead Publishers Not to be Unmasked” is a prose poem that adapts some of Charlotte’s comments to a literary confidante regarding queries about the true identities of the mysterious Bell brothers. Especially interesting to me is the line, “Certainly it injures no one else for us to remain quiet.” What seems to be implied here is that their masked identities do indeed injure the writers themselves—in that they have felt forced to hide who they really were, to write undercover as men. How galling it must have been for them that people suggested that the novels might be “mere patchwork—one chapter the work of a miss or missus; the next born of a husband’s guiding hand, an editor’s sure and manly vision.” And yet, they continued to use the pseudonyms for the opportunities, the power, that those assumed identities gave to them. They intended to “preserve our incognito, our duty to speak unpalatable truths.”

The sisters for a time entertained the hope of starting a school, surely an acceptable endeavor for women of the time, but ultimately gave up the idea because they failed to attract pupils. “The Misses Brontës Establishment” reads like an advertisement for the school, promising benefits interspersed with pointed truths that they would never have been able to say out loud: “Success / for a woman relies on a balance / of headwork & housekeeping—it’s not enough / to sew straight seams from here to tomorrow.” What lay ahead for young ladies in the few professions they might enter? Future governesses must learn to hide their anger; teachers must find a way to be both docile and battle-ready, ever prepared to beat back rebellious students. Young ladies about to enter matrimony must prepare to “endure all kinds of love.”

Any young girl headstrong enough to aspire to becoming a writer is cautioned that she “must remain blameless— / The reading public tends to confuse unmannerly characters / with their creator.” How true that proved to be when a reviewer of Wuthering Heights maintained that the novel could only have been the product of a man’s mind, for only a man could create a violent misanthrope like Heathcliff.

Especially relevant to the present-day is the prose poem, “The Consequences of Desire/Brontë Bodies,” as it was written in the wake of the Dodd decision. Satterfield describes it as “a speculative sequence about pregnancy, contraception, and abortion” during the time the sisters lived. Emily is imagined learning about the herbs that could potentially end a pregnancy, “what acrid brew brings best results when a purge is greatly needed…” Anne, the youngest sister, wrestles with the thought that her own birth might have played a role in their mother’s death, noting that “Every woman knows a birth might mean her own trip to the grave.” Charlotte confronts the terror of her own impending death from undiagnosed hyperemesis gravidarum (severe nausea and vomiting) during her pregnancy, reflecting “I thought—once—I’d let out the seams of my best silk—this appears not to be the case—.” She tries “to imagine better days,” but now “even weak tea tastes like fear.”

It makes sense to me that many of these poems, written during the early days of the pandemic, find common ground between our own precarious, potentially deadly predicament and the world that the Brontës inhabited. Satterfield launches into “Letter to Emily Brontë” announcing “I’m writing this from lockdown” adding that: “The schoolyard / across the street is wreathed in yellow / caution tape.” Satterfield finds similarities in her current situation and the reality in which Emily lived, writing: 

Emily, you were no stranger to contagion in a town of trash heaps & overflowing pits. A fog-bound pestilence vapored through low-lying towns, typhus & TB ravaged boarding schools…

In “Gigan For a Pandemic Winter,” Satterfield makes similar connections and also employs one of the many different poetic forms found within this book. A gigan is an invented poetic form, requiring a poem of 16 lines and certain prescribed repetitions, as well as a distinct pattern of couplets and tercets. The required repetition in the form works well to help convey the constrained repetition of days spent under lockdown. The connection between the two time periods is beautifully encapsulated in the lines, “Sometimes a raptor / rose and fell, sliding between centuries…” Just as the speaker in the poem walks through “a broken canopy of days,” so “once three sisters watched the world / turn its direction, wrote through geographies of grief.”

Had Emily Brontë lived in the present day, surely she would have been a passionate environmental activist. Her love of the outdoors and the animal kingdom is well-documented, and, even in her own lifetime, the effects of encroaching industrialization were changing the moors that she loved so well. In “Spellcasters” the sisters hike “past all things mechanical,” past “the textile mills that drove / the fairy folk away…” They call on the spirits of the natural world to “Lift / toxins from the well” and to “roll back the besmirching smoke / that the ancient forest might rise again…” In “Emily Brontë’s Advice for the Anthropocene,” the heathered moors are seen as “a haven in / a century’s shrinking space.” In the present day, as “arctic ice melts, / shears off,” Satterfield asks us, “If Emily were here today, / what would she say?”

When I would tell my students about my first encounter with Wuthering Heights at the age of 18, about my romantic fascination with the tragic character of Heathcliff, some of those students would nod knowingly, having fallen prey to his strange charms themselves. But many more would shake their heads, aghast. How, they wanted to know, could I harbor this weird literary crush on such a cruel and unlikable person?

I laughed with them over it, conceding that my initial take on him while a teenager was heavily influenced by my own moody, what is now referred to as “emo,” personality at that point in my life, and that in rereading the novel as an adult, I was more properly horrified by some of Heathcliff’s vile deeds, such as the hanging of Isabella’s dog. But even as an adult reader, he still held considerable sway over me, a strong appeal that had to do with his mysteriousness, his passionate love for Catherine, and the unfair treatment he endured as a child.

How I wish I had had access to “Who is Heathcliff?” when giving my opening lecture about the debate over Heathcliff’s origins and racial background and the mystery of how he acquired his wealth during his three-year absence from the Heights. Had he once been “a castaway from Liverpool streets” or a “deckhand from a colonial ship” and “what profit or plunder” accounted for the fortune he amassed? Whatever his background, when we meet him anew, he becomes “The orphan transformed / to a country squire— / heathen & husband, hanger of dogs.” Once an abused foundling, one for whom we can feel pity and righteous indignation, Heathcliff becomes the perplexing mixture of “a landlord who learned / that a tyrant should crush / all within reach” and a brokenhearted and spurned suitor, “A dark thing driving his love to the grave.”

Although as an adult I could appreciate the social and cultural realities that drove Catherine to accept Edgar Linton over Heathcliff, I never fully lost my adolescent dismay at her choice, my longing for her to have thrown caution to the winds and to have embraced the man with whom she truly belonged. Heathcliff’s rage and pain after learning of Catherine’s marriage is given vivid voice in “Heathcliff’s Curse.”  His call for vengeance summons clouds to “begin to script a storm,” and ends with the anguished appeal to Catherine to “heed me, / haunt me, rise / into unrest, ghost my heart’s / tenantless realm.”

The Badass Brontës is a treasure trove for poets and teachers with an interest in form and a delight in the skillful use of various poetic devices. The volume includes persona poems, a villanelle, a sestina, prose poems, ekphrastic poems, as well as the aforementioned gigan. And the wealth of lush language—making use of alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance, consonance—makes the reader want to pause and speak certain lines aloud, just for the joy of hearing language constructed so artfully. Take for example these lines from the poem “Forfeit,” which references Emily’s lost hawk, Nero: “The hawk’s wing-beat’s rapid, /can’t connive a cage. When clipped, is stripped of dive / and plummet, grip and tear; heart feathered, fettered. Stutter / or hop-to-hand.” Read that one out loud to yourself for the sheer pleasure of launching such rich sounds and rhymes into the air.

Immerse yourself in this compelling book and the Brontës are no longer confined to the dusty pages of history. What reader wouldn’t be enchanted and intrigued by titles such as “Which Brontë Sister Are You?”—which mimics an internet quiz—or “Own the Charlotte Brontë” about a model home in a housing development, or “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever,” which centers on the famous Kate Bush song and famous video? For those with only the sketchiest knowledge of the sisters and their world, the book includes a helpful “Who’s Who in Brontëworld,” a succinct history titled “About the Brontës” and enlightening notes on many of the poems.

Satterfield gives her imagination plenty of space to entertain numerous visions of the sisters in the contemporary world, but one I especially like appears in the penultimate poem, “Rogue Dream For Emily Brontë” as it dares to create an Emily who did not die young, who did not suffer an untimely end that called a halt to her creative promise. “…the Emily I imagine lives on to old age, / studies wildlife and botany, becomes cartographer / and celebrated authoress who campaigns / for land preservation, women’s rights” and is “returning from another kingdom / where she and her sisters thrive.”

This collection fully realizes Satterfield’s dream and vision, as the sisters do indeed thrive on every page of The Badass Brontës. This book will greatly please both the hardcore Brontë fan and those who are encountering them for the first time.