Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
The Badass Brontës
by Jane Satterfield
March 2023, $18.00, 80pp, ISBN: 978-1939728579
In the title poem of Jane Satterfield’s impressive new collection about Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë, the poet writes that they
are up to here with aunt’s old-time religion,
their brother’s boozy brawls. They’ll walk miles
in unhip boots, unfazed by hail or funnel clouds,
slinging sweet iambics to help them keep the pace.
Later, in a poem called “Spellcasters,” in which we read in an epigraph from the late British journalist, Sarah Hughes, that Ted Hughes called them the “three weird sisters,” a deliberate reference to Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, the sisters declare in their collective voice:
stiles is weird, we’ll take it –tired
of seams & tanning, watch us curl
into a snooze with foxes, wake up
mouthy & magnificent.
Jane Satterfield vividly brings the Brontë sisters to life, showing them as quietly iconoclastic women in early nineteenth century England, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. While providing background in “dramatis personae” sketches and an historical outline at the end of the book, as well as copious illuminating epigraphs to many of the poems, it is through the poems themselves that the sisters jump off the page and feel contemporary. Whether it’s a villanelle about “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” inspired by a Kate Bush song, a poem about the model home in a Maryland housing development (“Own the Charlotte Brontë”), a poem imagining Emily wearing tattoos (“Emily Inked”), or a poem inspired by an internet quiz for young fans (“Which Brontë Sister Are You?”), the sisters appear to walk among us!
Environmental issues, women’s rights, women’s reproductive health (“The Consequences of Desire/ Brontë Bodies”), human rights, all important contemporary concerns, likewise figure into the depiction of the sisters. In “Charlotte Brontë: The Séance,” in which Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1869 summons the spirit of the oldest of the three sisters (two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died in 1825) fourteen years after her death, Charlotte’s motives likewise sound modern-day:
Harriett has admired –
Charlotte Brontë, London’s
sensation and unmasked authoress,
another so-called “little woman”
whose ink propels resistance
to institutions that enslave,
exposing masters who see a world
of women, men, and children
to be crushed.
Similarly, Emily displays her own badass humanitarian side, along with her sisters, in “Hunger Strike, Haworth, Yorkshire, ca. 1836,” when, as an 18-year-old girl she defies her Aunt Branwell when the latter contemplates dismissing the maid, Tabby, when she injures her leg and is no longer useful in performing household chores. Emily demands, “Have you left
the kingdom of the benevolent? Today, we sisters
stand agreed: this injury is a call to action.
Do you worry we can’t keep pace with Tabby’s
rota of kitchen work? Aunt,
we have perfected pie, and the seams we’ve sewed
contain cartographies. What good are girls
who mince their words? Without Tabby among us
no morsel will please. Let the table sway
with steaming broth, turnips, mutton,
rounds of bread: we’ll have none until/unless she stays,
set up and salubrious, queened in this motherless lair.
Ahead of their time, Charlotte asks in “Crow Hill Postscript,” “Would / our queen one day reverse her opinions on women’s roles?” Queen Victoria was born a year after Emily Brontë. Indeed, the Brontë sisters faced the prevailing patriarchal views of women writers, that writing was “unsuitable” for women, “unladylike.” When Charlotte sent some poems to the poet laureate, Robert Southey, he likewise discouraged her. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.”
So the subversive sisters decided to publish under the names Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell (“The Brothers Bell Plead Publishers Not to be Unmasked “). “We do not write with a view of celebrity, a love of sensation. Masked, we pace the village in peace, amble the far fields, feral in freedom.”
Four of the poems – “Letter to Emily Brontë,” “Haworth of Other Days,” “Sestina for Hiraeth, with Titles of Plath Poems from Early 1963,” and “Rogue Dream for Emily Brontë” – are rooted in a trip the poet, who was born in England, made to Staffordshire and to the Brontë home in Yorkshire in 1994. At the Brontë Parsonage Museum, shop souvenirs trace “geographies of grief, lady novelists who, / like Byron, were mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Most of the poems in The Badass Brontës focus on Emily, but as we’ve seen, Satterfield highlights Charlotte’s badassery as well, and she shines a light on the youngest, Anne, too. “You’re steely at the core – / Confronting the injustice you deplore.” ( (“Which Brontë Sister Are You?”) She is “an admired directrix of a girl’s seminary” (“Rogue Dream for Emily Brontë”). But Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, gets the most attention. And Emily was a true badass! A lover of animals, she kept a mastiff and rescued a hawk, Nero (“Animalia,” “Emily’s Apocrypha,” “The Sharp-Shinned Hawk,” “Emily Brontë’s Advice for the Anthropocene”). Several poems deal with the enigma of Heathcliff (“Heathcliff’s Curse,” “Who Is Heathcliff?”). But even when Satterfield focuses on Emily, she has all the sisters in mind. “Rogue Dream for Emily Brontë” ends with the image of “the vibrant
queens of fortune they composed themselves to be –
mothered by the floral-bounded, feral earth,
mothers of imagination, mistresses of mirth.
Satterfield’s verses sing with sibilance, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, a joy to read. The Badass Brontës is both educational and entertaining.
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Mortal Coil, was published by Clare Songbirds Publishing, and his book, A Magician Among the Spirits was released by Blue Light Press in late 2022.