Brontëmania: Why the three sisters are bigger than ever

As Andrea Arnold's striking Wuthering Heights arrives in cinemas, Boyd Tonkin greets a Brontë revival fiercely relevant to an age in which women in fiction are as patronised and marginalised as ever

Charlotte Brontë detested Jane Austen. Hyperbole? Listen to the words of the author of Jane Eyre, writing to GH Lewes, the free-thinking editor and author who became George Eliot's partner. In 1848 – after the novel's publication had brought "Currer Bell" (Charlotte's pseudonym) notoriety among the London literati – Lewes advised her to read Pride and Prejudice. "Why do you like Miss Austen so much?" Charlotte – "puzzled" – replies. "I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers," with "no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses."

Lewes allows that "Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no 'sentiment'" – or, as Austen might put it, "sensibility". Charlotte, enraged, responds: "Can there be a great artist without poetry?" She contrasts Austen's prissy decorum with the "deep feeling for his kind" that in her eyes enriches and validates the satire of William Makepeace Thackeray, who had championed Jane Eyre to the extent that London gossip assumed "Currer Bell" had been his governess and mistress.

In 1850, Charlotte returns to the attack in a letter to WS Williams, the supportive literary adviser to her publisher who became a close epistolary friend. Now Charlotte has read Emma, and she dislikes it even more. She acknowledges that Austen "does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of well-bred English people curiously well", but "she ruffles the reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound; the Passions are perfectly unknown to her". Her scorn mounts: "Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible... woman; if this is heresy – I cannot help it."

"Heresy" it remains. Did Charlotte even know that both novelists were the offspring of impecunious Church of England clergymen who struggled to support large families while their daughters toiled to combine heavy domestic duties with the fulfilment of the literary gifts that few expected them even to possess, let along bring into the public domain? Her own father, Patrick Branty, a talented but penniless boy from County Down, had overcome every obstacle to enter St John's College, Cambridge, and on his path towards ordination in the Church was subsidised by the great Abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Charlotte's striking refusal of any solidarity or sympathy with Jane rings down the years. Much was at stake then; it continues to be at stake now. Charlotte knew on which side she stood: burning passion against cool calculation; spontaneity against artifice; free nature against bloodless cultivation; Romantic self-expression against neo-Classical control; Gothic sensation against drawing-room finesse; humble folk against scheming snobs; womanly virtues against ladylike manners. Plenty of readers have added, then and now: North against South. Of course, any close reading will blur these battle-lines, but the Brontës enjoyed a scrap.

After a period in which versions of Austen hogged our screens, the Brontës have fought back. Released today, Andrea Arnold's savagely uncompromising Wuthering Heights joins a line of adaptations of Emily's only surviving novel that began in 1920 (a lost work by AV Bramble) and went on to include renderings from directors as varied as William Wyler – with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon still the ranking Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw to many fans – and Yoshishige Yoshida, Luis Buñuel and Jacques Rivette. Earlier this year, Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska as the uncowed governess and Michael Fassbender the sulphurous Mr Rochester, offered a rather smoother ride through another much-adapted book, albeit one that shares with Arnold – and the Brontës – a rapt attention to every squall and storm that blows across the ever-changing skies above the Yorkshire moors.

Yet the Brontë season will not end with Andrea Arnold and her black Heathcliff – a piece of casting that picks up on a long critical debate not only about the origins of the "dark-skinned gipsy" found wandering the streets of Liverpool, but about the colonial dimensions of both books. (In 1966, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea imagined the Jamaican life of Bertha Mason, the first, attic-bound Mrs Rochester.)

Next week will see the opening of Breaking Dawn, the latest film made from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight sequence of vampire novels. Meyer has often acknowledged a debt to the Brontës in her teenage Gothic romances, most explicitly in Eclipse. Yet look at what she does in her defanged epics, with which the Mormon author made vanilla vampirism palatable to godly Middle America, and you might expect the Haworth sisters to erupt in fury once again. In making her heroine, Bella Swan, willingly choose love for the gentlemanly semi-vampire Edward over sexy werewolf Jacob, Meyer's Gothic-lite reverses the emotional current of Wuthering Heights. There, Cathy settles, fatally, for muzzled Edgar Linton over the irresistibly rabid Heathcliff, but only after the latter's apparent desertion of her.

The Brontës shocked their contemporaries deeply. Read early reviews of the novels by "Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell" – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey in 1847, Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848, Charlotte's Shirley and Villette in 1849 and 1853 – and you meet early-Victorian men of letters in paroxysms of outrage, alarm and (fairly often) excitement. They wonder whether any feminine hand could conceivably lie behind the pseudonyms that front these "coarse", "brutal", "loathsome" and "heathenish" tales of unfettered passions in unfenced landscapes, even though the books seem to betray (as Lewes wrote before he knew Charlotte) "the coarseness of violent and uncultivated men".

In these disgraceful fantasies, a shameless rake with a mad, imprisoned wife chats about his foreign mistresses to a teenage girl employee; a farmer's daughter destroys herelf and two families for the love of a dark-skinned, near-psychotic foundling who will later climb into her grave; in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall an abused wife dares to leave her depraved husband in a plot that nonetheless denies the existence of damnation and hell – and then sends her back to succour the brute.

Since the 1850s, successive variations of "the Brontë Myth" (the title of Lucasta Miller's incisive book) have sought to control and confine these mutinous works. Charlotte had a hand in taming them with the defensive "Biographical Notice" about her sisters in an 1850 edition. She spun Emily into an inspired ingenue with no "worldly wisdom" but instead a "secret power and fire", and Anne into a naïve, nun-like mouse "blameless in deed and almost in thought".

Then in 1857, two years after the subject's death from complications of pregnancy, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, by her trans-Pennine friend Elizabeth Gaskell, fixed these myths in stone. The liberal-minded and enlightened Reverend Patrick joins Mrs Gaskell's cast of legends as a stern, suffocating paterfamilias. And the booming mill town of Haworth becomes a barren, windswept backwater – as if the sisters' artful and thoughtful defiance of convention can be written off as the cries of primitive seers.

Stephenie Meyer's concern to sanitise Emily's legacy shows that the sisters have held on to their unsettling power. Their provocative feminism may have become our gender-equality orthodoxy, even if in practice literature and life fall far short. Anne's preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall stands up to the disgusted critics: "I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it." She swats away speculation by maintaining that "if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are, or should be, written for both men and women to read." Tell that to today's publishers, even more gender-divided in taste than their Victorian ancestors.

As for Charlotte, she writes to Gaskell about the limits of reform that depend on women's own efforts in an inequitable world, as "certainly there are other evils – deep rooted in the foundations of the Social System – which no efforts of ours can touch". A mocking cultural elite reserves just as much "calm down, dear" scorn for women writers who bang on about evils "rooted in the foundations of the social system" in 2011 as it did in 1850.

These days, we nurture our own kind of piety and sentimentality; and the Brontës can still ferret it out and rub it till it bleeds. Feminist pioneers they may be, but their unrepentantly seductive disturbers of the peace – Heathcliff, Rochester, Arthur in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – never quite forfeit their creators' sympathy or their heroines' love. In our more genteel days, the aspirational leading ladies of respectable literary novels shun the Byronic bad boy and confess "Reader, I married him" about the likes of Jane Eyre's unctuous cleric, St John Rivers.

In Arnold's film, I watched the little dog twitching and whimpering on a noose and thought that the director had added a grotesque flourish of her own. I had misremembered – or repressed – the book. Go back to Chapter XII of Wuthering Heights: the narrator, the housekeeper Nelly Dean, notices "Miss Isabella's springer Fanny, suspended by a handkerchief, and nearly at its last gasp". The thwarted and persecuted Heathcliff, who in vengeful spite marries Isabella Linton, gloatingly recalls how she saw him "hang up her little dog", part of the programme of abuses that the victim-turned-villain inflicts on the "abject thing" he wed. To read such passages, even as Cathy dies of love for this feral outsider and promises to embrace him from beyond the grave, is to enter a thicket of desire, obsession, cruelty and self-obliterating need. It makes De Sade look like a periwigged poseur.

Arnold captures the nightmare of nature red in tooth and claw, of predators and prey locked in a gory battle, that Emily voiced in her essays. Nature is "an inexplicable problem," she wrote in 1842, while studying with Charlotte at the Hégers' school in Brussels (Charlotte fell in love with Monsieur Héger: the background to Villette). It "exists on a principle of destruction: everything must be a tireless instrument of death to others or else cease to live itself". Yet the idea of a materialist pre-Darwin Emily, in flight from the evangelical Anglicanism of father Patrick, runs the risk of flattering modern updates of the Brontë Myth.

Emily's finest poems do deride sects and dogmas – "Vain are the thousand creeds/ That move men's hearts, unutterably vain" – but never waver in their faith in a subjective "God within my breast/ Almighty ever-present Deity". And Charlotte's reflections on the religion that partnered all the siblings' lives also gives little comfort to today's secular pieties. Between September 1848 and May 1849, she lost her beloved wastrel of a brother, Branwell, from addiction to alcohol and (probably) opium; then Emily and Anne, both to tuberculosis. Her letters make heart-rending reading: "Branwell – Emily – Anne – are gone like dreams – gone as Maria and Elizabeth [the elder sisters] went twenty years ago. One by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm – and closed their glazed eyes".

A little later, she read a secularist work co-written by a new friend, the feminist Harriet Martineau. "It is the first exposition of avowed Atheism and Materialism I have ever read," she records. "The strangest thing," she writes, cutting to the chase as always, "is that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank." Her own multiple losses had been made even slightly bearable only by faith in an afterlife. Now the sceptics who have emptied Paradise want us "to receive this bitter bereavement as a great gain – to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom." The Dawkinsites never begin to address Charlotte's anguish.

Teachers and critics patronisingly praise the Brontës for their "transgressive" freedom from prevailing beliefs about class, gender and – if you buy the "black Heathcliff" interpretation – race. True, anyone who returns to Jane Eyre's great speech of self-affirmation to Rochester will find not one word has lost its fire: "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!" Such landmark moments tower over the future.

But the true test of a classic work surely lies in its ability to challenge and even discomfort later readers, rather than endorse the prejudices of their time. Lucasta Miller notes shrewdly that Wuthering Heights was the first book to teach her that great literature "was as much about questions as answers". The questions the Yorkshire sisters posed can still sear our souls.

At the end of Wuthering Heights, we hear how Heathcliff and Cathy's unquiet spirits stalk the moors. On an evening "threatening thunder", Nelly meets a little boy "with a sheep and two lambs". He is "crying terribly". "'There's Heathcliff and a woman yonder, by t'nab,' he blubbered, 'un' I darnut pass 'em'." We haven't passed them yet.

Five novelists on what the Brontës mean to them

Margaret Drabble

My admiration for the novels is very high and has been since I read them in my early teens. They appealed to me then partly because they draw on that sense of loneliness and exclusion that haunts most adolescent girls, and they embody the yearning for release through the Other, which may never come. They are archetypal fairy stories of the neglected orphan who is rescued through love, and they take place in a powerfully realised Yorkshire landscape. The last time I read 'Wuthering Heights' I was more than ever struck by the extraordinary scene of Catherine's death in childbirth: the snow, the delirium, the grief of Heathcliff – it's Shakespearean tragedy, but it is a very female take on it.

Michèle Roberts

My opinion of Charlotte Brontë hasn't changed since I was 12 and read 'Jane Eyre' for the first time and was utterly gripped: she remains a brilliant writer for me, one of the greats. She was the first writer I encountered who wrote about female childhood, and its passions and suffering and constraints and magic. I admire the way she uses a Shakespearean method of structuring her narrative through a deep level, an undertow, of linked symbols and images, for example to do with colour. She makes us see the unconscious imagination, bodied forth in these images and in flashes of folklore, folk-tale, fairy-tale, poetry, which is every bit as important as what's happening on the surface of the prose and of the story. I think Charlotte gets ignored as a feminist, explicitly protesting against the crampedness of women's lives, the way they weren't supposed to experience passion or desire or indeed anger. Women are now supposed to want to become porn stars, ie: to fake it, whereas Charlotte was exploring women's need to be honest about sexuality, about what we want and need. She wrote about female desire and female protest in a groundbreaking way, anchoring them within a heightened realism. Both Charlotte and Emily Brontë write about power imbalances and about cruelty. I'm not as interested in 'Wuthering Heights' as I once was... it seems adolescent and Romantic. But Emily Brontë as a poet goes on growing in my esteem. My appreciation of her has recently been heightened by reading Stevie Davies's wonderful book, 'Emily Brontë: Heretic'

Sarah Hall

I've only read 'Jane Eyre', once, when I was in school, and disliked it with a passion bordering on fury. Wanted to slap her. I should really re-read it. ['Wuthering Heights'] is quite dreamlike. Perhaps people forget what a frightening book it is: monstrous, even.

Stevie Davies

As a 10-year-old, I read 'Jane Eyre' over and over again. The language is within the compass of a young reader yet the writer commits herself to Jane's rebellious feminist self-affirmation. Anne and Emily Brontë's writings have always impressed me with their courage: Anne's denial in 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' of the Christian Hell; Emily's questing spirit not only in 'Wuthering Heights' and the poetry but in her amazing Brussels essays and her paintings of wildlife. I admire her heretical first-hand questioning of the relationship between the gods, humankind and the animal world.

Kate Mosse

In the end, the appeal of each of the Brontës is twofold: first the peculiarity, the restriction of their lives, which adds to their mystique; second the fact that there are books where women are the heroes and the heroines, active, thoughtful, determined and individual characters... Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Shirley, Agnes Grey, each live and speak beyond the context of their Victorian lives. The Brontës wrote about the position of women, the nature of love, the privations at the heart of supposed respectable life – about the choices women had to make in order to survive. My own debt as a writer is not plot or character or even subject matter, but landscape. All three authors draw heavily on the physical environment, but 'Wuthering Heights' is one of the earliest and greatest landscape novels, where the true leading character is the Moors themselves. For me, 'Wuthering Heights' sits with the works of Willa Cather or Jack London or even Ernest Hemingway. Landscape speaks beyond time and place.