Today marks Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday. It’s a big deal, well, for me it is since she’s one of my longtime favourite authors and hello, she wrote Jane Eyre.
The book was a phenomenon in regards to feminism and detailing life as a governess, and for me, it was different from other gothic romance novels – it was a shift and more relatable, closer to the modern, paving a way for more serious, scientific and darker gothic. As I studied gothic fiction two years ago, I noticed the parallels between gothic, the Brontës and Queen Victoria’s life – I’ll write about this at some point, especially isolated upbringings.
Let’s go back to the early times. The Brontës are fascinating. They grew up in an isolated place and were filled with so much imagination. Their stories shaped Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal. You can see how their writing and ideas began and evolved. Charlotte’s Caroline Vernon is like a first draft of Jane Eyre where the heroine is naive, impulsive and all romantic, and Zamorna, a prick lusting over young, vulnerable ladies. Now compare that to Charlotte’s more mature description of Jane and tamer Rochester. So much growth. As Charlotte grew up, so did her stories. I love it!
While her sister Emily was full on on the romantic side and her sister Anne stuck to the more realistic and raw portrayals of life (and yes the milestone that shocked everyone at the time: a woman slamming a door in her (prick) husband’s face and centres on her mission to separate and divorce him), Charlotte was in the middle. She balanced romance and realism. She didn’t let her heroines down.
Jane Eyre is a woman of strength and she’s a teen (the book can be considered YA/NA since it’s a coming-of-age, shaping one’s identity and finding one’s place). She doesn’t let Rochester screw her over – as my professor said, Jane left with nothing to hold her back in contrast to other female characters, especially married and rich ones, at the time (I’ll stop here before I compare the book with Portrait of a Lady which has similarities to JE and how Henry James seems to mock gothic and has an ambivalent view on feminism) – part of it is because she’s a governess, able to move freely. Governesses were neither upper class or lower/working class – it was a lonely and sad life to be one. Anyway, Jane forgives Rochester – that’s one of the many things I love about her. She’s forgiving even though the world hasn’t been kind to her and she thinks things through before deciding. Her marriage doesn’t make a dent in her independence and control of her life.
Villette‘s Lucy doesn’t let men screw her over either and she has a dry sense of humour, not afraid to speak her mind and being sarcastic. The novel focuses on her mind, and how isolation and interactions with society and culture effect her. Charlotte got her conflicting thoughts down pretty well.
Shirley…well, the name was mainly for males, but became a popular name for girls thanks to the novel. No need to elaborate how great that is. Charlotte wrote Shirley around the time her siblings Emily and Branwell died. She wrote two contrasting but strong female characters Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar who is a landowner and full of ideas, business wise. I think Elizabeth Gaskell was an influence.
The Professor is the only book that has a male narrator and it was Charlotte’s first novel, so the romantic writing of her early years echoes with it. It focuses on William Crimsworth, a professor who falls in love with one of his pupils Frances because she’s intelligent and they live happily ever after…after moments of heartbreak and angst, of course.
Charlotte showed her intelligence, awareness of social issues including feminism, and balances them well with romance and womanhood. She stands out and while similar to Jane Austen, Charlotte made her heroines more than just characters. They feel real and are much closer to home.
I recommend reading all works by the Brontës. Definitely read Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s mindblowing, basically you’re rooting for the protagonist to divorce her prick of a husband and it’s glorious [eats popcorn].