Without a doubt, Charlotte Brontë was progressive in her beliefs. In a time when women were considered little more than social adornments and bearers of offspring, Charlotte Brontë bravely contradicted society through her writing. Her novels speak volumes for the oppressed woman; thus establishing Charlotte Brontë as one of the first modern women of her time. To refer to Charlotte Brontë as a feminist would, however, be an insufferable misrepresentation. Unlike George Sand, who by appearances and her standard of living epitomized the nineteenth-century feminist, Charlotte Brontë withdrew from a society that would not entirely accept her, and expressed her stifled ideals through her words. Slight in size, perpetually modest, it was Brontës suppressed spirit that gave way to her literary fantasies. She often likened herself to others in her oppressed situation; the ugly daughter or poor spinster, which she equated to slaves imprisoned by circumstances beyond their control.
The options for the proper yet impoverished woman during the time were limited a governess or teacher, roles Charlotte Brontë considered forms of bondage, as well. She believed that a governess had no existence, and was not considered a living or rational being except in connection with the wearisome duties she was forced to perform (Gilbert and Gubar, 347-51). Marriage was always a viable solution, yet Charlotte Brontë would only marry a man she respected, no matter his status or fortune. She resigned to live in the role society placed upon her, yet no one, not even a stringent society, could hamper her burgeoning emotions. It was through her words that Charlotte Brontë created a woman of free thought, intellect, and strong moral character; the same traits Charlotte herself possessed.
It was a dreary existence on the Yorkshire moors for the Brontë children. Charlotte was an intelligent youth, who took an early interest in politics. Her interest, solely on her own accord, was self-taught by reading the newspapers her father left lying about. By the age of nine, she knew more about politics than most grown men.
The Brontë children were all avid readers, and since they were isolated children, plagued often by illness, death, and desolation, they frequently retreated into a world of literary fantasy, spawned by the works of Sir Walter Scott, as well as other romantic authors of the time. Spurred by their vivid imaginations, the children invented role-playing games, at times with the aide of wooden toys, other times in provisional costumes. While many children of the time spent their leisure in such pursuits, it was the manner in which the girls specifically played that provides insight into the strength of their spirit, particularly Charlotte, who was mature beyond her years, and was perceived as a mother figure to her surviving siblings. It was during these imaginative dramas that the girls portrayed legendry figures, figures of strength throughout history: Bonaparte, Caesar, Hannibal, and the Duke of Wellington (Gaskell, Chap V). Such were no ordinary games of make believe, but elaborate, well-written dramas. It was the archetypical male hero who interested the girls, not weak or impressionable females. Even female historical figures who appeared strong, such as Cleopatra, did not interested Charlotte, for Cleopatra used her sexuality to attain greatness, instead of achieving it on her own. Charlotte rejected the use of sexuality to attract men in any form, and criticized women who resorted to this female characteristic as lacking self-respect, a fate she deemed worse than death.
It was Charlotte who provided the noms de plume that were deliberately ambiguous in gender for her and her sisters (Gilbert and Guber, 347-51). It is a fact that woman authors during the time were not received as seriously as men; however, as Currer Bell, Charlotte had the freedom to create her characters the way she wanted. Concealed by anonymity, she created heroines with genuine ideas and erudite views, who, above all, respected themselves, and werent afraid to declare it. For Charlotte Brontë, it was the ideal emotional outlet.
A woman who revealed an independent spirit was rare, if non-existence during Charlotte Brontës time. Such feelings were typically concealed beneath a stoic exterior, suppressing the creative, emotional, and spiritual self. Such suppression had dangerous consequences an unhappy, unfulfilled life. Charlotte Brontë wrote that imagination was a restless faculty which needed to be heard and exercised. "Are we to be quite deaf to her cry and insensate to her struggles?" (Gaskell, Chap II).
Charlotte Brontë withdrew into the world she created. It was through her writing that she was allowed to breathe life into her suppressed self and dreams. Charlotte Brontë spoke of the evils of the condition of women, deep-rooted within the structure of the social system (Moers, 18). Charlotte Brontë urged women not to linger on such problems; though the literary world must be grateful she did not heed her own advice. It was through her discontent that the characters of Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe were born.
Jane Eyre, arguably Charlotte Brontë's tour de forceintermibles autobiographical elements with romantic notions of the period. In the character Jane, Charlotte Brontë created a slight woman, in all respects plain, modest, morally strong and intelligent. Like the author, Jane's isolation created her persona, providing her with the necessary survival skills. Jane does not need a man to make her feel worthy; instead, she carries her self-worth in her mind and determination. Through Jane, Brontë exhibits resentment toward a society that has scorned her, while maintaining a detachment toward humanity as a whole (Moers, 18).
When Jane ultimately falls in love, she embraces the notion of love itself, not the label or profits derived from it. However, Jane will not sacrifice her morals or self-respect for any man. In essence, she will not sacrifice herself. It is imperative to her to remain true to herself. Nothing can tempt Jane in this respect: wealth, status, or love.
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself (301).
Like Jane, Charlotte herself was determined to marry a man she respected. In fact, she refused several offers of marriage that would have afforded her a life of ease, simply because the offers did not come from men she deemed her equal, or rather she felt them intellectually and morally deficient. She believed that a good woman, like any decent man, could not live without self-respect. She believed passion a temporary emotion that could easily give way to disgust, or worse, indifference. "God help the woman who is left to love passionately and alone" (Gaskell, Chap IX).
Jane returns to Rochester and finally offers her unconditional love to him when he essentially has nothing left. Blind and penniless, Rochester can only offer himself, proving that for Brontë love transcends the societal expectations of marriage, and is based instead on mutual respect and love.
At the time, Jane Eyre was considered a radical book that deposed authority, violated human code, and fostered rebellion and Chartism in the homes of society. A reviewer in The London Quarterly Review stated thatJane Eyre was the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit, and that the character of Jane was destitute of all attractive, feminine qualities. A governess, the reviewer reminds her reader, is not a real woman, but a burden to society. No real woman would create a character as unseemly as Jane Eyre; if she did, she has "long forfeited the society of her own sex" (Ridgy, December 1848). Currer Bell was thus believed to be a man, who had no concept of the role of women in society.
In Villette, Charlotte draws directly from her earlier days in Brussels, and her one-sided love for a married professor. Instead of creating a romantic portrait filled with passion and childish love, Brontë takes her unrequited love in stride and creates Lucy Snowe, one of the most altruistic, honest, and independent heroines in English Literature. With Lucy, pedigree, social position and recondite intellectual acquisitions are compared to third-class lodgers (58). Indeed the portrait is similar to the character of Jane Eyre &mdas; both heroines' intelligence and moral judgment is superior to those around them, even the heroes of the novels.
In Rochester, Brontë created a hero much like that of other literary heroes of the day: rich, dashing, and romantic, adding to the gothic style of the novel. Yet in Villette, a more mature author created the antithesis of the literary hero. Paul Emmanuel lacks all romance, is instead pure flesh and blood, and humanly flawed. Yet, through his flaws, Lucy recognizes a generous soul, and together they form a bond of mutual respect. Brontë is reminding her readers, or rather enlightening them to the fact that women of self-respect and intellect can seek their place in the world, without the assistance of men.
Brontë, in her subtlety, wrote of simple women, who relied upon the respect of themselves, rather than society, to provide fulfillment in their lives. Through her characters, Brontë gave the gift of the modern woman, a woman determined to make her own way, and live her life by her own set of standards, dictated not by society but by herself, and herself alone.
Related Material, including different views of the subject
- Class Attitudes in The Westminster Review and Jane Eyre
- In What Sense is Jane Eyre a Feminist Novel?
- Snobbery in Through the Looking-Glass and Jane Eyre
- Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Readers Alone! Why a Governess's Narrative in Jane Eyre Shocked Certain Victorians
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1984.
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. London: Penguin Books 1979.
Elizabeth Rigby, "[A Review of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre.]" London Quarterly Review 167 (December 1848).
Gaskell, Elizabeth C. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1857.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women. London: W.W. Norton, 1985.
Content last modified 15 February 2008