Nineteenth Century Female Authors and Women in Society - saturday 2012-04-07 0324 last modified 2012-04-07 0324
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The sisters Brontë. I have to admit some eagerness to write this. In secondary schooling, it would have been an English assignment for an essay comparing and contrasting the writing styles of nineteenth century female authors and their views on the role of women in society. Only now I'm actually interested in exploring the topic at hand.

I did not read all of their novels as I intended. I don't think Charlotte's posthumous and earlier publishing reject The Professor is going to bring anything new to the picture, so I'm suspending that and her juvenalia having traversed through all of Anne and Emily and slogged through the rest of Charlotte's noovels. It's been over a decade since I read Jane Eyre, I don't expect to spend time with it again. There's also a book of aggregate Brontë poetry that is a bit too daunting for one who cannot taste the subtler flavors of poetry and as a failing often naturally skips anything block quoted and italicized in print.

Thematically, these novels dwell on female protagonists who come from families of some means or with a reverend for a father who end up becoming a governess or want to become a governess (always, always with the governess, an occupation extinct or at best apocryphal now) and who love a peculiar man whose immediate surliness or presented flaw gives way to great character when explored, and after carrying a blazing hot torch throughout the entire plot, they end up happily ever after with their man, who ends up being or becoming incredibly wealthy or a reverend. Except for the one with the seriously depressing ending - Villette, also the one I attempted last and eluded completion for a good number of months. That may have had more to do with general exhaustion of the same setting recurring again than its tone, though it still sits at the very bottom of the pile in my Brontë ranking. Anybody beautiful is usually corrupt, and young women are forever making horrible choices in men, but death is the convenient deus ex machina that saves them from a life of perdition or lets them marry their man. There's an Emily Exception to the meta-plot in which everybody makes horrible choices and the men are all uniformly horrible, and, actually, everybody is rather horrible, and horribleness is passed on like the flu, though Death once again gets around to saving the day. The Brontës kill by natural causes, mostly, but they murder with great efficiency.

If you knew nothing of the tragic lives of the Brontë family, you do now. Their father was a parson, they lost several siblings young to illness (having lived next to a graveyard in a town renowned for dirty, infected water), and to support their family, they left for schooling elsewhere, fell in love with unobtainable men, and took - wait for it - governess positions. And then they all died before middle age, except Charlotte.

Anne and Emily are better than their surviving sister in appealing to contemporary sensibilities. All three seem to agree on which characteristics an ideal woman should embody, but they take very different approaches to illuminating their views. In short, Emily draws by contrast, Anne by exaggeration, and Charlotte, most tediously, by straight exposition and, most odiously, by defining her protagonists far too largely in terms of the men they pine for. It's difficult to choose between Anne, who wrote only two, and Emily, who wrote but one. Charlotte wrote four, though really three. It is a great tragedy that all died so young, so closely in time to one another; it is unfortunate that Charlotte remained in charge of publishing after her two sisters predeceased her, and a great loss to the world that she suppressed Anne's work so thoroughly.

People forget Anne, the third sister, the baby. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall merits as much attention as her sisters' opus magnums. If not more. Amongst the three, Anne seems to have been the most foresighted, the one who took her assembled experiences with the social norms of her time and yet could still envision a world where a woman might make her own way, all the more impressive for an age when women could not legally own property and were essentially persona non grata without a father or a husband.

The language is close enough to modern usage to be looked over but far enough to cause the occasional hiccup of dissonance ("benignant" leaps from the page), and the staid, repressed language for love's manifestations is notable (the most scandalous and titillating it gets is "pressing hands," which often induces a significant amount of blushing).

Well, enough from my brief survey. I recommend Anne. Had this pulled in even more of my interest, I would start subscribing to the academic research journal Brontë Studies. Alas, it did not. Up next, the plays and other works of Anton Chekhov.

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