|My summer reading: Seven novels by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell.|
Once I got going on the Bronte sisters, I couldn't stop. After spending the summer reading all seven of their novels, plus a biography by their contemporary Elizabeth Gaskell, I'm still fascinated by Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
Their brief, isolated lives, spent mostly in their father's Yorkshire parsonage, were a mass of contradictions. Shy to the extreme, they made only brief forays into the world as students, teachers or governesses. Anne and Emily -- who died at 29 and 30 respectively -- never married, and Charlotte was married for less than a year before she died at age 39.
And yet they wrote powerfully and knowledgeably about male/female relationships, about jealousy, about bad behaviour, about marriages so abusive that the women fled, even though that was not acceptable in that era. The sisters were raised in a conservative household, but they wrote sympathetically about poverty, the lower classes and class struggles. They embraced nature at a time when industrialization was ruining the countryside. And in an era when talented women writers were told to stick to their knitting, they persevered and got themselves published, even if they did have to adopt male names to do it.
But most importantly, they had feminist ideas long before feminism was even a word. On the surface, they were proper Victorian women, obeying their father's orders and doing the right thing. (Even as an acclaimed author in her late thirties, Charlotte refused a marriage proposal until her father could be persuaded to approve it.) But their novels decried the lack of opportunities, education and options for women, and painted terrible pictures of impoverished single women forced into work they hated. Overall, the sisters pushed the tenets of modern feminism -- that women should be considered as individuals, with a right to self-fulfilment and independence.
I was young when I first read the "big" Bronte books -- Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights -- and I thought they were very romantic. After my summer reading, they don't seem romantic at all. They and the other Bronte novels seem like the voices of three intelligent women questioning the world -- and crying out for changes.
For those who haven't spent the summer reading the Brontes, here is a list of their novels:
Charlotte Bronte: The Professor, Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall