CHARLOTTE AND EMILY BRONTE

Brief Biographies

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Charlotte and Emily Bronte were born in Yorkshire, they were the daughters of the curate of Haworth, a small town in the moors where the sisters spent most of their lives, they had very little social life and relied much on themselves for enjoyment and leisure which was achieved greatly through plenty of reading and writing of their own. Their education was mostly carried out at home, they had free access to their father’s personal library and could read daily newspapers from which they generally commented political issues. Their only schooling experience regards a short time spent at a school for daughters of the clergy where two of their older sisters died due to the poor conditions the students were kept in. Charlotte included this painful childhood experience in her novel, Jane Eyre, when Jane is sent to Lowood by her aunt Reed. Charlotte attempted to work as governess but soon realised she did not have the necessary experience to deal with children, after this experience she went to Brussels with Emily to attend a boarding school to polish their German and French, her plan was to obtain economic independence by setting up a children’s school in her hometown with Emily’s contribution, yet this too proved disappointing. Both Charlotte and Emily dedicated themselves to their writings and their novels were published almost simultaneously, only months apart, in 1847 with different outcomes. In fact Wuthering Heights which came out first received negative reviews, whereas Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, second to be published, was widely praised to the point that within three months of the first edition a second one was released with the author’s preface dedicating it to William Makepeace Thackeray who had greatly appreciated it. The harsh criticism towards Emily’s novel caused her so much grief that she never quite recovered and soon died of tuberculosis. On the other hand Charlotte’s life took a turn for the better and finally even married gaining access to that whole life experience that she and her sisters so much craved for, as it was the most that Victorian society allowed women.

A Comparative Reading: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre

As Mrs. Q. D. Leavis [1] suggests in her introduction to Jane Eyre’s edition of 1966, we too believe that a comparative brief study of the two novels can be helpful to grasp many interesting elements that otherwise might be overlooked. That is why we will proceed step by step analysing them side by side.

WHY THEY ARE NOT ALTOGETHER VICTORIAN

Narrative Structures and Writing Styles

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We must immediately clear the ground from possible misinterpretations, neither Wuthering Heights nor Jane Eyre are what was generally considered proper Victorian novels, apart perhaps for the fact that they  were both published under male pseudonyms which was the norm for women writers in that time. As far as the narrative structures and writing styles are concerned it must be said that first of all the plots of both novels contain several innovative elements, Wuthering Heights, in particular, is structured as a series of Chinese boxes. The novel begins almost at the end of the story when Mr. Lockwood, who is introduced as the narrator, first arrives to meet Heathcliff from whom he is renting Thrushcross Grange. The meeting takes place at Wuthering Heights and here Mr Lockwood highlights the contrast between the noble building’s architectural façade and the humble indoor layout. The narrative then proceeds backwards as the storytelling is passed on to Nelly Dean whom Mr. Lockwood turns to, to gather more information on the family members he has met during his first visit to Wuthering Heights and that so much have intrigued him due also to the fact that something unusual has happened to him while spending over the night. Half asleep, half awake he has the impression that Catherine’s voice pleaded to him through the storm to let her in after twenty years, or maybe he dreamt it, nevertheless this episode has triggered his curiosity and has also brought about an inexplicable uneasiness that he can’t seem to get rid of. Therefore Nelly, a narrator to the first one, begins to tell the compelling story of the Earnshaws and the Lyntons, but above all of Heathcliff and Catherine. Nelly is, at times, both witness of the facts she relates and the person who has first heard of the stories she tells of. Thus there is a narration within another narration. The novel ends with Mr Lockwood narrating again, he tells the reader of Heathcliff’s death. He is finally reunited to his beloved Catherine and Lockwood relates of the reconciliation of the two enemy families linked by the love of Hareton and Cathy.

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Jane Eyre on the other hand is written in the first person singular with the protagonist herself telling her reader her own personal story, at times, she even entertains a sort of imaginary dialogue with this reader. The technique is that of the autobiography edited by a third party, Currer Bell, but who is in reality the author, Charlotte Bronte. Jane’s story begins during her childhood and runs through her entire life following a chronological order. Charlotte Bronte uses many of her own autobiographical episodes to make up the novel which is also imbued with a strong criticism against Victorian society pointing out the many negative aspects of the time such as, for instance, in the Lowood episode, as already mentioned, in which Charlotte Bronte points her finger against the hypocritical attitude maintained by the reverend Brocklehurst who forces the young girls who study there to attain to a strict rule in behaviour and eating habits, whilst at his home he and his family live in lavish luxury and do not curtail or hinder any self-indulgence. The Lowood section of the novel is also that in which the role of the proper and good Christian Victorian woman is plainly delineated by the reverend himself when he exhorts Miss Temple, one of the school’s teachers and an influential figure for Jane, to be the kind and devoted spirit whose love and religion are in constant check thanks to rigorous self-imposed discipline. But Jane rebels to all this since the very start, since she was only a child and her innate sense of justice will rescue her in the end, after having faced and overcome much turmoil and many backdrops. Jane Eyre can be read not as a typical novel of éducation sentimentale such as David Copperfield, for instance, but on the contrary as an inner journey towards emancipation through which the protagonist fulfils her ideal achievements of personal gains and moral values without being though a moralistic novel. This is yet another element that is not aligned to Victorian novels in general which pursued the aim to convey readers a moral behaviour and proper attitude. Another element that stands out in the break from conventional Victorian novel writing is Bronte’s rejection of the Victorian novel’s convention that produced the sexless ideal of an idealised innocent brother-sister relation. As a matter of fact both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights oppose the truth of real life relationship against this false Victorian prudery, Charlotte Bronte has Jane refuse St. John Rivers’ marriage proposal because he is proposing a platonic marriage, moreover Jane and Rochester’s courting is altogether unconventional since Jane actively participates whereas it would have been expected of her to  accept the courting passively.  Finally one last element of break is the lack of reconciliation as again would have been normal in the Victorian tradition. In neither novel analysed do we find the characters change their minds or hearts, they all keep their grounds of ill-feelings and avenging intents.

Literary themes and influences

The literary themes and influences from which the Bronte sisters take inspiration can be easily traced back to the previous Romantic Age, especially in their poetic richness of language and imagery. The moors being for one, and nature in general, a predominant artistic element conveyed with powerful intenseness. Many of Wordsworth natural symbols and archetypes are often recalled in both novels. But that is not all, we must not forget, in fact, the many gothic elements present in both novels, the stormy night with Catherine’s shrilling voice hollering in the pitch darkness for Mr Lockwood to hear; or the disquieting laugh coming from up above at Thornfield in the silence of the night that often startled Jane giving her the creeps, the unsettling laugh of the mad Bertha Mason, a foreboding for Jane’s future, or the uneasy and mysterious presence of Grace Poole all contributing to add to the mystery and the unsaid that would soon unveil a terrible truth that will push Jane away from what she had believed to have been a dream come true. But just too good to be true. Still there is the typical Byronic hero personified in Heathcliff, charming but at the same time doomed.

Furthermore both are novels of great passions. In Wuthering Heights hatred and vengeance are there right from the start, along with jealousy and obsessive love. Hindley resents his father’s love for the foundling Heathcliff and will soon take his revenge upon him who will in turn avenge the wrongs he himself has suffered. Victims of these strong uncontrolled feelings will be the other characters whose only faults are of being too kind or too weak to fend off such terrible and cunning attacks. The women of the novel are either victims like Isabella, too kind and refined to understand and save herself from the frightening threats that life may lay out in front of her, or to some extent calculating, as is the case in Catherine’s choices, even if in a sort of innocent way taking for granted and thus passively accepting social rules and conventions. Yet, Isabella who is in fact the weakest of the two challenges society and she elopes with Heathcliff actually believing in his love for her while his only intention was to pay back Catherine for having betrayed him and to get back at Edgar for having married the woman he loved, the only woman of his life. Catherine, on the other hand, who is in fact headstrong and very confident in herself, chooses to marry Edgar to ensure herself social and economic status, not for a moment thinking of marrying Heathcliff because he is below her in life’s station.  But, of course Wuthering Heights is not merely based on love or its betrayal, it’s much more than that, it is most of all an accusation against Victorian social order, against the woman’s role in Victorian society. Yet, the intense violence that characterise these passions throughout the entire novel is probably one of the reasons why Wuthering Heights was so ill accepted by Victorian criticism and readers as it uncovered the hypocrisy laying behind the Victorian Compromise. This literary approach certainly anticipates later literary traditions.

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To some extent more explicit in all its social implications is Jane Eyre whose main theme, as Q. D. Leavis puts it, “is an urgently felt personal one, an exploration of how a woman comes to maturity in the world of the writer’s youth”. Charlotte Bronte, just as her sister Emily, is not interested in merely observing and describing the society of her time, as she believed Jane Austen had done in her literary production, what she aimed at was to plunge her reader straight into Victorian times, giving him or her a feel of all the limitations, obstacles, hinders, prohibitions a woman of that time had to face and deal with in order to achieve self awareness and independence along with self-reliance. Given the circumstances only a strong spirited individual, determined and tenacious could actually succeed and, only to certain extent. Lack of social status or economic means would only make things worse for those women who craved for a full life experience, one that would make a person whole, allowing her to obtain knowledge and the power to make her own choices.  Jane’s education is then a journey within her and in the outside world as well, she experiences feelings, disappointments, successes and backdrops but in the end she obtains what she set out to conquer, herself. In this sense she anticipates D. H. Lawrence’s narrative art. But, Charlotte’s novel is also a reprimand against the Victorian religious approach which she accuses of lacking the true Christian spirit. Both Brocklehurst and St John Rivers are portrayed, as a “hateful object” the former and as a “terrifying egotist in disguise” the latter, as both are out to obtain benefits and advantages for themselves by exploiting the roles they have been assigned. Mr Brocklehurst aims at wealth and recognition whilst St John Rivers is driven by his unrelenting yearning for sainthood no matter what. They both use religion and their influence as an oppressive and repressive Evangelical instrument. Charlotte uses satire to show the irony of solemn religious beliefs which often turn out to be altogether inhuman thus questioning dogmatic religion, furthermore St. John Rivers represents Victorian and neo-Classical blind faith in reason and is set in clear contrast to the first generation Romantic poets. This character analysis is so profound that it anticipates Freud’s psychoanalysis studies. Moreover, Jane Eyre is full of literary references that Bronte uses for their symbolism, Lowood’s episode in which the girls are starved by Reverend Brocklehurst so as to fortify their spirit clearly recalls Swift’s A Modest Proposal, or the comfort Jane takes in Gulliver’s Travels is the typical refuge a child seeks in the possibility of a better world than the one she is experiencing.

Bibliography:

[1] Q. D. Leavis, Introduction to Jane Eyre, 1966, pp. 7-29. Penguin Books, Ltd., Middlesex, England, 1986.

Images taken from Google search

© L. R. Capuana

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