Charlotte Bronte wrote in ‘Jane Eyre’, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
The Bronte sisters had a unique point of view on class and gender. These three sisters shaped their writings based on their life experiences and created one of the most remarkable works in the Victorian Era.
At a time when writing was considered a man’s domain, the Bronte sisters took the pseudonyms ‘Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’ to get their work published. It was almost a year after their work was published that they divulged their identities.
About the Bronte Sisters
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne along with their brother Branwell were raised in the rural Yorkshire moors. They lost their mother at an early age and their father, who was a clergyman, raised them.
The impoverished circumstances led Mr. Bronte to educate his daughters at Cowan Bridge, a school for the children of the less prosperous members of the clergy. Maria, the eldest of the Bronte sisters suffered from hunger, cold, and privation at Cowan Bridge School. She returned from school suffering from tuberculosis and died at the age of 11. Later Elizabeth, younger to Maria, suffered the same fate. In ‘Jane Eyre’, Charlotte Bronte wrote about Lowood, the charity school, and the dismal conditions there. Perhaps a close caricature of the Cowan Bridge. And, Helen Burns’ caricature comes close to Maria.
The Bronte sisters were poor and socially awkward. Growing up without a mother, with a busy father who was a parson at the church and later their only brother – Branwell Bronte turning alcoholic, the three Bronte sisters had a rather difficult life. Charlotte and Anne worked as Governesses to earn for their family and Emily worked as a teacher for a short while.
The troublesome childhood and drudgeries of youth gave birth to the best in the literature that we have today.
The Beginning of Writing Novels
Before writing novels, the Bronte sisters first published a volume of poetry in 1846. Charlotte Bronte had written ‘The Professor’ that was repeatedly rejected. In the meantime, she had begun writing ‘Jane Eyre’. But, it was Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’ and Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ that was accepted and published. It two months later that ‘Jane Eyre’ was published. However, ‘Agnes Grey’ was perceived as a mere shadow of ‘Jane Eyre’ after the latter’s publication.
‘Jane Eyre’ over ‘Agnes Grey’
‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ are both autobiographical, about the life of a governess from an impoverished background in the Victorian era. ‘Agnes Grey’ is a more realistic portrayal of the trials and tribulations of a young woman who has to become a governess to support her family financially. There isn’t a rich Mr. Rochester who comes saving the docile heroine. Rather the heroine has to work hard, even gets fired from her position, and again establishes herself. Though ‘love’ comes by, but it isn’t the romantic climax as ‘Jane Eyre’ treats its readers with.
‘Agnes Grey’ is devoid of ornamentations, it becomes a bit too didactic at times but you feel closer to Anne Bronte as a writer who is honest to bare it all open for the readers instead of sugar coating the reality.
‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ is another question
This is an often posed question, which do you prefer ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’? Plain Jane versus the fierce Cathy – the two Bronte sisters wrote two stories with a female protagonist so different from each other. You could find the similarities in elements in the two stories but the characterization is poles apart. The reclusive Jane and the one who does not know horse riding juxtaposed to the free-spirited Cathy of ‘Wuthering Heights’.
But you also start seeing the similarities – Heathcliff and Jane are orphans and have benefactors. However, Jane comes out of the torturous house and opens her arms to the world, she is not perfectly amalgamated into society but neither does she become self-destructive. Heathcliff, on the other hand, is an example of a self-destructive and abusive anti-hero.
The life of an orphan child or the one living in dysfunctional/ abusive families is a theme that cuts across books by all three Bronte sisters.
If one looks at ‘Jane Eyre’, she is an orphan and Mr. Rochester’s ward is an orphan too. In ‘Wuthering Heights’, Linton is the son of Heathcliff, an abusive father without his mother and Hareton is without his mother and an absent grieving father. Both grow up under the abusive tutelage of Heathcliff. Hence, the Bronte sisters question the role of society in giving a conducive environment for orphans and children from an underprivileged background.
Marriage is another important proposition. Women in the Victorian era were dependent on marriage for stability in their life. Jane refuses to marry Mr. Rochester after knowing about his marriage to Bertha, even though she is senile. Jane’s principles deny her the happiness of marrying for comfort. Jane would also not marry St. John for the same reason.
Conscience isn’t important for Cathy, her understanding of love is more important. She marries Edgar Linton for she believes that his money could raise Heathcliff’s stature. Cathy’s solution for her problem turns out disastrous; she wants Heathcliff as a soul mate, not Edgar. The mismatched marriage in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a source of misery for the protagonists but there is no solution except to bear the burden.
Emily Bronte romanticizes a violent character in ‘Wuthering Heights’, Charlotte Bronte locks the insane Bertha Mason in a room. Bertha’s insanity and violence make her the villain in ‘Jane Eyre’. Somehow, Heathcliff rose to the stature of being the most romanticized fictional hero, perhaps owing to his emotional baggage as an orphan, spurned and looked down upon by society. However, Emily Bronte gives him no redeeming quality except for his love for Cathy.
Much forgotten ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’
I would always prefer the realistic world of Anne Bronte. The same elements of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, the desolate mansion in the moors feed into a completely different perspective in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte.
In ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, you will marvel at a modern plot wherein a headstrong heroine marries an abusive alcoholic, then plans her escape and lives in seclusion, independently raising her son. It is said that when the book came out, it went for a second print much faster than the earlier books written by the Bronte sisters. However, over time, people forgot Anne’s writings.
In the preface of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Anne Bronte writes, “My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.”
Other notable works apart from ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights‘
‘Shirley’ is another notable book by Charlotte Bronte. It was published in 1849 and is so different from ‘Jane Eyre’. ‘Shirley’ is set during the industrial depression against the backdrop of the Luddite uprisings in the Yorkshire textile industry.
Charlotte Bronte went on to publish ‘Villette’ in 1853 and ‘The Professor’ (written before Jane Eyre but published later).
The Bronte sisters were truly gifted to have achieved something of this stature within such a short lifespan. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne voiced the difficulties women faced during the Victorian era, primarily lack of employment opportunities, dependence on men in the families for support, and social expectations.
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Information source: wikipedia and the books written by Bronte sisters