ENGLISH 842 [373]

The Brontės

TBA, Beverly Taylor

Office Hours: Mondays, 10-12; Tuesdays, 10-11 & 4:30-5; Thursdays 3:30-5, and by appointment in GL 205

Phone: (919) 962-4039 in GL 501


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bullet2.gif (1296 bytes)COURSE SYLLABUS (Fall 2001)

bullet2.gif (1296 bytes)BACKGROUNDS
(The following entries by Beverly Taylor are forthcoming in The Oxford Companion to the Brontės and are protected by copyright.)


Seminar in Victorian Literature: The Brontės


Suggested reading:
a biography--either Juliet Barker, The Brontės; Lyndall Gordon, Charlotte Brontė; or Rebecca Fraser, The Brontės

Course Requirements:

  1. consistent participation in seminar discussion.
  2. one brief oral presentation (5 minutes) on a topic that illuminates some aspect of our readings. For example, when we're talking about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the group might profitably learn a bit about the opportunities for women artists in early to mid-Victorian England, or about the Brontė siblings' artistic endeavors; or in connection with Villette, about English attitudes toward Catholicism in the 1840s. Another option would be to present and critique the argument of an interesting scholarly/critical article pertinent to our readings.
  3. an oral seminar paper (15-20 minutes, the eqivalent of a conference paper).
  4. a written paper (about 20 pages, the equivalent of a journal article).


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The Novel in the mid-nineteenth century. In this period (often described as 'the age of the novel') the British novel achieved unprecedented artistic and popular stature. Charged with immorality and triviality in the preceding century, at the beginning of the 19th the genre was represented largely by formulaic sentimentality and imitative Gothic sensationalism. Those now judged to be the major talents in fiction during the Romantic period--Jane Austen and Walter Scott--both published their novels anonymously. Anonymity was common for women writers, but Scott's determination to conceal his authorship of novels suggests reluctance to sully his established reputation as a leading poet. Beginning with his first novel Waverley (1814), however, his immensely popular historical fiction helped to reverse the fortunes of the novel by setting a trend toward greater realism . His antiquarian's attention to the particulars of daily life, as well as to the sweeping social and political movements providing the backdrops for his human stories, satisfied a growing desire for authenticity in novels' depictions of experience.

Novels that held an analytical mirror up to their world appealed strongly to mid-19th-century readers increasingly preoccupied with social problems. Victorians self-consciously regarded theirs as an age of transition, as the ideological uncertainties and unprecedented social ills associated with democracy, industrialization, urbanization, religious fragmentation and growing skepticism challenged centuries-old social, political, and philosophical systems. Whereas the upper classes had previously constituted the principal audience for fiction, by mid-century increasing affluence, education, and leisure among the middle classes enlarged and transformed the audience for novels and elevated novel writing to more genteel professional status. The burgeoning middle classes, regarding themselves as cultural arbiters, welcomed novels that took up social questions, and Utilitarian emphasis on the usefulness of literature made the novel rather than poetry the dominant literary form.

The principal mode of novel publication had long been the expensive three-decker, a work published in three separate volumes. Around 1840 two phenomena rapidly expanded novels' readership: the publication of novels in inexpensive monthly parts (slim paperbound booklets)--and later, in weekly or monthly installments in periodicals--and the growth of subscription libraries, especially the dominant Mudie's (begun in 1842), which allowed readers to borrow an unlimited number of three-deckers for a modest annual fee. Dickens revived the lapsed 18th-century practice of publishing novels in monthly parts with his first work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7), producing profound results. Whereas an average edition of a three-decker novel numbered 750 copies (the phenomenally successful Scott reached 6,000), Pickwick eventually sold 40,000 copies per issue. At the same time that fiction was becoming more accessible financially, longstanding evangelical opposition to novels as morally objectionable began to weaken, while the dictates of Mudie's Library ensured that works in wide circulation would meet high standards of taste and morals. As middle-class interests came to determine the success of individual novels, a number of fictional sub-genres popular in the first three decades of the century lost appeal--the 'silver-fork novel' of fashionable life, melodramatic romances, and tales dealing with adventurers and highwaymen, fox-hunting and gentry life, and naval life.

Dickens' Pickwick Papers did more than explode circulation figures; with its lively attention to working-class life Pickwick also signaled changes in the content of the literary novel. Almost immediately hailed as the greatest novelist since Scott, young Dickens continued to cultivate readers' taste for immediacy and relevance in Oliver Twist (1837). Its workhouses and pickpockets addressed contemporary controversies over the Poor Laws and abandoned children, while readily accessible sentimentality, humor, and melodrama leavened its social consciousness. Dickens' spirited and sympathetic attention to the lower classes reflects some kinship with the large body of fiction consumed by laboring-class readers in the form of 'penny dreadfuls', unpolished narratives enlivened by sensationalism and comedy and marketed in ins tallments priced at just a penny. Popular authors of penny dreadfuls are unfamiliar today--Henry Cockton, Samuel Warren, Albert Smith, and George W. M. Reynolds, whose lurid tales such as The Slaves of England (The Seamstress) and Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf outsold even Dickens' works in the 40s and 50s. While the fiction in Fraser's and *Blackwood's like Dickens portrayed the conditions of laborers' lives to middle-class readers, Dickens surpassed other novelists of the time in blending the comedy, melodrama, and vitality of the penny dreadfuls with serious social criticism and a high degree of artistry.

By the time Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby (1838), depicting the unhealthy conditions of cheap boarding schools and the struggles of a young woman to support herself, his principal fellow novelists included Frances Trollope, who satirized current social abuses such as child labor, and writers such as Charles Lever and *Benjamin Disraeli, who abandoned their earlier subject matter to concentrate on s ocial problems. Lever turned from popular comedies of sporting life to treat the political problems arising from England and Ireland's unification. Disraeli forsook the worlds of fashionable society and exotic romance to publish a trilogy that focused, first, on the political and economic climate since the 1832 Reform Bill (Coningsby, 1844); then on the evils of industrialism and dangers of Chartism (Sybil, or the Two Nations, 1845); and eventually on religion's role in ameliorating social problems ( Tancred, 1847).

As Disraeli's trilogy exemplifies, a dominant category of fiction from the mid-1840s was the 'condition of England' novel, which focused on the social problems attending industrialization. Dickens approached such concerns in Dombey and Son (1846), which attacks the figure of the callous captain of industry and discredits the period's prevailing utilitarianism and materialism, and David Copperfield (1849), which exposes inequities in England's class structure. During the same period Elizabeth Gaskell (later Charlotte's friend and first biographer) in Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854) examined the social chasms between rich and poor, the effects of Chartism, and problems wrought or exacerbated by industrialization and the sudden growth of industrial cities. Similar concerns dominate Charles Kingsley's 1848 Yeast , though it focuses on the plight of rural laborers, and his 1850 Alton Locke, which exposes the crass exploitation of sweatshops and squalid conditions of slums. These preoccupations in fiction reflect anxieties about the social unrest manifest in the domestic rise of Chartism during the 'Hungry Forties' and Europe's revolutionary movements of 1848. Similar topicality is evident in novels which address England's crisis of faith, such as James Anthony Froude's Shadows of the Clouds (1847) and The Nemesis of Faith (1849), and John Henry Newman's Loss and Gain (1848). Though not all fiction of the period addressed social problems, many novels that lacked topical resonance--by such writers as Frank E. Smedley, R. S. Surtees, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton--proved ephemeral.

William Makepeace Thackeray, who became Dickens' chief rival for recognition as the greatest novelist at mid-century, though less aggressively concerned with specific social problems than Dickens or Gaskell, combined a journalist's commitment to authenticity and a satirist's delight in exposing foibles and folly. His first developed novel, Vanity Fair (monthly parts began in January 1847), though set back in time some thirty years, focused on tensions wrought by social changes which remained compellingly contemporary--the aristocracy's decline and rise of a new business class, the blighting effects of unbridled materialism, the precariousness of women's s tatus in the marriage market. Thackeray's tenets of realism prevented his idealizing any character, a practice suggested by Vanity Fair's subtitle, 'A Novel without a Hero'. Like Jane Eyre and a number of Dickens' works, Thackeray's Pendennis (1848) contributed to the popularity of the Bildungsroman, or novel of personal development.

Mid-century fiction also included a large body of domestic novels, mostly written by women, notable for their limited concerns (usually courtship and marriage), romanticization of everyday experience, idealization of leading male and female characters, religious piety, formulaic plots and sentimental tone. Though their authors--for example, Harriet Smythies, Anne Marsh, Mrs. Stirling, Marmion Savage, Lady Georgina Fuller ton--are almost entirely forgotten today, they established a standard for women's writing against which reviewers sometimes criticized the Brontės' works for lapses in taste or morality.

The Brontės' novels figure singularly in their mid-century context. While they pursue issues common to the fiction of the day, they remain remarkable for their originality. Even the Brontės' publishing format was unusual in terms of standard marketing practices. Of the major Victorian novelists, they alone never att empted serial publication (Charlotte flatly rejected this suggestion from her publisher), and their first manuscripts ignored the typical expectation for three-deckers (the publisher joined Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey to constitute three volumes; The Professor's brevity contributed to its rejection). Emily's Wuthering Heights dramatically eschews the mundane realism familiar to mid-Victorian readers, yet as Charlotte's 1850 preface to the novel maintains, its representation of Yorkshire dialect and rug ged character types may more faithfully represent the life around her than her London readers imagined. Moreover, the novel's conflicts arise from such phenomena scrutinized in other mid-Victorian fiction as the marriage market, class tensions, and changing economic structures. Attention to contemporary issues such as women's limited education and employment opportunities links Anne's and Charlotte's works to the dominant trends in fiction of the 1840s, a topicality which Charlotte pursued aggressively in the industrial themes of Shirley . Though their social concerns parallel those of their contemporaries, the Brontės' practice of examining these issues through the intense subjectivity of unusually passionate female characters set them apart from mainstre am fiction of the day and drew adverse criticism from reviewers accustomed to more sentimental, genial novels by women writers. The rarity of the Brontės' success in combining contemporary realism and extreme emotional intensity is reflected in the bifurcation of these tendencies in novels of the 50s and 60s, a period when Anthony Trollope and George Eliot achieved fame with exquisitely rendered depictions of quiet everyday life, while such writers as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon earned immen se popularity by arousing heightened feelings with sensation fiction and psychological thrillers.
Further reading:
Robin Gilmour, The Novel in the Victorian Age: A Modern Introduction (1986); J. A. Sutherland, Victorian Novelists and Publishers (1976); Michael Wheeler, English Fiction of the Victorian Period (2nd ed. 1994).

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Gothic novels, fiction characterized by an atmosphere of terror generated by ominous setting, threatening mysteries, and supernatural phenomena. The genre stems from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764), set in an apparently haunted medieval castle with labyrinthine subterranean passages, a gigantic supernaturally menacing suit of armor, a family curse, and threats of sexual ravishment. Novelists who subsequently contributed to the tradition included William Beckford (his Vathek, an Arabian Tale, 1786, added Oriental opulence to Gothic ingredients), the immensely popular Anne Radcliffe (especially known for The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794), and Matthew Gregory Lewis (whose The Monk, 1796, contributed more transgressive sexuality and Faustian themes).

Besides supernatural elements (for which Radcliffe often eventually offered rational explanations) and an atmosphere of brooding terror, the genre developed other conventions which rapidly became formulaic. Gothic novelists set their stories in a remote past thought to be superstitious and emotional, and in physical settings redolent of oppression, such as castles, prisons, dungeons, monasteries and nunneries . They evoked a brooding atmosphere with burial vaults, ruins, shadows, and stormy nights. They employed melodramatic action including violence and threatened sexual violations, and subordinated characterization to alarming plot twists. Generally lacking psychological depth, heroines were damsels in distress who passively resisted physical and emotional victimization. The male protagonist often became a composite Hero/Villain in the Romantic mode of Byron's Lara or Manfred--moody, haughty, demonic, vio lent, self-destructive, yet rendered sympathetic by his guilt, persecution, suffering, and isolation. Mary Shelley wedded such complexity of characterization to greater complexity of theme in Frankenstein (1817), one of the more sophisticated works in the genre.

Critics of Gothic literature link its aesthetics, devised to excite readers' passions and evoke fear and awe, to the aesthetics of the Sublime articulated by Longinus in the first century and revived in the mid-18th century by Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Cultural trends which contributed to the rise and popularity of Gothic fiction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries include the medievalism of English antiquarianism and feudal nostalgia, the passionate excesses of German Sturm und Drang and Romantic diabolism, the disruptive impulses of the French Revolution, and English nationalism and anti-Catholicism (Victor Sage, in Mulvey-Roberts 82-83).

By the time Frankenstein appeared, the stereotyped and exaggerated conventions of the Gothic novel were parodied in Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (both 1818). Austen satirizes not only formulaic Gothic setting, mood, villain, and heroine, but also the naive female readership of such fiction. Despite such ridicule of Gothic excesses, the tradition continued to flourish in 19th-century periodicals familiar to the young Brontės, for the pages of the annuals and o f the Lady's Magazine, Blackwood's, Fraser's, and the New Monthly Magazine featured lively Gothic thrillers, poems and tales of hauntings and mysterious happenings. The appeal of Gothic conventions to the Brontės is evident in their juvenilia, with its melodramatic plot twists, exotic settings, violence, victimized women, and diabolical villain/heroes. During the same period Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novels increasingly transported the Gothic elements conspicuous in his early Falkland (1827) and Pelham (1828) into the modern era, providing a model for later sensation mysteries set in contemporary England such as Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860).

Anticipating this grafting of the Gothic onto contemporary realism, the Brontė sisters masterfully employed Gothic furnishings in their novels not merely to generate narrative excitement, but to delineate complex psychologies and subjective apprehension of the horrors of the everyday. Schooled by melodramatic tales in periodicals and annuals, Charlotte furnished her early writings with settings and actions vividly Gothic, effects which she turned to sophisticated uses in her mature fiction. As Robert Heilman has argued, Charlotte's frequent invocations of mysteries and apparently supernatural phenomena , while often quickly defused with irony, humor, and rational explanation, function seriously to depict her heroines' passionate intensity, sexual energy, and emotional repression. Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic and Villette 's apparition of the nun, for example, convey the heroines' resistance to the prevailing feminine ideal and anger at their constraining social and economic circumstances. In Charlotte's hands evocations of oppressive convents and Catholic confessionals, the frisson of ghostly glimme rings, abrupt vanishings, and lightning storms become tools for psychic exploration and social protest.

In Wuthering Heights Emily radically transforms the heroine of Gothic story by making Catherine Earnshaw as complex as Charlotte's more realistic protagonists, and also overtly aggressive and aware of her own demonic nature. Like Jane Eyre 's Rochester, Heathcliff owes his diabolic energy and emotional power to Gothic lineage, as does the brooding atmosphere of Wuthering Heights. Emily was more willing than Charlotte to conjure ghosts, macabre dreams and hallucinations, and a generally Gothic aura without explaining them rationally. Her spirits and other supernatural elements succeed partly through her strategy of employing limited, mundane narrators who are themselves affected by moods and phenomena which they cannot comprehend.

Without the more overtly Gothic trappings of inexplicable apparitions or dreams through which the supernatural penetrates the ordinary, Anne in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall evokes the Gothic with such elements as the partly derelict mansion, the heroine's mysterious past, and her monstrously oppressive husband. Such vestiges of Gothic machinery invest the novel's consideration of contemporary issues (such as divorce and child custody laws) with the intensity of the exotic to expose the genuine horror of the commonplace experience of many women.
Further reading:
Christine Alexander, '"That Kingdom of Gloom": Charlotte Brontė, the Annuals, and the Gothic', Nineteenth-Century Literature (1993) 409-36; Robert B. Heilman, 'Charlotte Brontė's "New" Gothic' (1958), rpt. in The Victorian Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Ian Watt (1971), pp. 165-80; Marie Mulvey-Roberts, ed., The Handbook to Gothic Literature (1998).

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Position of Women in the mid-19th century. As workplace and home separated more emphatically and opportunities for upward social mobility increased, Victorians embraced the 'separate spheres' ideology, the view that men and women were physically and spiritually determined to inhabit different realms. Active and assertive, men were 'naturally' equipped for the public arena ruled by competition and materialism. Women were the guardians of emotional and spiritual values properly confined in a domestic space protected from the market's corrosive practices. Woman was idealized as the 'Angel in the House', a 'relational creature' who derived her value and purpose solely from relationships, as daughter, wife, mother. Such works as Sarah Stickney Ellis's popular conduct books (from 1838) and Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House (1854) extolled the domestic ideal, attributing to women great 'influence'--symbolic capital which assigned them responsibility for the moral condition of a society which denied them political and economic power. The separate spheres ideology consigned middle-class women to supervising servants, paying social calls, and displaying the family's wealth and rank in their dress and household furnishings. Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that tormenting idleness made them fear they would go mad.

Throughout the century debates over women's political and legal rights and their educational, professional, and economic opportunities--issues collectively designated 'The Woman Question'--contested the domestic ideal. The 1832 Reform Bill extended the franchise in national elections to about one man in seven (based on property qualifications), but, for the first time, pointedly excluded women from the electorate by defining voters as male. Discussion of female suffrage intensified during the Chartist movement of the late 1840s, when supporters linked women's rights to those of unenfranchised laborers. One rationale for denying women the vote was 'coverture', the concept that a woman was 'covered' by her husband. Marriage was considered woman's appropriate destiny, and motherhood her apotheosis. According to the 1851 census, however, 43% of British women lacked spouses. Such statistics eventually gave rise to the term 'Redundant Woman', with emigration proposed as a remedy for the social 'problem' spinsters represented.

Upon marrying, women essentially forfeited the right to inherit and hold property in their own names. Until 1870, except for inheritance carefully sheltered by a legal settlement (a practice usually confined to the wealthy), a woman's earnings, real estate, and personal property (including her clothing and jewelry) automatically became her husband's--even if she had been deserted or separated from him. Because they legally had no separate identity, wives could not enter legal contracts, sue or be sued. Custody and divorce laws disadvantaged women, for fathers had exclusive rights to their children (but could not be forced to provide for them) and men could obtain divorces more easily than women could. Women had few economic alternatives to marrying or depending on male relatives. Laboring-class women found physically rigorous jobs in agriculture, mining, factories, and domestic service--in 1851 o ver 10% of the female population worked as maids, charwomen, and laundresses. The grueling hours and conditions in the seamstress trade drove many needlewomen to life on the streets. Victorians judged prostitution a social evil of monstrous proportions, generally attributing the trade to female decadence rather than economic laws of supply and demand (see sexuality). Men's fear of financial competition retarded women's entry into trades. In order to keep women from surpassing their own skills and earning higher wages, male china painters, for example, organized to deny women entering the field use of maulsticks with which men propped their wrists while painting. Admission requirements and regulations at art schools inhibited women's success in painting and sculpture; women were barred from classes in lifedrawing, ostensibly to protect their modesty from confronting nude models.

Within the middle classes, women's principal employment options in the first half of the century were governess, school teacher, or lady's companion. Even if becoming a teacher or governess did not involve a humiliating drop in social class, the field offered scant rewards. Many governess positions advertised minimal salaries (or no salary at all) beyond room and board, providing a home for the present but no resources for old age. Governesses' wages often barely met needs for clothing, laundry, and provisions during their limited holidays. Besides low pay, as Charlotte's novels and letters testify, working as a governess might subject a woman to a demoralizing loss of autonomy and respect. Falling into an ill-defined status beneath her employers but above the household servants, she often experienced depressing social isolation as well.

In the first half of the century schooling for middle-class girls was normally limited to home instruction provided by parents or governesses, though private schools such as the charitable Cowan Bridge School (notoriously immortalized as Lowood) and Miss Wooler's school (where the Brontė sisters studied and Charlotte taught) were available (see education). Only after mid-century did preparatory schools increase in number and quality, with objectives ranging from training governesses to preparing women to enter universities (a goal attained incrementally over some seventy-five years from 1869).

Increasingly, authorship provided a financial opportunity for educated women, though many women writers remained anonymous or, like the Brontės, adopted male pseudonyms. As Charlotte suggested in her 1850 'Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell', reviewers often applied different standards to women's writing, expecting from them decorous subject matter, 'delicacy', and sentimentality. Despite this critical double standard and payment practices which favored publishers, writing, because it could be pursued at home, represented one of the most secure professional opportunities for women.

Writing posed a happy alternative to teaching for the Brontės. After publishing Jane Eyre Charlotte reported that she often wished 'to say something about the "condition of women" question', though she found the amount of 'cant' on the subject repugnant (to W. S. Williams, 12.5.1848). Mentioning a Westminster Review article on 'Woman's Mission', she wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell that although 'a few Men' with fine sympathies and a strong sense of justice support changing attitudes toward women, 'the amelioration of our condition depends on ourselves'--adding, however, that some 'evils--deep rooted in the foundations of the Social system--' cannot be changed (27.8.1850). The Brontės' novels clearly address the 'condition of women' by criticizing the separate spheres, confining feminine ideals, and women's limited professional and educational opportunities. Besides examining the painful position of the governess (a topic also in Agnes Grey and Shirley), Jane Eyre exposes the ills of female economic dependency, class barriers to marriage (subjects also addressed in Shirley ), and associations of female sexual appetite with insanity (see sexuality). Jane protests the cultural constrictions that deny women outlets for their energies and intellectual abilities, a topic reiterated in Shirley 's exposition of the dismal lot of spinsters and the limitation of ladies' options to marriage and charity work. Shirley links the anger and powerlessness of middle-class women to those of unemployed laborers, and exposes the crass operations of a marriage market in which men woo wealthy women from financial need rather than love. The character Shirley depicts what a woman can be, given autonomy, education, and financial independence--a vibrant being who can equal or surpass men in improving social conditions.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall attacks the legal disabilities of married women with regard to child custody, property ownership, and access to divorce (see divorce laws). Helen's work as a painter references women's liabilities in the art field in her lack of professional training and need for a male representative to market her work. The novel also exposes the gendered double standards which warp domestic relationships. Rose Markham protests women's servitude to men's whims and desires, an apparently benign inequality in the Markham household which produces sinister ef fects in the marriages of Arthur Huntingdon's set.

Shirley examines difficulties of the heiress (a subject raised in Tenant, where Huntingdon pursues Helen's fortune but Gilbert finds it daunting). Financial freedom to wed the man she loves proves problematic for Shirley, for conventions make it difficult to conceive of partnership uninflected by gender and class hierarchies. Similarly, the end of The Professor calls into question whether marital equality can flourish amid Victorian idealizations of ang elic wives and separate spheres, for William Crimsworth views Frances as an anomaly, in effect as two different women who succeed as wife and professional, and in dealings with his son he reasserts his dominant masculinity.

Villette like The Professor turns to a continental setting to explore alternative class and gender dynamics which allow greater female autonomy. Villette contrasts Polly Home's Angel-in-the-House vapidity with Lucy Snowe's passion and intellectual vigor. Paintings which display the conventional feminine ideal and its sensual opposite Cleopatra, like the apparition of the nun and mesmerizing but repellant spectacle of Vashti, represent the madonna-harlot paradigm against which Lucy struggles to define herself anew.

Wuthering Heights, while seeming to create its own realm and unique concerns, interrogates the ideological tyranny of separate spheres and the Angel in the House. Unable to resist cultural imperatives of money and rank, Catherine Earnshaw weds Edgar Linton even though other women characters link the traditional female role to subordination, weakness, and death. Social convention cannot accommodate the dynamic equality and unity represented by the ungendered early comradeship of Catherine and Heathcliff, and the nar rative traces their divisive attempts to achieve the gender expectations defined for them by society. In sum, the Brontės' novels mount a powerful critique of the position of women in mid-Victorian culture.
Further reading:
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854); Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Robin L. Sheets, and William Veeder, The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883 , 3 vols. (1983).

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Sexuality. Despite its large families, the Victorian period has long been identified with sexual repression, partly because the Victorian middle classes observed high standards of decorum in contrast to Regency laxity. Yet mid-Victorian writers represented sexual matters with surprising frankness, though their methods were often metaphorically suggestive or euphemistic. Sarah Stickney Ellis, for example, in her popular conduct book The Wives of England (1843), admonishes candidly that wives should not reject husbands' physical overtures by pleading petty illness, while she refers abstractly to women's sexuality as 'the richest jewel in their bridal wreath'. Though officially naive about sex, Victorian women confronted biological facts in both life and art. Tennyson's The Princess (1847) humorously associates women's domestic responsibility for nursing with sexual knowledge when maidens sworn to celibacy rapidly pair off amorously with their patients. Though Thackeray's 1840s art reviews in Fraser's express reservations about the candor of painters' nudes, his own Vanity Fair (1847-8), aimed at a family audience, describes Becky Sharp's 'pretty figure, [and] famous frontal development' (ch. 19). Poetry such as Tennyson's frequently conveyed powerfully erotic feeling through imagery and metaphor.

Woman's libidinal nature was much debated at mid-century. While conceding lower- and upper-class amorality, conduct literature, clerical and educational tracts, and numerous medical studies minimized or denied the sensuou sness of 'good' (middle-class) women, characterizing them as 'sexually anesthetized'. Some physicians and social scientists disputed this assumption, however, and diaries and personal letters testify to mutually satisfying sexual relationships among middle-class Victorians. A sexual double standard prevailed nonetheless. In medical practice and literature Victorians frequently associated expressions of female sexuality with madness. Although sexuality was considered more 'natural' and less dangerous in men, even they were warned that sexual indulgence could debilitate them physically and mentally. Fear of women's sexuality registers in the culture's preoccupation with prostitution, a much-discussed social evil usually attributed not to women's poverty or male desires, but to women's moral depravity.

Sexual latitude uncharacteristic of the period permeates the Brontės' early writings. Charlotte and Branwell depict unprincipled seductions, multiple lovers, mistresses, illegitimate children, infatuate d women pursuing men--a range of subjects also suggested in the poetry representing Emily and Anne's Gondal writings. In Angria women are often sexually aggressive, and both rogues and heroes transgress Victorian bourgeois sexual mores. Although Charlotte cautioned Ellen Nussey (4 July 1834) to 'choose the good and avoid the evil' from readings she proposed, Charlotte herself had read them all, including Shakespeare's comedies and Byron's Don Juan--along with earthy 18th-century novelists, a tradition of sexual frankness to which Winnifrith (Background 86 ff.) links the Brontės' unselfconscious treatment of passion.

As contemporary reviews reveal, the Brontės' novels shocked many readers with their general 'coarseness', which included sexual material (Winnifrith Background 110-38). Rochester's narrating his illicit sexual history to teenaged Jane Eyre, for example, contributes to the novel's 'indifference to vice' (Anne Mozley, Christian Remembrancer, April 1853, 401), much as Arthur Huntingdon's flagrant adultery with Lady Lowborough contributes to the 'sensual spirit' of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the heroine deflects unwanted amorous advances with her artist's palette-knife. Both novels were said to dwell on the 'grosser and more animal portion of our nature' (The Rambler, Sept. 1848, 65-66).

Charlotte's novels pointedly challenge prevailing decorum, prompting John Maynard to judge that she 'offers the fullest and most sophisticated discussion of sexual issues of any major Victorian writers before Hardy' (viii). Though Jane Eyre evokes familiar stereotypes by linking Bertha Mason's madness to her sexual promiscuity, it also critiques characters such as St. John who repress desire. Most dramatically, it depicts the 'good' heroine as in tensely passionate, guided as much by love as by reason. Jane's referring to her son at novel's end, rather than demonstrating that at last she has conformed to Victorian veneration of motherhood as woman's highest calling, establishes that she is finally 'flesh of [Rochester's] flesh' both spiritually and physically--and that his virility has not been diminished along with his eyesight. Villette 's focus on female desire prompted Harriet Martineau to criticize Charlotte's heroines for their excessive preoccupation with love (Daily News, 3.2.1853, 2), a position echoed more mildly in Thackeray's discomfort with a heroine's being in love with two men at once (to Lucy Baxter, 11.3.1853). Charlotte countered Martineau's complaint: 'if man or woman should be as hamed of feeling such love, then is there nothing right, noble, faithful, truthful, unselfish in this earth' (to Martineau, n.d., Wise & Symington iv.42). She also affirmed the appropriateness of her subject matter by judging Jane Austen's work inadequate: 'the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.... what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life...' (to W. S. Williams, 12.4.1850).

Though Anne's heroines are more conventionally reticent, Emily' s Catherine Earnshaw harkens back to the passionate excesses of characters in the Brontė juvenilia. The profound emotions of Catherine and Heathcliff exceed familiar categories and are difficult to label sexual, however. The characters most closely approximate consummation of physical desire in their single passionate embrace when Catherine is conspicuously pregnant with Edgar Linton's child and nearly dead from starvation. Whatever sexuality inheres in their bond is sublimated in a total, ineffable union. Even so, the intensity of their feeling pulsates through the novel, rather like a physical electricity investing the work with a sexual aura.
Further reading:
Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, 2 vols. (1986); Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality and The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (1994); John Maynard, Charlotte Brontė and Sexuality (1984); Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985).

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