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When books from Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and Anne Bronte such as Wuthering Heights and Villette burst into the literary scene, the author’s contemporaries gave harsh reviews to these books. They were subject to much criticism, called out for their “coarseness”, a term which hinted at sexual immorality of thought but encompassing brutality and irreligion. However, in modern times, these novels are a source for great literary acclaim. Obviously, modern readers do not find these books “coarse” and do not disapprove of its messages, and, compared to the authors’ contemporary readers, declare it a literary masterpiece, a work of great craft. What made Victorian readers at the time so adverse to these books? To answer this one imperative question several must also be answered. How did the Victorian readers normally read? What were the characteristics of Victorian literature? How was Wuthering Heights and Villette different from these characteristics? I believe these questions will lead me to the answer. An investigation into the negative reception of Wuthering Heights and Villette will help me reach a conclusion on the way in which people read in the Victorian era.
At this time, much of the revolutionary zeal across Europe and its colonies were over. The Brontes’ England was quite stable . Everyone knew their social standing and accepted it without complaint. Many of the radical ideas for equality for females from feminists such as Mary Wollstone Craft died out and were slandered by the press and discredited for supporting woman rights (Teachman xii).
At that time, much of Victorian England also had a patriarchal mindset and harbored unreasonable misgivings of a female’s own self-assertion (Parker 34). Many made considerable opposition to the cultivation of intelligence in women. To these people, intelligence in women destroyed their idea of the true values of being a woman which were that women should be pure and naive, expected to be weak and helpless.
Due to this glum atmosphere around the issue of woman in the Victorian period, while writing their books, Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte were constantly harassed. Especially considering that the Victorian literary society was primarily composed of males, the sexism was even more malevolent. George Henry Lewes commented that a “women’s proper sphere of activity is elsewhere [than writing] “My idea of a perfect woman is one who can write but won’t” (Hoeveler 2). Even from very early on, the Bronte sisters were aware of this attitude toward female writers. In 1837, the young Charlotte in her early twenties was told by the poet laureate Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity . . .” (Hoeveler 2). The Bronte sisters were surrounded by messages and advices that did not encourage them to be better and to think for themselves.
However, the Bronte sisters were raised by a loving father that taught his daughters the capability to think for themselves and to not let other’s dictate their actions. They were given the freedom to do what they pleased and to let their inner selves grow and create imaginary worlds and write fictions. In these childhood worlds, differences in gender meant little. And, the Bronte sisters were, from an early age, developing their writing skills writing stories about their imaginary worlds. Through it, they learned that writing these fictions were acceptable behavior, having no one to tell them otherwise as children. And, why is that all so important? Because they were not acceptable behaviors for young girls. The Bronte sisters’ contemporaries were imprinted with the belief that developing their imagination was wrong and that it distracted them from doing their womanly duties. It was this restriction the society imposed on girls that the Bronte sisters later disagreed with. They felt that all individuals, not only men but women, needed to be allowed to “stretch their wings” (Sellars 15) and “explore their abilities and desires” (Sellars 15).
But, how can we, modern readers of the 20th Century, understand such restrictions? In a modern world where nearly everything is a possibility, why it was so unlikely for women like Charlotte and Emily Bronte to write fictions filled “with romantic imagery” and “thoughts of freedom” (Teachman xiii) in the early Victorian world is a mystery to a majority of us.
Therefore, in 1846, Poems, the Bronte sister’s first ever publication was written as being by Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell. Respectively, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were Catherine, Emily and Anne Bronte. Later, in the ‘Biographical Notice’ that is prefixed to the 1850 editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte Bronte explains why the guise has been kept for so long, and states the quarrel that Charlotte had with the prevalent attitudes toward woman writers:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Action Bell;â€¦we did not declare ourselves women, because-without at that time suspecting that our mode writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’-we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudiceâ€¦(Ewbanks 23)
And, she was right. Her “vague impression” (Ewbanks 23) was not misplaced. As time reveals her true identity to the world, she will realize that she was right as well.
Unfortunately, Poem ended up selling only two copies, one of the worst failures in publishing history. However, the Bronte sisters were not ones to give up. They continued to write for publication and began to work on their first novels which would become largely successful.
It all began with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It was first published in 1847 in a three volume set entitled Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell, in London on October 16, 1847. It was an overnight success, garnering enormous book sales. The first edition sold out in a mere three months. This time with an authorial preface, the second edition was issued in January and a third was then issued in April 1848. Thomas Wemyss Reid in 1877 remarked that, “Those who remember that winter of nine-and-twenty years ago know how something like a ‘Jane Eyre’ fever raged among us.” (Lodge 4)
And, fever it was. The novel was widely reviewed in magazines and newspapers. One such reviewer was William Makepeace Thackeray, to whom Bronte’s publishers sent a complimentary copy, “I wish you had not sent me Jane Eyre. It interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it” (Lodge 5). George Henry Lewes also announced that it was decidedly the best novel of the season, and others concurred in praise for a story of surpassing interest, riveting the attention from the very first chapter (Lodge 5). Many more favorable reviews were of the energetic approach it had towards language and the subject matter, the intense way through which it engaged the read, and the emotional reality it conveyed (Lodge 6)
However, such thunderous praise is not without some strong criticism. Anne Mozley of the Christian Remembrancer, a High Church Anglican magazine, published a review. “Never was there a better hater. Every page burns with moral Jacobinism.”(Lodge 11) The Jacobins were French revolutionaries who wanted to put the power in the hands of the people and get rid of the monarch system. Through this quotation, Mozley pointed out that this novel protested the social order. Then, Elizabeth Rigby of the Quarterly Review said outright that “Altogether the auto-biography of Jane Eyre is pre-eminently an Anti-Christian composition” and although it acknowledges its strength “it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself.” And that there is “no Christian grace perceptible upon her” (Lodge 13). In these perspectives, Jane Eyre was a selfish rebel who resisted authority or in other words the social order and insisted on her right to a position of equality.
Isn’t this right? Shouldn’t all human beings be given a place of equal standing? Not to these critics, and despite such laudatory initial reception from other critics, these critic’s opinions foreshadowed the problems the Bronte sisters would later have. We will see its presence from the pseudonyms that the Bronte sisters were forced to use to hide their sex to the dogged persistence of the readers and the critics alike to determine the sex of the Bronte sisters.
Meanwhile, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey had already been accepted by Thomas Cautley Newby, a London publisher, but the publication was being delayed. However, when Jane Eyre came out, Newby, a crafty business man, capitalizing on Jane Eyre’s popularity published the books 4 months later in a 3 volume set. With the publication from two more “Bells”, people began to have their doubts about the gender of the authors.
And, so this continued. Preserving their male identities became vital to the Brontë sisters that Charlotte retained her identity even in letters to her publishers. For example, in her letters, she would never fail to refer to her sisters as “he.” Also, it was especially important to Emily as she told Charlotte in a letter, “never allude toâ€¦ the name Emily, when you write to me. I do not always show your letters, but I never withhold them when they are inquired after” (Barnard 90). Emily was extremely paranoid about keeping her privacy and therefore hiding her identity was a priority.
However, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell could not protect their identities forever. It began with the publication of Anne Bronte’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and eventually to the point where in July 1848 Charlotte and Anne had to travel to George Smith to prove that they were indeed separate authors. It was all catalyzed by Thomas Cautley Newby, Anne and Emily’s publisher. Despite Charlotte’s best efforts to persuade Anne and Emily to abandon Newby after the publication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, they did not listen and stuck to Newby as their publisher. With the publishing rights to Anne’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Newby intending to again profit from Jane Eyre’s success sent an excerpt of the book to America saying that it was by Currer Bell (Barnard 86). George Smith was rightly peeved and felt betrayed. Therefore, Anne and Charlotte were forced to clear up the misunderstanding by traveling to meet George Smith and establishing to him that they were indeed different people. Newby would be the cause of much more distress as he continues to muddle the identities between the Bells so he could get more book sales.
And, it was merely the beginning. The speculation among the Victorian readers and critics that the Bronte sisters were actually women was constantly growing. For Charlotte Bronte, critics were religious in their mission to figure out the true sex of the author of Jane Eyre, and it was discussed more than any of the other concerns in the book. The fact that the critics were more concerned about the sex of the author than the actual book is unbelievable. This pursuit for the sex of Charlotte Bronte was “not simply idle curiosity but a desire to categorize writer and text within a conventional framework” (Nestor 102). Critical opinion was shaped by a set of assumptions of what was expected of woman writers and what they could do as woman writers. Review after the review of the book was tinted with sexist assumptions and was accepted as a literary judgment of the book. Era declared: “It is no woman’s writingâ€¦no woman could have penned the ‘Autobiography of Jane Eyre'” (Allot 79). G.H. Lewes said in Fraser’s Magazine that the “writer is evidently a woman” (Allot 84). These critics stereotyped and made several sexist assumptions to support their ideas, ideas that were amazingly accepted by the literary community.
The crudity of the criteria for assessing the author’s gender is also clear from a comparison that was made of the reviews:
â€¦literary stereotypes adapted very slowly to any real evidence of feminine achievement. If we break down the categories that are the staple of Victorian periodical reviewing, we find that women writers were acknowledged to possess sentiment, refinement, tact, observation, domestic expertise, high moral tone, and knowledge of female character; and thought to lack originality, intellectual training, abstract intelligence, humor, self-control, and knowledge of male characters. Male writers had most of the desirable qualities: power, breadth, distinctness, clarity, learning, abstract intelligence, shrewdness, experience, humor, knowledge of everyone’s character, and open-mindedness. (Showalter 90)
In such, it was clear that females and males were held to different standards and scale of merits. A woman was supposed “to stay strictly within the limits of female delicacy in subject and style” (Showalter 91), and if this is done, then the reviewer will give the female the “gallant treatment” (Showalter 91). This sort of treatment especially peeved Charlotte Bronte. As Mrs.Gaskell tells us in The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte, “disliked the lowering of the standard by which to judge a work of fiction, if it proceeded from a feminine pen; and praise mingled with pseudo-gallant allusions to her sex, mortified her far more than actual blame” (189). This is what prompted her to send a letter to G.H. Lewes after the publication of Shirley:
I wish you did not think me a woman. I wish all reviewers believed ‘Currer Bell’ to be a man they would be more just to him. You will, I know, keep measuring me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my sex; where I am not what you consider graceful you will condemn meâ€¦(Ewbanks 16)
In the cases, that she steps out of those “limits” (Showalter 91) she is scolded for something in which for a man would have been praised. A reviewer of Jane Eyre said that the book shows, “an intimate acquaintance with the worst parts of human nature, a practiced sagacity in discovering the latent ulcer, and a ruthless rigor in exposing it, which must command our admiration, but are almost startling in one of the softer sex” (Harrison 32). She is scolded for something that would not matter if she simply had certain male appendages. As human beings, woman’s ability and depth of thought is the same as any man on Earth. Why is it “startling” for females to understand and uncover the depravity of human nature?
The sex is a completely insignificant factor that should not have any sort of influence on the critical review of a book. The opinion that females are the “softer sex” (Harrison 32) and should not write such “startling” (Harrison 32) books is something that should be kept to the critics as a personal opinion and not told to multitudes of the Victorian reading public in a matter-of-fact tone.
If they had just been men. This gives us but a glimpse at the bias that the woman writers had to labor under. This “double standard” (Showalter 91) is present in many of the reviews of Jane Eyre. The Bronte sister’s took offense to the subjective method in which the critics reviewed the books. They took it as a danger to her work and it tarnished their reputation as authors. After three years of continuous speculation about their sex, the sisters were well acquainted with and sickened with it.
The Bronte sisters, as was with many female authors in their age, were not spared from the sexism and the “double standard” (Showalter 91) that was prevalent through the literary community in Victorian England. This influenced many of the early and preceding criticism throughout the Brontes’ lives.
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