The Heroines of Charlotte Bronte
In her brief life, Charlotte Bronte wrote four novels, Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), and The Professor, published posthumously in 1857. Three of the four novels are written in the first person, with Shirley being the exception. The Professor is the only one to feature a male protagonist, so I will not be covering it extensively.
Her characters are enticing and well rounded, though they vary in talents, personality, and even physical beauty. She took a decided departure from most of the previous literature in creating unconventional people who are flawed in any number of ways. Jane Eyre, for example, has both a male and female protagonist who are both physically unattractive, and one of them has nothing in the way of riches. None are permitted to be without flaw; the noblest of men are shown for their harshness and narrowness, and the best of women have their moments of faltering weakness that occasionally leads them to make irreparable mistakes. Marriages are often made between characters of unequal social, educational, or physical merits, and are usually done for love.
Stylistically, Bronte lacks the polish and refinement of other writers; her sentences are sometimes clumsily constructed or overly wordy. Also, because of the broad usage of French in her culture, there are conversations that are occasionally carried on entirely in that language. This can be frustrating if you have no knowledge of the language, but the gist of what is said is usually made evident.
She lived all of her life in the northern part of England, and the harshness of the terrain and culture find their way into her works. But her books are likable, and even lovable, because of good movement in the stories, as well as characters that can be appreciated because of their faults, rather than in spite of them. Her contribution to literature is significant, and you will even enjoy her works for themselves.
The most famous of all Bronte’s protagonist, Jane Eyre is a model of strength of mind, soul, and spirit. The novel takes us through her early childhood to young womanhood, through friendships and joys, but mostly sorrows. For Jane’s life is not one full of happiness, but rather struggles and hardships that forge her character, testing and proving it’s strength and mettle.
When we first see Jane she is a ward of her Aunt Reed, the widow of her mother’s brother, who hates Jane and teaches her three spoiled children to hate her also. She rightly believes that “if Mr. Reed had been alive he would have treated [her] kindly,” a suspicion that her aunt later confirms by telling her that she hates Jane because, as a baby, her husband pitied her, loved her, and gave her more attention than his own children. This perceptive nature does Jane much good throughout her life, giving her the discernment judge the best course to take.She wisely decides when to leave the shelter of a teaching position at a school, boldly stepping out into the world and finding a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, there meeting the friends who would shape the course of her future.
But this decisiveness would be a useless trait if it were not for the sterling in her character, the strength and conviction to do the right no matter how hard it is. And her path is strewn with many such decisions, hardships that would cause most to buckle and wane. When at Thornfield she is called upon to make a choice that will destroy every happiness she has ever hoped for during her bleak life, she chooses the right and moves forward, even if imperfectly, to obey the dictates of her conscience.
If she did waver, we as the reader would sympathize with her, excusing the right decision as the impossible one to live by and quite sure that if she should lapse in moral judgment it would be atoned for by her happiness. But though Miss Eyre may not fully engage all of our sympathies and endear her to ourselves in the way most characters do, in the end, we respect her more for qualities that make her an unforgettable heroine and far more worthy of our admiration.
But do not mistake me and think that Jane Eyre is nothing but a marble statue of imperturbable goodness. She has a passionate nature that, in childhood is uncontrolled and badly tempered, but in maturity leads her to feel greatly and deeply. When she moves past the reserve and control that life has given her for her own protection, the love she gives is pure and unchanging. And this depth causes her more pain than anything else—we see her stumble, almost giving in to what she feels she wants to do rather what she knows she ought. In those struggles we feel too, knowing that though her nature is weak, she will do nothing that is untrue to her conscience.
In Bronte’s second novel, she offers us two young women to study. The eponymous heroine, Shirley Keeldar, is beautiful, proud, capricious, and wealthy. By contrast, her friend Caroline Helstone is also pretty, but shy, meek, and without fortune. Both are orphans, the first living in her own house with her former governess and now companion, the other the ward of her uncle. We see the evolution of their friendship and their loves, and along the way learn a great deal of human nature.
At first, Caroline is the one more developed and discovered. Her nature, though quiet and dependent, is full of conviction and strength. Her uncle, who is her guardian, has mostly left Caroline to raise herself and her affectionate nature feels the lack of love. She finds it in her cousin, Hortense Moore, who gives lessons in French to help fill in the deficiencies of her education. She is in love with Hortense’s brother Robert, and though he loves her in return, his work at rebuilding his family’s lost fortune makes him too busy and poor to take a wife. Also, he wishes to marry for money to augment his income from his cloth mill, with his business practices making him unpopular in the neighborhood.
When Shirley comes into the area, she and Caroline meet and immediately become fast friends. By now, Caroline has given up all hope of winning Robert’s heart, and as it seems that he and Shirley have a mutual regard for each other she silently resolves to never marry, but rather to live a life of usefulness to others. She is remarkable for the selfless love that keeps her from even wishing any unhappiness on either of them, and encourages rather than deters their relationship. Though timid of apparent dangers, underneath her character is determined and beautifully right.
On the other hand is Shirley. Nothing can give her pause, and she manages her large estate with benevolence and wisdom, making friends of all she comes in contact with. Her strength is more apparent than Caroline’s, and she is more charismatic and queenly. As the story progresses, Shirley refused repeatedly men who try to woo her, not caring for worldly station, because they are men that she cannot love or respect. Her judgment is sound, and she courageously makes decisions that are hard but right.
Of course, there is something of a happy ending, even if the course of true does not always run smooth. The two young women that the story focuses on have a remarkable friendship, characterized by unselfishness and regard for the other.
Lucy Snowe serves as the subject for the last novel that Bronte wrote. She bears many similarities to Jane Eyre in personality, appearance, and story, and even falls in love with a man who bears many similarities to Mr. Rochester. She is quiet, unassuming, and even timid, but underneath it all has a strong moral fiber.
She does suffer from one fault, not entirely her own. Though the novel is written in the first person, with Lucy as narrator, she is uninteresting and doesn't really catch your attention for about the first one hundred and fifty pages of the book. The other characters who she describes and interacts with are far more interesting at first, even if they aren't as good or respectable. Eventually, we learn to love her for her own sake and appreciate her self-sacrificing and discerning character.
Lucy is an orphan, living off of the charity of her relations as a child, but she does have friends in her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her son Graham. However, as she grows into womanhood, circumstances separate her from them, and she is left to fend for herself in the world. This leads her to eventually take a position as an English teacher in a French school, and here most of the story unfolds. It is here that a mystery unfolds, friends are met, and romance even blossoms.
Another thing that should be mentioned is that the main story takes a long time to start moving, and it is quite a lengthy story. The main action doesn't pick up for a while, and there is a lot that seems peripheral that could be edited out. However, if you want to complete all four Bronte novels, you won't be disappointed in Villette once you've gotten into it.
Femininity or Feminism?
Many female authors including Bronte, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning have been both accused and applauded for helping to spur and augment the feminist movement. Their refusal to marry except for love led many to remain single all of their lives or at least marry later than the average, and their scorn for girls who were simply dimwitted housemaids with no finer feelings or character make many think that they despised the domestic calling of women.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. What modern minds wish to find in Bronte's novels—the independent woman, relying solely on her own wits and wisdom to find a place of status in the world—is not to be discovered in these pages. The idea of singleness devaluing a woman is definitely rejected, but truly happy, God-honoring marriages are praised.
Before marriage, Bronte's heroines are useful, sensible, and industrious. Both Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe seek employment as governesses and teachers, and Caroline Helstone resolves to live for others and make herself useful while Shirley manages her estate.
Take, for instance, one of Caroline's moments of reflection on her singleness: "I believe single women should have more to do—better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now... Solomon's virtuous woman... made fine linen and sold it: she was an agriculturist—she bought estates and planted vineyards. King of Israel! your model of a woman is a worthy model!" And later she reflects that if fathers will keep their daughter's minds "narrow and fettered—they will still be a plague and a care, sometimes a disgrace to you; cultivate them—give them scope and work." But all of these wishes are expressed within the happy realm of home, as a daughter or wife. And Shirley, queen of her own lands, gladly becomes the wife of the man she loves, giving him everything that is hers in exchange for his love and protection.
As you can see, the accusation of feminism does not genuinely fit in with Charlotte Bronte's ideal woman. Strong, honorable women she does approve, but not the independence that the feminists began purporting in just a few generations.
The Christianity of Bronte's Stories
Where do the women that Bronte writes of find the moral and physical courage that marks them all? Bronte herself was an orthodox Christian, and most of her characters make confessions of the same faith. Take, for instance, Jane Eyre's advice to Mr. Rochester when he seeks absolution from her: "a wanderer's repose or a sinner's reformation should never depend on a fellow-creature. Men and women die; philosophers falter in wisdom, and Christians in goodnes: if anyone you know has suffered and erred, let him look higher than his equals for strength to amend and solace to heal." Later, when she has to refuse to fall into error, she determines to "keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man... Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour."
A deathbed scene in Villette seems particularly expressive of Bronte's view of God and his relationship to man. "We should acknowledge God merciful, but not always for us comprehensible. We should accept our own lot, whatever it be, and try to render happy that of others". She proved this true in her own life, serving those in her community and church in spite of hardships and sorrows she faced.