15 Apr Charlotte Brontë Bicentenary – A Modern Thinking Victorian Trailblazer
Today, 21st April, marks the bicentenary of the birth of the great classic writer Charlotte Brontë. She created one of the most controversial heroines and novel of her time, Jane Eyre, which still sparks debate and many adaptations today.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” – Jane Eyre
The Brontë myth of the isolated lives of the highly imaginative sisters living on the bleak Yorkshire moors has dominated their legend. How did Charlotte create an early independent heroine, a lowly governess, who spoke out her early feminist ideals, and gained so much controversy over her character’s self belief and ideas above her station?
We should look directly to Charlotte herself, a young woman who was determined to live an independent life and explore and be acknowledged for her creativity as a writer.
Charlotte’s experience in writing miniature novels and poems with her siblings, and a need to be financiallyindependent inspired her at the age of 20 to send some poems and ask advice from the poet laureate Robert Southey. Yes! This lowly young woman did have the audacity to ask this great man’s opinion of her work. He replied:
“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 will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.”
If Charlotte had not had the perseverance and self belief in her writing, she would surely have given up at that disparaging comment.
Determined to succeed, she and her sisters compiled a book of poems and self-published them with their own money. Although they only sold two copies, Charlotte refused to give up. She then sent her first novel The Professor to publishers – and was again rejected. By this point, you would think this young woman would be more focused on marriage prospects as other ladies in her position at that time!
Instead, Charlotte had the inspirational idea to approach publishers for the sisters’ novels. The sisters adopted androgynous names so they would not be criticised as women writers – so the authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were invented.
Within the same year the sisters all had their first novel published – and Jane Eyre became an immediate popular seller. Readers and reviewers questioned the author’s identity and gender and even gave contrasting reviews depending whether they thought Currer was male or female!
Eventually, Charlotte and Anne had to build the courage to visit London and their publishers in 1848 to prove they were not just one writer and that they were indeed female.
Amazingly 170 years later, the issues of recognition and criticism over female authors still contnues. J.K. Rowling took an androgynous name for her Harry Potter books so that the books would appeal to boys. She then took a male pseudonym to write her Cormoran Strike thrillers (a couple or reviewers did believe the author had specialist army experience). And when she came out with her true identiy as Robert Galbraith it was still huge news.
It is quite shocking that in 2016 society is still dividing literature as male or female dominated categories. So Nora Roberts (romance author) is J.D. Robb for their detective novels, and Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey are Magnus Flyte in science fiction. Other serious female writers have taken androgynous names to escape the feminine categorisation such as P.J. James, A.M. Homes and Lionel Shriver.
It was within the context of her classic female protagonists that Charlotte could convey her modern thinking and her desperate desire for independence and creative intellect. Jane Eyre, the lowly governess with a fiery passion, strong opinions who stood her ground with the master, but who kept her morals and self belief. Then Lucy Snowe, another lowly female, who conveyed a passionate and independent inner monologue of a woman whose intelligence, humour and moral judgment surpassed her class superiors.
But Charlotte herself proved she was also a woman of fiery passion and determination to have her novels published and maintain her and her sisters’ reputations as female authors. She was a definite trailblazer for women writers!
The Brontë Museum and Society are currently leading the bicentennial anniversary celebrations of Charlotte’s life. There are exhibitions, talks, readings, and a conference to explore and share the influence of Charlotte Bronte. In London, the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition until August, and the Soane Museum has a special exhibition of Charlotte’s visits to London until 17th May. This is a very special anniversary of one of our most influential and inspiring writers.