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Charlotte Yonge “the clever woman of the family” (1865) shows sympathy for the protagonist, Rachel desperate for an outlet for her energies and intelligence. Rachel’s hubristic attempts at independent actions end in near – apocalyptic tragedy, however, when a child dies under her care the novel ends with Rachel’s reform as she becomes engaged to a military man who promises to make her “a thorough wife and mother” and to whom she confesses that she was never a “clever woman”. After all, “I never thought you one,” he quietly returned.
Before considering the women novelists of the Victorian period it will be interesting to see how they appeared to the great French statesmen and historian Guizot, and how much superior he found their work to that of his own countrywomen. “I am a great novel reader,” he says, “but I seldom read of German and French novels. The characters are too artificial. There are too many forced situations, and the morality is generally detestable.
My delight is to read English novels, particularly those written by women. Miss Austin, Miss Ferrier, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and many others almost as remarkable, form a school which in the excellence, the profusion, and the contemporaneousness of its productions, resembles the crowd of dramatic poets of the great Athenian age.” This remarkable tribute of praise is justified by an examination of the work women have accomplished on this branch of literature. In no other sphere do they rise to the first rank. There has never been a female Shakespeare; but the famous French critic Scherer finds George Eliot the first of English novelists, and he is not alone in this judgement.
Eliot in particular strove for realism in her fiction and tried to banish the picturesque and burlesque from her work. Another woman writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote even grimmer, grittier books about the poor in the North of England but even these usually had happy endings. After the death of Dickens in 1870 happy endings became less common.
The three Bronte sisters have a niche in literature all to themselves. They were Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855), Emily Bronte (1818-1848) and Anne Bronte (1820 – 1849). Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ occupies an important place in the history of English literature. The genius of Charlotte has given us a picture of miseries of “Lowood” School: the tragic fate of her sister Maria is told in her novel ‘Jane Eyre’ in the heartrending account of the consumptive girl Helen Burns, with her racking cough, dying in the cold fireless dormitory. It was during these school days that Charlotte heard the story of the man with the mad wife, who felt himself morally free to leave her and marry again; and this story suggested to her the idea of Rochester in the same novel. In the history of the second period of the school life of Bronte girls has been embodied in ‘Shirley’, and their third and last educational experience in Brussels furnished material for the two novels ‘Villette’ and ‘The Professor’.
Charlotte Bronte only wrote these four novels. ‘The Professor’, though it was not published till after her death, is an earlier and cruder performance than the others. In ‘Jane Eyre’ the heroine is a governess, plain and homely, but fascinating; the hero is an improbable and unpleasant person who pursues his wooing in Byronic fashion; and the scene is laid in a terrible house where the upper side is used as an asylum for the mad life. The incidents are a dinner party, a country walk and a fire. Yet out of these unromantic materials Charlotte Bronte made a story which enthralled men like Lockhart, G. H. Lewis and Thackeray. Thus, she became the “daughter of debate,” discussed everywhere, and fretted and lionized when she visited London at the suggestion of her publishers. The best part of her book related to her school experiences. In all the Bronte writings there is scarcely anything good which cannot be traced back to incidents in their own lives. Their lives were hard, cheerless and full of suffering. There was little cause of laughter in their home, and in their books the want of mirth is a marked defect. Emily especially was full of gloom and harsh reserve. The story told in Shirley of the mad dog happened to her.
Emily Bronte’s only novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a prime example of gothic romanticism from a woman’s point of view during this period of time, examining class, myth and gender. The book’s core theme is the destructive effect of jealousy and vengefulness both on the jealous and vengeful people and as well as on their communities. This novel in particular has violence, passion, the supernatural, heightened emotion and emotional distance, an unusual mix for any novel but particularly at this time. Of ‘Wuthering Heights’ Dante Rossetti said that “the action is laid in hell, only it seems places and people have English names there.” Of the three sisters Emily alone possessed the gift of poetry. Her verse includes a few pieces of rare excellence.
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is another important name among women novelists of the Victorian literature. Her famous novels include’ Mary Barton’, ‘Wives and Daughters’, ‘North and South’, ‘Cranford’. She used novel as an instrument of social reform. We think of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell primarily as a novelist, but the virtue of ‘The life of Charlotte Bronte’ she is also one of the very small group of writers who have enriched literature with biographies of permanent worth. Description of last moments of last minutes of Charlotte Bronte is given in the beautiful biography written by her friend and fellow craftswoman Mrs. Gaskell. In her first novel Mary Barton (1848), Mrs. Gaskell presents a sociological study based on her experience of the conditions of the laboring classes in the new cities of the industrial North. In this novel, she tried to rouse sympathy on behalf of the workers and to show the evils which has grown up with a factory
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