Tag Archives: Bronte

Sisterhood

Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.

Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.

I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.

100 years too late

We arrived early today for our relaxation class at the Wellness center, and when we walked into the communal kitchen I was instantly transported to an English teashop. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who has lived here in California for years, was sipping coffee and chatting with an elderly gentleman who looked like something out of Jane Austen. The scene reminded me profoundly of something I have felt for most of my life: I was born in the wrong century and probably the wrong hemisphere.

Where my heart really says I belong is England in the time of Dickens. I should have been born and raised in the English countryside, maybe in Hardy’s Wessex country, or somewhere along the route of Mr. Pickwick’s famous wanderings. Wuthering Heights might have been a suitable habitat for my taste. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I can’t help feeling that those places, those times, with their particular culture, customs, and values, are more my soulmates than these modern American times.

I don’t know whether our English friend or the elderly gentleman with the lilting accent have even opened a Victorian novel since their youth. But they certainly took me back to the world that I love to escape to more than any other literary landscape. I can’t alter my date or place of birth, but I can grab a good book and fantasize once in a while.