Brontë, name of three English novelists, also sisters, whose works, transcending Victorian conventions, have become beloved classics. The sisters Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), Emily (Jane) Brontë (1818-1848), and Anne Brontë (1820-1849), and their brother (Patrick) Branwell Brontë (1817-1848), were born in Thornton, Yorkshire: Charlotte on April 21, 1816, Emily on July 30, 1818, and Anne on March 17, 1820. Their father, Patrick Brontë, who had been born in Ireland, was appointed rector of Haworth, a village on the Yorkshire moors; it was with Haworth that the family was thenceforth connected. In 1821, when their mother died, Charlotte and Emily were sent to join their older sisters Maria and Elizabeth at the Clergy Daughters' School in Cowan Bridge; this was the original on which was modeled the infamous Lowood School of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. Maria and Elizabeth returned to Haworth ill and died in 1825. Charlotte and Emily were later taken away from the school due to the grim conditions and the sisters' illness.
The Brontë children's imaginations transmuted a set of wooden soldiers into characters in a series of stories they wrote about the imaginary kingdom of Angria—the property of Charlotte and Branwell—and the kingdom of Gondal—which belonged to Emily and Anne. A hundred tiny handwritten volumes (started in 1829) of the chronicles of Angria survive, but nothing of the Gondal saga (started in 1831), except some of Emily's poems. The relationship of these stories to the later novels is a matter of much interest to scholars.
Charlotte went away to school again, in Roe Head, in 1831, returning home a year later to continue her education and teach her sisters. She returned to Roe Head in 1835 as a teacher, taking Emily with her. Emily returned home three months later and was replaced by Anne, who stayed for two years. In 1842, conceiving the idea of opening a small private school of their own, and to improve their French, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels, to a private boarding school. The death of their aunt, who had kept house for the family, compelled their return, however. Emily stayed at Haworth as housekeeper. Anne worked as a governess in a family near York, where she was joined as tutor by Branwell, who had failed first as a portrait painter and then as a railway clerk. Charlotte went back to Brussels, her experiences there forming the basis of the rendering, in Villette (1853), of Lucy Snowe's loneliness, longing and isolation. In 1845 the family was together again. Branwell, who had been dismissed from his tutorship, presumably because he had fallen in love with his employer's wife, was resorting increasingly to opium and drink.
Charlotte's discovery of Emily's poems led to the decision to have the sisters' verses published; these appeared, at their own expense, as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), each sister using her own initials in these pseudonyms. Two copies were sold.
Each sister then embarked on a novel. Charlotte's Jane Eyre was published first, in 1847; Anne's Agnes Grey and Emily's Wuthering Heights appeared a little later that year. Speculation about the authors' identities was rife until they visited London and met their publishers.
On their return to Haworth they found Branwell near death. Emily caught cold at his funeral, and died December 19, 1848. Anne too died, on May 28, 1849. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, had been published the year before; the account of a drunkard's degeneration, it was as deeply rooted in personal observation as Agnes Grey, the study of a governess's life.
Alone now with her father at Haworth, Charlotte resumed work on the novel Shirley (1849). This was the least successful of her novels, although its depiction of the struggle between masters and workers in the Yorkshire weaving industry a generation earlier precluded Charlotte's relying solely on intense subjectivity. This strain of realism was the source of her power, as can be seen earlier in Jane Eyre and later in Villette and The Professor (1857). In 1854, Charlotte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Pregnant in 1855, she became ill and died March 31 of that year of tuberculosis.
Since their deaths, new generations of readers have been fascinated by the circumstances of the Brontës' lives, their untimely deaths, and their astonishing achievements. Jane Eyre's popularity has never waned; it is a passionate expression of female issues and concerns. The Brontës' transcendent masterpiece, however, is almost certainly Emily's novel Wuthering Heights, a story of passionate love, in which irreconcilable principles of energy and calm are ultimately harmonized. Emily Brontë was a mystic, as her poetry shows, and Wuthering Heights dramatizes her intuitive apprehension of the nature of life.
The first book about the Brontës, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), by her friend the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, is a classic biography. Another notable book is Fannie E. Ratchford's The Brontës' Web of Childhood (1941); it first indicated the significance for their art of the Angria and Gondal sagas of their childhood.
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Jane Eyre and Jane’s Heirs: the Life and Afterlife of a Victorian Icon
Mary E. Finn, Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Department of English
Charlotte Bronte loathed Jane Austen for her lack of passion; Charlotte Bronte, in turn, was deemed coarse and vulgar by some contemporary critics. In six sessions we will trace the trajectory of Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, from the time of its publication to the present, when it is still an iconic text. But we will begin with Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to study Austin’s send-up of the Gothic novel genre before moving to the more serious appropriation of that genre in Jane Eyre (and maybe to irritate Bronte just a little on behalf of Austen!). We will then spend two weeks on Jane Eyre, the novel, its reception, and its literary fate in the 20th century. In week four I will talk about literary appropriations, in particular Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. The ground-breaking critical text, Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar will be the focus of week five. In week six we will look at Jane Eyre through the lens of popular culture, and draw some conclusions about Jane Eyre and its eponymous character Jane Eyre in the 21st century.
Northanger Abbey was the first novel Austen wrote, and the last she published (posthumously). Literary allusions abound, most especially to the Gothic novel tradition that produced such works as The Mysteries of Udolpho, which Northanger Abbey’s heroine devours with relish. What are the conventions of gothic novels, which Charlotte Bronte will also exploit? And why does Charlotte Bronte hate Jane Austen? Please read Northanger Abbey.
Jane Eyre was published in 1847; in 1848 Elizabeth Rigby sniffed about Jane Eyre’s popularity in The London Quarterly Review: “[I]n these days of extravagant adoration of all that bears the stamp of novelty and originality, sheer rudeness and vulgarity have come in for a most mistaken worship.” In this first talk on the novel I will focus on how the novel came about, and its reception. Please read Jane Eyre.
Bronte wrote a feisty preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, to take on people like Elizabeth Rigby. I will talk about that preface and the convention of the preface that both Charlotte and her sister Ann used to engage readers and critics in the days before twitter feeds. I will also trace the demise of Jane Eyre’s literary reputation throughout the 20th century, and the forces that caused that decline. Please read or reread the Preface.
In 1966 Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre. Anticipating some critical trends in 1980s and 1990s, when assumptions about race and colonialism in nineteenth-century novels came under scrutiny. I will talk about the novel and Rhys as more context for Jane Eyre in the later 20th century, as novel’s literary reputation starts to recover. Please read Wide Sargasso Sea.
In 1979 English professors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published Mad Woman in the Attic, which challenged and changed academic criticism of iconic nineteenth century British literature, most especially Jane Eyre. Madwoman in the Attic is now itself iconic, and also –inevitably --the target of criticism and claims that its methods of analysis are outmoded. Like Bronte, Gilbert and Gubar wrote a preface to their next edition, 20 years later. I will talk about the history of and context for this important if flawed study that helped secure a place of prominence for Bronte and other nineteenth-century female writers.
There have been film adaptations of Jane Eyre since days of silent film; thus far the most recent film adaptation came out in 2011. And in this time of sadly declining interest in the humanities, Jane Eyre can still draw a crowd, at least of women. We’ll look at the trajectory of adaptations, appropriations, etc, They are all interpretations, after all, revealing as much about the interpreter as the text being interpreted.
Web site to visit: http://www.nualumnae.org
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