Women Novelists of Victorian Era in English Literature

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      In the development of English novel in the Victorian era, some Victorian women novelists played a very significant part. As a matter of fact, their achievements in many respects were greater than men. The spread of education and the extension of franchise accounted to some extent for the emergence of women as poets and novelists.

      The Victorian literature is rich in every respect. A large number of women novelists made a rich contribution to English novel in this era. The women novelists who attempted this genre are Mrs. Trollope. Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Marsh, (Mrs. Bray, Mrs. Henry Wood, Charlotte Young, Mrs. Oliphant, Edna Lynn Lynton, M.E. Braddon, "Ouida" Rhoda Broughton, Edna Lyall, etc. Among these the prominent women novelists are (i) Charlotte Bronte, (ii) Emily Bronte, (iii) Mrs. Gaskell, and (iv) George Eliot,

In the development of English novel in the Victorian era, some Victorian women novelists played a very significant part. As a matter of fact, their achievements in many respects were greater than men.
Victorian Women Novelist

      The three Bronte sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were all novelists and two of them were novelists of genius. Charlotte's three novels are remarkable Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette. Of these Jane Eyre is generally and with justice considered to be the greatest, owing to the power and subtlety displayed in the portrait of the governess loved and finally won by Rochester, the victim of a miserable first marriage, Jane Eyre links a highly exciting and romantic story to a sober and honest realism. Jane is a new creation -  "a free human being with an independent will. Jane is willing to take full responsibility for her life, and with her, modem woman enters fiction for the first time and struggles with the fundamental problems posed by love and sex. Portrayal of passion which was severely limited by the typical Victorian moral bias in Dickens and Thackeray gained force and maturity with Charlotte and Emily.

      Shirley has a greater variety of characters including the delightful heroine. The novel has for its background the Yorkshire moors among which Charlotte had lived, and which she here describes in a masterly fashion. Villette which is in large measure autobiographical describes the wooing of the school assistant, Lucy Snowe by the strange but true-hearted lover M. Paul.

      A fire of passionate feeling burned in her and her novels are warm with the blaze: Charlotte's imagination was of the romantic kind, but the passions that inspire the narrative gain strength from the firm control exercised by the author. Sometimes crude elements of melodrama enter her novels such as swords dripping blood, spectral forms, demons, etc. But from time to time flashes of imaginative brilliance light up the book. Such incidents as Lucy Snowe's wanderings through the city or the last terrible storm that destroys Paul Emmanuel are unforgettable. Despite the limited outlook and occasional crudity, there is a warm colouring of humanity and a passionate intensity of imagination about Charlotte Bronte's best work.

      In sheer genius Emile Bronte far surpassed Charlotte. Wuthering Heights is her only novel, for she died the year after its publication. Here she created a stark passionate world, reminiscent at times of the storm scene in King Lear. In this novel she wrote a tragedy of love, at once fantastic and powerful, savage and moving. The appeal of the novel and its consummate poetry arise not from a conventional love triangle but from a struggle of archetypes representing universal forces. The ties that bind Catherine to Heathcliff are beyond sex, and from the stormy tumult of their elders young Cathy and Hareton may effect a workable balance in life. The novel is unique in the depiction of destructive passion of Catherine and Heathcliff - their love-hatred and the fury of vengeance. The novel has also a symmetrical pattern - the disintegration, stasis, second cycle of action (Heathcliff's revenge) and the final reconciliation. Symbolism plays its part in the sharp contrasting of the two worlds depicted in the novel and in giving poetic force and intensity to the novel. Wuthering Heights is a unique creation in which passion and poetry are combined. It is the gift of genius.

      The Bronte Sisters: Charlotte (1816-1855) and Emily Bronte (1818-1848). The Bronte sisters were (along with their younger sister, Anne) daughters of an Irish evangelical preacher who was given to such eccentricities as eating his food alone and firing a pistol from his bedroom window in the early morning. The family lived in a small manufacturing town on the edge of a bleak moor in Yorkshire. The six Bronte children were left motherless at an early age and Charlotte at the age of nine, took on responsibilities of keeping the house. Life was severe in the poor parson's household, the diet was inadequate, and the house was exposed to the elements through the many cracks between the boards. The nearby village was unclean and insanitary.

      The three sisters received an inadequate schooling under the most severe conditions and were conditioned by the bleak and coarse reality of their environment. They had brilliant and imaginative minds. All three sisters resolved to write; all three wrote novels, but only two works have survived the test of time, the most severe criticism of literature's most popular genre. Charlotte and Emily produced two of the most read, most criticized, and most unusual novels of all time: Jane Eyre (1847), by Charlotte and Wuthering Heights (1847), by Emily.

      Masterpieces of Weird and Imaginative Romanticism. The Bronte sisters demonstrate in their two outstanding novels, a type of imaginative romanticism induced by the severe conditions in which their lives were led. Both sisters turned their brilliant, but untutored, minds to an imaginative escapist world which was equally severe in its demands, but one which was strange and awesome but nonetheless, with aspects of reality. Charlotte's bent was a social realism and a psychological romanticism; Emily's imagination led her to create a world of weird and tragic splendor.

      Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre reflects much of the writer's own life experiences. Aside from the drudgery of her life, she had seen her mother die, her father became blind, two sisters died of tuberculosis and malnutrition, and a brother drank himself to death. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte sees herself. Her heroine is exposed to the same cruel treatment at boarding school that Charlotte had undergone in her meager schooling. Her life continues to be plagued with misfortunes which she meets with nobility and courage. Charlotte, like Jane, had loved a man, who was married.

      The novel is not well constructed and much of it is second-rate. It is extravagant and melodramatic. But this novel has had a particular emotional appeal, exceeded only by Emily's Wuthering Heights, to the present time. Jane Eyre is a genuine woman, and her tense experiences and struggles for romance and happiness are symbolic of Charlotte Bronte's own desires and longings. This novel is adult romanticism with an undertone of stark reality.

      No less unusual and no less interesting is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. In this impressionistic romance, Emily leads the reader into one of the most strange and wildly dramatic atmospheres that any novelist has ever attempted. Laid against the backdrop of the bleak northern moors of England, this novel of strong passions, insanity, and revenge is one of the most strangely intriguing of novel.

      Critics have condemned this work for its "Gothic" exaggerations, its lurid and violent scenes, but again, here is true revelation of much of the grim but imaginative gloom that was part and parcel of Emily's own temperament. Wuthering Heights is a unique novel of the clash of human souls. It leaves the reader with a disagreeable feeling; but no reader regrets the experience of having read it. In her ability to create a fantastic reality, Emily Bronte has written one of the world's best novels. Dante Gabriel Rossetti said of it: "The action is laid in hell, only it seems places and people have English names there."

      Charlotte Bronte's novels are subjective in the sense that they capitalize on her own experience and that is perhaps their importance in the history of the novel. The personal equation is so strong in her novels that even in her best books there is an almost pathetic ignorance of the ways of the world. Her dialogue, too, when the speakers belong to the higher ranks in society, is unconvincing and stilted. Their attempts at humour are even sadder. Nevertheless, Jane Eyre is conceived in a vein of authentic passion. Its story of a girl (Jane) in love with a married man (Rochester) was drawn from her own abortive love for the schoolmaster in Brussel under whom she had studied and taught. She is at her best in humble scenes, and the atmosphere of gloomy foreboding was the very air she breathed in her little corner of Yorkshire. The emotional tension of Jane Eyre is so well managed that the book is still exciting to read.

      Though Charlotte had the reputation, it was Emily who had the genius among the sisters. There is nothing to record in her biography. From childhood till her seventeenth year she never left Haworth, and in the few years allotted her after that nothing external in the way of important experience can be recorded. (But she led a fierce and torrential inner life, as her poetry shows - but that we have already discussed). Nevertheless, it is in her only novel, Wuthering Heights that she completely expressed what her poetry less perfectly attempts to say. The moors about her home had held her Poetry imagination and plunged her into reveries of dark but exalted thoughts. The violence of her novel is itself the best index of all her inner turbulence during her apparently uneventful life. Scholars have been too ready to describe the book a continuation of the Gothic School of novel. Actually, Emily's own temperament is responsible for the darkness, the wildness, the intensity, and the transcending of moral standards which the novel exhibits. For her poetry shows that she was a girl who lived entirely in her own imagination, and that her values nowhere impinged upon the world's notions of right and wrong. Fundamentally her nature was deeply mystical, and she was no less tied closely to the gloomy land she knew so well than aesthetically fervent in her search for God.

      Of all the women novelists of the nineteenth century, George Eliot (1819-1880) was the most learned. In her novels, we do not find the passionate intensity and ardour of the novels of Charlotte Bronte and Emile Bronte, but she portrayed intellectual and moral passion with consummate mastery. She came under the influence of Herbert Spencer and G. H. Lewis with whom she lived. Her early narrative-Scenes from Clerical Life had an immediate success. This was followed by Adam Bede, Vie Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, Middle-march, and Daniel Deronda.

      In Adam Bede, she created a powerful theme against the background of English rural life. In Hetty Sorrel she shows a young girl, seduced and led to child murder and her imagination plays sympathetically around this lively and pathetic figure. In The Mill on the Floss she deals with the life of a brother and a sister presented with great sensitiveness. Silar Marner is a shorter narrative in which she presents with penetrating insight the torments of a miser. In Romola she writes a historical novel of the Italian Renaissance. Felix Holt, a novel of Radicalism of the Reform Bill shows the penalties she paid for the loss of her early spontaneity. In Middlemarch she constructs one of the great novels of the century. She has returned from the past to contemporary scene and condemns a society that denies ample scope to intellect and culture. The environment permits proper self-realisation and creativity to the solid, non-intellectual Mary Garth, but Dorothea with her absorbing constructive spirit is fated to frustration. George Eliot fills the canvas with a host of memorable minor characters. Her technical ability is proved by her flawless dovetailing of the Dorothea and Lydgate plots originally planned as separate stories.

      George Eliot is described by David Cecil as the first modern novelist. She makes English novel intellectual. Novels before her were instinctive. Secondly, she gives to English novel a depth of psychological realism. She for the first time analyses the characters with a deep penetrating insight. She dissects the motives of the characters in her novels. She makes a philosophical criticism of life in her novels. Her novels show the conflict between her intuition and her intellect. Thus in George Eliot's work one is aware of her desire to enlarge the possibilities of the novel as a form of expression. Novels before her were more or less loose and digressive; she gives to her novels a well-knit structural pattern and a dramatic unity.

      Themes of Her Novels. Most of her books dealt with the English country life in the middle of which she had been brought up, but in her work, Romola, she attempted an elaborate picture of Florence in the period of the Renaissance, gathering her material from a vast amount of historical study and two visits to Italy. In Felix Holt, the Radical, she treated the political situation in England, and in Middle-march she produced her most comprehensive view of English provincial life. This story represented her mature method and has had a far-reaching influence on the technique of later novelists. Her last novel, Daniel Deronda, though admirable in some respects, has generally been regarded as less successful.

      Lewes died in 1878, and the loss of his support and inspiration proved so great a shock that George Eliot wrote no more. In 1880 she married J.W. Gross, an old friend, and died in December of the same year.

      Chief Interests. The ruling passion in George Eliot's life was the sense of duty, and as a consequence her books are much occupied by problems of conduct, and she had strong sympathy with the scientific thought of her time. These things are reflected in her novels, and her treatment of character is especially influenced by the new psychology in which Lewes was a leader, and by the emphasis on environment in Darwin and other writers on evolution. But her books are by no means ethical and scientific treatises. She had rich humour and keen observation, arid she created real human beings, and gave them a setting described with great vividness and animation. Her moral earnestness and her great learning are constantly apparent, but they are lightened by warm sympathy and appreciation of the entertaining variety of human nature. In the elements which win popularity she was inferior to Dickens and Thackeray, but she far surpassed them in depth of thought and in penetrating and analyzing the forces that account for the actions of men.

      Analysis and Teaching. A passage in which George Eliot criticizes the novels of Dickens is interesting as an indication of her own purpose. She praises the vividness and reality of his pictures of London life and adds; "If Dickens had been able to give us their psychological character and conception of life, and their emotions with the same truth as their idiom and manner, his books would be the greatest contribution to art ever made by the awakening of social sympathies."

      It is the psychological character and the conception of life that George Eliot is interested in rather than mere speech and manners and actions. She is ever trying to analyze and explain for us the meaning of each speech, or gesture, or feature. She is the forerunner in what may be called the analytical method in fiction, which has had many exponents since her day. And all her analysis is directed to forming generalizations about conduct and life which may be driven home to the reader. She analyzes and explains in order to teach.

      As a novelist, George Eliot has been called a moralist first and an artist second. Influenced by the two greatest events of her life, her forsaking of formal Christianity and her union with Lewes, she was determined to become a "moral scientist," one who would trace laws and principles that could be applied to a person's moral life just as formulae can be applied in an exact science. Particularly in her later novels, she taught through individual cases Tito Melema's deterioration in Romola, Lydgate's failure to fulfill his own potentialities in Middle-march, Gwendolyn Harleth's repentance in Daniel Deronda. She proclaimed a creed of duty before joy.

      As to the technique of the novel, she introduced basic innovations. Her predecessors had written novels either to entertain, or to propagate their personal views, or both. George Eliot's purpose was to offer a serious interpretation of life. She approached fiction in the spirit of the scientist, it as a procedure for analysis and understanding. Depicting the action of her characters as arising out of their personalities, she persistently probed their motives. Like Browning, she wanted to strip off the conventional labels of "virtue" and "vice" and arrive at the inner truth of each individual.

      Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) lived for many years in Manchester and knew at first hand the evils of the industrialised districts. Social problems therefore were the sole concern of Mrs. Gaskell who also wrote the biography of Charlotte Bronte. Her first novel Mary Burton published in 1848 remains to this day probably as best known, though not her most perfect book. It deals with the industrial state of Lancashire during the crisis of 1842, and it won, by its vivid and touching picture the applause of the most distinguished literary men of their time. Her other novels North and South and Cranford show very close observation; they are packed with concrete details and at the same time full of pity for the working class victims of financial self-seeking. Cranford, often read and loved as a charming and idyllic period piece shows the repercussion of Big Business on two small-town sisters. In Ruth, Mrs. Gaskell shows the same sympathy for unfortunate girls. She also proves herself to be a tender, gentle and amused humourist in Cranford.

      Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell the wife of a clergyman in Manchester, was well acquainted with the appalling conditions prevailing in industrial England. Her Mary Barton (1848), laid in Manchester, was inspired by the same kind of disgust that called forth Carlyle's fury against the machine. There are powerful pictures in it of the wretchedness and starvation which were epidemic among mill-workers and factory-employees, as well as generous indignation against the callousness of their employers. North and South (1855) is written in the same strain Both books were looked upon as seditious by her contemporaries. Ruth (1853) is a surprisingly courageous defense of women victims of the "double standard", and shocked many of its readers.
Her first novel attracted the attention of Dickens. He invited her contribution to his magazine, Household Words. As a result, she wrote serially the best-known of her books, 'Cranford (1851-1853). It is less a novel than a series of highly realistic pictures of village life. The material for it she drew from her memories of her childhood in Cheshire. The quiet narrative of the daily occurrences common to simple villagers is replete with sweetness and charm. The slender thread of story which holds the various incidents together is the distress of Miss Jenkyns upon her sudden loss of her little property until her rescue at the hands of her brother when he returns from India.

      Sylvia's Lovers (1863) is a tragedy, and Cousin Phyllis (1864) is a well-wrought pastoral story. What promised to be the best of her novels, Wives and Daughters (1864-1866) was never completed; it contains some fine satire at the expense of two daughters of opposing natures and their inept mother. Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857) is one of the great classics of English biography.

      Besides these important women novelists, other women who practised novel writing during the Victorian period are Mary Russel Mitford, Anna Elizabeth Bray (The Protestant), Lady G. Fullerton, Ellen Middleton, Catherine Gore, Mrs. Trollope. They were popular novelists, but they left little impress on the development of the English novel.

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