ISSN 1813-7733 Vol. – 3, December 2006 (p 19-30)
The Woman Question in the novels by the Bronte Sisters
Rehnuma Bint Anis∗
Abstract: The Victorian period lasted more than half a century. During this time England changed radically in almost all respects. One of these was the rising consciousness of women about their rights and potentials. Soon, the social awareness was transmitted to literature. In retrospect we find that many women writers emerged at this critical juncture in history when women were pleading to be given voice, to achieve their rights and to be given an opportunity to come out of the shells of quiet submission enforced upon them and achieve something of their own. Three sisters living deep in the Yorkshire moors surprised the world by taking part in this ongoing struggle. This article attempts to evaluate their contributions towards achieving women’s rights in English history.
Envious of the freedom enjoyed and the respect commanded by women during the Islamic era, Dr. Annie Bessant wrote in her book The Life and Teachings of Muhammad: ‘I often think that women are more free in Islam than in Christianity. Women are more respected in Islam than by the faith which preaches monogamy’1. For it took the women of Europe many more years and much hard struggle to attain the rights given to women by Islam centuries ago. It was during the Victorian era that a series of changes - social, political and moral swept all over England. One of these concerned the issues of gender inequality in politics, economic life, education and social intercourse for women; rightly coming to be known as the ‘Woman Question’. Within a few years it gained momentum and became just as grave an issue as evolution or industrialization. Justin M’Carthy lamented in an essay in the Westminster Review (July, 1864), ‘the greatest social difficulty in England today is the relationship between men and women. The principal difference between ourselves and our ancestor is that they took society as they found it while we are self conscious and perplexed’. 2 With the spread of education and the contribution of the printing press, which reduced the cost of books greatly, the nineteenth century became ‘the great age of the English novel partly because the novel was the vehicle best equipped to present a picture of life lived in a given society against a stable background of social and moral values by people who were recognizably like the people encountered by readers, and this is the kind of picture of life the middle class reader wanted to read about’. 3 Literature, being the mirror of society, took up the subject quickly. As the preference for poetry changed towards a marked interest in more substantial literature, alongside the men, many women assumed the opportunity of using the life they saw around them to construct novels which would capture a picture of contemporary life as well as attract readers to identify themselves to the characters presented. N.K. Basu mentions in his essay ‘Women Novelists of the Victorian Age’ that the great French writer Guizot wrote, speaking of his preference for English ∗ Assistant Professor, Dept. of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Chittagong.
IIUC Studies, Vol. 3
women novelists, ‘My delight is to read English novels, particularly those written by women …… Miss Austen, 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 cloud of dramatic poets of the great Athenian age’. 4 Among them were three sisters, who, in spite of living deep in the bleak and barren Yorkshire moors, surprised the world by the consciousness, expressed in their work, of the ‘Woman Question’. They are Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, who have won a permanent place in English literature by dint of the power and intensity of...