We live in a cause-heavy world. We have too many causes hounding for attention in public space. So many, that we have stopped taking them seriously. Furthermore, the elite, rich and English-educated in India, who consider themselves as the inheritors of what is called a “White-Man’s burden” have further made the masses cynical towards the causes they endorse on account of great hypocrisy that they have come to represent. So they will write editorials about empowering women and downtrodden, but then we find them tweeting about their maids not having bank accounts or citizen-identification to enable them to move to digital economy; you will find them tweeting about how their hearts are shattered at cruelty against dogs, but the next tweet, five minutes later, you will find them salivating over cow meat. Real causes have become a casualty here.
Amid all this frivolous noises, old classic literature, thinkers from the past offer a rare hope. This is evident not only in their writings and their work, their lives represent that. It is hard for people today to understand and appreciate the world these heroes from the past lived. In terms of Feminism and women empowerment, there are some voices which have be truest and surprisingly, by today’s environment, much-less shrill, much more concerned, much more true. One looks at those thinkers and writers with great respect. They did not adopt the causes because they were fashionable (in their times, they were not), rather because there sensitive souls could bear silences no more. The honesty of their thoughts is evident in their work.
Jane Austen, Charlotte, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf were those trail-blazing thinkers who defined the space for struggle for gender equality at a time when the term itself was faintly forming. Ms. Woolf, who wrote so beautifully on gender equality, openly in A Room of Her Own, where she talks about how best of the libraries were locked for women, or obtusely, clandestinely, subtly in her other fiction like Orlando, came a century after Bronte Sisters. But they created rare summits in human evolution where one should stand to get a perspective when one studies the journey of Women empowerment and equality in human history, before it gets frittered away by today’s shrill feminists.
Charlotte Bronte was eldest of the three Bronte sisters, Born on 21st of April, 1816, a century from now, in West Yorkshire, England. In a very short life of 38 years, before she died on 31st of March, 1855, supposedly due to Tuberculosis, she produced Five full length novels, Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Emma and The Professor. The last of her novel was published after her death for the want of publisher. This was in addition to a continuous and prolific writing career which included stories and poems. Jane Eyre is one book which I would always recommend to any girl struggling to find her place in the world around her. She is a proud woman, sure of her moorings, but not for once, hateful of the other gender. She stands on her own, with her independent mind and loving heart, but she is open to love. She is not bitter towards the world. This is what differentiates the writings of these great women writers from what would later become an independent category called feminist writers. One would be amused as to how many writers use this term in their profile which adds no value to their writing, but only pigeonholes them. Maybe they are trying too hard to find adversaries in their privileged lives, something which one did not need to ever invent for a Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf or even an Amrita Pritam, much closer to our times.
Jane Eyre, which made Charlotte a literary star, even in her times, still tells the story and challenges of her times. She had to publish the book under the pseudonym of Curer Bell. Once the secret that Curer Bell was a woman named Charlotte Bronte, criticism flew in. But her work found resonance in the voice of millions of voiceless women who did not even have a vote at that time. Her work is said to morose and melancholy. What makes her work outstanding is that her work is honest and brave. She did not strive to make her stories sad. She took it from her life.
The family with five little girls and a boy, moved to a nondescript village when Maria the eldest was seven and Charlotte was the youngest. The kids of a strict disciplinarian father, though much concerned about intellectual growth of his daughters quickly adapted to the parenting they had. An acquaintance who later became nurse to Charlotte says- “Maria, seven years old, would shut herself up in children’s study, with a newspaper, and be able to tell one everything once she came out- debates in parliament, and I don’t know what all.” The kids grew up in the weather of indifference. Father ate alone, and kids ate their potatoes in silence and wandered hand in hand to spend hours in moors, when not reading about political debates in parliaments. The invalid mother died when Charlotte was five and elder daughters were sent to Boarding schools, where uncared for, they died, soon after Charlotte and Emily went on to join them. This sordid incident became a part of Jane Eyre, where in Lowood School Jane witnesses the traumatic death of her friend, Helen Burns.
There as a deep longing for love in Charlotte, such sensitivity of soul that leaves little room for the bitterness to flow. Her life was a yearning, a search for love. She, devoid of love, by a very dry and distant parenting wrote in Jane Eyre- “Human beings must love something.” Her longings, and the emptiness of her soul found salvation in work. Amid all the gloominess of growing up, there was a very brave mind developing in the sisters which refuses to be cowed down by negativity and criticism. When she reached out to Poet Laureate Southey for advice, she gets a totally discouraging one, telling her to desist from literary life which is ‘unbecoming’ of a lady. Charlotte writes that while the response was disappointing, not for once did the Poet Laureate mention that the poems weren’t worthy.
The collection of poems by sisters were put forth but weren’t received well. And the brave writer writes in a jest- we have decided on distributing as presents a few copies of what we cannot sell. “The Professor” was rejected because the publishers felt there was lack of startling incident and thrilling event. Not one to be discouraged, then Charlotte set about penning the novel which would redeem her as a writer and place her on the high pedestal of literature for all times to come. Her resolution resounds in her words, she wrote as she sets about writing “Jane Eyre”. She writes, “I will show you a heroine as plain and small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.
Jane Eyre became a darling of the readers and critics alike. George Eliot, then Twenty-four appreciated and empathized with the writer much, And once it was clearer the Curer Bell was no man, but a thin, little lady called Charlotte Bronte, she became quite a celebrity. She was quickly accepted in the hallowed circle of literary celebrities like Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray. Her hard work comes out clearly in the absolutely enchanting detailing which Jane Eyre is full of. Thackeray wrote after meeting her- “I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great hones eyes. As one thinks of that life, so noble, so lovely,..of that passion for truth, …of those nights of eager studies, swarming fancies, invention, depression, elation and prayer;”
For many writers today who find comfort in the declaration of their own writing as feminist writing, thereby reducing the field of competition and hopefully, getting some comfort and support from the sisterhood, from the media, would find it interesting to read what this great writer who wrote about the trials and tribulation of women like no other before her, wrote to G H Lewes in a letter. Ms. Bronte writes, “..I wish you did not think of me as a woman. I wish all reviewers believed Currer Bell to be a man; they would be more just to him. You will, I know, keep measuring me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my sex; where I am not what you consider graceful, you will condemn me…Come what will, I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and of what is elegant and charming in femininity. It is not on those terms or with such ideas I ever took pen in hand; and if it is only on such terms my writing will be tolerated, I shall pass away from public and trouble no more. Out of obscurity I came, to obscurity I can easily return.” Never for once she surrenders her soul, and never for once she is bitter.
On this Virginia Woolf too agrees. Charlotte was a part of her novels. She found a vent in her characters. She wrote as a man would. But where Virginia disagree is that while in person, Charlotte was calm, aloof and devoid of bitterness, her anger was released through her character, which Ms. Woolf says, leaves much unsaid as compared to Jane Austen, even with a greater talent. She quotes from Jane Eyre, where Jane says- “Anybody may blame me who likes. And who Jane longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen:” . Essentially, Jane longs to be Eleanor of Ms. Woolf’s The Years, and in Jane, it is the longings of Charlotte weaved in. She says that “anger was tempering with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte the Novelist” in A Room of One’s Own. Ms. Bronte is longing but is hopeful. Ms. Woolf faults this unshakable faith of Mr. Bronte in the possibility of love. She writes-
“The drawbacks of being Jane Eyre are not far to seek. Always to be a governess and always to be in love is a serious limitation in a world which is full, after all, of people who are neither one nor the other.”
But then I consider this as a strength of Charlotte Bronte. She is a romantic, unlike Ms. Woolf, who is an experimental realist. Charlotte’s stories are told to tell something. Virginia Woolf’s stories are told. It is to the credit of the immensity of Charlotte Bronte’s writing that Woolf, her critic acquiesces and declares-
“It is the red and fitful glow of heart’s fire which illumines her pages. ..We do not read Charlotte Bronte for exquisite observation of character- her characters are vigorous and elementary; not for comedy- hers is grim and crude; not for a philosophic view of life- hers is that of a country parson’s daughter; but for her poetry. …She has an overpowering personality, so that, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them (people like Charlotte) some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observer patiently.”
Virginia, to somewhat of my dismay looks down at Charlotte’s writing, her being a parson’s daughter, but even she, being a great writer that she is, cannot ignore the great genius of Charlotte Bronte, which is always fighting the existing order and striving to create something new. She cannot ignore the importance of being Charlotte.
We know well that great artists are great artists because they are great human beings. They are not meant for the smallness of things and their grief and their resolutions must arise from the inside of their souls. A very witty quote from her writing, I chanced upon, on the need to cultivate happiness, the two-minutes, self-help syndrome which we find much graver today than two centuries back. Charlotte writes- No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does that advice mean? Happiness is not a potato to be planted and tilled. Happiness is a glory, shining far down upon us from heaven.”
Such philosophical marvel tells us, it is absolutely appropriate that Miss Martineaue wrote on Charlotte- “In her vocation she had, in addition to deep intuitions of a gifted woman, the strength of a man, the patience of a hero, and the conscientiousness of a saint.”
She is a soul always on rebound, she is always rising, soaring upwards, however cruel the winds might be. She lived in the days when for a woman who wanted to make her own living, the options were fairly limited. She did not know music, so all she could do was to be a Governess. She hated the job and became a writer in a world which did not feel literature was a job for women. She was discouraged but she kept at it. This is what makes Charlotte different. And she was always appropriate and magnanimous, which indicates not only to the strength of character also to a great education.
Once she receives the first printed copies of Jane Eyre, she writes to the Publishers- You have given the work every advantage which good paper, clear type and a seemly outside can supply. If it fails, the fault will lie with the author. You are exempt. In a world where everyone is looking for scapegoats, isn’t this quite refreshing. A difficult yet magnificent life, which finds echo in the life of every thinking girl even today, a testimony to Virginia Woolf’s words in The Guardian, published in 1904 (Haworth, November, 1904)- for however harsh the struggle, Emily and Charlotte, above all, fought to victory.
My Review of Virginia Woolf's The Years: Click Here
My Review of A Room of Her Own: Click HERE
On Jane Austen: Click HERE