Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
– Jane Eyre (1847)
It’s striking how one of the most sexist and puritanical eras in recent history managed to produce three of the greatest female writers in the English canon: Emily Brontё, Charlotte Brontё and George Eliot. Like Eliot, who was famously forced to become a ‘George’ because she couldn’t have been published as a ‘Mary Anne’, the Brontё sisters also started out with male pseudonyms as it was the only way to be taken seriously in London’s publishing houses. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that a linking point between three of the nineteenth century’s brightest minds was a man. They were all influenced by the great poet Lord Byron. Of course if the adage suggests there is so often a great woman behind a famed man, why wouldn’t it be that it go the other way as well?
The Americans like to claim Ernest Hemingway as the first artist-celebrity: the artist who makes his own life and personality as much a myth and area of interest as the work he was creating. He wasn’t. Before him there was George Gordon Byron. Dashingly handsome, exceedingly romantic, sexually–let’s say prolific–the great poet certainly had a/his way with women. As such he drew as many critics as he did fans. In other words, not everyone was convinced of Lord Byron’s greatness.
To be sure the Brontё sisters and George Eliot did not necessarily agree when it came to their opinion of the man and his “legend.” Hs mark, however, was certainly left on all their work, according to Denise Tischler Millstein, whose dissertation on the Byron connection forms the basis of this theory of a connection between 19th century London’s greatest female scribes.
THE BRONTË SISTERS
Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields would have had to share birth parents for me to come up with any semblance of a modern equivalent to the incredibly rare talent that emerged from the pens (quills?) of sisters Charlotte and Emily Brontё. Typical of that patriarchal time, Patrick Branwell, the girls’ brother, was supposed to have been the gifted one. Their father thought he might one day become a successful journalist or possibly a writer. This would be comical were it not for the alcohol and affair that got in the way of any success and the fact of Branwell dying at the age of 31. He was far from the only Brontё to die young. The oldest sisters in the family would die just a few months apart at the tender ages of 10 and 11 and the tragedy would not end there.
The children of a less that wealthy clergyman, the Brontё sisters did not get a great deal of schooling and learned much of their craft at home. With not a single of the six Brontё children passing the age of 40, it’s no surprise that the girls began writing at an early age. It started out as a game and was much influenced, as legend has it, with 12 wooden soldiers their father had originally given as a gift to Patrick.
Along with their sister, Anne, a writer too, the three Brontё sisters would stay up late sitting round the dining room table discussing their writing. The source of much of their literary education came from the magazines and newspapers their father brought home. One such magazine introduced the girls to one Lord Bryon, that man of great animal magnetism, known to have asked his profilers to portray him as a “man of action. This rather hunky poet, as passionate as he was manly, but equal parts arrogant and known to be nasty as well, would influence Emily and Charlotte to such a degree as to become a sort of basis for the leading men in the Brontёs’ masterpieces, Heathcliff in Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Mr. Rochester in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre which, alongside Anne’s Agnes Grey, would all be published the very same year!
While in her thesis, Millstein argues that Emily did fully buy into the Bryonic myth, her older sister,
Barely reaching 30, Emily would die a year after the publication of her only novel. Soon after Anne would die. For the years until her death at 39,
Though she was something of a fan of Jane Eyre, George Eliot didn’t agree with either Brontё sister about Bryon, out and out disliking the man as many women in the late Victorian era had began to do. Eliot found him sexually immoral and his poetry at times “vulgar.” To be fair, rumours at that late stage in the century spread of an incestuous affair Byron had with his half-sister which had a large part to do with chipping away at Bryon’s heroic stature. But again, this doesn’t mean Bryon’s myth wouldn’t seep its way into some of Eliot’s best known male characters.
Irony: Because she wasn’t beautiful and her father thought her intelligent, George Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans, was given more education than would normally have been given a woman of that time. When her family moved to
In 1850, at the age of 31, Eliot would call herself Marian (this before she needed to become a ‘George’) and move to
Eliot didn’t escape her share of drama in her personal life, particularly when it came to her love life, first supposedly having an affair with the married Chapman whilst working on his magazine, then marrying George Lewes who had never officially gotten a divorce from his first wife. As a result, her relationship with Lewes was deemed adulterous, and the open way they “flaunted” their relationship at that Victorian time was to some scandalous. After Lewes’ death, Eliot would remarry, selecting a man 20 years her junior. To the great relief of her brother and, presumably, so many other gossiping members of her society, Eliot’s new beau was not married when she joined him at the altar.
Published nine years after her arrival in London, Eliot’s first novel Adam Bede was an instant success and would be swiftly followed a year later by The Mill on the Floss. Eleven years later Eliot would publish the masterpiece that Martin Amis (London Fields) and Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) call the greatest novel ever written, Middlemarch. Virginia Woolf described it as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
Lewes would die in 1878, two years after the publication of Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, which is known to greatly capture something of the woman’s role or certainly how Eliot felt about that hugely limited role during the Victorian age. It was Daniel Deronda himself who, Millstein claims, had those same Bryronic qualities the Bronte sisters’ leading male characters did.
Working toward a new type of realism in her work, Eliot is said to have greatly helped move the novel in the direction it would take in the twentieth century, that of the naturalistic and psychological novels.
FURTHERING THE CAUSE
Daniel Deronda, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff are all to some degree imagined relatives of Lord Bryon and will forever be remembered in the three classics of English literature that they come from. In Millstein’s fascinating conclusion, however, she suggests it wasn’t Bryon himself that the Brontёs and George Eliot were interested in, but rather it was his “dominant male voice” that they were trying to capture in their own writing. The irony Millstein is careful to note is that this dominant voice was as much an affectation for Bryon as it would be by three of the world’s great female novelists. The greater irony still is that the appropriation of this “male” voice seems to have furthered the cause of women’s fiction forever.