Women Novelist of the Victorian Era | English Women Novelist

Women Novelists: A whole galaxy of women novelists wrote novels in English. In the eighteenth century there were already some outstanding women novelists such as Mrs. Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Susan Ferrier. But more and more women took interest in writing fiction in the nineteenth century. Jane Austen perhaps is the best woman novelist in the eighteenth as well as the nineteenth century women novelists of England. The women novelists of the Victorian Era are Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. Bray. Mrs. Henry Wood-Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Lyon Lynton, M. E. Braddon,Rhoda Broughton, Edna Lyall and a number of others. But the most important women novelists of the period are Charlotte Bronte. Emile Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell and George Eliot. Let us discuss these four elaborately and separately.

Bronte Sisters: The three Bronte sisters-Anne, Charlotte, and Emily- collectively known often as the “stormy sisterhood”, who took the England of their time by storm, were in actual life shy and isolated girls with rather uneventful lives. All of them died young of tuberculosis as their two other “non-literary” sisters did. They were daughters of a strict Irish person who made them lead a life of “the sternest self-repression”.

Contribution of the Bronte Sisters: The three sisters represent the ‘stormy sisterhood’, i.e., the passion in English fiction. They imparted the romantic note of imagination and passion to the English novel. Instead of concentrating on the depiction of the manners and customs of social life in a remote countryside, as was done by Jane Austen, they turned their gaze to the soul of their characters and presented in their novels powerful studies of souls in deep anguish. They were not interested in the portrayal of social life; rather they chose to study the feminine heart and presented the woman’s point of view in their fiction. They inaugurated a new conception of the heroine in English fiction, as a woman of vital strength and passionate feelings. Jane Eyre, Shirley Agnes are fine studies of feminine life and soul providing glimpses into the tortured and suffering souls of their respective heroines.

The Bronte sisters experienced life within a narrow confine, but their narrow and limited experience did not stand in the way of achieving excellence in their work. Rather, it imparted intensity to it. Of course the repetition of the same scenes and sights, and the same themes made their novels somewhat state, but this lack of freshness was compensated for by the presentation of passion and emotion in an intensified form. Charlotte Bronte and Anne Bronte had experience of life as governess, school teachers and pupils, and they repeated the same scenes and experiences again and again in their novels.

As regards the plot-construction, the Bronte sisters have not much to their credit. The plots of their novels are complex and often formless, and in many cases there are loose ends and episodes, but this deficiency in the management of their plots, they make up by their characterisation. Their characters are elemental figures. We can forget neither the male nor the female characters. Jane Eyre, Rochester, Shirley, Heathcliff, Catherine, Agnes are among the immortals of literature. The characters are truthfully and sincerely portrayed. Their forte is characterisation and not plot-construction.

The Bronte’s poetised the English novel. There are passages that almost border on poetry. In Wuthering Heights, we come across many beautiful poetic passages that move us to ecstasy and joy. Their imagery is poetic, their nature descriptions are poetic, and the treatment of passion, specially love, is poetic.

Another, most obvious contribution of the Bronte sisters is the presentation of the life of Yorkshire and its rich and beautiful nature- background. They all present its landscape-Charlotte realistically. Anne nostalgically, Emily fully poetically superbly. They also use its rich rough dialect. They all present their people-though they present them in three different ways. In Wuthering Heights the Yorkshire character is presented in quintessence, as though all the willful Yorkshire lasses who ever lived had been distilled into the willfulness of Cathy. In Shirley the Yorkshire character is shown to us realistically and consciously. There is a peculiar quality in the Bronte presentation of Yorkshire: a quality of wild poetry, of arrogance, of melancholy, of stormy intransigence and fiery intensity, of passionate scorn for material values, which is not native to that robust and practical country. This is the Celtic strain, which mingles with the Yorkshire to produce a strange blend. Let us say then that their work is a Yorkshire tune played on an Irish harp by varyingly strong and skillful fingers. To this tune Charlotte adds passionate, Anne pious, and Emily cosmic harmonies”. (Phyllis Bentley).

George Eliot (1819-1880): George Eliot “stands at the gateway between the old novel and the new, no unworthy heir of Thackeray and Dickens and no unworthy forerunner of Hardy and Henry James”. She was essentially a novelist of intellectual life and her psychological insight into human motives and springs of action is deep and profound. She intellectualised the English novel and imported to it a moral fervour and ethical bias. Her famous novels are Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, Romola, Mill on the Floss, etc.

George Eliot is a psychological novelist, “She tried to pierce behind the show of things and to reveal the forces by which they are controlled”. (David Cecil). She was a rationalist and a philosophic thinker. Fiction in her hand was not merely entertainment; she was an inspired moralist at heart, and “the tone of her novels is one of moral earnestness, and at times, in later work of an austere grimness”. Her novels are so many sermons for a vast congregation of readers who could not subscribe to Christian codes. “She was a sort of Moses to the Victorian Age, leading it to the Promised Land of full intellectual, moral and political freedom, even though the results of its entering upon that inheritance have been similar to those that overtook the Jews after entering over Jordan”. (Church)

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According to Jerome Thale, “George Eliot was interested not so much in the disintegration of society, the breakdown of structures which seemed so large in mid-Victorian England, as in the delineation of characters, particularly the inner man”. In her novels the characters develop gradually as we come to know them. “Her imagination is not a distorting glass like Dickens”, vitalising her figures by accentuating their personal idiosyncrasies, nor is, like, Charlotte Bronte, a painted window suffusing them with the colour of her own live temperament; it is an X-ray, bringing them to life by the clearness with which she penetrates to the secret mainspring of their actions”. (David Cecil).

The heroines of George Eliot’s books are more vividly and convincingly drawn than the heroes; the women are vastly superior to their lovers. She is realistic in characterisation. The dialogue in her books, the late as well as the early ones, is shot with touches and gleams, warm, rustic turns of speech half Biblical, half Shakespearean, yet wholly first hand and fragrant of the folk from whom she sprang” (Church). “Even at its brightest her humour is not exuberant. But within its limitations it is both individual and delightful. Intelligence gives it edge, good humour gives it glow; it sparkles over the comedy of rustic provincial life, a satire at once cool and mellow, incisive and genial” (David Cecil). She mingles pathos with humour.

Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865): Mrs. Gaskell is one of those novelists who used the novel as an instrument of social reform. Her famous novels include Mary Barton, North and South, Cranford, Ruth, Wives and Daughters, and Sylvia’s Lovers. She was nothing of the passion and frustration of the Bronte sisters. Her sense of humour and deep sympathy, her deep social consciousness, her true observations and pictures of the Victorian society. Her zeal for social reform, etc. make her novels readable and valuable. Her later novels herald the coming of the psychological novel. Mrs. Gaskell, says W. L. Cross, “did not possess the clearness of vision, the equipment of knowledge, and the breadth or horizon required for completely satisfying the definition of the psychological novel. What she did in past was fully accomplished by George Eliot.”



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