A Girlhood Guide from the Brontës

Originally posted May 1, 2015

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In just under a year, Charlotte Brontë turns 200. It feels appropriate, to me, to be gearing up for her birthday celebration as I launch a zine exploring feminism and girlhood from a textual perspective. Birthdays are—if nothing else—a mark of time well spent, a simple increment on the trip from being a kid to being a grown up. And Charlotte certainly had a lot to party about.

But she wasn’t alone in her literary greatness. A lot of people know that Charlotte wrote her tales of female stars alongside her two sisters, Emily and Anne, but a lot of casual readers miss out on the whole package when they just remember the Brontës for Jane Eyre. Even Charlotte herself felt like her sisters deserved wider credibility:

“I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers, less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.”

It’s safe to say the Brontës wrote a lot from experience, and a lot of that had to do with each other. Their sisterly collaboration in the creative sphere remains, even today, prime fodder for girls to soak up between basketball practice and math homework. Reading Anne and Charlotte, it’s apparent that the feminist utopia, or females gathering around for mutual influence, meant a lot to their idea of bringing up stellar girls. Charlotte has Jane spy on a group of Brontë-esque sisters as they bat ideas back and forth by the hearth and sets parts of Villette and Jane Eyre in girls’ academies. Anne shows Agnes Grey opening a girls’ school with her mother and even has her heroine Helen Graham adopt her mother’s maiden name and set up house and shop with her lifelong female servant and good friend. Something about the community of women and girls clearly fed the Brontës and gave their stories a uniquely girl-positive light. Both in their fiction and in real life, the sisters explored their mutual creativity through words and art, leaning always on each other for support, criticism, and muse.

The trio’s childhood home and ground zero for their work is now a museum, operated by the Brontë Society, and their communal writing table is now a fixture there once again thanks to a generous grant. Sitting around that table, these literary sisters brought so many of us our first awakenings of a raised consciousness, and even more still a recognition of our maturing selves. Even though not all books dwell at great length like Jane Eyre does on girlhood, all tackle the coming-of-age progression and show strong girls who notice wrongdoing, work hard, and make a mark, eventually evolving into strong women. For that, the novels are detailed roadmaps for navigating girlhood. We readers find in these books a critical eye cast toward the pressures on girls and women, and if read carefully, they’re a great primer on growing up.

We don’t have to dig too far at all to find glimmers of how to be a successful girl in the novels, and at the same time, there are countless hints toward the restrictions these brilliant women faced as they made their way as writers. After all, the three wrote mid-nineteenth century, all publishing originally under masculine—or at least neutral—cover. The world didn’t know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne for some time, but they ate up Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Brontë scholar Winifred Gérin attemps an explanation. She ties at least Charlotte and Anne’s pen names to female figures that were objects of their admiration. This feels a bit more positive than calling themselves by random masculine names, but even so, it remains that the sisters could see the need for some kind of unobtrusive cover in the first place. Like Malala Yousafzai writing under the name of her favorite Pashtun heroine to protect her identity, the Brontës lived in a world beset by backlash anytime women tried to do something public. The feminine-masking pen name concept feels retrograde in twenty-first century Anglo-American society, where we have things like Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the United States, but it feels pretty brave, looking backward, to take on even male-sounding names if it means getting your work out there for people to read. The Brontës didn’t dismantle the father’s house, but they did rework the tools to build the addition.

A lot of the positive girl buzz generated in the Brontë novels stems from the fact of the family’s lower middle class station. The family wasn’t rich, but they had education and each other. One could do much worse than to take Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre as instructional booklets on owning girlhood. Anne writes Agnes in a somewhat autobiographical way, giving her an education and a job of her own. Agnes moves away from home while young with a thirst for earning her bread. She uses her humble and industrious upbringing (with parents encouraging her to be an actor in her own fate) to land a governess position over girls in much fancier positions than she’s used to.

When Agnes cares for a well-to-do Rosalie Murray, she looks on as the girl makes vain choices that ultimately land her in a less-than-happy situation. Rosalie likes the finer things and dreams of being a titled lady above all else—not unlike the vacuous Lady Lowborough of her other cautionary proto-feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Agnes, though, comes from a set of parents who married for love over money. She grew up hearing her mother say she’d rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man, and she finds out later that her mother was disinherited from a sprawling fortune because of the marriage. While so much girl fiction—contemporary and otherwise—seems to focus on the marriage plot and the pursuit of a prince, Agnes’s story dwells at length on the folly of thinking in terms of marital gain alone. Agnes knows she has to work hard right from the beginning, and she feels her social disadvantage at not belonging to the well-primped and wealthy set, as well as her gender disadvantage at not being born male and able to be an agent over every aspect of her happiness.

In a strikingly modern passage, Agnes looks on as Rosalie is showered with happiness, all because of her beauty and her willingness to play into the scripts that dictate how girls should perform their femininity. Rosalie is raised to value flirting and love matches over bookishness—Agnes’s strong suit—and the double standard between the Christian ideal of inner beauty and the reality of outer beauty’s power is not lost on our heroine:

“It is foolish to wish for beauty,” muses Agnes. “Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?”

Agnes is understandably bitter at how unfairly things are shaking out for her, despite her hard work toward the ideal of cultivating her brains over her looks. She goes on to say that if a girl is pretty and good, she is praised for both, while a plain and good girl scarcely makes a mark on anyone. Likewise, pretty girls who are awful on the inside get away with things that a plain girl never would. It’s a stark lesson and an interesting assessment that still holds weight for girl readers today. Girl culture critics Susan Douglas and Joan Jacobs Brumberg are right at home with Agnes in their dissection of why we value pretty over good or smart. What’s disappointing is that almost immediately after Agnes’s bold critique of beauty standards and performing femininity in exchange for happiness, she admits that she’s begun to take a page from Rosalie in dressing prettier for her crush, Mr. Weston.

The societal compliance ends up working out for her. Agnes ends up with Weston in the end (he shows up out of the woodwork to marry her, as so many nineteenth-century heroes do), so Anne has just proven through Agnes that women have to make concessions if they want certain kinds of happiness. Agnes Grey is a very clear criticism of what too much money and vanity can do to people, but she applies an inversion technique to show—quietly and without rocking the boat—why that kind of thing still short changes women in the long run, just like she shows Tenant’s Helen Huntington nearly undone in the end by following the good girl trope all her life. It all feels a lot like awkward teenager Daria of the 1990s MTV series, whose defiance of acceptable teenage girliness is met with awkward moments on the show, but for the purpose of asking us to re-evaluate the way we think about girl scripts. Daria is a feminist with one outfit in her closet, but when faced with her crush, she still ends up getting her belly button pierced—against her normal judgment—to appear dangerous and sexy. It’s a way to show that girlhood is a minefield of double-standards and forced compromises, even within feminism, and that it’s human to get sucked into what you’re fighting.

All of this Anne talk is not to diminish Charlotte. In fact, Jane Eyre feels like a companion read with Agnes Grey. Both star governesses who rose from modest means, dealt with spoiled wealthies, did their work demurely, and ended up with some variety of happiness. Unlike Agnes’s “prince” though, Jane’s is loaded—but blinded—at the end. I hesitate to position Jane Eyre as a road map for girls because Jane’s relationship to Rochester feels more like a caretaker role, something Nel Noddings might endorse for its care ethic and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar might decry for its angel-in-the-house female martyrdom. Both novels seem flawed in that neither Jane nor Agnes seemed to have much choice over whom they fell in love with, and they do both circle back to a convenient ending served with wedding cake. On the other hand, they are also alike in that they show strong girls rising up and doing something in a world that says they should probably be written under pen names. The novels aren’t perfect, but then feminist scholars have been squabbling for decades over what makes a text feminist. Ideas range from female authorship to womb allegories, and it feels like there will never be a quickie answer to how exactly a text can be feminist. And that’s why it’s so exciting to study.

With several semesters of women’s studies behind me, I revisit the marriage plot in the Brontë novels and start to think of it as more of a reward for doing the feminist thing than a damning tell of non-feminist writing. In a highly matrimonial world, it makes sense that a writer has to show her readers that they can paint, write, teach, work, and be strong while still attaining the socially acceptable happiness of marriage. The message to girls seems to be that it’s okay to be both subjects and authors; feminists don’t have to end up alone with their work, and their generative power doesn’t have to stop with childbearing. While the fantasy of “having it all” needs some work—via squashing gender bias in the K–12 classroom and creating a world where women have access to childcare and equal pay—it’s heartening to see books written in the 1840s with something to contribute to that ideal besides, “all that satisfaction will be too much work.”

So for that, I praise the Brontës. They may not have been as overtly polemical as Mary Wollstonecraft or rocked as many boats as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but they did something that in the right light feels a whole lot more effective than being an ardent proselyte for feminism. They took themselves and their ideas and wrote them into a narrative that many girls can relate to. They drew politics from the public world and made them comfy within the personal. Call it the power of storytelling. Through fiction, the Brontës reached girls and women of all ages, many of whom had no previous care or idea of what a feminist looks like. And in their vast and enduring impact on girls’ coming of age experiences, I totally agree with Charlotte—they were genuinely good and truly great.