Behind Closed Doors

Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855) Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), caa 1834, 90.2 x74.6 cm.

When at the beginning of the past century more occupations were opened to middle class women, marriage ceased to be their only means of emancipation. They become free to choose the man they wanted, free to get a more specific education that could provide them with a career, free to live the life they wanted and be the architects of their fate. The dawn of a new era.

Yet, if we go back to Regency or Victorian times the word emancipation for a woman could only but coincide with one event in the life of a girl: the catching of a husband. On this purpose girls were taught to be “accomplished”, that is the learning of all those talents like singing, drawing, dancing which were useful to be noticed and appreciated in society, but useless outside those circles. Since a woman dreamed to break free from family ties as soon as possible, there was often no time to wait for a Prince Charming to be met in one ball or another, so if a good offer came, well, it couldn’t but be accepted. 27 years old, still unmarried Charlotte Lucas’ s concern to become a “burden for her family“, meant, above all, her fear to be exposed, unprotected, alone without the presence of a man beside her, that is why she promptly grabs what she believes to be her last opportunity to marry, which comes in the shape of Mr Collins. Odious Mr Collins represents her independence and she is happy with it.

Of course, we cannot know what happened behind closed doors once married: were these women satisfied with their new position of mistresses of house? Is that the life they expected? Did they feel really liberated once left their native homes? If we peruse the gallery of female characters drawn by the three Brontë sisters, we may find some interesting answers to our questions. In Wuthering Heights, just to start with, Emily Brontë ‘s heroine, Catherine Earnshaws, marries for money. She accepts the proposal of a very good man, Edgar Linton, the best catch in the neighbourhood, who offers her wealth, station, his heart. Nonetheless the charming lot won’t be enough to secure their happiness. Catherine’s obsessive love for Heathcliff will make her feel entrapped in a match she has learnt to loathe, till torn between duties and unfulilled desires, she dies. Catherine is actuallly overwhelmed by the weight of Victorian code of behaviour and morality. She is not strong enough to ignore what society required and accept the man she loves, Heathcliff, as her companion, because he is too far beneath her station. She cannot be blamed for that.

Helen Huntingdon, Anne Brontë’s protagonist of the “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, marries for love, but once the first intoxication of the mind and senses vanishes, what remains is the naked truth made of abuse and fear. She will suffer abuse and mistreatment from her husband Arthur, a libertine and lover of London social life, but since she cannot accept it and she convinces herself that she can redeem him – huge common mistake – that is why she closes herself in a marriage in which she is first tyrannized and then abandoned and betrayed, even forced to suffer the presence of Arthur’s lovers at home. Only when she realizes that Arthur is turning her son against her by educating him to alcohol and gratuitous violence, she decides to leave the marital home going against all moral and social laws. This is precisely the crucial point of Ann Brontë’s work. She focuses on the problems of the Victorian era: from the custody of children to the theme of divorce. Anne fits perfectly into that group of dissident intellectuals of the Victorian era who rebel against the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the enslavement of bourgeois respectability.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, marries for love, compassion, as her free choice. It is the most unlikely of the three plots considering the times. Rude, liar, seductive, rich, Mr Rochester offers his love and hand to Jane, a poor governess, omitting to say that he is still married to a woman, Bertha Mason, he keeps secluded in a room. He has got his reasons, of course, she is mad and dangerous. He also claims his right to happiness and in a way, being Jane’s social and economic superior, he thinks he is allowed to behave so. But Jane will accept to marry him only when she feels herself his equal, and of course, after the most important obstacle between them will be removed, that is, his wife, who will die eventually.  Rochester, who will be blinded by the fire, which will destroy his manor house at the end of the novel, becomes weaker while Jane grows in strength and confidence, after having inherited from an uncle, found real connections and even another suitor at hand. She is free to marry a man who loves and  whose faults are no mystery to her, thus contradicting one of Charlotte Lucas’s pearls of wisdom:

“‘ . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’

(Pride and Prejudice)

Jane wanted no surprises. At least no more.



14 thoughts on “Behind Closed Doors

  1. Wow, my lovely wise teacher, you have sent me to my younger days when I kept everyday reading and being flooded in the world of these beautiful victorian time. These three sisters were one of the highest points, especially Wuthering Heights with the unacceptable love between Catherine and Heathcliff. This way of “love” was the favourite way for my brother Al, he meant the true lovers would come together at the end with their souls.
    I wondered always the women in those days, in spite of inequality could have the opportunity to write such as amazing books; we have also Jane Austin among the others. Thank you so much for putting me a moment out of this Virusian time! 🙏💖💖🥰😘

    • Well, when they first published their novels they used male names. It was considered inappropriate for a woman to deal with such matters at those times. Writing such topics was their way to break with Victorian conventions and ear some money. They left an amazing legacy to us romantic readers.

  2. Is it a loss of hope or is it the gaining of wisdom, but my respect for Charlotte Lucas has grown over the years. Mr Collins is dull and utterly self-serving but he is not cruel. He may never give Charlotte love but he gives her respect. As the father of two daughters in their 20s I hope that they will both find someone who is completely devoted to them, always kind, and, hopefully, just a bit crazy about them too. I certainly hope that no-one like Heathcliff will ever cross their path! Of course, he would be hard to resist but I cannot believe that he is capable of doing anything else but destroy .

    • But I must warn you, girls are always attracted by the Heathcliff type, at least at the beginning of their “romantic” life. The thrill always wins over dull certainties. Think about Edgar, he has got everything, as Catherine is well aware of, but that thrill. Money,station even look are not enough. Any girl has bumped and crashed into a Heathcliff at least once in her life, don’t forget it.
      Best of luck, Stephen . 😜🙋🏼

  3. Reading “the pearl of wisdom” by Charlotte Lucas I was a little perplexed. Who would ever marry a person who does not know the faults? I could understand in arranged marriages but not for love marriages. If a person marries another out of love, he is especially in love with the defects, which make that person unique. So I totally agree with Jane, I would have behaved the same way.

    • It is absurd to think that, at the time, a woman, to live an almost modest life, had to rely on a man. Because if you did not have a husband, you had nothing, you were a woman and you had to be supported, it is impossible for you to work, to have an independence, not even far. I consider myself extremely fortunate to live in an era that is no longer so retrograde and from this, I realize how many steps forward society has made, and I am amazed that so many women have managed to assert their rights; however, the inferiority of women still exists today, especially in the workplace; I hope it will be eliminated entirely.

  4. Fortunately today things have changed. Women are much more respected, man has taken a step forward. Although this doesn’t happen in all countries … in fact many women are still destined for an arranged marriage chosen by their family, very often for money and almost never for love. I hope that sooner or later everyone will come to consider women on a par with men, free to make their own choices.

  5. I certainly feel lucky to live in an age when things have changed. Even if they have not changed at all because in some countries women are still forced to marry, for money, men who do not love. I am of the opinion that still today there are women who marry for money but that is another matter. Fortunately today women are more respected than they were then, they are stronger and freer. Unfortunately there are still women like Helen Huntingdon, the protagonist of Anne Brontë’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” who are abused, mistreated and abused and I hope that one day all this will end completely.

  6. We take women’s rights for granted, but that is absolutely not the case. Until a few generations ago, in order to have a modest life, women had to find a husband so as not to feel a burden for their family. To date, not much has changed: according to a study, only six nations place women on the same level as men. Italy is in twenty-first place. One example is that starting a business is much more difficult for women than for men.

  7. Perhaps being male, I cannot fully understand how difficult it was for women to fight for their rights, fortunately times have changed and minds have only evolved and women have finally managed to “almost” have an equality with men, I say “almost” because unfortunately even today there are still disparities, unacceptable for the time.

  8. Surely women had to overcome a lot of challenges on the road to obtaining equal rights (and they still have a long road ahead). Still, I shiver whenever i think about the condition of submission and obedience that far too many women had to endure in the past. A world in which the only way to relieve the pains of a relationship is to not thoroughly understand a partner, as to ‘know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life’, shouldn’t exist even in the most distopic novel. Sadly, to this day, we still observe this situation. In hindsight, Jane has to be an example for the kind of life every woman should aspire to (maybe with a little less trial and a bit more joys in between).

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