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.

 

A Matter of Chance

Miss Charlotte Lucas is exactly the kind of friend every woman wishes to have. If you are so fortunate to have as your best friend a Charlotte Lucas type, you will never be in danger of being overshadowed by her, as this specimen is usually “not handsome enough” to draw the interest of a man on her first – you know, we women are quite sensitive on this point – and she never seeks attention, but rather, she enjoys to see you in the limelight (I’ve never met one). In that shadow where Charlotte Lucas has comfortably placed herself for all her life, she has had all the time to study people and their behaviour in society, thus maturing a particular sensibility that allows her to detect whatever becomes unusual in their actions and to see events before they do happen. She is the first one to perceive Darcy’s change in attitude towards her friend Elizabeth and she is quick to understand that Jane’s demureness will not be the right strategy to secure Bingley :

“..it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.” (Pride and Prejudice Chpt 6)

Being wise and not afraid of speaking her mind, she always tries to find the right words to warn and advice her friend Elizabeth, but as a modern Cassandra, she is hardly ever given consequence as the limelight often blunders.

Charlotte Lucas seems to know the rules of love better than any other girl, but she also knows that love is not her game; not any more. At 27, she does not allow herself any longer even to dream a meeting with her Prince Charming. She is well aware that she has got just a few cards left to play, if she wants to marry and avoid “being a burden” to her family. The search of love would reduce her chances to get a husband, well, any husband. There is no room for any deceitful romanticism for her. She truly believes that neither love, nor wealth or disposition can guarantee a happy marriage:

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well-known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and 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 Chpt 6)

Soon after Charlotte convinces Elizabeth to sing before their friends and Darcy. Once again, while Lizzie enjoys the limelight, she quietly retreats in her shadow, but her remarks cannot be ignored. Are these words or wisdom or just the bitter conclusions of a disappointed young woman?  Of course, Elizabeth, who is six years younger and claims her right to marry for love, considers her speculations unreasonable and laughs at her. When you are 21, even 30 and your entire life is before you, Charlotte’s disquisition may sound ridiculous, but when you grow older and you can ponder on yours and even your friends’ relationships, would I still laugh at the idea that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance? I would not, and you?

The SimpleTruth

If somebody asked me to pick my favorite among Jane Austen’s novels I would promptly reply: Pride and Prejudice, of course, but if I were given another option,
that would undoubtedly be Persuasion.That is why I heartily recommended this novel to Chris, a fellow blogger, who last summer was experiencing the joy of exploring Jane Austen’s world. Of course, since he had many other good reads he had scheduled, it took a while to know his point of view, but he did it at last and the long-awaited review of Persuasion appeared under my WordPress tree on Christmas day.

Only, differently from what I had expected I felt that Chris had not enjoyed that novel much, not as much as Emma, to which he had dedicated three posts. Of course, it was a very neat, professional, interesting review, but I couldn’t feel in any line a shadow of the admiration he had shown for Emma and at the same time, it was as if he couldn’t understand mine (and the many other Persuasion fans who usually comment on his blog).

However, scrolling down the comments, I realized that he had actually understood the root of our fervor, only, being a true Gentleman, he didn’t want to speak his mind frankly. In his very last reply to another blogger , in fact, he hinted at something that sounds like this:”I can see the appeal of Anne as a character for us, ahem, older readers, Helen, compared to the younger Austen heroines like Lizzie, Fanny or Emma. ” Ahem, there he went, ladies, like a dagger in my self-esteem. Everything was clear, that’s why we have enjoyed Persuasion so much, because we are, I can’t say the word, well, let’s put it in this way, a little advanced in years.

Anne Elliot is, of course, the heroine that gives any mature woman hope. She is very much alike the Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice: plain, modest, accomplished, clever but too old to aspire to a good match with the bliss love. However, differently from Charlotte, Anne doesn’t settle for a Mr Collins; she, unexpectedly, has the occasion to meet again Captain Wentworth, the love of her life, the opportunity she had missed when she was much younger and in her full  bloom.The grown-up Anne has learnt to be less yielding than her younger self and this time she will be able to conquer a much deserved happy ending.

So, if this is true, we have been unmasked, ladies; therefore, when somebody next time asks you, for example, which Jane Austen heroine you would like to be🤔…..what about Lydia Bennet as an answer? 😜