Over the course of October 2017 to March 2018, I composed an 8,601 word dissertation on the Brontë sisters. Through that arduous process, I complained many times over in my monthly wrap-ups. I moaned about how difficult it was to compose anything of meaning, and how depressing it was to read about the reality of Victorian marriage. But here I am, five months later, with a first class dissertation on the Brontës. I wanted to share my findings with you.
After a lengthy period of racking my brains, trying to choose an interesting topic to write on, jumping from research solely based on Charlotte to the Byronic hero, I finally settled on exploring the relationship between marriage and class in Charlotte’s Shirley, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This allowed me to write and research the three people who mean the most to me. Before anyone wonders, because I know you will, I wasn’t allowed to write on Jane Eyre. I had previously written an assignment on it that covered similar topics.
My first chapter was aptly titled ‘Introduction’. It covered my reason behind my chosen topic, what I expected to discover, and a lengthy introduction on Victorian marriage. I wanted to assess the ways in which 19th century marriages were inherently bound up with class, and how the sisters responded to it. I noted that none of the sisters had any first-hand experience with marriage when writing these novels, and how the marriages were strictly middle-class. I suggested that marriage differed widely in each text – Anne adopted a proto-feminist approach, Emily tended to conform to traditional perceptions, and Charlotte did both. It’s important to note that I focused solely on the female experience.
Due to this, I found out a lot about ‘Marriage in Victorian England’. William Blackstone’s notion that ‘husband and wife are one person in law’ was still the accepted belief of the time. Married women had no identity, and had no belongings (known as coverture). They were destined for the domestic sphere, laying the foundations for Patmore’s ‘Angel in the House’ portrayal. Marriage was a lifetime investment for women, meaning ‘companionate marriages’ and ‘cousin marriages’ were popular. Divorce Law weren’t introduced until 1857, but even then it was hard to obtain one. Those granted a divorce lost the right to their children (see Caroline Norton, for example).
…utterly depressing, right?
‘Marriage and Class in Charlotte’s Shirley‘ was my second chapter, and I found that class was fundamental for all unions. Charlotte explored the consequences of marriage and class being inherently linked through two antithetical heroines – the conventional Caroline Helstone, and her unconventional counterpart Shirley Keeldar. Despite criticising marriage throughout, the narrative ends with two unions, ultimately suggesting that marriage was inevitable for women. Nevertheless, Charlotte’s ‘writing are an expression of outrage at the enclosed nature of most women’s lives, and the limited possibilities available to them’ (Taylor, 1979, 85). Shirley condemns the expectations and limitations of married middle-class women, including their role in marriage and society.
My third chapter was dedicated to Wildfell Hall. I argued that Anne challenged the boundaries of Victorian society by defying all moral attitudes towards marriage, speaking openly about the brutal side of it. The first person narration allows a detailed insight into Helen’s plight, which is ameliorated by Gilbert’s framed narration. To begin with, Helen tries to mould herself into the perfect wife – domestic and understanding, willing to bear the brunt of Arthur’s dark habits (which I compared to Branwell’s). Leaving is her only option. She adopts an pseudonym to protect herself and her child. I suggested that Anne ‘picked up her pen to “tell the truth” about certain “errors and abuses of society” that seemed ripe for reform’ (Merchant, 2001, XIII).
The next was Wuthering Heights, which captures the ‘disillusioned view of marriage in its depiction of brutal or otherwise disastrous unions’ (Ingham, 2008, 139). Emily suggests that unconventional love cannot prosper in a class-based society. This drives all other marital plot points: marriage based on advancement, revenge marriage, and a forced marriage in order to gain the rights over property. I suggested Lockwood’s framed narration could have disrupted the validity of the narrative – he could have framed it to punish the women. I argued that by exploring the link between marriage and class, especially by depicting how disastrous is can be, Emily confronted her readers by making them question their morals and values.
…and now we reach the conclusion. I argued that marriage was the ultimate achievement for a 19th century middle-class woman, and class guided their decision. It determined everything. The sisters brought attention to how limited women’s lives were in the 19th century. Society had internalised the notion that marriage was a woman’s sole purpose, despite them having hardly any control over it. All three sisters encourage the liberation of women through choice, whilst promoting the notion that class does not necessarily secure a happy marriage.
I learnt so much from this dissertation, and I’m glad I dedicated it to three of the most important people to me. It allowed me to view Shirley, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in a new light. It allowed me to read a wide variety of scholarly and critical work regarding the family, their novels, and contemporary society.
I hope you enjoyed reading this!