I hadn’t meant to neglect the two hundredth birthday of Charlotte Bronte, which was observed back on April 21st, but it slipped my mind in all the hoopla over the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing.
It really shouldn’t have, for the claim can be made–and I would make it–that Charlotte Bronte has done as much to advance the cause of men and women living and working together as Shakespeare has. Jane Eyre was not the only novel Bronte wrote, but it is by far her most important one, and one of the most influential novels anyone ever wrote. We can find examples in earlier history of independent women, going as far back as the ancient Greeks, but we have to dig for them. Bronte’s was one of the first literary voices to proclaim the equality of women to men in the modern industrial era. The time was right for it, I think: suffrage movements across Europe and America had put the idea in the air by 1847, but the words still needed to be to said aloud, and once Bronte had put them into the mouth of Jane Eyre, contemplating her first view of stifling Thornfield Hall in chapter twelve of the novel, there was no mistaking what she meant:
” It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
What is most remarkable about this passage is its insistence on the total equality of the sexes–not just political or economic equality, but emotional equality, as well. Bronte finds a way in fewer than 150 words to express the full desires of women everywhere, with both nuance and even-handedness toward men. The passage is written calmly but earnestly; yet there’s as much social dynamite in it as we will find in any passage of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, written seven years after Jane Eyre was published. But here’s a distinct difference between Bronte and Thoreau: Thoreau’s isolation on Walden Pond was self-imposed; that of the Bronte sisters on the moors was not, even allowing for Mrs. Gaskell’s later biographical embellishments of their lives. Charlotte Bronte never forgot her sisters or forgot about the larger sisterhood of which she was a part. Nor did she forget that many men needed and deserved the same freedom that she wished for women. What she retained until the end was a warmth toward both sexes that we don’t find in Walden. We may admire Thoreau’s intellect in that book and in his brilliant essay “Civil Disobedience,” but Bronte–and Jane Eyre herself–we have taken to our hearts, because there and in that book alone do we find men and women together, loving each other, hating each other, and settling between themselves the only argument that’s actually worth having: the argument not about whether we shall live with each other, but how.