Is it OK to read Charlotte Brontë’s books?

It’s ironic that Charlotte Brontë – who fruitlessly campaigned for her work to be judged on the same terms as men – is now about as close to the ranks of DWEM (dead, white, European, male writers) as a woman can be.

Her views – like herself – are from the 19th century. So perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised to see bloggers struggling with the idea of whether it’s OK for today’s women to read the pioneering books written by this Victorian writer.

I’ll get back to the OK bit later. I’d love Charlotte’s books to be more widely read, especially the less well-known ones, but there’s no denying the elephant in the room. If you’re at all interested in social attitudes, things you’ll read in Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette may jar. I’ve come to see these jars as milestones on our ongoing journey towards equality for everyone: use your own attitudes to mark our progress.

Contemporary writers are more likely to reflect our attitudes back to us, which may make them more relevant. We’re encouraged to read widely so we understand other cultures and benefit from their wisdom. I’m all for this.

But older books have value too. Time acts as a filter, narrowing our reading choices. Writers of earlier centuries fall out of fashion or never made it. The ideas of many great writers are presumably lost – and those of women, disproportionately so.

Many profound thinkers of the past weren’t taught to read, never mind write. For me, that makes the classic books we still have from earlier writers all the more precious.

After all, writers can transcend time and space, enriching the lives of readers born centuries afterwards, giving us insights into our lives and the shaping of our culture – but only if we cut them some slack.

When we’re reading the work of a writer like Charlotte Brontë, born almost 200 years ago, I don’t understand why we should expect it to have a contemporary perspective. History oozes through the pages of everything written in the past: that’s part of the appeal.

Ever looked at a 150 year old photograph and been surprised to see a different world? Of course not. We treasure the chance to glimpse a different way of life, to enjoy outdated personal styles, customs and surroundings.

Technology has moved on too. The almost incidental camera bundled into my iPhone 5 outperforms the most magnificent of cameras from a hundred years ago. We still celebrate the works of master photographers from different eras: we see past the quality of the image to the artist’s vision. The patina of age just adds style.

We can see how much things around us have changed visually in an old picture, but words may give the illusion of timelessness, especially if we read a work in translation.

I’ve always believed that people have essentially been much the same at heart throughout recorded history. Read Pliny the Younger, writing about living through the famous eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. He sounds modern. He thinks like us. He is like us, just born in another context, with the attitudes and understanding of his age.

I know many will disagree with me, but I’d hazard a guess that the Neanderthals (who may have placed flowers in the graves of loved ones) were more like us that we’ll ever know. Of course, as whenever cultures collide, some of their social attitudes would have been frightening or reprehensible to us – and some of our own would no doubt have alarmed them.

Back to the Brontës

The 1800s don’t seem quite so distant after that. So, not that long ago, the average woman in my part of the world was told she shouldn’t read the Brontë’s books. They were wild, immoral, unwomanly. Reading them might be harmful – to a woman’s reputation, if nothing else.

In 2015, our perspective has turned almost 180 degrees but Charlotte Brontë remains under attack. It appears today’s women shouldn’t read them either. The thought police are still finding ways to whisper that they’re not the right kind of books.

I’m a bit vague what the precise complaints are, and have little patience to engage with thought police on any level. I’d guess Charlotte’s books are not rebellious enough: they accept too many of the social mores of her time. They’re potentially dangerous, overly romantic: still unwomanly, but for the opposite reason.

For me, the whole concept of unwomanly (or unmanly) is rarely helpful. Women, like men, are what they are. I celebrate that.

I don’t like to be told what I can and can not read. I’m fortunate my context allows me to believe that reading is my right.

I’ve been taught to read with a questioning perspective: not to accept what I read at face value, but as a viewpoint. I can’t see how any book – or new idea – is going to ‘spoil’ me.

Books might broaden my mind, but won’t overwrite my context. I’m not that fragile. After reading Shirley, I might briefly become nostalgic for some aspects of 1840s life but I’m very happy to be alive in 2015, thank you very much!

Of course political correctness is important – it only becomes tiresome when it’s taken too far. But which one of us writing today can be confident that we will be seen as 100% politically correct by future readers?

I hope the world moves on: I hope the future will be a better, kinder, fairer one. And I hope some of today’s most talented writers will still be read, despite their old-fashioned, even dangerous ideas and their quaint vocabulary, spelling and syntax.

Almost all of us are children of our time: few have the insight and passion to advance beyond it. So let’s not hold the Brontës hostage for theirs, particularly when, by doing the unthinkable – writing despite being women, bluntly expressing the limitations of life in their society for women like them and making a heartfelt plea for more – they did so much to help change society’s attitudes.

Like most writers, they passionately wanted to be heard. They fought for their equal right to express themselves by quietly writing and publishing in the face of vocal opposition, with support initially from each other, latterly from a small community of friends and writers, including William Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell.

And I believe their work made a difference.

I can’t imagine that a 20 year old English girl writing to the British poet laureate today for advice about her poetry would be advised, as Charlotte was, to give up the idea of writing because it wasn’t a fit occupation for a woman. The Brontë sisters would be delighted to learn that the current holder is a woman, Carol Ann Duffy (it only took 341 years).

See these passionate, female writers’ attitudes for what they are: visionary in some aspects, transitional or downright traditional in others.

If we can read books written in the past with generosity of spirit, aware of their context, it makes the experience of reading even richer. How would we have stood up better against the prevailing attitudes if we had been in Charlotte’s shoes? How can we do better now?

Finally, my take on a question I find flying around in the ether: should we classify Jane Eyre (and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) as ‘chick lit’? Perhaps, but if William Thackeray read ‘chick lit’, I think we should all feel free to read it too.

This is part ii in an occasional series of posts about the Brontë sisters. See part i for my post with pictures about visiting Haworth, the Brontë’s home town.

13 Replies to “Is it OK to read Charlotte Brontë’s books?”

  1. I love reading Charlotte Bronte and so I really enjoyed your post. In fact, it’s inspired me to go and raid my bookshelf and read one again. I’ll just have to decide which one!

    1. Thanks for your comment – I appreciate it. There’s a handful of books I can confidently say I’ll be re-reading as long as I can read and hers are in there (perhaps I ought to revise that to ‘a few handfuls!)

  2. I rarely re-read books (there are just too many to read) but I make an exception to this rule for a few authors including the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.

  3. I’d imagine that the complaints people today have about Jane Eyre would be the way Mrs. Rochester is locked away because she’s mad. (Er, that was the reason she was locked up like that, right? I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read it in more than 15 years…I really need to add it to my “re-read” list, beside Wuthering Heights…) Possibly also that Jane herself is too passive, and lets Mr. Rochester push her around. But as you said, that just shows how much the world has changed since then.

    People who complain about the worldview of Victorian novels ought to spend a while reading even older books, to give themselves a bit more perspective.

    I think there are definitely some of today’s novels that will shock future readers with their weak heroines and out-of-date sensibilities. (Actually, some of today’s novels shock me with those things, so how could they not shock people of the future, when our society will hopefully have continued to improve?) At least the Bronte sisters had beautiful prose and a vocabulary that would stun most people today; many of the writers of our own times can’t even hope to make such claims.

    1. The great thing about intelligently written fiction is that we can all read it a little differently – and probably find ways to justify our interpretation in the text. For example, I wouldn’t say Jane lets Rochester push her around: far from it. Just my view!

      You make a lot of interesting points. The wife is a danger to others and herself in a society without the benefit of modern medicine and science. It’s important to the plot that Rochester doesn’t institutionalize her, and does all he can to save her life in the fatal fire, at significant cost to himself.

      Not that we can feel at all complacent. Our society may have moved on, but there’s still a long way to go (in my view) before mental and emotional challenges are navigated by us all with humanity and insight.

      I’m glad you mentioned the beautiful prose and vocabulary – that’s so true!

      1. As I said, it’s been years since I read it. But when I read it the second time (in college, versus the high school first reading) I remember thinking there were times when I felt that Jane should have stood up for herself and didn’t. So that’s my faded memory talking more than anything else.
        It’s a good point about him risking his life to save her from the fire; I remember being terribly upset by that the first time I read it. I think I empathized with the wife more the second time I read it than I did the first, which may have been one of the reasons I didn’t like it as much the second time as the first time; once I knew about his wife, all the romantic stuff became a bit tainted by that knowledge.
        Yep, I definitely need to re-read it! 🙂

  4. You have to read any book in context of it’s time, just when I look at a painting or read a play. Context is everything, esp. in the case of the women writer’s prior to the mid-twentieth century, because they were so rare. There is a lot to learn about the development of the self in reading women from Madame de Lafeyette to Willa Cather. This weekend, I found a book published in 1751 by a woman, a coming of age story. If it’s got good bones, maybe I can adapt it to the stage. The stories of all the women who came before us matter.

    Where I have a harder time reading with “generosity of spirit” is when I come across references to race. There are some horrifying passages, even in children’s books. Sadly, you don’t have to go to far on the internet to find trolls like that today.

    1. Yes, reading with generosity of spirit doesn’t confer a get-out-of-jail-free card: meanness and cruelty are pretty much the same in any age.

    1. No need to be ashamed – far from it – but I hope you will find time to give them a try. I’m planning posts on Villette and Shirley as part of this short series.

  5. Have you read Joseph Hillis Miller’s essay ‘Should We Read Heart of Darkness?’ you might find it interesting… just from one book geek to another 😉 (I don’t like to be told what I can and can’t read either… and I find the whole undermining the genre of chicklit in the name of gender equality hyprocritical and sexist but that’s another matter).
    I loved the bit where you said “If we can read books written in the past with generosity of spirit, aware of their context, it makes the experience of reading even richer”. Really (honestly) enjoyed reading this. Can’t wait for more!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and for the recommendation – I hadn’t read it. I did take a look, but confess it made me wish, not for the first time, that critics would write more like writers! Did you get to the concluding paragraph?

      1. hahaha I often wish that – I think it must make them feel better about themselves. I did although it took me a lot longer than one sitting

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