Much has been written about the “dreary” and somewhat “tragic” existence of Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë.
This, of course, is thanks in part to the publication of fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell's stuffy biography of Charlotte Brontë two years after her death in 1855, and its depiction of the sisters as naive, spinster victims of their era.
Some thanks must be given to Gaskell for pushing through a biography of an unmarried female writer during a period when women were overwhelmingly relegated to the private domestic sphere. However, the idea of the sad Brontë spinsters has been played out again and again in the dozens of books printed since Gaskell’s biography 200 years ago.
While this nonsense depiction of these three smart and spirited women is problematic for numerous reasons, a primary one is the fact that it often overshadows their achievements both as writers and feminist trailblazers.
So, with that in mind, here are three remarkable achievements that remain part of the Brontë sisters legacy to us.
They Wrote Real Women, Fabulous Flaws and All
The heroines of their books broke with convention and allowed Victorian readers – as now – to delve deep into the minds of intelligent, flawed, full-feeling women.
There’s passionate, headstrong, and altogether miserable Cathy Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights); Smart, brave and independent Jane Eyre, and the good-hearted but ultimately daring and determined Helen Huntingdon (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).
The Brontës’ women and the stories that surround them are ultimately messy and militant – and we love them all the more for it.
A favorite quote of mine comes from screenwriter, director, and novelist Nora Ephron who, when asked about writing female characters, answered: “I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are."
Absolutely. And the Brontës were doing it over 200 years ago.
They Argued for Rights for Women
Their books were arguments in themselves for better rights for women. Think of Jane Eyre’s rebellious statement, "I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Over the 200 years since those words were penned, women have fought continuously to have that “independent will” acknowledged. But in the era when Charlotte was writing Jane Eyre, such “anti-feminine” ideas were even more outrageous and unheard of.
In many ways, she was giving voice to a new vocabulary for women to explore their own needs at a time when women’s needs beyond making a good marriage were rarely considered.
Anne’s radical novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, (a favorite of mine) also interrogates gender roles, inequality and some of the most taboo Victorian subjects - those of spousal abuse and divorce.
They Created Language
Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language is well-known. What is not as well appreciated is the fact that the Brontë sisters also coined some 50 words between them.
Charlotte Brontë was perhaps the most prolific. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first known usage of 40 English words and phrases to her. These include the noun “spring clean,” which first appeared in her 1849 novel, Shirley. In that same novel, Charlotte used a new but now well-worn descriptor of America’s western frontier as an unruly and untamed region – that of “the Wild West.”
Additionally, as a lover of the French language, she brought into English-speaking existence the word “timbre,” which up until the mid-1800s had only been used in France to describe the tonality of a voice.
And, fun fact: The name of the successful novel that brought us so many new words, changed the trend of “Shirley” typically being a man’s name to the now commonly accepted use of it solely for women!