What do Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters have in common? Yes, they’re among the most celebrated women writers in English literary history. But there’s something else – not one of them had children.
There have of course been celebrated women authors who are exceptions to this rule but even as a child who was a precocious reader and, later, as a student working my way through the limited number of female writers who’ve made their way into the mainstream canon, the implication was clear to me. Women writers as a group are strangely sexless, their creative energies channelled into their books rather than into motherhood.
The Brontë sisters’ tragic biographies take this narrative a step further. The celebrated novelists behind Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and more all died young, before having children. Charlotte Brontë was the only sister to marry and she died in the early stages of pregnancy, after suffering acute morning sickness. Our fascination with the sisters seems to stem as much from their lives as the stories they wrote. Poor, plain and obscure, they died young and, in the case of Emily and Anne, presumably virginal. They’ve left us a model of the woman writer as a societal outcast, wedded to her art.
The heroines in Charlotte Brontë’s novels in particular follow a similar pattern. Jane Eyre tells the dashing Mr Rochester: "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!" Jane, ostensibly weak because of her lack of money, celebrity, beauty and height, is the mouthpiece for what we can read as 19th century protofeminism, railing against the system that keeps her down.
But while the Jane Eyres of literature may rightly think of themselves as outsiders, there is also a certain privilege that comes with being at a remove from society’s expectations. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey sit in judgment over other women, often in regards to their choices in navigating the marriage market and rearing children. We don’t see Jane after her marriage to Rochester, managing a household, maintaining her romantic relationship and becoming a mother. We never read the advice she would give to daughters of her own.
When I came across the story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumoured to have had an affair with Branwell, the Brontë sisters’ brother, I knew I wanted to examine this other side of the coin. What did it mean to be a wealthy, beautiful and sexually experienced woman, moving through a patriarchal Victorian world? Lydia, who was 43 to Branwell’s 25 when the pair first met, has been called a "wretched" and "profligate" woman who "made love" to her son’s tutor in front of her children. Her actions, biographers claimed, contributed to Branwell’s alcoholism, opium addiction and death. But what other options did she have and what might she have said for herself?
It’s easy to protest the way society works as a headstrong teenager. This is one reason why we find a young and spunky heroine, demanding the right to vote and to choose her own husband, in the pages of many historical novels. But what about fighting against a society you’re embroiled in, a system in which you’re complicit?
My novel, Brontë’s Mistress, which imagines Lydia Robinson’s story in her voice, is dedicated "to the women who didn’t write their novels". Many of these women, like Lydia, were mothers, with households to run and their own daughters to protect. I remain a fan of the Brontë sisters but it’s important to recognise their exceptionalism and, I think, to find additional models for what a woman writer can be. For instance, lesser known Victorian novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon published more than 80 (that’s right, 80!) novels in her lifetime. She was also a stepmother to five children and the biological mother of six.
Unfortunately, being a novelist is more about pragmatism than romanticism, hard work vs waiting for the muse to visit you. Women writers who were also mothers make us confront this reality (there are even stories of Braddon writing to meet her publisher’s deadlines as she went into labour).
What’s more, while we might prefer to think of the Brontë sisters as wandering across the Yorkshire moors and communing with nature, their approach to writing was also practical and partially financially driven. Nobody wishes to be poor. Charlotte hated being plain. And she married to start a family at the height of her artistic powers.
The stereotype of the sexless and childless woman writer isn’t reflective of the life Charlotte Brontë would have chosen for herself, and it shouldn’t be the only prototype for women who wish to be writers today.
Finola Austin, also known as the Secret Victorianist on her award-winning blog, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the 19th century. Brontë’s Mistress (Atria Books, August 2020) is her first novel and is available for purchase in hardcover, ebook and audiobook now. By day, Finola works in digital advertising. Find her online at www.finolaaustin.com.