The Victorian era is known for the galaxy of female novelists. CHARLOTTE BRONTE, EMILY BRONTE, Mrs. Gaskell and GEORGE ELIOT are in prime focus. They also include Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Maroh, Mrs. Bray, Mrs. Henry, charlotte younger, Miss Oliphant, and still more. However, the four most important women novelists, who yet are quite important, are charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell and George Eliot. Of the four, the two first named were sister, and their methods and achievement as novelists met at many places. But each of the remaining two priced her own line and made herself known in the field of English novel in her own way.
CHARLOTTE BRONTE (1816 – 55) – The three Bronte sister – Anne, charlotte, and Emily – collectively known often as the “Stormy sisterhood”, who took the England of their time by storm, were in actual life shy and isolated girls with rather uneventful lives. All of them died young and died of Tuberculosis.
Charlotte wrote four novels - ‘The professor’, ‘Vilette’, ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Shirley’. The first two novels were based on her personal experiences at a Brussels boarding house where she most probably fell in love with the Belgian scholar Hager who perfectly answered her conception of a dashing hero of the Byronic type. The heroine of her third novel is a governess, just like her sister Anne. Her tempestuous love affair with Rochester – a combination of wonderful nobility and meanness is the staple of this novel.
Charlotte Bronte in her novel revolted against the traditions of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair she praised in glowing terms, but she herself never attempted anything of the kind. Her novels are novel of manners but of passions and the naked soul. Her characters – mostly the effusion of her own soul – are elemental figures aching in the back drop of elemental nature.
According to Compton Rickett, three characteristics “detach themselves from the writing of charlotte Bronte”. They are the note of intimacy; the note of passion and the note of revolt. The note of intimacy is caused by the markedly autobiographic slant of her novels. The note of passion is struck by lonely sensitive woman on behalf of woman. Her point of view is the point of view of a woman. As regard the note of revolt, we must emphasize that she was a rebel by nature and a puritan by training. She could not reconcile these two elements. Though she did not fully or even appreciably, revolt against social conventions, she at least revolted against the conventions of the novel.
EMILY BRONTE (1818 – 48):- Emily was a poet as well as novelist, and her only novel Wuthering Heights is a poem as well as a novel. “There is no other book”, says Longinus “which contains so many of the hassled, tumultuous, and rebellious elements of romanticism. She is fiercer than Charlotte, but her fierceness is strangely accompanied by numeric strokes of intuitive illumination.
Wuthering Heights is a story of primal passions enacted amongst elemental environment. Catherine Earnshaw in her wildness and beauty is like a panther. Heathcliff, with his consuming passion for Catherine and his flaming desire for revenge, looks like a character from an ancient Greek tragedy. Catherine’s call to Heathcliff from her grave has about it all the mystery of the hidden forces of the universe. Indeed, Walter Allen observes: “The central fact about Emily Bronte is that she is a mystic.” Her mysticism lies not only in her handling of the voice of the dead Catherine calling Heathcliff to her, but also in her use of symbols. It trickles in other forms throughout the novel in expressions.
Mrs. Gaskell (1810 – 65):- Mrs. Gaskell had nothing of this passion and frustration of the Bronte sister. She was wife of a quite Unitarian clergyman in Manchester – one of the budding centres of English industry. She was mother of seven children.
What distinguishes the novels of Mrs. Gaskell is her deep social consciousness combined with a compassionate observation of the life around her. Her novels divide themselves into two well defined categorizes. First, we have novel like Mary Barton and North and South which deal with the social and industrial problem arising out of the master workmen’s struggles which were a features of the industrial age which had then just got under way. Being herself a resident of Manchester, Mrs. Gaskell was a witness to the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. Secondly, we have novel like Ganford, Ruth, Wives and Daughters and Sylvia’s Lovers which eschew all industrial problems and are concerned with rural life and manners which she knew so well, thanks to her long stay in the countryside before she settled at Manchester with her husband. Of all the novels of this category the best known is Coranford. It portrays a world inhabited by woman alone. These women belong to middle – class families.
GEORGE ELIOT (1819 – 80):- With George Eliot we come to the core philosophy of all the major Victorian novelists, both female and male. Philosophy is both her strength and weakness as a novelists. It keeps her from falling into bathos or triviality, but at the same time gives her art an ultra serious and reflective quality which makes it “heavy reading”. George Eliot’s important novels are the following:- The Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. All of them are marked by extreme seriousness of purpose and execution. In George Eliot hands the novel was not primarily for entertainment but for the serious discussion of moral issues. She is indeed, too didactic and makes every incident a scope of moralistic expatiation. In her novels we invariably meet with the clash of circumstances with human will. She indeed, believed that circumstances influenced character, but she did not show circumstance entirely determining character. A man called upon to choose between two women or a woman to choose between two men is the common motif of the novels.
Another important feature of her novels is their very deep concern with human psychology. Her novels are all novels of character. In her characterization she displays both subtlety and rarity. Her studies of the inner self, more particularly the inner woman, are marvelous. George Eliot excels at portraying the tragedy of unfulfilled female longing. She identified herself with her chief female characters unfolding their inner feelings with masterly skill.