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Gender in Pain: Gender and Class in Elisabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë


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Talijančić, Lea. (2014). Gender in Pain: Gender and Class in Elisabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Diploma Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of English Language and Literature. [mentor Jukić Gregurić, Tatjana].

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As the first biographer of Charlotte Brontë´s life, Elisabeth Gaskell had a very difficult and delicate task to perform. She had to demystify but simultaneously mythologise a very controversial Victorian author. The biographer set off with an assignment to provide a coherent story of Charlotte Brontë´s life for the Victorian audience, to justify her colleague´s outrageous life path and to establish a new female literary role-model. Through accumulation of letters, interviews and observations, Gaskell re-created the chronology of Charlotte´s life as well as her cultural and social background. Ms. Brontë was no longer a mere abstraction to the reader´s mind. The reader became acquainted with her as a woman and as a writer. It is precisely this division of personality into two seemingly contrasting parts, womanhood and authorship, which underpins this paper. Firstly, this thesis´ focus has been set on the conditions underlying the production of the respective biography. It has been demonstrated that The Life drew upon Gaskell´s own experience as novelist. Within this framework, it has been shown how the biographer intervened at several stages to optimize the posthumous Brontë´s image. By reconstructing Brontë as literary model based on creativeness, submissiveness and feminine duty, Gaskell tried to soothe the riot raised against Brontë´s alleged coarseness and breach of literary norms. Further analysis of the biography has displayed that Gaskell´s Charlotte Brontë can be studied as a literary protagonist, an imaginative creation with a life of its own. In the course of the study, it became noticeable that the biography´s narrative plot was informed by the patriarchal ideology of the Victorian period. Gaskell subjugated the life of her heroine to the approved norms of familial duty. Herewith this biography, filled with gender and class details, provides sufficient material for the study of social barriers within the Victorian literary market. Events from Brontë´s life account for the position of women writers in the Victorian culture, where creativity was defined purely in male terms, where women attempting the pen had to fight a gender-conflict and eventually underwent the socially prescribed subordination. The lure and complexity of Brontë´s figure lie in the author´s attempt to simultaneously subvert and conform to patriarchal norms. Out of this experiment Charlotte Brontë emerges as a literary visionary who asserted herself on a male-dominated market and still managed to maintain her femininity. Furthermore, a close reading of the biography has shown that Victorian femininity was defined in terms of fragility, self-sacrifice, domesticity and timidity, whereas masculinity presupposed qualities such as strength, creativity and assertiveness. What makes Charlotte Brontë so unique is the harmonisation and fusion of these, socially constructed, male and female qualities. This paper also took the task of deconstructing the literary fusion of shy femininity and masculine authorship. To grasp the complexity of this harmonisation, a critical eye was directed towards the biography´s presentation of the features of a Victorian woman writer, her class, sexuality, domesticity, illness, duty awareness. It has been exemplified how women took up male pseudonyms to avoid devaluation of their work. Women writers also modified their literary expression not to be associated with triviality of what had been known as female literature. In the further steps, the paper analysed the distinctive components of personality standing behind Charlotte Brontë and her male pseudonym Currer Bell. Self-assured professional Currer Bell explored the limits of the society and market. This more “masculine” part of Ms. Brontë was complemented by an introvert, dutiful, self-sacrificing, domesticated Charlotte. As it has been highlighted in the course of this thesis, a major part of Charlotte Brontë´s creative success was based on self-discipline and sexual repression. Under the signature of Currer Bell Charlotte Brontë could unleash her fictional characters and let them swim in the sea of passion; however, privately she continuously repressed and relinquished her own sexuality and desire. The self-destructive impulses of Charlotte Brontë´s desire are strategically used to foster the authors´ literary inspiration. Brontë´s self-restraint and repression appear as a medium of attaining and maintaining literary creativity. Her selflessness and asceticism empower her against the conditions of her modest social background, lack of physical beauty and prestige. More, self-suppression and self-sacrifice were meant to soothe her anxiety of authorship, her guilt of entering the forbidden garden of literature. It has also been argued that Elisabeth Gaskell, as the writer of this biography, perceived emotional and sexual repression as a necessary method to remove her subject from the influence of triviality of “female” writing manners. Only in the condition of emotional isolation could the purity and objectivity of Brontë´s writing style be preserved. Finally, the study of Charlotte Brontë reveals another strategic point in the construction of Victorian femininity. Illness and pain emerge as the markers of Brontë´s femaleness. Depression, melancholy, anxiety and homesickness, induced by multiple burdens of femininity, add a final touch to the image of the talented but subservient, fragile and self-sacrificing author. This complex charm of her character is rooted in the relationship between the author´s self-reflexive desire that flew into her literature, the combativeness of desire that formed her femininity and assertive ambition which enabled her market dominance. In combining the parts of conventionalized middle-class male and female social roles of the 19th century with creativeness, observant realism, and smouldering emancipation Brontë manages to position herself as a woman writer on the male-favoured market. The seemingly contradictory mix of virtues is what enabled Gaskell´s Brontë to step out of the constrains of the 19th century class and gender conservatism and establish herself as literary heroine.

Item Type: Diploma Thesis
Subjects: English language and literature
Departments: Department of English Language and Literature
Supervisor: Jukić Gregurić, Tatjana
Date Deposited: 01 Apr 2015 11:21
Last Modified: 01 Apr 2015 11:22

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