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Hilary

19th Century Novels and strong female characters

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In my journey through 19th century novels, I am struck by the number of strong women I'm meeting along the way, women who make me proud to be a woman. Women who seem to be 'ahead of their time' and trapped by 19th century convention. I love them all. I'm thinking of Dorothea in Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, the gorgeous Floy in Dombey and Son, the feisty Catherine in Germinal...I'm sure you can name more.

 

So, talk to me about them, let's think of more of them, and what makes us love them, and wonderful lines they say, and how feminism was threaded through their characters and through the minds of their creators. And stuff.

;)

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I think that's true, there are loads of great female characters in these books, which I found quite surprising but incredibly refreshing. Also not only by the female authors either. A rather dissapointing exception to this (I felt) was Shirley from the Bronte book of the same name - a really great, strong female character who goes against convention only to do a complete about turn at the end - such a shame! Other suggestions of books would be great!

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I understand why you included Jane Eyre in your list, but I have a somewhat different take on her. Throughout much of the book she does indeed express independence and feminine strength, but at the end Bronte tags on the final episode where she reverts almost totally to the traditional subservient female role and devotes herself entirely to the care and feeding of a man, leaving behind all sense of herself as a independent woman.

 

I admit to being mystified as to why Bronte chose to make this major change in her character, but it seems beyond question, to me at least, that she did.

 

Is there another way to understand the final few pages of the novel?

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Welcome to BGO,Everyman.

 

I've never felt that Jane became subservient to Rochester, indeed I don't think he could have borne her doing so. Does taking on the responsibility for the care of another human being necessarily turn one into a weak and willing doormat?

I'm sure that Jane took her independent mind into her marriage, and retained it into motherhood. It was she who found a suitable school for Adèle, she and her husband 'talk...all day long', neither of which I would presume were usual in most families at the time. She would have, of necessity, been at least equal partner with Rochester in all decision making, she could in the circumstances easily have taken the dominant rôle.

I suppose I must concede that the 'never did I weary' passage does smack of servitude, but why is service performed in love more demeaning than service performed for money?

 

Anyway, Everyman, do come and say 'hello' in the Please Introduce Yourself thread in Central Library, where we can welcome you properly, and can answer any questions you might have about this site.

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First, thanks for the welcome. And I have gone ahead and posted a few words about myself in the introductions section.

 

Perhaps subservient was a bit too strong, but she seems to have given up any sense of personal independence. Yes, she did make decisions (she pretty much had to during Rochester's time of blindness, didn't she?), but when she says "I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth..." she seems to me to have yielded her personal independence for a life merged with that of a man. Which isn't a bad thing; her marriage does sound like a melding of equals, and equally perhaps Rochester has given up his separate independence as much as she has. But given the feistyness and spunk which carried her through almost all of the book, it seems that Bronte is saying that those characteristics were okay while she was finding a man to love, but that at that point it was time to cast them off.

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I'd be interested in seeing suggested alternative scenarios for Jane after she turns down StJohn Rivers proposal (or accepts it, if that is considered to give her an opening to a more independent life).

 

I think they would perhaps be better in the Jane Eyre thread, rather than take over this one, so I have copied the last few posts into that thread. Please do continue the discussion over there :)

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I think what we see as the unsatisfactory ending of Jane Eyre was due to the conventions of the time. Readers would have been expected her to settle down to being a 'good' wife to Rochester because conventional, romantic endings sold books and showed the 'proper' thing to do. We see it as an unsatisfactory ending because women of today can defy convention and live independently but for the Jane Eyres of Victorian times to do so would have been shocking. This is why so many novels about seemingly 'feisty' Victorian women end in marriage. For them to have 'lived in sin' or to have pursued a profession, or even a serious hobby, would have outraged Victorian society and the book might have been boycotted. The Bronte sisters hoped to earn a living from their books so there was only so far they could go in 'bucking the trend'.

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Welcome to BGO, MegC. Much more discussion on the ending of Jane Eyre can be found on the Jane Eyre thread, which you might like to add your comments to.

Do also come and say 'hello' in the Please Introduce Yourself thread in Central Library, where we can welcome you properly, and can answer any questions you might have about this site.

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Yes, there are quite a few strong women in nineteenth century novels. Apart from Jane, we have Margaret Hale in North and South and Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, but she was almost too much, wasn't she? I mean she was so strong that society couldn't contain her. But I think there's an awful lot of her in young Cathy, and she's the one who gets to stay in the world. I'm just thinking off the top of my head, but it's interesting...

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Oh yes, Catherine Earnshaw. She should definitely have been in my list!

 

Funny you should mention her now; yesterday I was chatting with my children about what we should call our soon-to-be new rabbits and I suggested Catherine and Heathcliff and then couldn't get that dratted song out of my head for hours. My husband was really fed up of me...'it's me, I'm Cathy, I've come home...' :(

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...couldn't get that dratted song out of my head for hours. My husband was really fed up of me...'it's me, I'm Cathy, I've come home...' :(

Argh! I had that song in my head for ages when I read WH earlier in the year, so I know where you're coming from! :)

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Besides all the greats, I love the lesser lights of the nineteenth century, particularly Charlotte Mary Yonge and Mrs Henry Wood. CMY wrote wonderful sprawling family sagas and while the women in them fitted in with her own doctrine of filial piety (as well as Tractarianism - ie very High Anglicanism) they are incredibly strong. One of my favourites is The Young Stepmother who has to cope with a rather ineffectual husband and difficult teenage children, plus another favourite, The Clever Woman of the Family. With CMY you do have to skip over some of the more improving bits but she was a great story teller.

Mrs Henry Wood is a different kettle of fish - she wrote murder mysteries and they're great. The most famous is East Lynne which isn't her best, by a long chalk but they're intriguing mysteries and worth a read.

 

I was brought up on them and have leant heavily on them, for speech rhythms and social history, in my Victorian mystery, Murder Most Welcome, which comes out in May next year, with Robert Hale.

 

Give them a try - I love them much more than the classic novels, especially CMY! :)

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Mrs Henry Wood is a different kettle of fish - she wrote murder mysteries and they're great. The most famous is East Lynne which isn't her best, by a long chalk but they're intriguing mysteries and worth a read.

 

 

I have had East Lynne on my shelves for quite a while now, I really must get on to it soon. Nice to hear someone mention it though.

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It's true there are some very interesting female characters in 19th century fiction. I read Daisy Miller last week though, which for me shows that there is a fine line between rebelling against the strict codes imposed by society, and simply being awkward for the sake of it.

 

While the likes of Elizabeth Bennett are admirable because they differ from the norm with a purpose, I found Daisy Miller to be a very irritating chacter, whose sole motivation seemed to be in her own amusement rather than to prove a point.

 

Other people will (and have) disagreed, but for me a strong character can just appear stubborn very easily.

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Mrs. Henry Wood's 'East Lynne' being the most melodramatic of her tales, from an era that luxuriated in melodrama, it is hardly surprising that it was turned into a successful stage melodrama. I believe that it was long a stock of acting companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

But Mrs. Wood wrote much, much more.....mysteries, yes, but also tales of:

hauntings,

youngsters [boys more than girls, surprisingly],

scheming, manipulative villains [a dash of melodrama again],

patience and virtue rewarded,

trade-unionism [which she loathed],

etc, etc.

 

Her characters ranged all the way from the labouring-classes to the nobility, but it seems to me that her characterisation was most successful when she was dealing with the middle-classes, one section of which she herself sprang from.

 

Yes, :( her plots ramble somewhat, and many modern readers find her Christian moralizing, together with the occasional harrowing deathbed scene, a bit off-putting but she was :) a great spinner of tales.

 

The strong women in her tales are noted for their endurance and their ability to shoulder responsibilities and bear burdens. As she herself had to become the family bread-winner in middle-life, when her banker husband failed, Mrs. Wood's strong and courageous women characters can be seen as echoing her own life experiences.

 

Some of Mrs Wood's 'Johnny Ludlow' tales - collected in 6 volumes after their initial appearance in her Argosy magazine - are superb. To me, the most memorable strong woman character in that series is the indomitable Miss Deveen.

 

‘Aurélien Arkadiusz’

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Mrs. Henry Wood's 'East Lynne' being the most melodramatic of her tales, from an era that luxuriated in melodrama, it is hardly surprising that it was turned into a successful stage melodrama. I believe that it was long a stock of acting companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

But Mrs. Wood wrote much, much more.....mysteries, yes, but also tales of:

hauntings,

youngsters [boys more than girls, surprisingly],

scheming, manipulative villains [a dash of melodrama again],

patience and virtue rewarded,

trade-unionism [which she loathed],

etc, etc.

 

Her characters ranged all the way from the labouring-classes to the nobility, but it seems to me that her characterisation was most successful when she was dealing with the middle-classes, one section of which she herself sprang from.

 

Yes, :( her plots ramble somewhat, and many modern readers find her Christian moralizing, together with the occasional harrowing deathbed scene, a bit off-putting but she was :) a great spinner of tales.

 

The strong women in her tales are noted for their endurance and their ability to shoulder responsibilities and bear burdens. As she herself had to become the family bread-winner in middle-life, when her banker husband failed, Mrs. Wood's strong and courageous women characters can be seen as echoing her own life experiences.

 

Some of Mrs Wood's 'Johnny Ludlow' tales - collected in 6 volumes after their initial appearance in her Argosy magazine - are superb. To me, the most memorable strong woman character in that series is the indomitable Miss Deveen.

 

‘Aurélien Arkadiusz’

 

I've got some of her novels in my bookcase. I must try to dust them off and have another look. I also liked Mrs Oliphant, who wrote over 100 novels - mostly unread and even unobtainable these days, but worthy tomes.

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Mrs Henry Wood seems to have passed me by, but at an impressionable age I was given A Peep behind The Scenes by Mrs O.F.Walton, which I loved (and have mentioned on a few of the older threads).

I'm sure it has been responsible for my taste in harrowing novels, and my small, secret, stash of Victorian evangelical moralising tear-jerkers.

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# Sounds like you've got a yen for pathos and melodrama, megustaleer. :cool:

 

# Nonsuch, it's likely that your enjoyment of the Mrs. Henry Woods in your book collection may depend on which titles they are, though we might not respond to the same elements in her books. Happy reading. :)

 

‘Aurélien Arkadiusz’

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