The thing that struck me first as I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North And South was how different it was from works by her contemporaries, female Victorian writers such as George Eliot, the Bronte sisters and, to go back slightly further, Jane Austen.
This was my first Gaskell novel, and the story of a woman’s journey as she experiences the schisms that exist between the peaceful, largely upper-class south of England and the unstable, newly-industrialised north isn’t at all what I expected when I first decided I would read this particular title. The emphasis on social issues and the female protagonist being used as the lens through which we come to understand them is brilliant.
But in feeling so, I was perhaps making the very same mistake that many literary critics (mostly men, of course) of these Victorian authors’ time did: lumping all of their works together and comparing them against each other for no other reason except that they were all written by women. No matter that they wrote in vastly differing styles about a wide range of very different issues, because they were women they were considered to be a part of the same group, and their works were judged by the same stereotyped standards.
Little surprise then, that someone like Mary Ann Evans wrote under the male pseudonym George Eliot; even the Bronte sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne first began writing under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
It was awful enough that these writers were always judged by their genders first and their talents second, but the small space accorded to these so-called “authoresses” meant they were constantly pitted against each other too, and usually involuntarily. Charlotte Bronte once even wrote to Gaskell: “It is the nature of writers to be invidious (but) we shall set them at defiance; they shall not make us foes.”
And so in the spirit of celebrating how different and diverse the works of Victorian female writers can be, here are some of my favourites:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: This was probably my very first Gothic romance novel, and I was too young to fully understand the nuances and subtexts of the story when I picked it up at about age 11. And yet, I absolutely loved the brooding Mr Rochester, Jane’s gradual growth, and the drama of the story’s setting. When I read it again as an adult, I was struck by the power of the language Bronte uses and the way it depicts Jane’s inner landscape.
Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen: Everyone has a favourite Austen, and mine is definitely Sense And Sensibility by a mile. I love the humour in it, and the way Austen layers her seemingly light prose with an undertone of something deeper and sadder.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: I’m not actually sure that I like Wuthering Heights at all, but I do know that I am fascinated and intrigued and horrified by it. It is such a deeply dramatic story, with so much passion and madness, reading it is both emotional torment and catharsis. I’m also awed by how scandalous it would have been for Emily to publish such a book, and how she shatters so many of the taboos of her time with it.
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti: Rossetti is one of my favourite poets, and Goblin Market is, in my opinion, her best work. I love the fantasy setting and sinister undertones of the narrative poem, combined with its celebration of femaleness and sisterly love – all of which are brought to vivid life by Rossetti’s masterful poetry.
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: This epic poem by Browning is the first one I read that was about a woman. The fact that it is an epic journey about a woman’s quest to become a poet – despite all the troubles in her path – made it all the more beguiling to me.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.