Bound up by Respectability: Women Writers at Coarse Brontës and BAVS 2017

Angharad Eyre is a Teaching Associate at Queen Mary, University of London, where she completed her PhD in 2014 with a thesis exploring the influence of the female missionary figure on women’s writing. Her edited collection, Love, Desire and Melancholy: Inspired by Constance Maynard was published in 2017 by Routledge. Her blog ‘A Woman’s Thoughts about Women, Writing and Mission in the 19th Century’ can be found at: She also tweets @AngharadEyre.

A few weeks before BAVS 2017 ‘Victorians Unbound’, I attended ‘The Coarseness of the Brontës’ conference at the University of Durham (a collaboration between Durham, Brunel University and the Brontë Society). I had been looking forward to both these conferences as an opportunity: firstly, to develop my ideas on Charlotte Brontë’s reception, before and after Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë; and secondly, to explore the more dissolute side of the Victorians – to revel in coarseness and to be ‘unbound’ from convention (intellectually, of course). ‘Coarse Brontës’, with its many papers on Branwell, violence and drug addiction, certainly delivered. At BAVS though, as the conference developed, respectability became a much stronger theme, especially following Mike Huggins’s keynote. I was reminded of the threat accusations of coarseness posed to the already tenuous respectability of Victorian women writers, and how anxiety about their place within the amorphous category of ‘respectable’ prevented them from ever really being ‘unbound’. This led me to consider anew the differences between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell.

As Marianne Thormählen reminded us at the ‘Coarse Brontës’ conference, in many ways the Brontës are not really Victorians. They were certainly not typical Victorian women writers. Charlotte showed some awareness of the need for a woman to keep up a respectable appearance in the eyes of society, for example in her response to certain actions of her friend, Mary Taylor. Mary’s flirtatious behaviour with the curate William Weightman, and her decision to teach male students in Germany, Charlotte thought, displayed a lack of ‘prudence’ and risked producing an ‘unfortunate impression’ [1]. However, Charlotte was surprisingly unconcerned by accusations of coarseness in her own writing, and, as her alter ego Currer Bell, produced spirited prefaces in which she sparred with critics who dared question the respectability of her writing (as Amber Regis demonstrated in her lively paper at ‘Coarse Brontës’).

At the ‘Coarse Brontës’ I tried to untangle how Charlotte and her early nineteenth-century audience understood the relationship between coarseness, morality and respectability. A couple of weeks later, at BAVS, I moved on to explore what happened when a truly Victorian woman writer associated herself with the Brontës, who had by the late 1840s completely lost their good reputation. How did the famously respectable, ‘Mrs Gaskell’ write about their coarseness, and break new ground for women writers, while still remaining in good Victorian society?

As my work examines nineteenth-century women writers through the lens of religion, I started with the evangelical and Unitarian contexts of Brontë and Gaskell. Although Mike Huggins argued in his keynote that, by the 1850s, Victorian society was knowingly aware that ‘respectability’ was something bestowed by fortune or class rather than secured by moral behaviour, I would complicate this slightly. Often in the nineteenth century, religious society held different views to those of ‘mainstream’ society. Significantly, in evangelical culture in the early Victorian period it was fully acceptable for a woman writer to write about coarse subjects and still be celebrated for her piety. James D. Knowles, the writer of one of the most popular female missionary biographies, The Memoir of Ann H. Judson: Missionary to Burmah, encouraged all Christians, including women, to:

‘serve the cause of the Redeemer, by circulating authentic accounts of the deplorable situation of the heathen nations.’ [2]

And, as Thormählen argued at Coarse Brontës, temperance writers like Sarah Stickney Ellis and even Patrick Brontë included coarse material, similar to that presented in Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in their didactic texts. If a woman writer’s motivation for writing about sin was pious, it could be received as respectable among evangelical readers throughout the nineteenth century.

bavs eyre

This religious literary tradition provides the answer to the question of why, when Elizabeth Gaskell came to famously rehabilitate Charlotte Brontë’s reputation in her Life of Charlotte Brontë, she included many coarse elements of the family’s life stories. Gaskell had published a collection of temperance poetry with her husband in 1839, and her treatment of Branwell Brontë’s addiction follows many of the patterns of temperance literature. She explicitly signals her religious motivation for telling the dramatic tale of Branwell’s seduction at the hands of his employer’s wife, and his resultant decline into drunkenness and opiate addiction:

‘The story must be told. If I could, I would have avoided it … but it is possible that, by revealing the misery, the gnawing lifelong misery, the degrading habits, the early death of her partner in guilt – the acute and long-enduring agony of his family … there may be awakened in her some feelings of repentance.’ [3]

Such explanations as these could convince Gaskell’s readers that the subject matter was excusable, and the biography ultimately respectable, because moral. Furthermore, by association with Gaskell, and read as a character within a moral tale, Charlotte became more respectable.

Gaskell’s Unitarian context allowed her slightly more licence than did the wider Victorian evangelical culture. As Ruth Watts has argued, Unitarian culture held that women were not intellectually inferior to men and were therefore educated to high levels and encouraged to develop their own ideas [4]. That Gaskell considered herself able to comment on moral and societal issues is plain from her social problem novels, for example, her novel about a fallen woman, Ruth. Though this was hardly a respectable topic many of Gaskell’s Unitarian acquaintance praised her for writing it [5].   

However, Ruth Watts notes that Unitarian women were similarly bound by a need to maintain respectability, to compensate for the unpopularity of their religious denomination (p. 41). And certainly, Gaskell never publicly revelled in her role as an author in the same way as Charlotte Brontë did as Currer Bell – while Gaskell privately negotiated with publishers to secure good financial deals for her work, she did not respond to critics in the popular press or write combative prefaces.

At BAVS I found that other scholars were interested in this question of whether Victorian women writers could enjoy their identities as writers. For example, Anne Marie Richardson argued that Christina Rosetti could never see herself as an artist alongside her male relatives and their pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and instead judged herself unfavourably against her pious sister, Maria, who eventually joined an Anglican religious order. Richardson’s paper outlined how Rosetti’s story ‘Maude’ displayed Rosetti’s ambivalence about her literary role and her fears that writing was self-indulgent. Meanwhile, Eleanor Dumbill’s paper about Frances Eleanor Trollope, illustrated what happened when a Victorian woman writer couldn’t maintain a respectable reputation. Like Gaskell, Trollope contributed to Dickens’s publications, however, because she was the sister of his mistress, Dickens withheld her name, depriving her of public recognition as a writer. Moreover, her sometimes impious plots, and the apparent financial motivation for her writing, led to more criticism than perhaps her writing deserved…

It seems that if they wished to maintain their respectability, Victorian women writers could not enjoy their fame as authors. Because of their concern for societal respectability and their religious scruples, Victorian women writers like Mrs Gaskell could never be as unbound as Charlotte Brontë’s coarse Currer Bell.


Works Cited:

[1] Charlotte Brontë, letter, June 1843, Letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Vol. 1, pp. 324-326; letter 20 Nov 1840, Letters, pp. 232-236.

[2] James D. Knowles, Memoir of Ann Judson, 3rd edn (London: Wightman and Co., 1830), p. v.

[3] Elizabeth Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Elisabeth Jay (London: Peguin, 1997), pp. 204-5.

[4] Ruth Watts, ‘Mary Carpenter: Educator of the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes’, in Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress, ed. by Mary Hilton and Pam Hirsch (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2000), pp. 40-41.

[5] In-letters to the Gaskells, John Rylands Research Institute, Eng MSS 730-734.

One response to “Bound up by Respectability: Women Writers at Coarse Brontës and BAVS 2017

  1. Reblogged this on A Woman's Thoughts About… and commented:
    I attended five conferences in the summer of 2017. I was a delegate at the Literary London and the ICVWW annual conferences and I gave papers at the Victorian Popular Fiction conference (featured in my last post), British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) conference, and a conference organised by the Bronte Society and University of Durham entitled ‘The Coarseness of the Brontes’ (how could anyone resist this one?).

    I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend the BAVS conference, which meant that I also got to live-tweet from the conference twitter account, publish a report in the BAVS newsletter, and write a blog for the Victorianist – the BAVS research blog. This was published this week and, as it effectually acts as a round up of the papers I gave at BAVS and the Coarse Brontes, I thought I’d reblog it here. 

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