Written by Isabelle Shaw
The history of women’s education is a slow-moving narrative of long-lasting patriarchal oppression with numerous female champions who consistently fought for equal rights to education. The Brontë sisters were nineteenth-century role models, as they subverted social conventions by becoming writers, a typically male role at the time. Their education granted them the ability to write some of the most well-known novels of all time, and they serve as a historic example of the power of equal education. Their works emphasised the progress that was set in motion for women’s education in the nineteenth century, signifying a positive evolution of education that allowed women greater autonomy.
The Brontë sisters came from an upper-class, affluent family, which allowed them to receive a greater education than women from lower social classes at the time. For example, they received an extraordinary education at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in 1824. Their position as the daughters of an Anglican clergyman enabled them access to a school which went beyond the traditional education for girls on religion and basic literacy.
The person who inspired their passion for education was their father, Patrick Brontë, who had attended Cambridge University and escaped poverty. This instilled in his daughters the desire for autonomy through education, especially the eldest, Charlotte. She recognised the power of education as a tool for self-liberation in a patriarchal society. In 1849, she openly showed her support by giving praise for the daughter of WS Williams when she was admitted to Queen’s College. Her famous quote, ‘An education secured is an advantage gained – a priceless advantage. Come what may it is a step towards independency’, alongside her attempted creation of a school shows she was aware of the power of equal education to enfranchise women in the nineteenth century. While her position as a governess and a writer was unpredictable and unstable, it does represent that the growing diversity of education for women inspired Charlotte to be self-sufficient.
In 1842, the sisters had the opportunity to study in Brussels in order to improve their French language skills. While Emily and Anne did not stay long, Charlotte returned to continue her studies. Their education sets a precedent for the future equality of education in post-nineteenth-century Britain and presents it as an essential tool for women to become autonomous.
The influence of education is extremely prominent in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, since her Gothic imagery–for example her description of the moors–reflects the early nineteenth-century turning point where education began to revolve around Gothic teachings and Romanticism. This proves that her education was essential to her becoming a successful writer and contributing to the canon of Gothic literature in the nineteenth century.
Books such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights included sexual imagery which superseded the expectations of male readers and surprised them, as sexuality was considered a delicate subject for women. The fact that their books were well-received exemplifies that the Brontës had helped nineteenth-century readers acclimatise to the idea of female writers. The education of the Brontë sisters and their complex literature suggests that education for women was becoming increasingly more important in the nineteenth century, at least for upper-class women.
Initially, the sisters were forced to use the pseudonyms Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell, revealing the sexist ideas of the time. Namely, it was believed books written by women would not sell due to being considered plain and full of ‘flowery’ themes. Despite this, the sisters were still revolutionary, since they utilised their fortunate education to promote progress for women in their books.
Unexpectedly, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights shaped British society and literary history as one of the first times that a book focused on women’s issues became so successful. The book shows the male character, Heathcliff, as a dehumanising character due to his violent and ragged nature, while the protagonist, Catherine, represents the effects of women’s entrapment in marriage. Therefore, Emily’s use of subtle feminist themes in the novel makes an important social message about women’s freedom of expression since Catherine’s entrapment is the root cause of her insanity.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, too, promotes ideals of an independent woman, as Jane escapes a repressive household and becomes self-sufficient, making choices unaffected by male opinions. Charlotte uses this character as an example of the idealistic image of a free woman. The fact that in the present there are numerous books based upon female characters and their liberation proves that the Brontës’ work was innovative and influential. Nowadays, women’s independence is widely celebrated and socially acceptable because of previous works such as those of the Brontë sisters. The Brontës’ writing helped to contribute to the changing social conventions surrounding women and their growing self-determination at the time and would have an effect on later generations of feminists as well as they worked towards developing equal education.
In retrospect, we can see that the Brontë sisters’ work to change the attitudes of their time helped lead to equal rights of education in the present. However, with modern-day heroes such as Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama still campaigning for girls’ education worldwide, it remains clear that remnants of the inequality that existed in the nineteenth century continue to be entrenched in society. It is important to highlight the lack of change in equality of women’s education in countries such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey. Therefore, while the Brontës represent a turning point for the equal rights of education for women in Britain, their work is still relevant in the present since it reminds us that progress for education in some countries has been stagnant since the nineteenth century.
Lewis, Alexandra. “The Brontës and the Idea of the Human: Science, Ethics, and the Victorian Imagination,” Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Letter to W. S. Williams, July 3, 1849; The Letters of Charlotte Brontë with a selection of letters by her family and friends, Margaret Smith, ed., 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995–2004), ii, p. 226; quoted in Drew Lamonica, We Are Three Sisters: Self and Family in the Writing of the Brontës (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), p. 35.
Jessop, Vicky. “The Story Of The Brontë Sisters: A Novel Family,” July 2017. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/articles/the-story-of-the-brontes/
“The Brontë Sisters (1818-1855)”, Accessed: 05/10/22. https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/bronte_sisters.shtml
Simkin, John. “Charlotte Bronte”, September 1997. https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbronte.html