Lecture 1--Introduction and Orientation - Women in Literature

    Week 1.   

Let us begin with a picture.  You might recognize it!

 This is a well-known image of Emily Bronte, whose novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), we will be reading this semester.  I start with Emily because she is one of the best-recognized woman writers of any century.  And yet, she died at 30, and she wrote only one work from which all of her fame flows.  The example of Emily Bronte is one that brings up so many of the issues that surround women writers and women, writing.  Are we to believe that, had she lived longer, she might have produced more excellent work?  Do we believe that her genius was limited to one novel?  Is she representative of women writers in some important sense?  And does her popularity rest rather too heavily on the very gothic and darkly romantic story of her own life?  Finally, what is the nature of Wuthering Heights that it has survived countless editions, movie versions, and the passage of time?

Here are the opening lines from the famous story: 

l80l.---I have just returned from a visit to my land-lord---the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country. In all England I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society - a perfect misanthropist's heaven; and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.
"Mr. Heathcliff?" I said.  A nod was the answer.
"Mr. Lockwood, your new tenant, sir. I do myself the honour of calling as soon as possible after my arrival, to express the hope that I have not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange. I heard yesterday you had had some thoughts------"
"Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir," he interrupted, wincing. "I should not allow any one to inconvenience me, if I could hinder it. Walk in!"

The "walk in" was uttered with closed teeth, and expressed the sentiment, "Go to the deuce." Even the gate over which he leant manifested no sympathizing movement to the words; and I think that circumstance determined me to accept the invitation. I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself.

All of these questions will concern us as we proceed with Women in Literature.  This class will explore many aspects of Women in Literature - images of women throughout history, the texts that have been produced by women, and the social and political background that influenced this literature.  Throughout, we shall be asking questions about the conditions under which the literature arose, the lives of the women who wrote, and the survival, or lack of it, of the works themselves.  

Let us return for a moment to Emily Bronte.  

Bronte Birthplace at Thornton

Charlotte Bronte - born here 1816 
Patrick Branwell Bronte - born here 1817 
Emily Jane Bronte - born here 1818 
Anne Bronte - born here 1820 

One of the salient facts about the Brontes is the poverty, or penury if you like, of the family situation.  As children of a man of the cloth, they lived a simple life.  Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the definitive biography of Charlotte Bronte, tell us that Reverend Bronte allowed only potatoes at most meals, as a way of conserving resources.  This one fact, though, begins to tell us much about women and writing.  Isolated from society, kept to the house except when tending to duties of the parish, and living largely in a world of their own making, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne nevertheless were able to write.  It is an activity, one of the very few, that one can do almost anywhere, with or without means, equipment, support, or formal training.  And so, for women, it was one of the few ways to engage the world if one were without status. 

In 1824, the four eldest daughters were sent to Cowan Bridge School, a school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. The conditions were harsh and an epidemic soon broke out, taking the lives of Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte became very ill as well, and she and Emily were sent home to Haworth. In 1835, Charlotte became a teacher at Roe Head school and Emily joined her as a student. Emily, however, could not stand being away from her beloved moors, and became violently homesick. She returned home and her younger sister, Anne, took her place.

Emily began writing poems at an early age and published twenty-one of them, together with poems by Anne and Charlotte, in 1846. The slim volume was titled Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Only two copies were sold, and the failure led all three to begin work on novels: Emily on Wuthering Heights, Charlotte on Jane Eyre, and Anne on Agnes Grey

The town of Haworth, near Bradford, where Rev. Bronte was parson.

the following photograph is from a postcard from the Bronte County site.  There are lots of other post cards there relating to the Bronte's life and works.

And why?

The ththe The Moors Near Stanbury.  Model for Wuthering Heights.

What is most notable about these images of the country, in which the Bronte sisters lived and walked and wrote, is the loneliness of it, the remote quality of an outpost of sorts, the place where we would least expect the "famous family" of English literature to originate.  Literature, we are tempted to imagine, comes from learned and sophisticated individuals, raised in cities, nurtured by universities, and steeped in the classics.  The Bronte children did, indeed, read widely, but in almost every other requirement for great writers, they rank near the bottom.  And yet, it would seem, the key quality of the literature we cherish is some species of inner truth, a plumbing of the soul that speaks to people throughout the ages, across culture, and regardless of station in life. 

So it is that we are fortunate to study women writers this semester.  Good literature does appeal to us in a universal sense.  We will be looking at a kind of survey of the major British and American writers of the last five centuries - and we will also be reading from women writers of other cultures and times - Ancient Chinese women poets, Japanese poets, Persian writers, African novelists, and South American short story writers.  All of these women worked, in one way or another, under conditions unfavorable to the creation of great literature: they wrote in isolation, they went unread, they struggled with poverty and unfortunate circumstance, their works were burned or vilified.  And yet, somehow, women have gone on writing, and have left us a magnificent heritage.

be sure to begin interacting with your peers in the Discussion Group!  This is the place to ask questions, share your insights, and discuss the reading.

Continue with Lecture I.

Literature 45  - Women in Literature :  

Marjorie C. Luesebrink, MFA


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