illustrated portrait of English author Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë

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How did 19th century society view the works of female writers like the Bronte sisters?

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Though the works of the Bronte sisters, and other female writers like Jane Austen, were undeniably good, they were looked upon with some criticism or even disregard during the 19th century. The gender norms of the time prevented most women from attaining higher education or becoming involved in academic pursuits. The Bronte sisters were really exceptional not only for the extent of their education but also their boldness in becoming published authors. During the 19th century, an Englishwoman's highest potential was to become a wife and mother. Any other accomplishments, even becoming a best-selling author, were easily overlooked or simply considered a nice addition to a woman's primarily maternal skill set. The Bronte sisters were aware of the predicament their gender posed for them in society, so for their first publication, they chose to use masculine pseudonyms.

After further publications and the rising success of Charlotte's Jane Eyre, rumors arose that the authors Ellis, Currer, and Acton Bell (their chosen pseudonyms) were actually one person. Charlotte and Emily went in person to London to settle the dispute, revealing they were actually three persons and young women. Authorship aside, the works of the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott were highly criticized for their feminist themes and challenges to the strict social order of 19th century society. Such controversial material did little to impede the sales of their books—in fact, these famous female authors sold well because their books were controversial. Here were authors unafraid to call out the patriarchal structure of their societies and detail the private sorrows of women. Their books provide a counter-narrative to the ideal of the time that women should be wives and mothers who were seen and not heard.

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