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Essay: Britain’s shift from Romantic to Victorian seen in Bronte

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  • Britain's shift from Romantic to Victorian seen in Bronte
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After the emergence of a middle class as a result of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain’s social class system experienced several changes. The members of the working middle class were wealthy enough to separate themselves from the lower class, but not wealthy enough to be included in the upper class. The expectations of women shifted as they were given more opportunities to work and earn money. As the household responsibilities of women changed, their role in marriage changed. Born in Thornton, Yorkshire in 1818, author Emily Bronte experienced both a Romantic childhood and a Victorian adulthood (Landers 1). As a result, she was able to witness the peak of nineteenth century sexism, as well as the birth of feminism. Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, portrays Great Britain’s transition from the Romantic period to the Victorian period through the various roles and characteristics of women and the marital circumstances.

The Romantic period is known for its disillusionment with the Age of Reason. During the Age of Reason, people heavily relied on science, reason, and logic. The purpose of the Romantic period was to focus on nature, imagination, and emotions instead of science, reason, and logic; it was also a time of self-analysis and independence (Landers 2). However, Great Britain’s people shifted their focus again once Queen Victoria inherited the throne of the United Kingdom.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, emerged a new idea for the perfect woman. Women were deemed as the inferior of men. A true Victorian woman was to be an “Angel of the House.” This “Angel” was expected to be knowledgeable about the arts, as well as possess elegance, grace, and perfect femininity. Women were not supposed to show any sort of sexual interest in men, but instead, show an interest in marriage and raising children. Women were taught that if they attempted to surpass men in any type of “intellectual pursuit,” they would take away from man’s natural superiority, and ultimately end up infertile (Hughes 6,7). During the nineteenth century, males and females were considered to be on “separate spheres.” The term “separate spheres” was commonly used to describe the belief that women were, “physically weaker yet morally superior to men” (Hughes 1). Men were expected to handle labor outside of the home, while women were expected to handle raising the children and providing moral guidance for the family (Hughes 1). As an advocate for women and their role in marriage, Queen Victoria believed that women should be educated and strongly promoted the establishment of a women’s college in 1847; however, she did not support the idea of women’s suffrage. She believed women were happiest when they were devoted solely to their marriage (Greenblatt 1581). Women of the higher classes did not have the same responsibilities as those of the lower classes. Upper and middle class Victorian women often sat around doing nothing because their household duties were taken care of by the lower class women who worked as servants and maids. Most women were encouraged not to work or commit themselves to any form of studying or art. Suffering from boredom was considered a luxury, for women were only expected to work during times of financial instability (Greenblatt 1582). Growing up during this time, Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights in opposition of nineteenth century values on social class, women, and marriage.

Much of Emily Bronte and her siblings’ literary work was influenced by their upbringing. Around the time Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, Great Britain’s class system was being disrupted by the emergence of the middle class. Literary critic, Q.D. Leavis, claims the reason Emily Bronte chose to begin the novel at the time of the Industrial Revolution was “to fix its happenings at a time when the old rough farming culture, based on a naturally patriarchal family life, was to be challenged, tamed and routed by social and cultural changes; these changes produced Victorian class consciousness and ‘unnatural’ ideal of gentility” (Leavis qtd. in “Wuthering Heights as Socio-Economic Novel” 1). In this quote, Leavis discusses how in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte sets the novel during a time at which many changes were made socially and culturally. In order to avoid the bias brought upon female authors, Emily Bronte and her sisters released their literary works under male pseudonyms. A year before the end of her battle with tuberculosis, Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights under Ellis Bell (Landers 1). When Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, Bronte received mostly negative feedback. The book was not socially accepted until many years later due to its strong female characters (Juan 25). Though women during the Victorian period were expected to be the perfect housewife and mother, Emily Bronte defies these social standards through Wuthering Heights’ characters, Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Cathy Linton Heathcliff.

In his article, “Female Consciousness in Wuthering Heights,” Zhao Juan discusses how the female characters of Wuthering Heights stand out due to their independence and self-awareness. At the beginning of the novel, Catherine’s character shows many Romantic characteristics during her younger years at Wuthering Heights. Throughout the novel, Catherine rebels against her father and brother (Juan 26). According to Nelly, Catherine enjoyed being disobedient to her father, “His peevish reproofs wakened in her a naughty delight to provoke him: she was never so happy as when we were all scolding her at once…” (Bronte 22). In this quote, Nelly describes the joy Catherine got out of being defiant. The third chapter of Wuthering Heights presents a neighboring tenant, Lockwood, reading through Catherine’s old journals. Her entry begins on a Sunday; Catherine and Heathcliff are supposed to be reading their Bibles and praying, while Hindley and his wife Frances were downstairs. In her entry, Catherine writes, “H. and I are going to rebel-we took our initiatory step this evening” (Bronte 12). In this quote, Catherine reveals the two plan on rebelling against Hindley. They eventually end up getting reprimanded by Joseph for being too rambunctious which provokes them to rebel by throwing their books into a fire. Older Catherine’s insubordinate actions epitomize the rebellious attitudes of the Romantics. However, as Catherine gets older, she shows more and more Victorian traits. On the other hand, Young Cathy does not show Romantic traits until she gets older. When Lockwood first arrives at Wuthering Heights, he sees Cathy and is blown away by her beauty. While she is preparing to have a cup of tea, Lockwood attempts to help her, but is immediately shutdown, “‘I don’t want your help,’ she snapped; ‘I can get them for myself’” (Bronte 7). In this quote, Cathy exhibits her independence as she dismisses Lockwood. When Heathcliff orders her to put away her trash, Cathy again responds sharply saying, “‘But I’ll not do anything, though you should swear your tongue out, except what I please!” (Bronte 17). In this quote, Cathy challenges Heathcliff’s authority and professes her desire for freedom. Cathy also personifies the rebellious attitudes of the Romantics through her defiant ways. Although Catherine and Cathy portrayed many common Romantic beliefs, they also exuded many Victorian traits as well.

Older Catherine’s transition from Romantic to Victorian takes place during her childhood years. When Catherine gets attacked by a dog while playing with Heathcliff and has to stay at Thrushcross Grange, Mrs. Linton transforms her into a young Victorian lady. In chapter seven, Catherine returns from the Grange with impeccable manners and self-respect, “instead of a wild, hatless little savage” (Bronte 27). Later, Catherine conforms to Victorian marriage norms and marries Edgar instead of downgrading to Heathcliff, her true love (Landers 4). While talking to Nelly, she proclaims how she will benefit from their marriage saying, “And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighborhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband” (Bronte 40). In this quote, Catherine reveals the Victorian desire for social status and male dependency. While Catherine does not reveal her Victorian ways until after she returns from the Grange, Cathy’s Victorian traits are revealed as she grows up at the Grange. Until the age of thirteen, Cathy was confined to the property of Thrushcross Grange. Due to her confinement, she was described as, “a perfect recluse; and, apparently, perfectly contented” (Bronte 96). Her captivity represents how women of the Victorian period were bound to their duties at home and were supposed to be content with their lackluster lives. Cathy also demonstrates the Victorian values concerning social classes when she meets Hareton for the first time. When she finds out that she has mistaken the servant boy for the owner of Wuthering Heights, she immediately begins ordering him around. When Nelly explains to Cathy that the servant is actually her cousin, Cathy degrades Hareton with disbelief saying, “’Oh, Ellen! don’t let them say such things… my cousin is a gentleman’s son” (Bronte 99). During their interaction, Cathy exudes a common Victorian belief of degradation towards the lower class.

The intertwining love triangles of Wuthering Heights also represent both the Romantic and Victorian periods. The first love triangle in the novel between Catherine Earnshaw Linton, Heathcliff, and Edgar Linton represents the Romantic period, while the second love triangle between Catherine Linton Heathcliff, Linton Heathcliff, and Hareton Earnshaw represents the Victorian period (Landers 1). In the first love triangle, Catherine is hopelessly in love with Heathcliff, but marries Edgar for her own benefit. This triangle can be seen as Romantic due to her natural attraction for Heathcliff, as well as her selfish decision to marry Edgar (Landers 5). Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship does not work out, despite their strong love for one another, because they would be poor and live an unsuccessful life together. Edgar and Catherine’s relationship ends with her death because she was not truly happy, despite their financial stability (“The Romantic Novel, Romanticism, and Wuthering Heights” 3). In the second triangle, Cathy is forced to marry Linton, but eventually marries Hareton after Linton’s death. Cathy and Linton’s relationship can be seen as Victorian because, although Cathy was emotionally invested in the relationship, Linton was not. Their marriage did not succeed due to their lack of a true connection. Feminist writer, Mona Caird, described the perfect marriage as, “…an association that could and ought to be reinvented to promote freedom and equality for both partners” (Caird qtd. in Greenblatt 1582). In this quote, Caird states that marriage should benefit both the husband and wife. Cathy and Hareton’s relationship is considered Victorian because it exemplifies the value of women in marriage. Through Cathy’s tutoring, Hareton is able to become a more civilized person. Their relationship is successful because they both love each other and work together towards the same goal of happiness. In chapter thirty-two, their relationship is defined as beneficial to both parties, “Earnshaw was not to be civilized with a wish; and my young lady was no philosopher, and no paragon of patience; but both their minds tending to the same point—one loving and desiring to esteem, and the other loving and desiring to be esteemed—they contrived in the end to reach it” (Bronte 158). In this quote, the central goal of love in Cathy and Hareton’s relationship is made known. Cathy and Hareton’s relationship depicts the equality in marriages that Victorian feminists were working towards.

In conclusion, Great Britain’s shift from Romantic to Victorian can be seen through the actions and attitudes of both Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Cathy Linton Heathcliff, as well as their marriages. The two exude both Romantic and Victorian attitudes throughout the novel. While Catherine Linton Earnshaw transitions from Romantic to Victorian, Cathy Linton Heathcliff transitions from Victorian to Romantic. Each failed marriage represents the marital values of the Victorian era; however, the final marriage represents a successful marriage in which a woman is valued.

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