“Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” are two famous British novels written by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and regarded as literary treasures. During the Victorian period, men and women’s roles became more sharply defined than any time in history. As the 19th century progressed, men increasingly commuted to their place of work whereas women, daughters, and sisters were left at home all day to occupy with their domestic duties. Men were said to bring money in the family and women were considered to be weaker, dependent and driven by them. It is generally acknowledged that middle class British women had little choice. They did not get a substantial education and they had no many employment opportunities. Marriage was the only solution as they were searching for financial support and security from the potential husbands. Yet, as we can see in both novels, the female figures contrast the typical female gender roles of Victorian England society by speaking up and holding on to their individuality.
Regarding Jane’s Austen novel “Pride and Prejudice”, the female-protagonist Elizabeth contrasts obviously the typical female gender roles of that period. She has a sharp tongue and she states her opinion directly, which often astonish those who believe that women cannot be allowed such liberty. For example, during her conversation with Lady Catherine, who is a very powerful woman, she answers a lot of questions and asserts her opinion on the social norms:
“But really, Ma’am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early.- The last born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth as the first.- And to be kept back on such a motive!- I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p.187).
Elizabeth’s opinions are not the products of social conventions but they are the products of common sense:
“Suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p.187).
Elizabeth proves herself to be a modern woman and does not care about class and rank. In addition, even her attitude towards marriage is different. She wants to marry out of love, not just so that she would be financially secured. Her romantic values also contrast those of society:
“I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal.—You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p.120).
Elizabeth fights for the things she wants and believes in and she is not a woman whom someone could easily scare. Again, Elizabeth proves to be an independent and intelligent lady who does not care about the opinion of others; she does what she thinks to be the best for her.
Passing now to the great novel of Charlotte Bronte “Jane Eyre”, we can easily detect elements which show another strong, powerful and rebellious spirit of women in the Victorian society, just like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice:
“I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die; I will be myself, Mr. Rochester; you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me, for you will not get it any more than I shall get it of you, which I do not at all anticipate”.
Jane responds to Mr. Rochester’s demands regarding their wedding. She makes it clear to Mr. Rochester that she wants to be true to herself and hold her autonomy despite his failed attempts to plan travels and buy expensive gifts for her. Jane contrasts the typical female gender roles of Victorian England society by speaking up without her voice shaking, even in the face of marriage.
“We were born to strive and endure-you as well as I do so. You will forget me before I forget you” (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, p. 369).
Jane declares her complicated relationship with Rochester. She makes her own decisions to leave her master, leave Thornfield to survive with her principles:
“He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man. For me, I felt at home in this sort of discourse. I could never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined minds, whether male or female, till I had passed the outworks of conventional reserve, and crossed the threshold of confidence, and won a place by their heart’s very hearth-stone’ (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 32).
Jane’s observations reveal that St. John is astonished by her directness when Jane points out that St. John Rivers trembles and is flushed whenever Miss Oliver enters. Through Jane the reader learns how St. John Rivers is surprised by her direct approach because it is not expected of a woman in their society. Jane continuously goes against female gender role expectations by speaking freely and confidently, often impressing males with her courage.
To conclude, female characters in Jane Austen’s and Charlotte Bronte’s novels represent their heroines’ unconventional attitude toward marriage and everyday life. Even though the two main characters may vary in spirit, ideas, way of life etc. there are some similarities between them. They both speak up and find their voices, they contrast the gender stereotypes of that period and they are strong and willing to do anything in the name of love.