women's places through the writing of British fiction. Using three classic examples of women's fiction in British literature the writer examines the overt and underlying relationship women have in the world and with society throughout the evolvement of literature. There were three sources used to complete this paper.
Throughout history authors have used their works to explore societal lessons. British literature is well-known for its ability to draw attention to moral, societal or other lessons by which the society reflects on the changes it experiences. The role of females has been a favorite topic of British authors for many years, perhaps spurred on by the various class elements that society has experienced along the way. Three classic works of British fiction provide a blueprint of women's changing role in society by allowing for a time span within their measurement. Charlotte Bronte's, "Jane Eyre"; Virginia Woolf's, "A Room of One's Own"; Helen Fielding, "Bridget Jones's Diary all allow the reader to understand the changing roles of the women who are featured as representative of females in general during that time in British history. The works provide a snapshot of differences and similarities that the female gender experienced over different historical periods.
One of the things that the story of Jane Eyre is most noted for is the way it allows the reader to develop an understanding of societal opinions for that time. Jane Eyre is portrayed as every cliche known in history when it comes to the role of females in British society at that time. From the beginning of the book it is evidenced that the fact Eyre is not considered attractive by societal standards provides an opportunity and an acceptance of her less than stellar treatment. Beauty has always been a quest for those in the female gender but through the study of British literature over time one can see that it used to be important enough to affect one's very existence. Eyre is mistreated by the aunt who raises her and the importance of her plain looks and lack of money play into the mix. Women of that era who were not wealthy were considered less than acceptable when held against females who had financial backing. Adding the fact that Eyre was not considered physically attractive only served to underscore the role of females in society at that time.
When Eyre moves past the school that she grew up in and becomes a governess the reader is again given a glimpse into the role and station of women of that time. The fact that Mr. Rochester proposes to Eyre instead of the wealthy and attractive companion is designed and successfully shocks the reader because it was not the average path a plain, poor woman's life would take in that society during that time.
One of the more classic examples in British literature of the changing roles of females is when Eyre's cousin asks her to become his wife. It is after she has money that this occurs and though it is not discussed in the book one cannot help but notice the timing of attitude change even when disguised as love. Eyre refuses the offer of course and eventually finds her way back to the now disabled and disfigured Rochester and marries him instead. The story of Jane Eyre is a perfect foundation for the comparison of the changing roles of females in British literature because it portrays the importance of looks and means for females of that time.
The first page provides the substance by which the entire book will be based regarding gender roles when the author provides the assumption that a plain poor woman could not possibly have experienced love yet. "You never felt jealousy, did you Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you: because you never felt love. You have sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall wake it (Bronson pp 1).
In Virginia's Woolf's "A Room of Her Own" the reader is encouraged to expand in the understanding of the role of women in British literature because of the content of the essay. When compared to Jane Eyre which portrays females as weak and dependent, A Room of One's Own works to break out of the stereotype and make a place for women that can be independently attained and maintained through the use of one's determination and intellect.
The essay is based in the belief that for a woman to write fiction she must have money and a room of her own. The historical and generational oppression of females is illustrated in this insistence by Woolf about the needed elements to write solid works by a woman in that time.
The essay provides an overview of the British attitude regarding the female role in society when Woolf takes her investigation to a British Library and discovers that very little has been written about females and that which has is written by angry men. Her continuing exposition about the way females have been addressed in the literary world is a true commentary about the changing roles of females in British literature. The fact that she explores the angry manner women had been portrayed with in the past and is able to voice her feelings about such portrayal shows provides the evidence that the roles were already changing at that time. When held against the underlying meaning behid Jane Eyre regarding females the contrast in attitude is clear.
The invention of a female Shakespeare is further evidence of what changes had taken place in the role of females in British literature because it allows Woolf to satirize the backward past and discuss it as a strong independent female voice for the sake of discussion during her own era with her essay.
Woolf also addresses the importance of tradition to an aspiring writer and discusses some of the traditional barriers that have held women back from becoming the noted authors that they were and are capable of becoming. Again, not only does Woolf blueprint historical evidence of the role women have played in British literature with her work, but she also illustrates and underscores its changing role as she is able to write about it in the essay. This is an example of the subtle proof that the role of women in British literature was indeed undergoing changes through the years.
Woolf spends some time addressing the open differences and comparisions between men and women which further drives home the changing roles of women because looks at the oppression many women were forced to endure in earlier times and the fact that it was still a hint of a problem at the time she wrote the essay. This underscores the point Woolf makes that women need their own money and their own room if they are to become successful in writing because if they do not have these things then they are going to fall into the mindset that historically has been set for their place in society.
A pondered why it was that Mrs. Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind;... And I thought of the organ booming in the chapel and of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in...." (Chapter 1, 24).
One of the most obvious differences in the changes in roles of women throughout British literature is the attitude about what is important in life for a woman. Eyre focuses on looks while Woolf drives home the importance of intellect and means when she says:
On men's anger, "the one fact" retrieved from her morning's work at the British Museum]
Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority but with his own superiority.... Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle."
Chapter 2, 34-35).
Woolf goes so far as to blame men writers for helping the continued oppression of women being portrayed in literature as well as being treated in real life when she talks about what would happen if women were not illustrated or portrayed at all in the world of British literature and instead left to the imagination of the reader.
Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her to be a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she…