The Superiority of Moral Worth over Physical Charms
‘The critic is he who can translate into a new manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.’ – Oscar Wilde
Each person’s perception of beauty is, thankfully different. Over the years, the way in which beauty is thought of has also altered, from an age where vanity was considered a good thing to an age where vanity is considered a flaw, one thing is always certain, that beauty is one topic which shall always be debated upon. The time in which the Bronte’s lived is perhaps one of the best eras for us to look at the ‘superiority of moral worth over physical charms’ for here, more than ever, do we see the concept of good conquering bad, and moral righteousness winning out over physical attributes. It is interesting to converse about how these topics have changed, from their times to ours, but also throughout their novels, from the earliest to the latest, how have their heroines changed? What type of heroine prevails in their novels? Does the heroine stereotype change over the course of their writing? Do the morals which these heroines ascertain to, stay constant throughout the novels? We shall study all these questions in a bid to discover whether or not moral worth truly does have superiority over physical charms, or whether it is an idea in theory which is actually not followed in practice.
However, before we launch into this head on, and discuss the woman’s place in the novel, let us not dismiss the title by confining it solely as referring to women. Why not include men also? There is much to interest in the concept of male vanity over moral superiority in novels at the time, as much in the novels of the Bronte’s as anyone else. It is interesting in fact, to discover how these pioneering female authors of their time pitched the male against the female in their novels, how each sex is portrayed and stereotyped, and whether or not this was influenced very heavily by their background, and by the times in which they lived.
It surely follows that these authors would have been predisposed to discuss the position and the temperament of the characters about which they write drawing on their own experiences of life. It seems important that we begin therefore by looking at the way in which the Bronte’s grew up, how they were treated, by their parents, by those around them, by society in general and later by those critics of their time who discussed their novels and criticised them merely for being women. How did this affect them? How did these events change their hero’s and heroine’s from novel to novel? Perhaps, by studying the progression of their lives we can also discover the progression of their novels, and the characters of their novels – how these developed in accordance with their own personal development and of course, the development of the time in which they lived, indisputably being a very inconsistent era in which to live, particularly for the female species.
To begin therefore, the Bronte sisters were all born in the early 1800’s, Charlotte in 1816, Emily in 1818, and Anne in 1820. In just 1821, a short 18 months after the birth of Anne, Mrs Bronte died, leaving her sister to bring up her daughters. Indeed, there is nothing at all to suggest that this was as traumatic for the girls as it must have been – all of them being of a young age. By all accounts they were well provided for and well loved, being part of a large and close family. However, life in the early 1800’s for any woman was not always easy. Women in fact were considered at this time to be ‘separate’ from men. G.M.Young maintains in his book, Victorian England, that the fundamental issue of feminism, though ‘often obscured by agitation for subordinate ends – the right to vote, to graduate, to dispose of her won property after marriage, is the entry of woman into the sexless sphere of disinterested intelligence, and of autonomous personality.’ This is typical of the box into which women were put in this era, and attempts to make headway within society were met with such resistance at times that it must indeed, have been disheartening for anyone to keep trying over and over again to be taken seriously just on the basis of what sex they were. Charlotte once retorted to a critic that ‘to you, I am neither man nor woman – I come before you as an author only.’ This is an interesting defence, implying that the issues with which she dealt in Jane Eyre are indeed those of a multifaceted and androgynous author, she believes she has addressed the issues from the point of view of an author, merely, not a man or a woman so to speak.