Woolf Looking at The Brontë Sisters

Virginia Woolf, 1882 to 1941, issued from the Victorian period in which women had great difficulty to take part in the public sphere. Society easily discredited women writers at the beginning of the 20th century as it had been the case through the earlier centuries. Still, it did not discourage Woolf from following her dream : to be literate and write highly literary works.

"Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights" is a retrospective critique of the novels written by the Brontë sisters : Charlotte and Emily. In this piece, Woolf discusses those great novels for they had inscribed themselves into England's literary canon and were bestsellers written by woman. At that time, those works were criticized as being "coarse". Woolf is to present Jane Eyre as a text written with great passion by Charlotte Brontë. She comes to compare it with other texts while pointing out the differences in the writing process. Woolf identifies Jane Eyre with journalistic work but also draws a division between Charlotte Brontë's technique and other authors', Thomas Hardy for example. To do so, Woolf expresses the obstacles to Charlotte's growing up to be a literate person ; something that is reflected in the elaboration of her characters. Woolf describes the essence of those characters ; " There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than observe patiently." Woolf finally comes to compare Charlotte with her sister Emily, as she draws parallels between both Brontë's writings. "[B]oth Emily and Charlotte are always invoking the help of nature." She later displays the call of nature as a writing technique "to describe a state of mind which could not otherwise be expressed." Still, Woolf shows to the reader the differences between the sister's writings. She presents Emily's as being not as individualist as Charlotte's, but rather more in a humanist perspective. "[T]here is no 'I' in Wuthering Heights […] not merely 'I love' or 'I hate' but 'we, the whole human race.'" Woolf goes ever further in the Brontë's comparison by stating that Emily's work is more poetic than Charlotte's, which makes the reading of Emily's work more difficult. One can see that by the end of her critique, Woolf finishes with a poetic touch, using nature, and testifying to her whole understanding of the Brontë sister's work.

Luis Dominguez



Woolf, Virginia, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Gilbert, Sandra M., Gubar, Susan The Norton Anthology : Literature by Women : The Traditions in English , second edition, WW Norton & Company, USA, 1996.

Sherry, Norman, Literature in Perspective Charlotte and Emily Brontë , Evans Brothers Limited, London, 1969, 144p.