Fairy Tale or Financial Oppression?
As a young-adult woman, I love nothing more than cuddling up in my bed and reading some Bronte or Austen. As cliché as it may be, I think about finding my own Mr. Darcy, and living in my own grand house on the English countryside. I see women romanticizing this Romantic and Post-Romantic era narrative in Mormon culture especially, where there have been remakes of these stories in films like Jershua Hess’s “Austenland” and Andrew Black’s “Pride and Prejudice a Latter-Day Comedy”. There are novels promoted by Mormon authors just as “Edenbrooke” by Julianne Donaldson in which Romantic and Post-Romantic era fiction is imitated. I, like so many Mormon women love these movies and novels. However, upon further thought I realized that the female protagonists within some of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, and Anna Karenina, all represent one of the things I have come to resent the most; women who are wholly and completely dependent on men. During the Romantic period, wherein many these novels are set, women had limited financial rights, which represented institutionalized oppression and by glamorizing this reoccurring narrative we overlook this suppression. It’s so easy to get lost in the romantics of it all that we lose the ability to see how trapped these women really were. Yes, these seem like wonderful romantic tales, but they’re only romantic because women must be “rescued” from one oppressive situation and taken to another and as a Mormon culture we rhapsodize the love story and ignore the oppression.
Romantic and Post-Romantic literature often reinforces strict gender roles, including women who are dependent on men. Girls were taught from birth that without an inheritance and without a husband that they were nothing. In Pride and Prejudice, a novel set in the Romantic period, Mrs. Bennett relentlessly works to find suitable husbands for her daughters, because she knows that without a good marriage, her daughters will not have financial stability. She exclaims to her husband, “…how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them”. The necessity to be linked to a male for financial stability is a consistent theme throughout literature set in the Romantic Period, demonstrating the pressure put on women to find a financially stable husband. Throughout the Romantic and Post-Romantic period, it was rare to see a single female achieve financial independence. In the Post-Romantic novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, not one female character is ever completely financially independent displaying that even in fiction, financial independence evaded women.
As I walked through the Brontë house here in England, it was clear to me that the oppression I have ignored in fiction is nearly stifling in history. The Brontë sisters were stuck in their home in the Moorelands, dependent on a father, a brother, and if lucky, a husband for most of their lives. No wonder Charlotte created an outspoken, independently-willed character such as Jane Eyre, when she had seen so little of this in her own life.
I have often wished to be swept off my feet by (albeit the idea of) a Mr. Rochester. However, it wasn’t until I fully understood the limited social role that these Romantic “heroines” held, that I really began to question if these fictional narratives are ones that I admired. In the current era, we see women as CEOs, writing computer programs, and succeeding as single mothers. And though this isn’t what I necessarily see for myself, it has often irked me when others expect women to be limited in their accomplishments and wholly dependent on men. But, when I read these novels, I find myself wanting to be just like that—limited in my accomplishments and wholly dependent on a man. This Romantic and Post-Romantic period fiction reinforces the idea that women should be this way and it subconsciously influences us all the time. How is it possible for us as Mormon women to fully progress when we hold these fictional stories in such high regard?
I love a Jane Austen or Brontë novel as much as the next girl, and they’re always a good read, but when we allow the love story written in the plot to cloud the ugly oppression within these novels it’s easy to miss it altogether. In romanticizing the situations that the female characters find themselves in all throughout Romantic and Post-Romantic period literature we unwittingly pass over the oppression, financial or otherwise, that these women, albeit fictional, were under.