Women Writers: How Was the Writing of New England's Emily Dickinson Different From England's Emily Bronte?
How Two 19th Century Women Authors Sought to Cultivate and Gain a Personalized Freedom Through Words and Writing
A fading sunset, a crying infant, a virtue, a love, or a place in time and history can only be beautified with language created from imagination, awareness, experience, or knowledge with phraseology, dialect, rhetoric, poetry, prose, or other form of intrinsic communication. For me, language is a form of resuscitation within a process that continually evolves from imaginative approaches. Like other forms of art, it is created, designed, assembled and performed with passion, and oftentimes with an outburst of emotion, excitement and enthusiasm.
In approximately 1872 (and first published in 1894), Emily Dickinson describes the life of a word very simply, and yet leaving the reader with an effect that is powerful.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Societies for decades have produced ensembles of thinking individuals who raise their minds into the darkest hours of the night in their passionate efforts to create and perfect their art with written words that are extremely expressive to themselves as artists. As a woman in the 21st Century, I enjoy the performance of language when it is used to celebrate historical events, articulate the human condition, or reconstruct the human spirit. I do not, however, have the cultural or societal impediments to constrain me as compared to the experiences of 19th Century women in America or England.
When the privilege of freedom is not abundant, nor genuine, people will strive to pursue some form of freedom in any manner possible. The existence of a woman in England or America in the 1800s based on historical information presents the guarantee that any sense of a fuller freedom would be rejected because of their gender. Two women authors sharing a first name sought to cultivate what freedom they could gain through their handwritten words. Both Emily Dickinson in America and Emily Brontë in England, taking full advantage of a freedom they could perform at home, composed poetry and fiction in their meaningful language. Their personalized endeavors were acts of passion to analyze doubts, ponder subjects relative to God and heaven, make statements through coded language, and comment upon their respective worlds in ways denied to most women of their time. Given their unique nations, their explorations, approaches, styles and techniques have continued to resound through pages and pages of literary criticism and analysis through decades. Aside from providing a brief overview of their personal background, what will be discussed herein will be the factors that confined them as artists and reveal the impediments and outcomes relative to publication of women writers.
Emily Jane Brontë was born on July 30, 1818 in Yorkshire. Her father, Patrick, was a clergyman for a parish at Haworth. Within a seven-year period after her birth, she lost her mother and two older sisters. She was among four children who survived, who were raised by an aunt in an atmosphere which has been described as both barren and dreary. Since childhood, reading books, studying and making attempts with writing were to serve as pleasurable moments. She worked on a creative writing project for 20 years called "Gondal," which led to her creation of her most passionate poems, 21 of which did not receive further attention until her novel began to receive attention. Her sister, Charlotte, discovered these poems, and under a pseudonym of Emily Ellis, they appeared in a joint publication with her sisters. She is, howeve,r best remembered for Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, which was her only novel and she would die just one year later from tuberculosis. She is considered to be one of four of the greatest British novelists in the 19th Century.
Although women were freer to develop their gifts, it has not shown a level of aesthetic achievement as compared to the previous century. No British woman poet is worth critical comparison to Emily Brontë. Her imagination seemed to always be fueled and she was classified as a nervous member of the family, although was loved and respected. She was considered an emotional rebel, considered somewhat of a recluse, and revealed as a passionate lonely genius for the last three years of her life. She looked at life as though it was fiction and for what we may define as unreal, this may have been her sense of reality. She had a mental universe that took her on a visionary flight from materiality that released her into freedom. She was concerned with the question of identity, consciousness and an individual soul's autonomy. She may have wanted to escape the boundaries of her time and over time, she has been labeled a literary genius in consideration of the time in which she existed. After a journey to met publishers in London, she and her sisters returned back to Haworth to discovery their brother was near his death. At his funeral, Emily caught a cold and died on December 19, 1848.
The best American women poets won't sustain the company of Emily ElizabethDickinson who was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson was the middle child of a widely known lawyer, Edward Dickinson, who also served as a United States congressional representative. With the exception of a few journeys, for the most part, she lived in the same house in Amherst. Only a handful of her poems were published in her lifetime, and the remaining hundreds of poems began to appear in their first volume in 1890, four years after her death.
Considered one of the principal authors in American literature, she wrote intellectually about the human condition ranging from subjects of the pains and beauty of love, the mysterious nature of death, the atrocities of war, God, Religion, and her thoughts on the importance of literature, music and art. Whether Dickinson was truly a recluse, or not, also lends to the 19th Century stereotypes for women writers of her time. Her qualities were expected to be downplayed especially if they didn't meet the conventional standards. A popular depiction of her life was in the one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, that opened on Broadway in 1976. As playwright, William Luce, discussed in his preface of his play in his effort to spit at the psychoanalytical studies of Dickinson, he stated, "The essential Emily of my play is secretly saying to the audience, 'Pardon my sanity.' Pardon my jubilation in Nature, my terror of midnight, my childlike wonder at love, my white renunciation. Nothing more do I ask than to share with you the ecstasy and sacrament of my life."
Dickinson's poems consisted of short lines and strong metaphors. As a recluse who may have been seeking to become a literary celebrity never had the vast majority of her poems published in her lifetime. She did not have strong family support, which could have encouraged her with her writing. Because the nature of Emily's work seemed radical for her time, it went misunderstood. To hear Wallace Stevens' statement that "poetry is a scholar's art" (from Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson),this alerts a reader that for Dickinson's time, a scholar would be a male who might belong to certain clubs that didn't allow women. Also, in the middle to upper classes in Victorian influenced New England, it would be the men who would lecture while the women sat quietly in the background listening. There were exceptions to thisrule, however, with the other women writers who dared to speak.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson who served to be Dickinson's mentor throughout most of her life received a letter from her on April 15, 1862, which included four of her poems. Of course, at the time, he was unaware she had already written 300 of them. Holding the belief that he was interested in women writers and the status of women, she submitted her poems to him of his opinion. Higginson viewed her poetic works as incomprehensible, and his opinions were a subsequent influence on her renunciation of fame. Years later after her death, he admitted her poetic genius, but didn't know where to assign its place in literature. He also was never convinced she could write poetry and did say her poetry was "remarkable, though odd" and "not strong enough to publish" (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson by Thomas H. Johnson). Dickinson's decision not to publish was a defiant act that rejected the standards for women writers in this period, a period in which editors and critics limited the topics for women. Dickinson created powerful expressions within her prescribed limits for her time. American women poets tried to alter the older norms in the publishing world. The literary marketplace was guided by rhetorical styles of editors and publishers.
Dickinson used floral language and geographical imagery to reconstruct the popular conception of femininity and its rhetorical possibilities. One usage she employed was the language of flowers, which was a non-verbal system of communication based on a series of codes. In upper to mid-1800s, floral dictionaries were reproduced in England and America. This language of flowers afforded women who were frequently depicted as flowers and encouraged to stay away from the harsh light of self-revelation and public scrutiny. It was a way to express their thoughts that served as source of freedom. She used floral lyrics to express emotions that were deemed unacceptable to women. Before Dickinson''s death in 1886, she had left statements in letters such as "Life is the finest secret. So long as that remains, we must all whisper..."
Attitudes of the Victorian Era
Both Dickinson and Brontë existed in the Victorian era which was the period of the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to her death in 1901. During that time frame, especially in England, there was an abundance of disconcerting attitudes in society. these attitudes compelled writers to assert themselves by embracing principles or clinging to a position relative to specific issues that either informed or encourage society. There was still the aftermath of the Romantic Era that would maintain command over English literature, but many writers were beginning to focus on important issues relative to the country's politics, education, industrialization and its effects on workers, materialism, and even religious concerns based on scientific advances that started the question, "what is truth?" These changes and growths caused writers to withdraw from literary subjects considered out-of-date, and lean towards subjects relative to truth which also included questions of faith. Also keep in mind that during this era, that family values were upheld, having a clear sense of duty in society, and honesty and respectability were expectations.
Women poets would also use geographical images like tropical jungles and arctic locals to convey women's isolation in their domestic lives. they had to conform to a limit of expression. There was also a limited degree in which a woman could question the structures. Dickinson did not like the constraints on women's works in publishing. Her choice not to publish was influenced by the publishing constrains to which women were subjected. It was difficult to conform to the dictates of editors and publishers. Like their male counterparts, if women adapted to expectations of the publishing world, they could be commercially viable and successful and this would be considered a threat. There were drastic artistic compromises. In regard to 19th Century publishing standards,
"Female writers found their cordial and supportive relationship with editors willing to publish their work both a boon and a burden: they gained a wide audience and could earn their living as writers but only by submitting their poetry to editors' dictates and conforming to a docile and agreeable public image." (Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women's Verse in America, 1820-1885 by Elizabeth Petrino).
The fact is that the cultural pressures in the domains of both Dickinson and Brontë shaped women's lives and works. Women during their time were not to step out of their sphere. Women were presented with a limited environment. The 19th Century culture seems to bellow, "Let us confine their influence." Hence, the vision of women writers became more intensified even through a lesser narrow range than for men. A woman who was educated and extremely talented needed the freedom of the public sphere so she could have been afforded opportunities to perform her abilities.
It wasn't of great significance until the 1920s when Dickinson's voice became strapped beneath a microscope for more intense speculation and review. If we look at Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and wonder if it had been written by a man, what power it might have possessed then--that it would probably have been considered permissible--we're reminded that since it was written by a woman, it crossed the boundaries of her expected societal gender traits or behaviorisms. She stored her longest and most ambivalent reviews in her lap desk without comment.
Although Dickinson and Brontë are examples of two women writers who existed within two separate cultures, they were part of one sphere that remained under the influences and pressures of a society. If they could escape their antiquated graves, they might bathe in the glory of the fact that their hands created language to be shared, studied, considered entertaining, and to be valued across centuries by readers, writers, publishers, and academic institutions. Voices more assertive than Dickinson's, and commentaries more blatant than Brontë's would soon come together collectively with a greater number of women writers who would over time be able to dig their fingers into the wooden grains of the doors that kept their written words from being discovered. They, took, with talent, imagination and passion, in their time and place in history would influence the women's roles in society and, thus, be a shaping of the framework surrounding the doors to literary freedom.
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