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Celebrating the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

14 April 2016
Reflecting on the famous writer’s literary legacy  

To mark the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth, two academics explain why the Victorian novelist's works are still relevant today.

Charlotte Brontë painted by Evert A. Duyckinck, based on a drawing by George Richmond. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Charlotte Brontë painted by Evert A. Duyckinck, based on a drawing by George Richmond. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Vanessa Smith and Sophie Frazer coordinate a unit of study specifically examining the literary influence of the British-born Charlotte Brontë and her equally celebrated novelist sisters Emily and Anne, in the University of Sydney's Department of English.

Despite being written more than 150 years ago, Charlotte Brontë's novels and poems are among the most enduringly popular Victorian texts, according to Professor Smith.

Professor Smith said Brontë had also contributed to a shift in the way women were represented in popular literature, and her female-centric stories had changed the 'bildungsroman' – sometimes also referred to as 'coming-of-age' – literary genre forever.

"Considered scandalous at the time they were published, Charlotte Brontë's books continue to resonate, not only as period pieces, but as challenges to our ways of thinking about and representing female experience," she said.

Actress Joan Fontaine portrays the titular character in the 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre. Image: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment/Wikimedia Commons.

Actress Joan Fontaine portrays the titular character in the 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre. Image: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment/Wikimedia Commons.

"No longer the story of a beautiful, virtuous protagonist's struggles to become marriage material, Brontë gave us instead the outspoken 'poor, obscure, plain' Jane Eyre, and the cryptic, damaged and independent Lucy Snowe of Villette."

Frazer, who is also undertaking PhD research on the English novelist, said the enduring appeal of Brontë’s novels could also be partially attributed to the "seductiveness" of her writing voice.

"Charlotte Brontë's impact on literary history is immeasurable, so deeply have her novels pervaded the collective consciousness, spawning a powerful mythology of the suffering female artist tortured by grief and genius," she said.

"In Jane Eyre, Brontë distilled the archetypal Cinderella story of all-conquering romantic love with such success that we can without hesitation claim her novel as one of Western literature's most influential models of romantic love."