"Reader, I married him": The spiritually responsible heroine in Charlotte Bronte, Anne Bronte, and George Eliot

Date of Completion

January 2005


Literature, English




During the Victorian period of British history, backlash from the Industrial and French Revolutions intensified pressure women felt to observe public silence, while the developing angel figure of the woman further displaced the expression of female desires even at home. The memory of the female preacher, kept alive as an image of voice and spiritual agency in the novels of nineteenth-century female writers, helped prevent the woman's voice from fading away beyond the point of recovery. Writers with access to the Wesleyan tradition--Charlotte and Anne Brontë and Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot)--formed heroines from the materials of the Wesleyan expectations that all believers read and analyze the Bible, give public voice to their spiritual experience, and cultivate a rich sense of self knowledge from which they could discern God's leading in their lives. ^ Close examination of the life writings of one widely published Wesleyan female preacher, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, suggests that texts by such women provided a master narrative through which the Brontës and Evans could depict women's lives as extending beyond the domain of marriage to include years of singleness, participation in useful work, and economic and spiritual agency. In addition, the manner in which these novelists used pseudonyms such as Currer Bell and George Eliot echoes the process of collaboration that Wesleyan female preachers relied upon to get their narratives before readers. Such an echo operates in the fiction to convey ideas about how women could influence politics to expand and improve opportunities for women's lives. ^ Finally, study of these novels uncovers the process through which these authors transferred the female preacher's influence from the religious spaces of society into the secular realm. Thus, while Jane Eyre, Helen Huntingdon, and Dinah Morris are each women of devout faith, the Christian and sectarian associations of this figure gradually disappear from Evans's later works. Ultimately, however, the effect is not the erasure of religious influence upon the secular world but a wider dissemination of it. ^