The Brontë sisters created some of the most memorable characters in literary history, many of them female, which may perhaps be why their work still seems refreshing today. However, dig beneath the surface a little and you will find there are more inspiring and intriguing female characters in their works. I thought it might be fun to compile a little list of some overlooked but strong, intelligent, and independent female characters from their works. So out with the Janes, Cathys, Helens, and in with some of the characters I have enjoyed reading about who I feel really don’t get the attention they deserve. Here is my list of 5 overlooked Brontë women. I know there are many more I could have included, such as Emily’s Rosina Alcona from Gondal, but I omitted her due to the fragmentary nature of what remains of the works in which she features as I feel we can’t ever get a full picture of her. Reader, enjoy.
Mina is undoubtedly a complex figure, and one who divides critical opinion. Mina is a creation of Charlotte and features in the Glass Town and Angria stories penned by Charlotte and Branwell. The daughter of a solider turned bodysnatcher Sergeant Edward “Ned” Laury, she is a prominent character in the Brontë juvenilia due to her relationship with Arthur Wellesley, Marquis of Douro and later King of Angria and Duke of Zamorna. Originally maid to his mother, the Duchess of Wellington and then to his second wife, Marian Hume, Mina becomes Zamorna’s favourite and most loyal mistress, even acting as a mother figure to his young children following Marian’s death. She resides at Rivaulx in the Hawkescliffe estate, seemingly living to serve Zamorna, and at one point in the stories chooses to follow him into exile.
Mina is far more than just a mistress though. She is a complicated figure who is shown by Charlotte to be independent and active in many respects in tales such as The Spell (1834), Passing Events (1836), and Mina Laury (1838). She is strong, intelligent and independent despite her devotion to Zamorna, running her household and taking care of things not traditionally associated with women of her era such as finances and accounts. She is admired by the men who encounter her not just for her beauty but also for her loyalty and mind. Mina is also brave enough to reject the offer of a respectable marriage, and therefore a respectable place in society, from an aristocrat in favour of following her heart and staying true to herself. Yes, Mina certainly is a complex and intriguing, but fascinating character. More than anyone else in the juvenilia, there is a sense of something much deeper to Mina with her strengths and weaknesses. Mina is at once both perfect and flawed, strong but fragile, mistress of herself and mistress to Zamorna.
Mary Henrietta Percy is Zamorna’s third wife and mother of his children, legitimate daughter of Alexander Percy, sister to Edward and Sir William Percy, and half-sister to Caroline Vernon. She later becomes Queen of Angria. Although used predominantly by Charlotte, she is actually a creation of Branwell, and first appears in his narrative The Politics of Verdopolis (1834). Perhaps surprisingly, it is Branwell who presents her as a strong, independent, and active character whereas in Charlotte’s hands she seemingly becomes nothing but a pawn in the ongoing personal and political feuds between her husband and father. At one point in the juvenilia, she is abandoned and rejected by Zamorna who desires revenge on her father and is sent to Alnwick where she is killed off by Branwell whilst, in reality, Charlotte was away at school. A devastated Charlotte later chose to resurrect her heroine in what must be one of literature’s earliest examples of retcon. Charlotte’s Roe Head Journal (c.1836-7) is a fascinating piece which mixes reality and fantasy, and records Charlotte fretting over Branwell’s treatment of Mary.
Like Mina, Mary becomes devoted to Zamorna, who very often treats her like a spoiled child. However, she does retain flashes of rebellion and independence even in Charlotte’s works such as when she unexpectedly shows up at Mina’s house in order to get a glimpse of the woman she must share her husband with. More than anything, Mary is a survivor (no thanks to Branwell) and we must give her credit for that. Like many Queens and high ranking women before her both in fiction and reality, she knows her place and what is expected of her, and how to survive without causing too much offence and ruffling too many feathers. In short, she plays a game just as much as Zamorna and Percy do, albeit a very different one. She also continues to hold a place in her husband’s heart despite his wandering eye as is evidenced in Caroline Vernon (1839) when Zamorna blots out all, thoughts of anything but his wife in a scene which almost spills over into passion.
Appearing in just a single Angrian tale, Henry Hastings (1839), Elizabeth is another intriguing and complex character. As a teacher and companion to a society beauty who earns her own living, she is often compared to Charlotte’s most famous creation, Jane Eyre, from the 1847 novel of the same name. However, with her connection to her roots in Pendle and devotion to her disgraced brother, Captain Henry Hastings, Elizabeth has a depth to her that the orphaned and friendless Jane does not initially possess. Proud, loyal, and moral with plain features and an independent streak, she is seen by many critics and readers as a precursor to Jane. Additionally, she rejects Sir William Percy, who desires her to become his mistress but not his wife despite the fact that he obviously loves her just as Jane rejects Rochester following the bombshell that shall not be named.
However, it is her devotion to Henry which almost proves to be her undoing, and she risks the the wrath of the law to protect him. Although she has feelings for Sir William she rejects him, not simply because of the nature of his offer, but because she is so devoted to Henry. She ends the tale exactly where she begins; alone without Henry. Despite this, Charlotte’s depiction of her as strong-minded, independent, and active means that Elizabeth will never be lost, destitute, or without honest work in a world full of silly society women. It would have been fascinating to see how her character would have developed further had Charlotte not broken with Angria the year Henry Hastings was written.
Agnes Grey?! I hear you cry. Yes, Agnes Grey. She may have own novel which was accepted for publication on the first attempt, but like Anne, Agnes tends to be overlooked. Perhaps because of the largely unremarkable events of the steady narrative in which she appears, her mild character, or the contrast between her and the Brontë women of her era (Cathy, Jane, Helen, even Shirley). Agnes Grey (1847) is the tale of the trials and growth of a young governess who resolves to look for work following the death of her father in order to support herself. Agnes is rejected by one family but finds her feet, and a new found courage with another. She knows her strengths, and how to work on her weaknesses. Despite Agnes being mild, she has a strength and determination to do what is right which shines through in the novel. There is none of the drama of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre, but Agnes possesses a strong backbone nevertheless.
Her courage, morality, honesty, and decency are to be commended, as is her decision to act in order to change her financial circumstances. She does not run away from her difficulties but faces them head on. In many respects, she is not the passive woman so often found in classic literature, and ultimately, she makes her own choices in life. And she is rewarded with Mr Weston…
The illegitimate daughter of Alexander Percy and Louisa Vernon, and half-sister to Mary, Henry, Edward, and Sir William Percy. Caroline first appears briefly as a child in Charlotte’s novelette Julia (1837). However, she appears again as a teenager in The Duke of Zamorna (1838) and Caroline Vernon (1839) where she lives with her mother who has been imprisoned by her guardian Zamorna at Eden Cottage near Fidena, a city in the Verdopolitan Union. At first glance Caroline seems to be a lively, spoilt yet neglected teenager in Caroline Vernon where she gets her own narrative, however, the tale is a rich one which follows her psychological, physical, and sexual development as she moves away from childhood into adolescence, and eventually crosses the border into adulthood. The novella is a bildungsroman in which Caroline develops her adult identity and resolves to act on her wants and desires to avoid becoming a passive and confined woman like her mother. Like the other women on this list, she makes choices in order to shape her own destiny. They may not be choices every reader agrees with but who are we to judge what makes someone happy?
The tale, like Caroline herself, divides opinion with some seeing Caroline as a victim of an older predator and others as an active, resourceful, and determined young woman who knows what she wants from life and how to get it. She becomes increasingly attracted to Zamorna, her brother-in-law, legal guardian, and also her mother’s gaoler. Despite Percy’s best efforts to check her feelings, Caroline finds her way back to Zamorna and shakes off the shackles of her old life for good. Some say that she is merely heading for a life being another of Zamorna’s mistresses, but I don’t think Caroline’s independent and feisty nature would ever be squashed.
- Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, Caroline Vernon? Charlotte Brontë, Joyce Carol Oates, and the Adolescent Female
- The Other Brontë: Anne, Agnes, and Me
- People and Places from the Brontë Juvenilia Part One: Glass Town and Angria
- Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë
- Branwell Brontë’s The Politics of Verdopolis
- Re-Discovering Jane Eyre: Reader, I Love It
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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