Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Professor Kevin Morrison
Professor Patricia Moody
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
Comparative Literature | English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
In this paper, I compare two novels: Shirley by Charlotte Brontë and A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. Shirley follows the lives of two girls navigating adolescence in the early nineteenth century; A Great and Terrible Beauty is the story of four girls, also transitioning into womanhood, in the late Victorian era.
The first interesting thing about these two pieces is that both authors choose to set them in their relative pasts: Brontë, writing near the middle of the nineteenth century, sets her work in 1812, while contemporary writer Libba Bray sets her piece in the Victorian era. By studying the importance of neo-Victorian literature and examining why it is such a popular genre, I argue that they make this choice both to obtain objective distance from their pieces and to delve into a time that created their own present-day worlds. Further, I argue that Bray chooses the Victorian era in particular because of the influence it has had on our modern world. Both because of the continuing influence of the past and because of the relevance of many of the issues faced by the characters to modern readers, these novels are popular with contemporary girls and young women.
I also examine the different sanctuaries that the authors write for their characters. Shirley and, to some extent, Caroline, find their haven in nature – it is peaceful, (initially) undisturbed by mankind, and offers the girls freedom that they don’t have in society, where there are people to judge their every move. Gemma and her friends are given the realms, a separate world that only Gemma can enter (using a power similar to spiritualism) and where they are completely free to be wild, to learn forbidden things, and to develop independence and strength. At the end of Shirley, nature is destroyed, lost to industrialization to satisfy the will of Shirley’s and Caroline’s husbands, but Bray’s realms remain intact and stronger than ever at the end of the trilogy, which is symbolic of her characters’ more independent futures.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show…” Dickens writes in David Copperfield. Bray and Brontë ask the same question of their characters, and the different responses are a result of the authors’ different perspectives. Shirley and Caroline both marry at the end of the novel and yield their independence to their husbands, but Gemma and her friends do not marry – they find fulfillment in various independent lives. The futures that Gemma and her friends earn by the end of Bray’s novel were not in the realm of possibility for Brontë, and so she couldn’t write them for her own characters, but Bray’s modern perspective earned her characters more freedom than that.
DePalma, Laura, "Hero/Heroine: A Study of the Representation of Womanhood in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Literature" (2011). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 241.
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