The Brontes and their Contemporaries: Texts and Contexts (1816-1855)
This year (2018) the Bronte Society, centres of Victorian Studies as well as Literature departments across the Anglophone world are commemorating the bicentenary of Emily Bronte's birth with several conferences and events. The three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were born in Yorkshire between 1816 and 1820. They all died young, with the longest survivor, Charlotte, passing away in 1855, possibly from tuberculosis (like her sisters) or typhus. However, in their short literary life, the sisters published one volume of poetry and seven novels – many of them as the Bells – which have ensured their presence and influence in the English literary sphere to this day.
The novels of the Bronte sisters – four by Charlotte, one by Emily, and two by Anne – created considerable excitement among contemporary readers and critics, as well as among their peers in the literary world. Margaret Oliphant described Jane Eyre as a revolutionary declaration of the 'Rights of Woman' in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (1855). While Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey evoked ambivalent responses initially, but even then, reviewers were compelled to recognise Wuthering Heights particularly, as a work that bore 'colossal' promise and was 'not without evidences of considerable power'. Emily and Anne did not live to see their works restored to their name (published under the pseudonyms of Ellis and Acton Bell) but Charlotte outlived her sisters long enough to be feted as one of the literary luminaries of the 19th century. Her biography, by Elizabeth Gaskell, consolidated her position as a slightly reclusive genius of Yorkshire even though Emily was firmly enthroned for perpetuity as the presiding presence of the wild Yorkshire moors surrounding Haworth. Even at the turn of the century, as New Woman novels were emerging in Britain and the United States, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre continued to be regarded as the literary foremother of individualistic female protagonists struggling to establish their social and political right to ‘self-determination’. In the last few years, there has been more than one adaptation of Jane Eyre (2006, 2011) and Wuthering Heights (2009, 2011), while BBC One produced a documentary: To Walk Invisible (2017) on the Brontes and their difficult path to authorhood. The afterlives of the works of the Brontes have been as exciting and eventful as that of the originals.
It is well documented, particularly in the letters that she wrote in her short life as an author, that Charlotte tried to acquaint herself as best as she could with the writings of her contemporaries. There were many among her peers whose works she read and critiqued (in her letters), like that of John Stuart Mill, and there were contemporaries with whom she met and kept in touch. One Victorian 'giant', who she encountered on several occasions and whose lectures she also attended, was William Thackeray. Thackeray's Vanity Fair was being serialised at around the same time as Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was published. She wrote to eminent men like Robert Southey and G.H. Lewes. Additionally, she wrote and spent time with distinguished women writers such as Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. Manifestly, even from their peripheral location in West Riding, Yorkshire, the Brontes were part of a thriving literary milieu — sometimes as eager and engaged spectators, and at other times, as actors. Charlotte's letters even refer to the American abolitionist and writer, Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe, well known as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
During this period (1816-1855) the younger Romantics were also active, composing poems such as “Ozymandias”, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, and “When I have Fears”. Around the same time, Walter Scott too was writing his historical novels. Likewise, there were the literary works and critical reviews of the lesser-known Geraldine Jewsbury, and the historical and philosophical writings of the influential Thomas Carlyle. One radical work which saw the light of day in the year Emily Bronte was born, was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which went on to become a much read and discussed novel, with an afterlife as interesting as that of Wuthering Heights. The same year witnessed the birth of one of the most pre-eminent European thinkers of the 19th and 20th century, Karl Heinrich Marx. Hence, there is a wide range of authors and texts – literary, political, scientific – that constitute the context of ideas within which the Brontes carried out their literary activities. Overall, the lifetime of the Brontes was an eventful period for Britain and Europe. While Britain was transitioning into an industrial capitalist economy and establishing colonies in Asia and Africa, Europe was negotiating the after-effects of the French Revolution that would eventually lead to the emergence of the modern nation state.
In the proposed conference, in a spirit of celebration and serious scholarly engagement, we would like to revisit the Brontes (and the Bells), their writings, the literary sphere — British and European — which influenced them, and in turn was influenced by their works; along with the afterlife of their works. This seems to be an appropriate moment to also revisit the ideas and works of Marx and his contemporaries like Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Charles Darwin, examining the philosophy and nascent political ideas taking shape at this period in time, which would eventually influence Europe and the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In this conference, we propose to have sections devoted to themes such as:
Re-Readings of the novels
The literary sphere of the Brontes
The issue of authorship
Love, desire, and sexuality
Displacement, dispossession, exile
Difference and ‘unbelonging’
Science, technology and progress
‘Nature red in tooth and claw’
Civilisation and the Gothic imagination
Dissent, reform and revolution
Capitalism and the Victorian middle class
Representations of the city
Religion, metaphysics and mysticism
Libraries and the reading public
Proposals/abstracts limited to 500 words and accompanied by a 100-word bio note
(in a single .doc/.docx/PDF file) should be sent by email to
The subject line of the email should read: “Abstract: CAS-CVS Conference 2019”
All submissions will be read and adjudicated by an academic panel.
The closing date is 18th November 2018.
Successful abstracts will be notified by 25 November 2018.
Convenors: Dr Saswati Halder and Dr Sutanuka Ghosh
For any other information, please get in touch by contacting us at
For information about the Centre for Victorian Studies, Jadavpur University, visit: www.theconfidentialclerk.com