The title for this chapter draws on Shirley: Chapter 10 is entitled ‘Old Maids’; ‘womenites’ is Martin Yorke’s term for those who espouse the cause of equality for women. It refers to a topic close to Charlotte Brontë’s heart, and much written about by her biographers and critics: the difficulties facing Victorian educated single gentlewomen of small means. Though only Shirley confronts it at length, the issue is significant in all Brontë’s novels. More than a theme, it is a node which focuses a range of different motifs. Personal development, education, freedom, even the conflict of reason and passion, which may all be considered important themes in Brontë’s novels, can be traced back to it; there is an obvious and particularly important link with the theme of love. We shall be making no attempt to deal with the issue itself: instead we will explore, by analysis of short extracts, how it relates to the whole structure of the novels.
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