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  • Lilith on the Moors:The Brontë Sisters' Runaway Women
  • Nora Gilbert (bio)

A husband sitting with a shell-shocked expression on his face, an open letter in his hand; two young girls kneeling together in innocent, just-interrupted play; a woman lying prostrate on the floor before them, her arms outstretched, her hands clasped tightly, her head buried in shame and misery. No visual representation of the "fallen woman" narrative is more vividly cautionary than the first panel of Augustus Egg's iconic triptych from 1858, Past and Present (fig. 1). It is this narrative that has monopolized Victorianist discussions of female transgression for the past few decades—discussions that, for all their variance, share the conviction that the Victorians' particular rendering of the fallen woman figure ("not the brazen courtesan of Restoration tradition, nor a casually promiscuous Molly Sea-grim, but a figure of remorse, yearning for forgiveness and compassion") can be read as "symptomatic of some shared, fundamental concern of the time, one of the structural underpinnings for that generation" (Roston 91).1 In the article that follows, I would like to contextualize the conservative, punitive fallen woman trope that has garnered so much critical attention for so long within a more complicated, potentially more liberatory framework, one that includes not only those female characters who rebel against social norms and are condemned to life (or death) in the gutter but also those female characters who rebel against social norms and are set free. I would like, that is, to explore the alternative category of what I will call the "runaway woman" narrative.

The term runaway is employed quite often in nineteenth-century British literature, most commonly in reference to a child who has run away from home, an inmate who has run away from prison or an insane asylum, or a slave who has run away from captivity. While we can certainly point to female characters of this literature who are fugitives in each of these ways (young Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss [1860]; Anne Catherick in The Woman in White [1859–60]; the eponymous heroine of "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" [1848], etc.), we also, importantly, encounter a strikingly large number of adult, unincarcerated, unenslaved female characters who defiantly flee from some form of domestic confinement or enclosure. Though my list here is by no means exhaustive, some well-known examples of such runaway women in Victorian fiction include both Edith and Florence Dombey of Dombey and Son (1846–48), Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair (1847–48), [End Page 273] Esther of Mary Barton (1848), Little Em'ly of David Copperfield (1849–50), Lady Dedlock of Bleak House (1852–53), Louisa Gradgrind of Hard Times (1854), Isabel Carlyle of East Lynne (1860–61), Lucy Audley of Lady Audley's Secret (1861–62), Magdalen Vanstone of No Name (1862–63), Laura Standish of Phineas Finn (1867–68), Ruby Ruggles of The Way We Live Now (1874–75), Mirah Lapidoth of Daniel Deronda (1876), Eustacia Vye of The Return of the Native (1878), Lyndall of The Story of an African Farm (1883), Sue Bridehead of Jude the Obscure (1894–95), Herminia Barton of The Woman Who Did (1895), and Beth Caldwell of The Beth Book (1897). Some of these women break out of the confines of their respective homes in search of sex, some in search of employment, some to get to safety, some to wreak revenge. Equally varied, too, are the fates that befall them: while many do suffer in the social, emotional, and physical ways that are so often outlined in Victorianist criticism, many others are ready, willing, and able to move on with their lives. The fallen woman plot is, in other words, only one possible endpoint of the more capacious runaway woman plot.

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Fig 1.

Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present, No. 1 (1858). By permission of the Tate, London.

I have chosen in this essay to focus on the novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë both because those novels give us some of the most culturally resonant examples of runaway women in Victorian fiction and because they seem to be...


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