From the Brontë Sisters to Today: How gender and power play out in the arts

In Victorian England, the Brontë sisters published under male pseudonyms. They did so to have their female-centred work (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights) taken seriously. Two centuries later, when Canadian playwright Jordi Mand came to write about the domestic lives of the sisters in Brontë: the World Without, she recognized both how far female artists have come ⁠— and how certain societal prejudices still haunt her profession.

The Brontë sisters published under male pseudonyms to have their work recognized

From left: Andrea Rankin as Anne Brontë, Beryl Bain as Charlotte Brontë and Jessica B. Hill as Emily Brontë in Brontë: The World Without. The play imagines the Yorkshire sisters as writers making an income to sustain the family while also running the household. (Hilary Gauld Camilleri/Stratford Festival)

The Bell Brothers — Currer, Acton, and Ellis — were noted British authors. Except they were actually three sisters: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. They wrote the classic novels Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

But the Brontës published under male names in order to have their fiction accepted and taken seriously in Victorian England.

Two hundred years after the death of Charlotte Brontë, Ontario's Stratford Festival mounted a play by Jordi Mand called Brontë: The World Without, imagining the lives of the Yorkshire sisters as they struggle to keep both their writing, and their beleaguered household, complete with ailing father and brother, afloat.

A painting of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, by their brother Branwell (c. 1834). He painted himself among his sisters, but later removed the image so as not to clutter the picture. (Wikipedia)

The Brontës act as a jumping-off point for a conversation about gender bias in the arts held recently at Stratford. Playwright Jordi Mand, Kathleen Gallagher, a drama professor from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and theatre professor Kim Solga from the Western University joined moderator Marion Adler, to discuss whether gender bias is still part of the arts, particularly theatre. 

The Canada of 2018 is not Victorian England. Yet Jordi Mand notes that male administrators and critics continue to dominate the theatre scene here, and bring gendered ideas to the work. Even audience members who enjoyed her Brontë play queried her choice to concentrate on the writer-sisters and leave the Brontë men — Patrick and Branwell — offstage.

That's an issue taken up by theatre professor Kim Solga, as she teaches her students think critically about their place as audience members. She emphasizes the value of encountering different genders and characters on stage. 

"If I want something to be relatable to me, what do I really want? I want it to just reflect my experience," Solga notes.

"Maybe that's the point. Maybe in not seeing myself on the stage, I see something new about the world," she adds.

So have we made progress on eradicating gender bias in the arts? Kathleen Gallagher's international research on gender and theatre currently involves female-led theatres in Taiwan, England, and India. She says it remains a complicated and evolving question.

Guests in the program:

  • Jordi Mand is a playwright. Her recent play is called, Bronte: The World Without.
  • Kathleen Gallagher is a drama researcher and professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
  • Kim Solga is a professor of Theatre Studies,  and English and Writing Studies, at Western University
  • Marion Adler is an actor and lyricist and the moderator in this discussion.

Related Websites:

** This episode was recorded at the Stratford Festival and produced by Philip Coulter.