Kate Choi, a 7th grader from Seoul Foreign School, had the winning essay in the Junior Division of our International Women’s Day essay contest, with her tribute to Charlotte Brontë. Kate donated her prize money, 300,000 KRW, to The House of Ebenezer.

 

Two centuries ago, the world of literature was for men, and men only; women who dared to enter the field were treated with contempt and were rarely taken seriously as true writers. Books were even declared praiseworthy if written by a man, but “odious” if written by a woman. Now compare that to today, when you can walk into a library and find books by just as many women as men. Compare that to today, when our favorite authors include thousands of women – Agatha Christie, Toni Morrison, and of course, J.K. Rowling, to name a few. Today, the right women have to write is rarely challenged. So the question is… what changed?

As a young girl and an aspiring author, I wondered about this often. It’s difficult to get a straightforward answer (not even Google can figure it out definitively), so it sat in the back of my mind for a long time. That is, until I read Jane Eyre , a work that I had previously heard of but never read. As I progressed through the book, I found myself becoming unexpectedly engrossed in the story, and by the time I set it down, I had to ask, “Who wrote this?”

The answer, I soon learned, was Charlotte Brontë, who had been born in 1816, a time when writing was for men and few women.

Charlotte Brontë was a person I quickly came to admire. Throughout her life, she endured many hardships, but she was able to accept her faults and move on. And she, I realized, was the answer to my question, for it was Charlotte Brontë who opened the doors to literature for thousands of women to enter after her.

As I learned about Charlotte, her life, and her many trials, I realized how persevering she had been. Although she isn’t a common role model for girls my age, she has become one of mine. Not only did she overcome many obstacles to achieve her dream of becoming a writer, she also prepared the path for countless others to follow her.

Before she even turned ten years old, Charlotte lost her mother and her two older sisters, receiving the responsibility of being the eldest child in the family. While many others may have chosen to ignore the responsibility at such a young age, Charlotte accepted it and bore it well, even discovering her desire to become a writer as she co-wrote plays and poetry with her siblings.

As an adult, Charlotte became first a teacher, and then a governess; however, her desire to write persisted. At twenty years old, she boldly decided to send a sample of her poetry to the then-poet laureate, Robert Southey. His response, now famous, was a part of Charlotte’s story that amazed me the most. While praising Charlotte for her “faculty of verse”, he fervently dissuaded her from writing.

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” Southey declared, adding that female writers could not be taken seriously, because they only wrote to “seek in imagination for excitement.” In fact, he said, women should spend their time attending to their “proper duties” – meaning, no doubt, housekeeping or other domestic tasks – instead of wasting their time writing.

In reply to him, Charlotte actually promised that she would “nevermore feel ambitious to see [her] name in print,” no doubt believing that his advice was the best that she could receive. It had come, after all, from the highest poet in the land, and one that she greatly admired.

Being told that she could not write simply because she was a woman was the first major blow to Charlotte as an author. For nearly ten years after receiving Southey’s letter, Charlotte seems to have meekly obeyed his advice. Then she changed her mind. She had returned home from abroad, meeting her sisters Anne and Emily. There, Charlotte unearthed a bundle of Emily’s poetry. Upon reading it, she became convinced that it should be published – never mind that the author was a woman! – and persuaded her sisters to publish a collection of their poetry together.

At their own expense, the three Brontës published their poetry. Here, perhaps, Charlotte remembered Southey’s advice, for she later explained that the sisters had “had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice” and that their work would be judged not on its quality but on the gender of its authors. Therefore, they published under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

The book of poetry sold only two copies, but Charlotte was not discouraged. She had overcome the obstacle that had stood in her path for so long (the obstacle being Southey’s misguided advice), and she was now flying freely ahead. In June, Charlotte completed her first novel, The Professor . At the end of the same year, Charlotte also began writing the book that millions have read since – the famous Jane Eyre.

Charlotte sent the completed manuscript of The Professor to several publishers, only to be rejected repeatedly. Even this did not discourage her, as it might have to many others. But Charlotte – a strong-willed, ambitious person – did not retreat, but instead pushed on. She decided to send in her other novel, Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre was accepted and was published in October under the name of Currer Bell, meeting with instant success. The public speculated over the author’s true identity for three years, until 1850, when it was revealed.

Since the moment I realized what she had done for women, Charlotte has become a role model for me. Time and time again, she was let down, but time and time again, she picked herself back up and pressed on. Whenever I am discouraged, I naturally feel like giving up, but remembering Charlotte has given me the courage to stand back up and face my failures with a determination that I did not have before. I remember her story, her trials. I remember how she pressed on to allow so many hopeful women writers to achieve their dreams, including myself.

When I submitted short stories for publication and all were declined, I remembered Charlotte and Southey and I pressed on. Once, twice, three times more I was told that my work wasn’t good enough, wasn’t there yet. I admit that I am not someone who takes criticism well, even when I know, deep down, that my work isn’t good enough. But instead of fighting aimlessly, I remembered Charlotte when The Professor was rejected by publishers, and like her, I accepted defeat. Like her, I received failure when I knew it was just. I drew myself back up and launched myself into writing more than ever.

And it worked. Today, I have had a poem and a short story accepted for publication. I’ve written a historical paper that received second place in a competition; I’ve written a short story, a poem, and even a novel that have won awards. Throughout this all, I’ve been turned down many times – so many times that I might just have given up. But what good would that do?

Centuries ago, Charlotte Brontë replied to her prejudiced critics, saying that “I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only—it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgement”. By becoming famous as a female writer, Charlotte abolished the distinction between male and female. She made them equal and changed the role that women played in literature. No longer were women simply characters – they were writers! They were creators of something other than scarves and dresses: they were creating literature.

I truly believe Charlotte was a great person. I don’t mean that she was perfect. She was as fallible as the rest of us, someone who sometimes trusted in the wrong person’s advice, someone who doubted her abilities, someone who made all the mistakes that we make today. But Charlotte was different from the rest of us because she accepted those mistakes. She pulled herself back up onto her feet and strove to correct those mistakes, rather than sink into despair.

Today, thanks to Charlotte, both men and women can be writers. However, not all of us have that chance. In many countries, women and girls are uneducated and have no power to express themselves. They are restricted and confined, just as women were two hundred years ago. Well, let them create! Let them know the joys of creating!

Write, all you girls who can; write so they can write, create so they can create. Together, we can obliterate boundaries and open doors. Together, we can make the act of creation such a given that those who do not have the opportunity to do so now will be able to in the future without fear.

Charlotte Brontë wrote so that we could write. Let us do the same.