Charlotte Brönte wrote of self-esteem as the antidote to the Victorian woman's equality problem. For Brönte, knowing your own self-worth, not giving into vanity, narcissism or just plain greed was the way in which a woman could be free, and consequently equal to men.
For non working class but impoverished women of Brönte's time, there were few options other wife, governess or teacher. For Brönte, who for a while had to resort to the latter for a living, this was nothing short of a form of slavery or bondage. A woman became recognised for nothing more than her position and duties. Little wonder then, that Brönte's most famous heroine was a governess who, through strong will, intellect and moral character, finally escaped the role society had placed her in. Through Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brönte was able to demonstrate that respect for herself and others, particularly the man she was to marry, was essential. You could be erudite and original but without self-respect, anything that you achieved was essentially worthless.
In Jane Eyre, Brönte shows the two sides of the coin with the eponymous heroine championing self-respect, equality and morality, whilst the character of Blanche Ingram - Jane's love rival - is shown to be superficial, self-centred and inconsiderate, even though (and perhaps because) she fits the model of the period. Further to this, Jane is described as small and plain whilst Blanche is beautiful, "moulded like a Diane". Brönte uses the beauty, or lack thereof, to highlight the motif that appearances can be deceptive and that to know a woman's true worth you need to look beyond the physical.
Of course, there is a third, pivotal female character in Jane Eyre - the mad woman in the attic: Rochester's first wife, Bertha Mason. Whilst these two women appear at first glance to be polar opposites, Bertha can be seen as an embodiment of Jane's suppressed passion; Jane first sees Bertha reflected in her own mirror. Jane also hints at the passion and idea of romantic love that burns within her when St.John Rivers courts her, her fear that he would offer marriage and sex only within the proprietary realms of the oath, in other words without the passion, would force her to "burn inwardly and never utter a cry". Not for Jane, or Brönte, the cage in which a wife was expected to sit - admired but with her wings clipped - for her, independence of thought and behaviour was crucial: "I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will".
The message of self-respect, independence and intellect is thematic in Villette and Shirley as well. Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, echoes Jane Eyre to some degree in that she is plain, so plain in fact that she finds it hard to believe that anyone will see past her physical deficiencies and has a "haunting dread of what might be the degree of my outward deficiency". Like in Jane Eyre, the hero of the piece, the flawed Paul Emmanuel, does see past Lucy's plainness, just as she sees past his issues. Together they form a bond based on mutual respect allowing Lucy's superior moral judgement to win the day.
Shirley, the eponymous heroine, however, is not plain nor is she destined to the life of a governess. Shirley is attractive, healthy, wealthy and free; she has both the physical and mental capacity to live independently. Brönte had backtracked on her ideas as shown in Jane Eyre that heroines did not have to be beautiful to be interesting and believable. Shirley stands out because she is so unusual, and not only because her moniker was ordinarily a man's at that time. Not only was Shirley given a masculine name but attributes too - she refused proposals and argued with her husband-to-be. In comparison, Caroline Helstone is shy and retiring, and under the thumb of her uncle, falling into decline for want of love.
Brönte is seen by many as a feminist writer, allowing her characters to break the chains that Victorian society was increasingly tightening around women. For Jane, Lucy or Shirley marriage was not to be an escape from one form of captivity to another, when marriage did occur it was on their terms. Self-esteem and respect were given top-billing over beauty and accomplishments, along with the freedom to study and love as they saw fit. They are not Cinderella stories where only a quick wash and a pretty dress bring the romantic hero running, but works which urge women to value their true worth.
Young women of today could learn a thing or two from Brönte and her revolutionary ideas - it's what lies within that matters.