Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts




Charlotte Brontë's Shirley and Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford unite in asking and answering the question of what unmarried women were supposed to do with their time and talents in Victorian England, considering the constraints of both gentility and economic conditions. In writing these novels, Brontë and Gaskell joined mid-nineteenth century feminists such as Francis Power Cobbe and Florence Nightingale in discussing women's occupation. Cranford, rather than presenting the typical young unmarried woman as its heroine, features a community of old maids as its "heroines," revealing their story through the narration of Mary Smith. Shirley's Caroline Helstone examines the socially accepted but emotionally unfulfilling occupations of Briarfield's old maids and questions society's treatment of unmarried women. In both novels, skill in storytelling and reinterpreting texts has the potential to free unmarried women from masculine domination, but neither Gaskell nor Brontë can imagine a woman completely free from society's constraints.