The Victorian period was an era of societal change in Great Britain. Viewing gender in hetero- and CIS- normative terms, the “woman question” – what to do with unmarried women – became a topic that was widely debated. Activists such as Barbara Leigh Smith, Francis Power Cobbe and Josephine Butler advocated for better education and employment opportunities for women emphasizing the need for women to find dignity and fulfilment outside of the private sphere to which they were relegated. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell reflect the issues facing middle-class women during this period, including the desire to find fulfilment and dignity in their lives. My paper examines the protagonists of these two novels, Jane Eyre and Margaret Hale, as examples of women who were beginning to question their role in society. Using the works of scholars such as Elaine Showalter, Ellen Moers, Barbara Leah Harman, Patricia Ingham and Nicola Thompson, it examines how these two characters both subvert Victorian expectations for women and conform to them. It posits that while historically Brontë has been viewed as a radically feminist writer, Gaskell is more successful in subverting Victorian notions of gender roles, for she successfully offers her audience a more admirably free and dignified yet still respectable female protagonist, one who is not only about to be happily married but who is also a land owner and sponsor of a “master of industry.”

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