The Coarseness of the Brontës: A Reappraisal

St Chad’s College, Durham University

10th – 11th August 2017


A collaborative event between Durham University, Brunel University, and the Brontë Society 

Keynote Speakers:

Professor Marianne Thormählen, Lund University

Dr Sarah Wootton, Durham University

Robert Edric, author of Sanctuary (2014)


Self-caricature by Branwell Brontë, 1847



  1. Rough or harsh in texture
  2. (of a person or their speech) rude or vulgar

Synonyms: oafish, loutish, boorish, churlish, uncouth, rude, discourteous, impolite, ungentlemanly, unladylike, ill-mannered, uncivil, ill-bred, vulgar, common, rough, uncultured, uncivilised, crass, foul-mouthed


In early critical appraisals of the Brontës’ writings, accusations of ‘coarseness’ appear frequently. Although Jane Eyre (1847) was an instant bestseller, Elizabeth Rigby famously attacked the book as ‘coarse’ and accused Charlotte of ‘moral Jacobinism’. Likewise, Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), was also criticised as ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’ in both subject matter and moral outlook, and perceived as an ‘entire mistake’ by Charlotte. An anonymous review of Wuthering Heights (1847) chastised Emily’s characters as ‘coarse’ and violent ‘savages’ who were ‘ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer’. And, according to Daphne du Maurier, Branwell Brontë was ‘fascinated’ by and befriended many men who were ‘a law unto themselves, rowdy, rough, coarse’.

More recently, Lucasta Miller has addressed the ubiquity of this word within Brontë studies, writing that the “coarseness’ to which so many critics objected was a catch-all moralistic term which encompassed a range of elements considered unfeminine and indecorous’ (The Brontë Myth, 2001). While the definition of ‘coarse’ outlined above indicates that its meaning is associated with a wide range of seemingly obtuse and offensive values that extend across numerous social markers (including gender, sexuality, race, and class), the accusation of coarseness levelled at the Brontës may have differed to our current understanding of the term.

In the bicentenary of Branwell Brontë’s birth, this two-day conference seeks to re-appraise notions of coarseness in its widest sense in relation to the entire Brontë family. How and in what ways does ‘coarseness’ manifest in and across the lives and works of the Brontë family? What did it mean to be labelled ‘coarse’ in the early to mid-nineteenth century? And how have shifting meanings of what constitute ‘coarse’ expanded and/or changed our understanding and reading of the family’s lives and works?

We welcome the submission of 500-word abstracts for 20-minute papers from postgraduate researchers, early career researchers, and academics, as well as Brontë enthusiasts beyond the academy, which explore a wide interpretation of this theme. Topics may include, but are by no means limited to, the following:


  • The aesthetics, politics, and ethics of coarseness in the nineteenth century
  • Coarse ideas and identities
  • Self-inflicted ‘coarse’ behaviours, e.g. alcohol abuse, addiction
  • The socio-cultural effects and legacies of ‘coarse’ behaviour
  • Vulgar, offensive and rough behaviours
  • The coarse nature of violence
  • Linguistic and dialectic coarseness
  • Brontë defences of ‘coarseness’
  • The shifting politics of ‘coarse’
  • Coarseness and subculture(s)
  • Under-analysed coarse images and themes
  • Coarse geographies and locations, e.g. perceptions of ‘the North’
  • Coarseness in/and the Brontës’ afterlives


We particularly encourage applicants to consider perspectives on less ubiquitous Brontë family members, especially Branwell. We also welcome proposals for fully-formed panels or roundtables. Please submit a short biographical note (max. 100 words) with all abstracts. Selected conference papers will feature in a special edition of Brontë Studies in January 2019. All proposals should be emailed to the conference organisers, Sophie Franklin and Claire O’Callaghan, no later than Friday 31st March 2017 at Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us via the conference email if you have any questions. We look forward to receiving your proposals.



Contact details


Conference website:

Twitter: @coarseBrontes