Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Changing Vision of the Bronte Legend

Lately I had a fit of tidying and sorting my bookshelves and came across three little volumes called The Story of English Literature  published as Murray's Literature Series in 1908.  These were only a few of the original series intended for use at colleges and in schools.  (Children learned about real literature in those days.)  My three volumes spanned the Elizabethan era to the nineteenth century.

I sat down to read them knowing that many of the views and attitudes of 1908, a period of Edwardian history, would influence and colour these worthy commentaries on our gems of English Literature – nor was I wrong.  The writers and compilers of these volumes had the usual moralistic and religious tone of the time which now seems so outmoded.  So much research has since been done, many biographies written and meticulously researched with more detachment than was possible then, plus letters and other data have come to light.  We can now view the great ones with modern allowances for drug taking, romantic and sexual misadventures, political extravaganzas.  We can view things through psychological interpretations and deeper understanding of the flaws of human nature that go to colour and instil a man or woman with the genius of creativity.  We can wonder at their brilliance but not feel we must whitewash their character to suit the sensibilities of the times.  But is that really true?  Works once hailed as the best are coloured by a new sense of morality.  Rudyard Kipling has lost much of his one time popularity because he is now seen as a relic of the jingoistic, outmoded attitudes of the British Empire.  However, he still holds his own because stories like Kim and The Jungle Book are philosophic and great imaginative creations.

Tim Dalton and Zelah Clarke were for me the best interpreters of the story

This shift in attitude certainly applies to the work of the three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.  At the time that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were published in 1846, the works were regarded with some astonishment and even much disfavour at first.  The unmistakable power of the novels was recognised and made them instant successes.  But they soon began to receive condemnation from the moral brigade who declared these stories were too outspoken. In one unkind review, Jane Eyre was reviled as 'if written by a woman it was one who for some reason had long forfeited the society of her sex.'  Women were meant to be 'the angel in the house,' quiet, decorous, unseen,  The boldness with which, for instance, Jane raises herself above her 'station' and dares to declare her love for Rochester, so much her social superior, was anaethema in those days.  You knew your place.  A governess declaring her love so passionately and boldly to her master!  How awful!  How unwomanly!  But Jane refuses to accept his superiority.  Where, after all, does it lie, she wonders?  His may be superiority of education, rank, sex but she is far superior to him morally and in the purity and innocence of her heart and mind.  And she is not afraid to declare it.
my very favourite Rochester, Tim Dalton

 Let us suppose the synopsis of Jane Eyre was to be sent to a modern publisher; they would surely refuse it outright.  The story now seems slightly ludicrous; the mad wife in the attic, the unlikely coincidence of Jane falling by chance amongst her unknown but loving cousins and being restored to her own rank and status.  Then there is the fire, the blinding of Rochester, all the melodrama and operatic tragedy of the ending.  Written thus, it sounds quite barmy.  But so great is the writing, the passion of feeling, the atmosphere and working up of the story to its climax that we are swept along with it and we believe it to be possible.  That's the Bronte genius.

I remember walking with my children along a darkening beach in Northumberland many years ago and telling them the story of Jane wandering and lost on the moors, begging for food and eating the scraps left for the pigs.  How apt a tale to tell, a picture to paint, in the deepening loaming, the empty loneliness of a windswept seashore with rain beginning to soak us as we walked home.  How we enjoyed being scared and thrilled by these scenes of Jane's life.

To me, this will be a favourite book of all times.  Charlotte put all her deepest feelings, pain and longings into this book.  Something in her practical Yorkshire nature never allowed her characters Jane or Lucy to have the man they loved; just as in real life she was unable to have her beloved master, Mr Heger.  Jane is allowed to have Rochester at last, though he has to be a cripple and dependent on her at first until at last she can say with triumph ... 'Reader I married him'.  Though this was not to be in Villette or The ProfessorRochester arises from Charlotte's deepest, inner world; he is her animus figure, a figure she transposed onto Heger with his difficult but brilliant intellectual nature when she met the real man.  But the archetypal character she paints in Jane Eyre belongs to her youth, the heroes of her earlier childish works.  However, by the time she was to write Jane Eyre, she had already known real love and a real man and so Rochester becomes more than an archetype.  He is that but flavoured with real feeling now and this is what gives him such mysterious and compelling fascination.  Jane was Charlotte become a great deal more human and real because she had been scalded by real feeling and love by then. Her heart knew better.

So, modern attitudes?  We still have our critical standards but how they differ from Charlotte's Victorian ladies and gents!  I have heard a feminist writer declare that though she loved Jane Eyre when young (and to my mind untainted) having re-read it of late, decided that Rochester was a dreadful immoral bully and Jane a fool to put up with him.  Others would wonder why Jane agonised so much over becoming Rochester's mistress.  Who would care nowadays?  But, it is foolish for us to judge Jane Eyre's attitudes by modern standards of sexual equality and freedom.  We have to recall that in her day, Charlotte was being extremely bold and honest.  It was this honesty that caused the reviewer to say 'if this was written by a woman, she had no knowledge of her sex.'  Well, she did. And she wasn't afraid to admit that a woman could love and could declare that love with passion and feeling and not pretend to hide it, playing charm games and flirting as Genevra does in Villette.

My English Lit book was surprisingly admiring of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights saying it is 'an imperishable testimony to her genius.' It also recognised the strange, psychological power of the book, its force and darkness. 'It is not a beautiful story but a terrible one.'  People found then - and still to some extent find it difficult - to see that a young girl, brought up in a lonely Yorkshire parsonage could conceive such a peculiar forceful character as that of Heathcliffe.  But here again we speak of a dark animus figure within Emily Bronte, a woman who was known to have a tremendous strength of character and mind.  Emily, as far as we know, never fell in love with a real man.  She and her sister Anne continued with their Gondal games and writings into adult life, immersed always in this subterranean, unconscious world of their childhood full of its heroes and villains.  She wrote purely archetypal figures and images from within her soul untainted by the confusion and errors of normal human love encounters.  The loves and passions of her major characters are oddly sexless and unreal, in another world than the human one.  Only when we come to the growing feeling between the young Catherine Linton and Hindley Earnshaw do we approach a more natural human encounter and many of the minor characters are portraits drawn with real observation. 
In its day Wuthering Heights was acclaimed but not liked.  Now, of course, it is considered a work of great genius and the best of all the Bronte novels.

When it comes to Anne Bronte, my book dismisses her in a brief paragraph.  According to this writer, her two books Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 'ought probably never to have been published.  Their only interest lies in the contribution which they make to the fuller story of this remarkable family'.  Poor Anne to be thus dismissed!  Her works have now risen in status and though lacking the peculiar passion of her elder sisters' works are, in fact, the most down to earth and realistic of all the Bronte writings, holding up to view the life led by a governess who was a servant and yet not quite a servant, a person of genteel background but no real position in a household.  In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she explores with feeling and much common sense the predicament of a married woman in her times when, no matter how she might be abused and used by a drunken, lout of a husband, she and all she had was considered as his property and he could claim her and her child back if he wished.  Thus Anne, of all the Bronte girls, was an early champion for women's rights and is seen as such nowadays.  Anne's books are the more true to life because of all the girls, Anne it was who went and became a governess, put up with many difficulties in the family with whom she lived, had to keep an eye on their unruly brother Branwell.  She also loved greatly and lost the man she loved to illness. Anne knew real life. 

When these English Lit books were compiled, much reliance was placed on the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte.  But Mrs Gaskell is now known to have written this book in an attempt to make Charlotte's passion and temperament more acceptable to Victorian sensibilities; thus the dwelling on their supposedly hard and flinty father and the terrible life spent amongst the graveyards of the poor, miserable village of Haworth.  We now know Patrick Bronte was a well read, highly intelligent, good man, not especially aware of his children but few Victorian men were.  The child rearing was left to the women and the Brontes lost their mother young and were brought up by a preachy old aunt and a couple of servants. But this gave the youngsters great freedom and Patrick never prevented them from reading what they liked or discussing what they liked.  He allowed them to flourish in their own unique manner. 

How will we view the Brontes in another 100 years?  Who knows! 

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.