Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Readable Brontë

I suspect that for most female readers, the question of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters is one of those chunky or smooth, Luke or Han type of litmus test questions. I think I've already made it clear which I prefer--I admire a great deal of what Charlotte, Emily and Anne accomplished, but I don't think any of it compares to Austen's work. Still, there's no denying that the two oeuvres make interesting accompaniments to each other. Austen's romances were charmingly witty, but the Brontës' were passionate. They approached the seamy underbelly of life that Austen was never willing to acknowledge, but Austen saw people more clearly, and was capable of poking fun at their faults. Austen was a conservative--she truly believed that coupling up into marriage and family was the best a woman could hope for. The Brontës believed the same, but to them it was a cause for resentment. In many ways, Austen's fictions are fantasies--all her heroines end up happily married and financial secure--whereas the Brontës acknowledged the often bleak reality of women's lives in the 19th century. And yet, Austen's fiction is starkly realist, whereas the Brontës' fiction often indulged in the supernatural. Austen was a moralist, but her morality was all but divorced from religion, a subject her books never touched on. In the Brontës' fiction, religion was often a touchstone, and the foundation of morality.

I don't consider myself a Brontë expert, but I have read the three sisters' four major works, and found none of them as perfect as Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion. In this post, I'd like to look at these four novels, where they work and where they fail.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

    The Plot: Raised first by unkind relatives and later relegated to a hellish boarding school, the orphan Jane learns to rely on her own inner strength, moral convictions, and religious faith. She takes a job as a governess for the ward of the reclusive Edward Rochester, only to fall in love with him and accept his marriage proposal. On the day of their marriage, Jane discovers that Rochester is already married, to a madwoman whom he can't divorce. She leaves him, ends up in the house of her long-lost cousins, and discovers that an uncle has left her money, but before her domineering, missionary-in-training cousin, St. John Rivers, can whisk her off to India to be his helpmeet, Jane senses that Rochester need her and goes back to him. She discovers that Rochester's wife set the house on fire, and that he was gravely wounded in a failed attempt to save her life. Rochester acknowledges his guilt in trying to force Jane into a bigamous marriage, and the two eventually marry.

    The Good: Primarily, what's remarkable about Jane Eyre is the character of Jane herself--a steely, self-assured young woman who takes charge of her own life. Despite a soul-killing experience as a teaching drudge at her boarding school, Jane's spirit is never broken. When her situation at the school becomes unpleasant, she make the decision to change her life and acts upon it with courage and decisiveness--no mean feat for a 18 year old girl with no money or friends in 19th century England. She holds her own against Rochester's passive-aggressive mind games until the guy actually offers her a substantial emotional commitment, and she refuses to allow him to change her or compromise her sense of right and wrong. The only person who comes close to dominating Jane is her terrifying cousin St. John, who all but stalks her in her own house as he tries to convince her to throw her life away in the service of God (and of himself), but Jane manages to shake him off as well, and as the book ends she is the mistress of her own life.

    Even more intriguing is the fact that throughout her Perils of Pauline, Jane remains believably and lovably human. She's steely, but not hardened; moral, but not preachy; religious, but not a proselytizer . For all her superhuman accomplishments, Jane has unmistakable feet of clay, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her obvious sexual attraction to Rochester. Although it's never spelled out, there's a prominent undercurrent of desire in each of their shared scenes, which gives both the characters and the relationship an added dimension that's all-too-often missing from 19th century romances. Unlike too many other Brontë heroines, Jane isn't ruled by her desire, but the fact of its existence arguably makes her triumph over it a greater moral accomplishment than anything we see from Austen's heroines, for whom sexuality is a non-issue.

    The Bad: In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Eyre that "it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance." Woolf is referring here to a scene in which Brontë allowed her own anger at being shut away from the world take over Jane's thoughts, but to my mind the same sort of score-settling is obvious in the novel's first segment, the monstrous Lowood school. Charlotte herself spent several years at such a school and watched her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, succumb to illness due to the poor conditions there. As a result of her still-simmering anger at this mistreatment, the Lowood section is disproportionately long, and features some of the most obvious moralizing in the book.

    But the Lowood section does end, and if it (and the rather absurd deus ex machina that is Jane stumbling, in the middle of a cold and rainy night, on a house that happens to contain her long-lost cousins who have just been informed of the fact that Jane has inherited a fortune) were the novel's only flaws, it would still have a very near claim on perfection, but where Jane Eyre fails is in its fundamental perception of itself as a romance. The book offers a bleak vision of what an intelligent, strong-willed woman can look forward to when she goes searching for a mate. If she's lucky, she can avoid the fate of being shackled to her intellectual superior, who will bully and belittle her, use her for his own purposes with no regard for her identity or personhood. But, out of the frying pan and into the fire! For, as Brontë tells us, the intelligent woman who avoids this fate has only one other option: to be tied down to a needy, selfish, intellectual inferior, and spend her life as his savior, his mother, and his nurse. There's no question that Rochester undergoes a change over the course of the novel--from a man whose every early conversation with Jane revolved around how she might help and save him, he learns to think of the needs of others, and he has the scars to prove it--but not enough to make the notion of someone as remarkable as Jane wasting herself on a person whom she will soon outstrip in every regard at all palatable. To put it simply, Jane Eyre is about as romantic as Carrie.

  • Villette by Charlotte Brontë

    The Plot: Charlotte's final novel centers around Lucy Snowe, a young woman with no relatives or money, who, as the book opens, has lost her position as a lady's companion. She travels to the European town of Villette and there finds employment at Madame Beck's school for girls. Lucy falls in love with the school's doctor (who, in one of those typical Brontë coincidences, turns out to be her distant cousin, in whose house Lucy spent the few happy years of her childhood), but he prefers her beautiful young pupil. Lucy in turn falls in love with the school's sole male teacher, Paul Emmanuel, who sees in her the image of his long-dead fiancée. As the book ends, Paul leaves Europe on business for his family, but first gifts Lucy with a school of her own and the promise of his return. Brontë, however, is ambiguous about the young lovers' fate--she suggests, but refuses to confirm, that Paul perishes at sea on his way back to Lucy.

    The Good: Villette finds Charlotte at the height of her abilities as a writer--the book is a masterpiece of delicate psychological examination and description, and Lucy herself is a triumphant feat of characterization. Or rather, Lucy's absence is. Despite the fact that Villette is narrated in the first person, Lucy manages to vanish into the narrative. What we see of her is not so much a character as a Lucy Snowe-shaped hole in the world, whose inner details are never fully revealed. This blankness is Brontë's master-stroke--how else could she convey Lucy's emotional exhaustion after a lifetime of loneliness, living from moment to moment, never secure in herself and in her position? Lucy is drained and almost lifeless, but unlike Jane her plight isn't meant to appeal to the readers and elicit their pity but to repel them and allow them to see her clearly, without sentimentality. For possibly the first time in her career Brontë is acting first as a writer and second as a political activist, and the result is masterful.

    The Bad: Villette is possibly the only novel in the history of English literature that could make Jane Eyre seem romantic, and between the two of them they raise disturbing questions about Charlotte's feelings towards the opposite sex and the institution of marriage. Paul Emmanuel is one of most objectionable characters ever written, a self-important, emotionally abusive stalker with an ego so fragile that he can't stand the notion of a woman being his equal, who constantly knocks Lucy down for the pleasure of being able to help her up. Even his grand gesture at the book's end--giving Lucy a school--is a subtle reminder of how powerless she would be without him. At their first meeting, Paul tells Lucy towards the end of the book, he perceived a resemblance between her and his fiancée, whom he describes as retiring and demure. We, the readers, know that Lucy is a passionate person with no outlet for her feelings, and that her subdued manner at the time of her first meeting with Paul is due to the fact that she is, at that point, well on her way to a nervous collapse. But Paul never acknowledges the difference between his idealized version of Lucy and the real one, and whenever she disappoints his expectations he punishes her with harsh words and a withdrawal of affections. Villette is a terrifying portrait of a woman in an abusive relationship, presented to the readers as a romance, and as a result was one of the most difficult and uncomfortable reading experiences of my life.

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

    The Plot: Lockwood, a newcomer to the neighborhood, is startled by the unfriendly welcome and uncouth behavior of his landlord, Heathcliff. His housekeeper, Nelly Dean, relates to him how Heathcliff was taken in by the Earnshaws and fell in love with the daughter, Cathy. After his obsessive love for her is thwarted, Heathcliff wreaks revenge on anyone he perceives to have taken part in tearing him apart from Cathy. He marries her husband's sister, mistreats her, and after her death claims their son and mistreats the sickly boy. He steals the money and the affection of Cathy's brother, and of his son, Hareton Earnshaw, and contrives to have Cathy's daughter marry his son so that after the boy's death he can inherit both families' lands. Lockwood leaves the neighborhood and, on his return, discovers that Heathcliff has died, young Cathy has married Earnshaw, and everyone is happy.

    The Good: Um, it's short?

    The Bad: Why this shrill, absurdly overblown piece of tripe is considered a literary classic, much less a romantic one, I'll never know. I think Jasper Fforde is a poor man's Pratchett or Adams, so it should mean something when I say that I genuinely prefer his version of Wuthering Heights, in which the entire cast is brought together for an anger management seminar and told to get over themselves, over the turgid melodrama of the book itself. I genuinely can't think of one aspect of the book that I didn't dislike (including its absurd structure--Lockwood has no reason for existing and Nelly didn't witness half the scenes she narrates, so the novel's allegedly clever nesting doll structure actually makes no sense) except for the fact that it isn't a long or difficult read.

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

    The Plot: The novel is narrated in letters by Gilbert Markham, who writes years after the events described have taken place. Markham describes his encounters with a new tenant in his neighborhood, a retiring widow named Helen with a young son. Despite great reluctance on her part and hesitance on his, the two fall in love, only to discover that Helen is not a widow--she has run away from her husband. A furious Markham receives Helen's journal by way of explanation, in which she chronicled her marriage to Arthur Huntington. Helen believed that she could cure Arthur of his profligate ways, but soon learned otherwise as his dissolution worsened and he went so far as to flaunt an affair under her nose. When she saw her husband's drunken habits beginning to affect her son, Helen ran away. Helen returns to her husband in time to nurse him in his final months, as his drinking finally catches up to him, and after one extra misunderstanding, marries Markham.

    The Good: Like both her sisters, Anne Brontë's strength lay in characterization. Helen Graham is a wonderful character--the sort of person Jane Eyre might have turned into after a decade of mistreatment. She's principled and moral, but just a little bit shrewish and wonderfully self-contained. Her behavior towards Markham and his neighbors is the cause of comment and speculation, but Helen refuses to be swayed by public opinion--she knows her mind and, having finally been given leave to exercise it, has no intention of caring too much about the opinions of others. As a result, Helen's romance with Markham is one of the loveliest in all Brontë novels. Helen is unquestionably the stronger of the two, but unlike Rochester, Gilbert doesn't need her to save him. He is complete in himself, and although his interaction with Helen teaches him a great deal (it educates him enough to realize that the woman with whom he had been flirting rather seriously was only after him for mercenary reasons), the fundamentals of moral and gentlemanly behavior were already present in him before she came along. Their marriage is the closest a Brontë comes to a marriage of equals.

    Tenant is also remarkable in the characterization of its villains. Although Huntington is an unsubtle bugaboo, who all but twirls his mustache and makes villainous asides to the audience in the earlier segments of Helen's diary, she is also confronted by danger in the form of Hargrave, one of Huntington's friends who conceives a sick passion for her. Hargrave, who starts out a vaguely sympathetic character, makes a slow, terrifying transition into a stalker while still maintaining a vulnerable, pathetic humanity. It's a fascinating character study that takes place almost entirely on the novel's sidelines, and adds another dimension to the horrors that Helen endures in her husband's house.

    The Bad: Tenant was conceived first as a public service announcement, and a very brave and ground-breaking one at that, but there's no question that Brontë's politics overshadow and damage her novel. Helen's decision to marry Huntington (and his decision to marry her) makes no sense, and her suffering as his wife is overblown, clearly meant to elicit pity from 19th century readers for whom the concept of a wife who locks her bedroom door or leaves her husband was scandalous. The entries in Helen's diary charting her disillusionment with Hungtington are carefully calculated to demonstrate her complete innocence and his complete perfidy, but they also serve to make Helen look insipid and naive (although one of Brontë's points is that young ladies in her society were being intentionally kept innocent, and were unprepared for the the horrors they might encounter in married life).

    Perhaps even worse than Tenant's double role as a novel and a pamphlet is the book's miserable construction. More than either of her sisters, Anne must have been obsessed with conveying a sense of verisimilitude. It is the only explanation for her decision to write the novel in a completely unbelievable epistolary format (who is this friend of Gilbert who is content to receive hundreds of pages worth of how-I-met-my-wife stories?). When Brontë finally gives Huntington his just reward, she has no idea how to end the story--she's missing a third act, and so she drops a additional, contrived hurdle in the lovers' path--Gilbert worries that he's now too poor for Helen, and mistakenly believes that she's already married someone else--which completely undercuts the novel's power.
Rereading this list of strengths and weaknesses, I'm once again saddened by the fact that the Brontës were never allowed to write the masterpieces they had in them. There's no question that the sisters were furiously talented, and it's a shame that the circumstances of their lives and their early deaths never allowed them to fully develop their talents. With the exception for Wuthering Heights, there's a great deal worth reading for in all of these books, and although I don't think I'll ever change my answer in the Austen vs. Brontë debate, I'm glad that they exist to offer contrast.

1 comment:

Caroline Helstone said...

I read a few of your posts on jane austen and am really impressed, despite not being an austen fan. (I must confess a weakness for persuasion and Mansfield park though which are underrated compared to P&P and S&S). I'm actually Team Bronte, but you outlined their strengths and weakness so perfectly. I must, however, differ from you: Austen is better-crafted, more perfect, that is true, but Charlotte Bronte had the advantage of passion, unbeatable prose style and the ability to individualise boring underdog heroines that were not so well developed in Austen's time. but that could be the victorians tended to be more individualistic. Villette's romance may not be entirely heathly, but I think that was partly Charlotte's intention: to show how unlucky and eccentric her heroine is. She herself said Lucy Snowe is morbid, and was written to be so. Lucy's lack of involvement was meant to invoke her isolated character, a bit like Fanny Price or Anne Elliott. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. It's weak, less well-crafted, but full of feeling and philosophical thinking not to mention the social issues and range of characters it has.

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