Sunday Poetry – Charlotte Brontë

Another of Charlotte’s poems this week. I’m still following Brontë trails after reading Claire Harman’s biography. I’m a member of the Brontë Society & so I have online access to many of the back issues of the Brontë Society journals, Transactions & Studies. I’ve been trawling the archives & finding some fascinating articles, many of them listed in the bibliography of the Harman book. There are also several articles by Juliet Barker, Brontë biographer & the editor of this lovely selection of the Brontë’s poetry, published in 1985.

This is Evening Solace, a gentle, melancholy poem of remembrance.

The human heart has hidden treasures,   
  In secret kept, in silence sealed;   
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,   
  Whose charms were broken if revealed.   
And days may pass in gay confusion,           
  And nights in rosy riot fly,   
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,   
  The memory of the Past may die.   

But there are hours of lonely musing,   
  Such as in evening silence come,           
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,   
  The heart’s best feelings gather home.   
Then in our souls there seems to languish   
  A tender grief that is not woe,   
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,           
  Now cause but some mild tears to flow.   

And feelings, once as strong as passions,   
  Float softly back—a faded dream;   
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,   
  The tale of others’ sufferings seem,           
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,   
  How longs it for that time to be,   
When, through the mist of years receding,   
  Its woes but live in reverie!   

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,           
  On evening shade and loneliness;   
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,   
  Feel no untold and strange distress—   
Only a deeper impulse given,   
  By lonely hour and darkened room,           
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven   
  Seeking a life and world to come.

Sunday Poetry – Charlotte Brontë

I’ve been reading Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë & she writes that a draft of this poem was found on the back of the draft of a letter Charlotte wrote to W S Williams, who worked at her publishers, Smith, Elder. The letter was about her first novel, The Professor, which wasn’t published in Charlotte’s lifetime although she kept revising it in the hope that Smith, Elder would publish it. Eventually she reused some of the material based on her time in Brussels in her last novel, Villette. The circumstances of the speaker in this poem reflect Charlotte’s relationship with Monsieur Heger, her tutor, & her unrequited love for him.

He saw my heart’s woe, discovered my soul’s anguish,   
  How in fever, in thirst, in atrophy it pined;   
Knew he could heal, yet looked and let it languish,   
  To its moans spirit-deaf, to its pangs spirit-blind.   

But once a year he heard a whisper low and dreary,           
  Appealing for aid, entreating some reply;   
Only when sick, soul-worn and torture-weary,   
  Breathed I that prayer—heard I that sigh.   

He was mute as is the grave, he stood stirless as a tower;   
  At last I looked up, and saw I prayed to stone:           
I asked help of that which to help had no power,   
  I sought love where love was utterly unknown.   

Idolater, I kneeled to an idol cut in rock,   
  I might have slashed my flesh and drawn my heart’s best blood,   
The Granite God had felt no tenderness, no shock;           
  My Baal had not seen nor heard nor understood.   

In dark remorse I rose. I rose in darker shame,   
  Self-condemned I withdrew to an exile from my kind;   
A solitude I sought where mortal never came,   
  Hoping in its wilds forgetfulness to find.           

Now, Heaven, heal the wound which I still deeply feel;   
  Thy glorious hosts look not in scorn on our poor race;   
Thy King eternal doth no iron judgement deal   
  On suffering worms who seek forgiveness, comfort, grace.   

He gave our hearts to love, he will not love despise,           
  E’en if the gift be lost, as mine was long ago.   
He will forgive the fault, will bid the offender rise,   
  Wash out with dews of bliss the fiery brand of woe;   

And give a sheltered place beneath the unsullied throne,   
  Whence the soul redeemed may mark Time’s fleeting course around earth;           
And know its trial overpast, its sufferings gone,   
  And feel the peril past of Death’s immortal birth.   

New arrivals

Some books that I had on pre-order & standing order have arrived over the last week or so & a few impulse buys as well.
At the top & bottom of this pile are the latest books from Slightly Foxed. The latest SF edition is I Was A Stranger by John Haskett, the WWII memoir of a soldier hiding from the Germans in Holland after the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. I’m also collecting the SF Cubs, Ronald Welch’s series of historical novels for children. The latest is Captain of Foot, set during the Napoleonic Wars.

These lovely Crime Classics from the British Library seduced me with their covers taken from railway posters of the 1930s. I’d never heard of John Bude but I love English mysteries set between the wars & these have Introductions by Martin Edwards, one of my favourite writers of mystery fiction.
Death goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan is the latest from Greyladies, a mystery set in the world of ballet.

I must have seen a mention of Willa Cather’s One of Ours on the blog of someone taking up the LibraryThing Virago WWI challenge but I’d forgotten that when I ordered it. I only remembered when I read Heavenali’s review of it this week. The Virago edition is no longer in print, unfortunately, but I love Vintage UK & US editions. This isn’t the cover I thought I would receive but I love it even more.

Two Penguins next. I read this review of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia, Tales of Angria, by Kate at Vulpes Libres.

Even though I already had this 1980s Penguin edition of the juvenilia of Charlotte & Jane Austen, I had to have this new edition. There are a couple of stories in this edition that aren’t in the older one & the Introduction is extensive. It’s been too long since I read about Angria.

The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs edited by Steve Roud & Julia Bishop was another impulse based on the beautiful woodcut on the cover. I am interested in folk songs, especially the lovely arrangements of many of them that were composed in the early 20th century by Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gerald Finzi, among others. Especially when they’re sung by Bryn Terfel.

Finally, some history. I heard a podcast with Helen Castor recently & was reminded that I’d enjoyed her TV series about the She-Wolves of English history (Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou) but hadn’t read the book. The Third Plantagenet is John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book about George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV & Richard III. Was he really drowned in a butt of malmsey in the Tower? Was he really as unpleasant as I’ve always thought him? I’m afraid I always think of him as “the ineffable George” as Josephine Tey describes him in The Daughter of Time. Alan Grant also says, “George could obviously be talked into anything. He was the born missionee.” I’ll be interested to discover if there was more to him.

Shirley – Charlotte Brontё

I’ve found myself rereading the novels of the Brontё sisters over the last year or so. I reread Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights nearly every year but the other novels not so often. I read Villette again last year & The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well but this is the first time I’ve read Shirley in years. I’ve only ever read Agnes Grey & The Professor once so I feel I need to read them again as well.

Shirley is a historical novel, set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century England. Shirley Keeldar is an orphaned heiress who has returned to her family estate, Fieldhead, after years of living with her guardian & his family. She was given the name Shirley in the expectation that she would be a boy as it was originally a boy’s name (Shirley Temple has changed the way we think of the name. In 1849 when Shirley was published, readers would have been surprised to find a heroine called Shirley). Shirley is beautiful, spirited, wilful but essentially a kind, loving girl. She is determined to look after her estate & her tenants. However, she returns to a community in disorder.

The war with France has been devastating for the local cloth manufacturers. There have been riots by workmen laid off due to the introduction of new machinery in the factories that will mean less hand labour is needed. Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Flemish, half-English mill-owner, has boldly introduced the new frames to his factory. His methods have been a little brusque, a little unfeeling to the fears of his workers who have been laid off. Moore is determined to press on with the innovations as quickly as possible. The consequence is that the first delivery of new machinery is attacked & destroyed by a gang of frame-breakers determined to stop progress at any cost. Shirley champions Robert & loans him money to keep his factory afloat as restrictive laws limit the market for his cloth. Robert is handsome & Shirley is beautiful & rich. Rumours are soon about that they intend to marry.

Caroline Helstone is a quiet young woman, niece to the Rev Helstone, a cold, distant man whose unkindness is said to have driven his wife to an early grave. Caroline’s childhood was unhappy. Her father was a drunkard & her mother left him & Caroline & hasn’t been heard of for years. Caroline is a distant cousin of Robert Moore & his sister, Hortense, & spends her days at their house, The Hollow, improving her French & her sewing. Caroline is in love with Robert but his thoughts are on his business & his future. The rest of her time is spent as a helper at Sunday School & acting as her uncle’s hostess at tedious social occasions.

When Shirley arrives at Fieldhead, she & Caroline become friends. Caroline’s uncle forbids her to see the Moores after he quarrels with Robert & Caroline gradually pines away with unrequited love & a sense of hopelessness as she has no purpose in life. Practically uneducated, unwilling to think of marrying anyone but Robert, who seems to be in love with Shirley, Caroline sinks into a dangerous illness.

Shirley is a fascinating but not wholly successful novel. The first two volumes (my OUP edition is divided into the original three volumes) are wonderful. From the opening chapters with the attack on the factory machinery to the story of Caroline’s love for Robert & her frustrated lack of purpose & the arrival of Shirley who rejuvenates everyone around her, the story is gripping. The chapters about Caroline’s illness are incredibly moving, especially with the knowledge that Charlotte was writing these chapters just after the death of Anne, her last remaining sibling. The chapter about the old maids of the village, Miss Ainley & Miss Mann, is full of all the withering scorn Charlotte was capable of. Charlotte knew the likely fate of unwanted women all too well in a society that was content to have undereducated women languishing for want of useful work. Caroline can see her fate in that of the old maids & it leaves her demoralised & depressed.

The attack on Moore’s mill is exciting & full of tension as is the attack on Moore himself that leaves him close to death. The portraits of the Yorke family (based on Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor’s family) & the three curates, Donne, Malone & Sweeting (based on curates Charlotte had known at Haworth. Apparently when Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte’s future husband, first read Shirley, his landlady heard him shout with laughter & stamp his feet as he read the opening chapters) are truly felt & observed. Charlotte based Caroline & Shirley on her sisters, Anne & Emily, using wish fulfillment as well as her memories in her portraits. She said that Shirley was Emily as she would have been if she’d had wealth & she uses the true episode where Emily cauterised a bite on her arm from a dog suspected of rabies & gives it to Shirley. The historical background is based on extensive research into the newspapers of the time as well as her father’s recollections.

It’s the third volume that falls off in interest & credibility. Robert’s brother, Louis, has been tutor in the family of Shirley’s guardians, the Sympsons. When the Sympsons visit Fieldhead, Caroline is surprised that Shirley hadn’t mentioned knowing Louis. Unfortunately Louis is not an interesting character & his journal entries demonstrate all the difficulty Charlotte had when trying to write from a male perspective. Seeing Shirley change from the vibrant young woman of the first two volumes to someone looking for a master & content to be ruled by another is a real anticlimax. Shirley does say that she felt she had to defer to Louis so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by their difference in fortune & status, but I wasn’t convinced. Their courtship is stilted & drawn-out & the part played by young Martin Yorke & Henry Sympson very awkward.

Even with my reservations about the relationship between Louis & Shirley, I enjoyed revisiting Shirley very much. Charlotte promised her readers “Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning“, and after the romance & mystery of Jane Eyre, that’s what they got. All Charlotte’s strengths as a writer are here – the strong female characters, the domestic details, the true relationships between uncle & niece, mother & daughter, friends & lovers. If I don’t love Shirley as I love Jane Eyre, I can certainly enjoy revisiting some of the most vivid characters ever created by one of my favourite authors.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontё

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books. I’ve read it at least 20 times &, after seeing the latest movie adaptation last weekend, I had to read it again! My original 1970s Penguin paperback is so fragile that I had to buy a new reading copy a couple of years ago. I enjoyed the new movie version. The music was beautiful & I thought Mia Wasikowska was very good as Jane. It’s so difficult for an actor to convey Jane’s passion as outwardly she’s so quiet & still, but she did a good job. The first person narration of the novel is full of fire & passion but it’s almost all interior. I was less excited by Michael Fassbender as Rochester. I liked the structure, it begins in the middle of the story as Jane leaves Thornfield after the aborted wedding & uses flashbacks to show her childhood. I was pleased that the later section of the book at Morton with the Rivers family was there because that’s often left out of a 2 hour movie. But, what I noticed most was the dialogue. They used some of the original dialogue & conflated some scenes but changed quite a bit where I thought they should have left Charlotte Brontё’s words intact. I sat there hearing the original words from the novel in my head & I could hardly wait to get home & start reading the book all over again.

Jane Eyre is the story of a passionate, uncontrolled child who grows into a passionate, controlled woman. Jane is an orphan, left to the care of an unfeeling aunt & cousins. She is sent to a charity school, Lowood, where she is first starved & neglected but eventually gains an education. She becomes governess to the ward of Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall, an abrupt, ugly but fascinating man. Jane falls in love with her employer but he seems to favour a beautiful, haughty woman, Blanche Ingram. There are also mysteries at Thornfield. Jane hears strange laughter from the upper stories, Rochester is nearly burnt in his bed in the middle of the night. A visitor from Jamaica arrives & is stabbed in mysterious circumstances. Rochester proposes to Jane but their wedding is interrupted by the revelation that Rochester is already married. Jane leaves Thornfield after refusing to become Rochester’s mistress & wanders, starving, on the moors for three days before being taken in by a clergyman, St John Rivers, & his sisters. Jane becomes a village schoolmistress until she receives an inheritance & discovers that she does have a family with whom to share it. She cannot rest until she discovers what has happened to Rochester & so she returns to Thornfield Hall.

I tried not to reveal too many spoilers in that summary but surely there can’t be too many people who don’t know the story. When I reviewed Villette recently, I said that it’s the narrator’s voice that is so beguiling. So, I’m just going to quote some of my favourite passages.

Jane’s time at Lowood is famous because it’s based on the experiences of Charlotte & her sisters at the Cowan Bridge School. Her two eldest sisters, Maria & Elizabeth, left Lowood suffering from tuberculosis & went home only to die. The chapters at Lowood are so searing in their condemnation of Mr Brocklehurst & his version of Christian charity, so horrifying in the depiction of mental cruelty & bodily suffering,  that the fact that this period of Jane’s life up to the death of her friend, Helen Burns, is only about the first few months of her time there, is often forgotten.  The chapter after Helen’s death skims over the next eight years of Jane’s life as a student & teacher at Lowood until the day when her kind friend & mentor, Miss Temple, marries & leaves.

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon. My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks: it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock & heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits. I traced the white road winding round the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between two: how I longed to follow it further!…I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it , and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; “Then, ” I cried, half desperate, “Grant me at least a new servitude!”

Then, out of all the scenes between Jane & Rochester as they fall in love, the proposal in the garden at midsummer is one of the most beautiful scenes in literature. Rochester has tried to make Jane jealous by pursuing Blanche Ingram & she tells him that she must leave Thornfield after he is married,

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? – You think wrong! – I have as much souls as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I would have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are!”
“As we are!” repeated Mr Rochester – “so,” he added, enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: “so, Jane!”

Finally, when Jane has fled Thornfield & ended up at Morton with the Rivers family, she rejects St John’s cold proposal that she should marry him & go with him as a missionary to India.

I saw nothing: but I heard a voice somewhere cry – 
“Jane! Jane! Jane!” Nothing more.
“Oh God! what is it?” I gasped.
I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room – nor in the house – nor in the garden: it did not come out of the air – nor from under the earth – nor from overhead. I had heard it – where, or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being – a known, loved well-remembered voice – that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently.
“I am coming!” I cried. “Wait for me! Oh, I will come!” I flew to the door, and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran out into the garden: it was void.
“Where are you?” I exclaimed.
The hills beyond Marsh-Glen sent the answer faintly back – “Where are you?” I listened. The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.

Every time I read Jane Eyre, I find something new in it. Every time I watch a TV or movie adaptation, I want to read the book again because no adaptation can ever really satisfy. My favourite is the 1980s BBC version with Zelah Clarke & Timothy Dalton. There was real chemistry between them & they used lots of the original text. I may have to find time to watch it again!

Villette – Charlotte Brontё

What is it about Charlotte Brontё’s voice that is so beguiling? I’ve just spent the last week in Charlotte’s company, reading Villette for the 5th or 6th time. After reading Margaret Oliphant’s views on the Brontё sisters & a recent issue of Brontё Studies (the journal of the Brontё Society) I knew it was time to revisit Villette & meet Lucy Snowe, M Paul, Madame Beck, John Graham Bretton, Ginevra Fanshawe & the spectral Nun again. I know that it’s not considered proper in critical circles to consider fiction as a form of veiled autobiography but in Charlotte Brontё’s case, I think I can claim an exception to the rule. Villette is full of Charlotte’s personal experiences. The evidence is there in her letters & the facts of her life as recounted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte.

Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe. We meet Lucy as a young girl, staying with her godmother, Mrs Bretton. Lucy’s life seems quite bleak. She seems to be shuttled from one relation to another & her visits to her godmother & her son, Graham, are an oasis of warmth & kindness. On this visit, a relation of Mrs Bretton, Mr Home, visits, bringing with him his small daughter, Polly, who will stay with the Brettons while he travels. Polly takes a fancy to Graham, who tolerates her fancies & allows himself to be adored. Mr Home returns, takes Polly away &, soon after, Lucy also retuns home & subsequently loses touch with the Brettons. Some years pass. Lucy is working as a companion to Miss Marchmont, an invalid who tells her the story of her own young life & lost love. When Miss Marchmont dies, Lucy is once more alone & friendless.

After hearing about schools in Villette on the Continent where English teachers are prized she decides to go there & look for work. On her journey, she meets Ginevra Fanshawe, a spoilt, pretty young woman, who is returning to school in Villette. She recommends Lucy try her luck with Madame Beck, the owner of the Pensionnat she attends. On arrival, Lucy gets lost but fortuitously finds her way to Madame Beck’s school & asks for work. She is engaged as nursemaid to Madame’s children but, after the English master incurs Madame’s displeasure, she becomes the English teacher. Lucy’s life at the Pensionnat is not unhappy. She has a healthy respect for Madame Beck even though she discovers that she runs the whole concern on a system of surveillance & spying, even going through Lucy’s belongings. She finds her feet as a teacher & has a friendship with Ginevra that amuses & irritates her in equal measure.

Lucy’s essential solitude begins to affect her health, especially when she is left alone in the school during the long vacation. She falls ill in body & spirit & is driven by her need for some human contact, to confess to a Catholic priest in the cathedral. This is a radical act for such a confirmed Protestant & she immediately regrets it. On her way back to the Pensionnat, she collapses & when she wakes, finds herself in a strange room that is also familiar. She has been rescued by the young English doctor, known to all as Dr John, & brought to his mother’s house. Lucy has already guessed that this young man is the Graham Bretton she knew in childhood although he doesn’t recognize her (& the reader has had no clue). Her godmother is pleased to be reunited with Lucy & her life begins to open up & become more social as she visits concerts, art galleries & theatres with the Brettons. She is also a witness to Graham’s infatuation with Ginevra & Ginevra’s flirting with both Graham & another foppish young man, Alfred de Hamal. As Lucy’s feelings for Graham become more intense, she finds herself relying on the letters he has promised to write to her when she returns to the Pensionnat.

Madame Beck’s cousin is also a teacher at the Pensionnat. M Paul Emanuel is an irascible, fiery man, vain, dictatorial but essentially kind-hearted. Gradually he becomes a friend & sometime antagonist to Lucy, bullying her into taking part in a school play & disapproving of her relationship with Graham. Lucy comes to realise that Graham’s feelings for her are no more than friendship & she symbolically buries her heart along with his letters beneath the pear tree in the garden where she likes to sit in the evenings. Lucy’s feelings for M Paul also change, becoming deeper & more serious. However, Madame Beck does not approve of their growing closeness & will do all she can to keep them apart.

Describing the plot of Villette doesn’t convey the flavour of the book. To me, all the interest & charm lies in the narrative voice & the knowledge of Charlotte’s life that informs the fiction. There is so much that mirrors Charlotte Brontё’s own experiences, there are echoes of her letters everywhere. Villette is based on Brussels where Charlotte & her sister, Emily, spent time teaching in a Pensionnat run by M & Mme Heger. Charlotte returned to Brussels for a further year without Emily & she found herself falling in love with M Heger. It’s impossible to say that M Heger is M Paul or that Mme Heger is Mme Beck but the characters were certainly based on Charlotte’s feelings about the Hegers – her love for Monsieur & hatred of Madame.

Graham & Mrs Bretton were similarly based on her publisher, George Smith, & his mother. George Smith acknowledged this, saying that Mrs Bretton was an exact picture of his mother, down to some of her favourite sayings & expressions. Charlotte’s feelings for George Smith have been a subject of much speculation. She certainly admired him & may have hoped to marry him. Her portrait of Graham Bretton is very honest about his faults & superficial nature & must have been uncomfortable for Smith to read. Charlotte’s journey to Brussels mirrors Lucy’s journey on the packet boat. Her mental torment, leading to the confession in the cathedral was based on Charlotte’s own experience which she wrote about in a letter to Emily. Charlotte also went to the theatre & was amazed & horrified by the performance of a great dramatic actress, just as Lucy is.

The plot of Villette shocked many reviewers at the time. Lucy falls in love with one man & then falls in love with another. This is not the conventional plot of a three volume Victorian novel. The heroine is not supposed to change her mind about her lovers in quite such an independent way. Harriet Martineau famously wrote, in a review that upset Charlotte so much that she broke off their friendship,

… so incessant is the writer’s tendency to describe the need of being loved, that the heroine, who tells her own story, leaves the reader at last under the uncomfortable impression of her having either entertained a double love, or allowed one to supersede another without notification of the transition. It is not thus in real life.

Well, I don’t know about real life, but it certainly wasn’t meant to be that way in fiction! Actually, the moment when Lucy falls out of love with Graham is very clear. He is trying to convince Lucy to intercede for him with a young woman, to remind her of their former acquaintance.

‘Could I manage to make you ever grateful?’ said I. ‘NO,
I could not .’ And I felt my fingers work and my hands interlock: I felt, too, an inward courage, warm and resistant. In this matter I was not disposed to gratify Dr John: not at all. With a now welcome force, I realized his entire misapprehension of my character and nature. He wanted always to give me a rôle not mine. Nature and I opposed him. He did not at all guess what I felt: he did not read my eyes, or face, or gestures; though, I doubt not, all spoke.

In those few sentences, Lucy sees Graham’s self-centredness, his self-satisfaction, his belief in his own charm, very clearly & she realises that she doesn’t love him.

Lucy does keep vital information from the reader, she’s a very secretive narrator, she certainly doesn’t take the reader into her confidence. We don’t know anything about her family. Why is she alone at the beginning of the book? Why does she lose touch with her godmother? Why doesn’t she tell us when she recognizes Graham Bretton in the Dr John of Villette (there’s a hint but I’m not sure now if I recognized it when I first read the book). Lucy is crabby, secretive, sometimes ridiculous, self-sabotaging & stubborn. Yet, I feel she’s closer to Charlotte Brontё than even Jane Eyre. Her voice is entirely original & entirely her own. The sense of crushing loneliness & despair in Lucy always reminds me of Charlotte alone with  her father in the Parsonage after all her siblings were dead, walking around the dining room table alone where once she had walked with her sisters as they discussed their work. The ending of the book is famously ambiguous. Apparently Patrick Brontё begged his daughter to leave the reader with some hope of Lucy’s happiness. Charlotte obeyed her father but only the most optimistic reader could take much hope from the end of the novel.

Charlotte said that she wanted a cold name for her heroine & she was called Lucy Frost for a great part of the writing of the novel. As always in Charlotte Brontё’s work though, frost is mixed with fire & passion. No wonder the critics were astounded & bemused by the Brontё sisters & their books & weren’t at all sure about the sex of the author. Imagine reading Jane Eyre, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Wuthering Heights for the first time in an age when there were very definite rules as to how a heroine behaved & what she said & thought. Jane, Lucy, Helen Huntingdon & Catherine Earnshaw were created from the imaginations of three extraordinary women. I read their books over & over again & never feel I’ve got to the end of their fascination.

Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign – Margaret Oliphant et al

One of the members of my 19th century book group posted a link to this book, recently made available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg. It consists of a series of essays by 19th century women novelists in appreciation of their famous predecessors. Published to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the contributors set out their criteria in the Publishers’ Note,

Having been concerned for many years in the publication of works of fiction by feminine writers, it has occurred to us to offer, as our contribution to the celebration of ‘the longest Reign’, a volume having as its subject leading Women Novelists of the Victorian Era.

They only include dead authors & only those whose whole career was encompassed by the years 1837-1897. I was interested initially because the first chapter was Margaret Oliphant on the Brontёs. I’ve read quotes from this essay in many books about the Brontёs so I was interested to read the whole piece. Then, I skipped the chapter about George Eliot written by Eliza Lynn Linton, although I was intrigued by the beginning, which shows how sensitive the subject of her long, unmarried relationship with George Lewes still was, almost 20 years after her death,

In this essay it is not intended to go into the vexed question of George Eliot’s private life and character. Death has resolved her individuality into nothingness, and the discrepancy between her lofty thoughts and doubtful action no longer troubles us.

 I read about Elizabeth Gaskell, then Mrs Henry Wood was mentioned, &, as I’ve recently read her Anne Hereford, I wanted to read that & then there was Dinah Mulock Craik (I’ve read her John Halifax, Gentlemen) & before I knew it I only had a couple of chapters to go so I went back & read about George Eliot (where, despite her intentions, Linton does discuss Eliot’s private life quite extensively!) & finished the book. Interestingly, several of the women in the book Notable Women Authors of the Day that I reviewed recently, turn up here writing about their predecessors. Edna Lyall writes about Elizabeth Gaskell,  Adeline Sergeant about Mrs Crowe (she wrote a well-regarded book of ghost stories, The Night Side of Nature, which I would love to get my hands on), Mrs Archer Clive & Mrs Henry Wood & also Charlotte M Yonge about three novelists I’ve never heard of (Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Mrs Stretton & Anne Manning).

However, my main interest was in Margaret Oliphant’s views of the Brontё sisters. I find it so interesting to see what the reputations of authors like the Brontёs were at the end of the 19th century & compare it to today.  The beginning of the essay is blunt, to say the least,

The effect produced upon the general mind by the appearance of Charlotte Brontё in literature, and afterwards by the record of her life when that was over, is one which it is nowadays somewhat difficult to understand. Had the age been deficient in the art of fiction, or had it followed any long level of mediocrity in that art, we could have comprehended this more easily. But Charlotte Brontё appeared in the full flush of a period more richly endowed that any other we know of in that special branch of literature…

Oliphant admits the genius of a woman with little experience of the world & no social advantages but she dislikes the level of satire & spite in the novels. I wondered several times if Oliphant was worried about hurting the feelings of some of the originals of Brontё’s fictional characters. She goes to great lengths to restore the reputation of the Clergy Daughters School, portrayed so scathingly as Lowood in Jane Eyre. She obviously remembered the furore over this when Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte was published in the 1850s. She even refers to it as,

The great school, which it was Charlotte Brontё’s first act when she began her literary career to invest with an almost tragic character of misery, privation, and wrong, was her first step from home.

Oliphant is also very disapproving of Charlotte’s use of the Hegers in Villette. M Heger may still have been alive when the essay was written (he died in 1896) although he had died by the time it was published, but his children were still living in Brussels & of course Charlotte’s passionate letters to him hadn’t been revealed. Elizabeth Gaskell famously suppressed them when she was writing her biography. Charlotte’s widower, Arthur Nicholls was also still alive in Ireland (he didn’t die until 1906).

It startles the reader to find – a fact which we had forgotten – that M Paul Emanuel was M Heger, the husband of Madame Heger and legitimate head of the house: and that this daring and extraordinary girl did not hesitate to encounter gossip or slander by making him so completely the hero of her romance. Slander in its commonplace form had nothing to do with such a fiery spirit as that of Charlotte Brontё: but it shows her perfect independence of mind and scorn of comment that she should have done this.

She also discusses Shirley, feeling that the book is a failure compared with Jane Eyre or Villette & disapproving of the satirical scenes with the curates & the outspoken desires of Shirley & Caroline for love. Oliphant disapproves of the way love is portrayed in the novel, the way the women demand love as their right,

It is dominated throughout with this complaint. Curates? Yes, there they are, a group of them. Is that the thing you expect us women to marry? Yet it is our right to bear children, to guide the house. And we are half the world, and where is the provision for us?

Oliphant still sees this as a radical view, even 50 years after Shirley was published. She gives a sympathetic outline of Charlotte’s personal life, following Gaskell’s biography & has some very perceptive criticism of the characters in the novels, although she often dislikes the way the books have been written, both the style & the narrative tone. Oliphant has no time for Emily or Anne Brontё,

… Emily, whose genius has been taken for granted, carrying the wilder elements of the common inspiration to extremity in the strange, chaotic and weird romance of Wuthering Heights, while Anne diluted such powers of social observation as were in the family into two mildly disagreeable novels of a much commoner order…

& dismisses Branwell as a typical good-for-nothing wastrel son, whose life should have been discreetly veiled rather than exhibited so fully in the Gaskell biography. She discounts any influence that Branwell could have had on his sisters’ work. The other essays are just as interesting, even the ones about authors I haven’t read or heard of. This is an interesting book, especially if you have an interest in just what the critics thought about writers like the Brontёs who are now so indisputably part of the canon. After reading this & having just read the January edition of Brontё Studies which was a special issue with the recent papers from the conference on the influences of the men in the Brontёs’ lives, I’ve started rereading Villette!

The picture is from here.