Monday, August 11, 2008

On a Tear With Charlotte, or One Book Leads To Another

I've been reading a lot of Charlotte Bronte lately.

It all started in April when I had to drive my mother to the emergency room. The previous day she had attended a birthday picnic, hosted by one of my cousins, where most of the attendees contracted food poisoning. My mother, who is 78 years old, was so ill she had to go to the hospital. I drove her there, and since one never knows how long a visit to the emergency room will take, I made sure to bring a book.

I wanted something dependable and small, so I grabbed my Oxford World's Classics edition of Jane Eyre. At 3.5" x 6", it's smaller than most paperbacks and fits nicely in my skirt pocket. I've read Jane Eyre many times before, but it never fails to engross me. Judy Abbot, the protagonist of Daddy-Long-Legs, summed it up for me when she described her first reading of this novel, ". . . as for the mad woman who laughs like a hyena and sets fire to bed curtains and tears up wedding veils and bites -- it's melodrama of the purest, but just the same, you read and read and read." And so I did.

My mother was in the hospital for several days, so I spent a good deal of time there too. And whenever she was dozing or undergoing tests, I buried myself in Jane because, as we all know, time moves slowly in a hospital, but reading is a hyperspatial by-pass through tedium.

Frequently, when I read a novel like Jane Eyre, I'm so wrapped up in the story that I pay scant attention to the author's technique. But this time I was more aware of how Bronte achieves her effects. I was particularly struck by her use of present tense narrative when the heroine is facing an important turning point. It gives the reader a sense of immediacy, but also conveys the character's feeling of mental distance or dislocation -- that numbing daze when Everything Has Just Become Too Much and one feels cut off from both the future and the past. When Jane narrates in the traditional past tense, you have in the back of your mind the assurance that she has survived her adventures and is looking back on them. But when she switches to present tense you are with her right at that moment, dazed and uncertain.

Well, my mom recovered and returned home. So did I, still reading Jane Eyre. And when I finished I was in the mood for more Bronte. So I checked out Villette from the public library (which I had never read before) and then reread The Professor as a chaser.

I decided I'd like to know a bit more about Bronte so I looked her up in the Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia. According to the latter, "her novels are marked by anti-Catholicism." Jane Eyre doesn't really show any signs of it. (Just the bit about her creepy, selfish cousin becoming a nun.) I originally read The Professor many, many years ago and didn't recall much anti-Catholic sentiment -- no more than you'd expect from any British author of that time period. As a bit of a lark, I decided to mark the most egregious anti-Catholic sentiments with Post-it notes.

I think that the examples in The Professor simply reflect the English dislike and distrust of foreigners and foreign ways. Of course the natives of Belgium are dull and stupid. Of course the French are sly and devious. So what else can you expect from Catholics? They haven't had the moral advantages of being upright English Protestants. (As I read the book, the refrain Song of Patriotic Prejudice by Flanders & Swann rang through my mind: "The English, the English, the English are best: I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest!"

But the anti-Catholicism in Villette is downright virulent.

Religous issues aside, Villette is a real downer that should not be read by anyone having even the slightest tendency to depression. The heroine is lonely, hopeless, starved for affection, suffers from apparent visitations of the spectre of a murdered nun, has the meanest, most devious boss in the world, and teaches horrid school girls. During the summer vacation she goes through a period of clinical depression that is almost psychotic. The author allows her a brief moment of happiness when she is finally allowed to fall in love with a professor who teaches at her school. But no sooner has she accepted his proposal than his scheming (Catholic) relatives who oppose the marriage, have finagled him into traveling overseas to take care of business concerns, separating the lovers for several years. And then the author whips up an ocean storm to drown him on his return. Actually, at the request of her father, Bronte rewrote the ending to make it just slightly more ambiguous than her original version. If Pollyanna read this revised version she might, just possibly, come away with the impression that the hero could have survived the waves and would yet turn up. But I doubt it. In Villette Bronte has drawn a heroine who has schooled herself to reject hope, and has placed her in circumstances which vindicate that rejection.

By contrast, The Professor was a light hearted romp -- though it is a sedate novel compared to Jane Eyre. It was interesting to discover that Bronte wrote it before Jane Eyre. She wanted to portray a realistic hero in a novel that did not indulge in romantic excess. Alas, no publisher would take it, having instead "a passionate preference for the wild, wonderful, and thrilling -- the strange, startling, and harrowing . . . ."* So she went off and wrote Jane Eyre, and it was commercial success.

One thing which the two novels have in common is that the hero is first attracted to and falls in love with the heroine's mind. Both heroines are intelligent, and captivate their beloveds with their pert wit. Both are described at times as a vexing fairy or elf. And both preserve a special companionship with their husbands after marriage. In The Professor, Frances teaches in her own school. And she requires her husband to also teach there an hour a day because, as she says, "people who are only in each other's company for amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together." Jane also works with her husband. She becomes Mr. Rochester's eyes, seeing for him, reading for him, and generally being his right hand. And talking with each other all day long -- ah, what bliss! And how I miss it -- since my late husband and I, like the Rochesters, could say that "to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking."

As a girl I loved the descriptions of these two marriages. Perhaps they gave me hope that I too would someday find romance -- I was certain no one would ever marry me for my looks!

Instead of reading Shirley, I detoured into Mrs. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Fascinating. (But I won't talk about it now. This post is already too long.) And then I felt the need to read one of Gaskell's novels. Mary Barton is the only one in our public library, so I'm working my way through that right now.

*from Bronte's introduction to The Professor.


Enbrethiliel said...


A tutor once made me study the ending of Villette when I was taking up Jane Eyre. Isn't there a passage in which a Jesuit priest tells a Protestant girl he has been trying to convert to remain Protestant, because it is the right state for her simple soul? (Or something like that?)

Aside from what I've read of Villette, Bronte's prejudice against Catholics always seemed to me as harmless (and as obscure) as Louisa May Alcott's.

Sherwood said...

Charlotte's prejudices do indeed show up in those books. It's curious to me that postmodernists love Vilette so much--I guess because it's so dreary.

It's interesting reading Juliet Barker's bio of the Brontes in conjunction with Mrs Gaskell's apologia.

I think Anne was the best writer of them all, but she died too soon, alas, alas. And Charlotte busily burned all her early writings--though preserving her own.

Charlotte's writing seems so self-involved, though she does explore the complexities of a depressed mind. Anne was far better (I thought) at seeing other people. She was just gaining power in Agnes Grey.

Have you read Wives and Daughters? Gaskell's last and most brilliant book. That and Cranford are my faves.

mrsdarwin said...

I read Villette probably ten years ago, and I recall being struck by the anti-Catholicism present (and written by a woman who probably didn't know any Catholics in real life, though I can't swear to that).

Not so long ago I re-read Jane Eyre, which I loved as a teenager, and though it's still as powerful as ever, I found myself chafing at some of Jane's extravaganzas of despair. I didn't deny that she should despair at times, but some episodes did seem a bit lushly over-written. And I thought Charlotte got in her anti-Catholic digs pretty effectively with the rigid Eliza entering the convent.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sherwood's comment reminds me of something I didn't like about Charlotte as a person. Aside from burning Anne's earlier writings, she forbid the publication of further editions of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, calling it "a mistake."

I remember seeing a book in the library that put forward the theory that Charlotte took advantage of Anne's illness to kill her. I didn't read the book, but I seriously wouldn't put such an act past Charlotte. I think of how Jane's friend Helen died at Lowood, all her saintliness preserved, and imagine that Charlotte would have preferred that the good be dead rather than corrupted.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...


Yes, Louisa May Alcott was remarkably free of religious and racial prejudice. For example, in Little Women, Aunt March's French maid (who is Catholic) helps Amy convert a closet into a little chapel in which she can sit pray during her exile from home while Beth is sick. The kindly maid decorates it with a painting of the Madonna and even gives Amy a rosary -- though Amy hangs it up and doesn't use it, "feeling doubtful as to its fitness for Protestant prayers." Amy keeps a vase of fresh flowers there along with her New Testament and hymnal, and spends free moments sitting there to read, pray and think. When her parents find out, they do not object. I've always wondered if Alcott, who enjoyed being unconventional, did not get a little thrill out of this piece of broadmindedness.

Of course in Shawl Straps she does poke gentle fun at a Catholic liturgy which the girls witness during their European tour. As I recall, the narrator compares the vested clergy and altar boys, which they saw at a great distance, to pieces of upholstered furniture. But she didn't seem to think much of any kind of formal, organized religion, being one of those let's run out among the trees and pray to God whilst in the bosom of Mother Nature type of Christians.

Alcott does portray the Irish (Catholic) immigrants as lazy, ignorant, and shiftless while the German (Protestant) immigrants are shown as thrifty and hardworking. But everyone looked down on the Irish in those days, so I don't think she was necessarily singling them out solely on the basis of religion. And her depictions seem more human and humorous than mean spirited.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...


Oh, I loved Wives and Daughters! But I was devasted that Gaskell died before she could finish it. For that reason, I haven't been able to bring myself to reread it. I've also read Cranford, but that's all.

I'll have to look for Juliet Barker's bio. And I've just checked out The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from the library.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Mrs. Darwin,

re: "Jane's extravaganzas of despair"

Jane Eyre seemed pretty cheerful to me compared to Villette. But I guess Bronte was following the dictum to "write what you know." Mrs. Gaskell does mention that Bronte had a "constitutional absence of hope." And considering her life, one can hardly be surprised.

the booklady said...

If you are on a Brontë roll, have you ever read the charming book, The Return of the Twelves? It's in my stack to review for goodreads... It's between a children's and young adult book but is probably best appreciated by adults who love the Brontës. Written in 1962, it tells the story of some toy soldiers owned and beloved by the Brontë children, found a century later by another family of children who discover to their delight -- and chagrin -- the soldiers come to life! It's a fun and sweet story! Enjoy! booklady