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Justice to Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived

by Helene Moglen
Norton, 256 pp., $11.95

Since their own day, which misprized Emily, the Brontës have been installed in the literary constellation in fixed relation: Emily with her colossal masterpiece, and with the moral advantages of a solitary nature and an early death, has been set far above not only the sad Anne and Branwell but also the more heroic Charlotte, whose unlucky combination of passion and candor exposed her to the strictures of her contemporaries—for being coarse and preoccupied with sex—and whose confessions of timidity and more prosaic needs for company and usefulness have qualified the regard of posterity.

A Victorian woman whose cheeks were said to owe more to art than to nature was not approved of, and the same seems to apply to the books of women, then and, it sometimes seems, now too. Part of the respect in which Emily is held depends on an impression of her “natural” genius; but art, too easily associated with policy and craft, has not been held to be an entirely attractive accomplishment for a female, and so the undoubted artfulness of Charlotte Brontë’s last two novels has been overlooked, or perhaps even held against her.

Jane Eyre is still acknowledged to be a good read, especially for adolescent girls—exactly the class of person it was kept from in its own day—but Shirley and Villette are seldom read by anybody but literary critics, the tradition being that they were a falling off, devoid of the naïve power, the thrilling excesses, the blood and artless self-revelation of her first published book, and disappointingly lacking in the rather stunning symbols suggesting female sexuality—madwomen and raging fires, bolts of lightning blasting phallic trees—whose meaning was sensed, delightedly if disapprovingly, by the Victorians and described at length by modern criticism.

But biographical and critical rescue has been coming Charlotte’s way in platoons lately, with Helene Moglen’s book the most recent, and a quite helpful, contribution, first as a kind of new broom to sweep away some encrusted biographical clichés, second because of its ambitious and for the most part plausible analysis of the development of Charlotte’s personality in relation to her work, and finally by giving convincing readings of the widely neglected Shirley and Villette. Restored to respectability together with Jane Eyre, these and The Professor make the sum of four good books—about as many as most major Victorian novelists wrote.

Literary biography usually concerns itself with how an artist’s life and personality influence his work, and usually fails to engage the problem of how the writer’s work affects the growth of his personality. A new work may change an artist’s life in some apparent way—may make him rich, or bitter, or exhausted—but by the time it comes into existence it has already altered his consciousness. This is a mysterious process, and to account for it convincingly has conspicuously defeated scholarship much of the time, with the circular relation of books and life, books and life spinning the dizzy critic into the dusty corner of new criticism on the one side or into the grimy one of psychoanalytic reduction on the other. Professor Moglen grabs hold of Charlotte, books, life, inner life, and all, and holds on with a certain creditable, dogged tact. The result is perhaps cursory, but is often suggestive and corrective, a helpful adjunct to what remains the most magnificent Brontë biography, Mrs. Gaskell’s life of Charlotte.

Despite the things she chose not to say, Mrs. Gaskell, in her intuition of her friend, and her avoidance of certain revisionist pieties that have since crept in, still brings the reader closer to a sense of Charlotte Brontë than anyone else has. But the twentieth century does undoubtedly have a few things to add. As happens so often, it is not the major events and scandals, which scholars tend to scrutinize, but the small details that are got wrong, and that, accumulated, can obscure the writer’s personality and thereby perhaps his work too. In particular, the strangeness and painfulness of the Brontës’ lives have stupefied, perhaps embarrassed, biographers into a kind of unthinking reliance on literary conventions which never did have anything to do with the facts of human feeling—or of human biology. Here, for instance, is Winifred Gérin on the death of Emily, from the received biography of Charlotte (Oxford Press, 1967):

So far as material causes are reckoned, Emily died of galloping consumption. Never known to ail before, once the illness was declared she was dead in three months.

For those who feel there is an enigma to be explained, there remains Wuthering Heights; and if anyone doubts how Emily felt about the liberation of death, the longing of the imprisoned spirit to cast its chains, and of the lonely soul for reunion with the universal fount from which it came, they had better re-read the death of Heathcliff.

Against this kind of sentimentality, any attempt at common sense is welcome.

About Charlotte, then, Moglen points out that as a child of six when her mother died, so far from not remembering or minding as is usually held, she would indeed have minded keenly, might have felt responsible, and in any case must have suffered from intense guilt throughout her life at being the only survivor among so many talented and deserving dead. Moglen traces Charlotte’s lifelong feelings of unworthiness and anxiety to this source.

She also addresses herself to Charlotte’s sexuality, particularly to the tradition of her “innocent” love for the Belgian schoolmaster Heger. She avoids the vulgar idea of innocence as describing love where the people do not actually make love, which has persisted strangely, even though modern people are not themselves so innocent as to believe that the physical agonies recounted in such detail in Villette were anything but strongly sexual.

It seems clear that Charlotte (and Emily) Brontë, so far from being innocent, had access to their erotic feelings, and an understanding of the ways will and power are related to eroticism, to a degree unusual in Victorian women. The conditions peculiar to Haworth Parsonage—the relative freedom from the conventions of female regime, the absence of a mother, and the masculine nature of their education by their father—explain in part how they were spared an ordinary repressive feminine upbringing.

But Charlotte’s self-knowledge may also have arisen out of the exceedingly free imaginative world which the Brontë children lived in, and from which only she was able partly to emerge. Until the end of their lives the others were involved in writing and enacting an elaborate psychodrama, begun in early childhood. The unselfconscious and uncensored preoccupation of Charlotte’s juvenilia with seduction, adultery, passion, and power well illustrates how the basic forces of the Brontës’ personalities were dramatized in these early stories and plays. Because these were the very forces that Victorian women were encouraged to repress, for Charlotte the mature artistic struggle was to fit her stories to censorious reality, just as the task of her life was to accommodate Victorian social expectations to a nature that had been nurtured, in a forcing-house of imagination and feeling, to a condition of acute self-awareness.

The Brontë juvenilia bears further, closer study. Moglen, like other critics, passes over it rather quickly. She seems to assume that it was unremarkable for artists to spend decades at playing. But here the protracted and intense nature of their imaginary lives complicated the attempts by the players to escape into the unhappier real world. The numerous and extraordinary artifacts of the imagination of the child-artists might provide an almost unique opportunity to come closer to understanding the developing egos, the psychosexual forces, and the expressive choices of people who would later find expression in art. Much that is really not known about artists, especially about women artists, might emerge from analysis of this strange canon to shed light on the vexed questions of feminist criticism and female sexual psychology.

These are questions Moglen does not enter into. The jacket description, “the evolution of her feminism from Byronic romanticism,” lends a misleading modishness to what is really a conservative view of the development of female personality (Freud, Deutsch, Horney), which here, as so often, does not seem quite to fit the case. The imaginations of the Brontës, like those of many other children, had indeed been fired by various romantic heroes like Byron, fleshly symbols of will with whom they identified. Moglen assumes that this posed a psychic problem for Charlotte, that her fictional identification had to be mostly with her women characters: “Because she was female, her identification with their beloved, Byronic Zamorna was equivocal. She could not, after all, be the fantasized hero. She was, in fact, ‘the other’ [the not-I].” Forlorn and alienated being if that were so. But it isn’t. Which is the I and which the not-I is only a problem of definition for the psychologist, not for the self. Of course Charlotte could be, and it seems likely that she was, the hero, the I, and the male as much as the female of her fictions (as Emily was Heathcliff).

Contrary to Moglen, Charlotte’s personality seems to have been strong and integrated, not in conflict with itself but with society. That society was the threatening thing to her explains the shift of her interest, in Shirley, to the political and social powerlessness of women, and in her masterpiece Villette to a deeply considered psychological presentation of the emotional effects of this powerlessness. The fiery imagery that rages through the mythic world of Jane Eyre is replaced by the chill at the heart of Lucy Snowe as the artist herself confronts what it means to live in the real world.

Feminism,” with its current connotation of sisterly solidarity, does not seem quite the word for someone who so clearly hated finding herself to be a woman, her spirit stuck in a rather arbitrary (it must have seemed) incarnation, like a statue or a diving suit, speechless, movements hampered, the form completely controlling people’s response to her. When Charlotte Brontë became famous and went to London and was stared at like some kind of feral child, she found out that what she knew she knew, about human love and human will, was continuously in conflict with what the world professed to know, and that even women she respected, like Mrs. Gaskell and Harriet Martineau, were involved in a strange collaboration to misrepresent female nature.

Indeed in all her writing, Charlotte Brontë, who was no more charitable than Jane Austen in her treatment of fools of either sex, reserved particular scorn for women. She understood how society had made them what they were (“envious, backbiting, wretched”), but she seemed to despise them, perhaps because she more than most people knew them to be capable of manliness. George Eliot is often like this too. Liberated women artists at that time were almost obliged to identify at some level with their heroes rather than their heroines, however disappointing that may seem today. Charlotte also hated children.

Moglen attributes Charlotte’s personal insecurities, the passivity and plainness of her heroines, and their yearning to “look up” to men, to female masochism (in the adaptive, rather than instinctual, sense); but it seems more likely that it is the measure not of psychic diffidence but of artistic daring to risk heroines so deviant as to be plain, the way Jane Austen risked bossy Emma and mousey Fanny. Besides, Charlotte herself was poor, plain, and little, and had a few things to say about it. She might be forgiven for wishing herself to be pretty, if only because beauty seemed to her the only proper embodiment of the human spirit, and, in practical terms, to confer a measure of temporal power denied to the plain. What Charlotte longed for was power in the world to match the power of her spirit. That she denied beauty to her heroines is part of her genius and her strategy; she does give them power.

Finding herself a woman, she turns in Shirley to an analysis of power and sexual politics, describing, as Moglen says, “the connections which could be drawn between women and the poor and socially dispossessed, between women and unemployed laborers, between women and children.” Read in this way, the book, which has been thought to lack unity, achieves a terrible coherence.

It is somewhat surprising to find in the author of Jane Eyre, with its elaborate emotional symbols, a woman who was also a social analyst of such wit and subtlety. One is unprepared for the authority of the narrative voice, the cynicism and penetration. The heroines, in common with other Brontë heroines, are outspoken and firm. Caroline Helstone says, talking of spinsters, apparently a hush-hush topic:

I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have more to do—better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now. And when I speak thus, I have no impression that I displease God by my words; that I am either impious or impatient, irreligious or sacrilegious. My consolation is, indeed, that God hears many a groan, and compassionates much grief which man stops his ears against, or frowns on with impotent contempt. I say impotent, for I observe that such grievances as society cannot readily cure, it usually forbids utterance, on pain of its scorn; this scorn being only a sort of tinselled cloak to its deformed weakness. [Shirley, p. 350]

And so on in a very long declamation, surely one of the most advanced of the period. Impotence is of course the operative word.

But Shirley transcends the merely polemical, projecting, often wittily, on a social canvas what is internalized in the wonderful Villette. Villette combines artistic authority, shrewd social observation (based on Charlotte’s Belgian experience), and the painful power of self-knowledge and self-revelation that had so startled in Jane Eyre and was now much matured and warier. As Brontë herself becomes better adapted to mid-Victorian social norms, so too her fiction moves closer to the realistic mode in which Gothic symbols find domestic embodiments. In Villette, Lucy Snowe becomes, as David Daiches said, the first antiheroine, demanding the equal right of imperfection in the face of the Victorian ideal, eschewing the various female adaptive stratagems of Ginevra, Paulina, and Madame Beck, and finding a love which is spared the perils of consummation by the fortuitous drowning of the lover after a three-year absence (“Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life”). At the end, Lucy has masculine independence, she has work, and she has self-regard; it is an ending to be compared to the ending of Jane Eyre, where the resolution of a conventional marriage is qualified, as has often been remarked, by the symbolic castration of Rochester and the enhanced power of Jane.

Many recent critics have seen Lucy as an “unreliable narrator,” unreliable because she reports her own neurotic and hysterical states of mind, her “hunger, rebellion and rage,” as Matthew Arnold objected. This view, I think, contradicts the entire direction of Brontë’s art and points indirectly to a problem confronting all women writers of fiction.

An unreliable narrator is one who reports on his own or Mr. Jones’s meanness, say, while the author makes sure we see his generosity. But between Lucy’s reports of her own mental and emotional condition and her judgments of others, and our own perceptions, no such discrepancy exists. On the whole she seems to understand herself rather well, considering that she is not a post-Freudian psychologist. It is true that she does not interpret her responses, merely reports them, but perhaps for the sound literary reason that too much interpretation would be boring. It is her candor that is disconcerting, not any disorder of her mind, though to be sure hers is an intensely personal and eccentric voice—a modern “I” narrator in that respect.

That Lucy has been taken as somehow unfit to describe herself or others truthfully is related to a problem shared by many female narrators, whose claims to be authoritative (“reliable”) presiding intelligences in novels often go unheard amid a chorus of other female narrators, variously deranged by the female condition, whose laments bring down suspicions of madness or at least unreliability on all. No doubt the fiction of lamentation is very extensive, and Villette shares some of its qualities; the fiction of growing up, with which Villette has more in common, is unusual for women to write, as if there were no type of female maturity or wisdom and therefore no endings, so to speak, for such works, except resignation, a conspicuously different quality from the graceful mood of understanding that informs the masculine voice at the end of a Bildungsroman.

Perhaps there are no endings for women’s novels, but it seems that there could be. The trouble is that many women writers, like their readers, did not believe female narrators, especially ones with sexual potential, capable of reporting reliably on society, politics, others, themselves. A female child or an elderly woman might, under special circumstances, qualify. But even Nelly Dean’s veracity, in Wuthering Heights, has been questioned, by someone who figured out the chronology, because she was young enough to have been in love with Heathcliff herself, or because of some social disorientation arising from her condition as a servant. Women are suspect as interpretive consciousnesses because of their historical and biological dilemmas. The merest quaver of fallibility reverberates in a woman’s novel as a cri de coeur.

But Lucy Snowe is just as reliable as Pip—and a lot more perceptive. The right to be honest, and to be taken as she was, the unidealized self, poor, plain, and little, subject to headaches and faints, was an artistic struggle with the world Brontë seemed for a long time to have lost. The ability to write so truly about a woman so far from ideal was no doubt born of her interior struggle, but it is her artistic triumph.

Moglen points out that solving the problem of Lucy Snowe’s destiny in her book must have contributed to Brontë’s ability (after numerous proposals by various suitors had been rejected over the years) finally to marry in real life. In life, however, the assaults on her self, by the husband and to a far greater degree by pregnancy, seem to have caused her death from psychosomatic complications of pregnancy, surely one of the few known Victorian deaths from a condition of the spirit, notwithstanding the fondness in Victorian fiction of this form of ending. How sad that she didn’t just stick to writing, but of course no artist could.

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