Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Bronte Bicentennial: Celebrating a Romantic Rebel

Young writers are continually told to “write what you know.” Novelist Charlotte Bronte—born 200 years ago this week in England—seems to have learned the lesson on her own without hearing the advice from anyone else. She certainly left enough clues in her fiction of an intense identification with her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre.

It started with the very name of the place the young governess comes to work: Thornfield Hall. Although critics have noted the religious symbolism of the estate’s name (the “thorns and thistles” inflected by God as Adam’s punishment for sin, Christ’s “crown of thorns” to expiate it), its also echoes Bronte’s birthplace: Thornton, in Yorkshire.

Jane’s work as a teacher and governess was even more strongly rooted in Charlotte’s experience. You can practically hear the voice of the character in her author’s complaint that a governess “is not considered as a living and rational being.”

Moreover, the novel’s atmosphere of madness, deprivation and death could not have been communicated so vividly except by someone all too familiar with these elements in her own household. The madness was supplied by younger brother Branwell, who grew into a hopeless alcoholic and drug addict. The deprivation came from her family’s shabby gentility, a condition resulting from her father’s status as a country curate of modest means. Death was the ever-present, unshakable companion of her family: Charlotte’s mother died when the girl was five; her two older sisters died within a month of each other when Charlotte was only nine; and Branwell and her two younger sisters, Emily and Anne, died within nine months by the time she reached her early thirties. Charlotte, who lived the longest of the children, died at age 37, succumbing to complications from childbirth.

All the more striking, then, that with such limited time, Charlotte, Emily and Anne produced such striking—and deeply individual—works. (See my prior post on how the trio adopted male pseudonyms—Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, respectively—to circumvent the sexist book reviewers of her time.)

Jane Eyre is both wish-fulfillment fantasy and cri de couer, a novel of romance and rebellion. At the same time it encouraged female readers with its vision of a heroine easily the intellectual match of any male, it presented a magnetic but troubled hero who could have been cast from the same mold as Lord Byron: i.e., “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” in Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous phrase about the poet.

Despite herself, Jane is drawn to the mysterious, remote Rochester and is absolutely sure, despite his cynicism, black moods and injunction to go nowhere near the attic, that he is the man for her. Bronte was working within a template, created in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, of a young woman who ends up reforming a problematic, elusive male. Well into the 20th and 21st centuries, female readers and viewers continued to see dashing, darkly handsome males (e.g., Rhett Butler, Mr. Big of Sex and the City) and glimpse The Husband Within.

I am absolutely convinced that, had Mel Gibson’s adman really wanted to figure out What Women Want, he could have done a focus group of the devoted readers of Charlotte Bronte’s classic and determined the answer with far fewer complications than in the film.  

At the same time it expresses full desire for a deep, body-and-soul love (Jane turns down a proposal from the upright but bloodless minister St. John Rivers but marries her tormented but passionate employer), the novel insists on dignity and autonomy, both for mistreated girls and women exploited in the service of affluent families. As Bronte’s recent biographer Claire Harman noted in an article in this past weekend’s Financial Times, the novel profoundly disturbed the Victorian political and literary establishment with its bitter denunciations of class distinctions.

Charles Dickens had already rocked that establishment to the core with Oliver Twist, one of the first—perhaps even the first—novels with a child as the main character. But Charlotte Bronte did two things that even Dickens, venturesome as he was, hadn’t thought of: she made the orphan a female and wrote the novel in the orphan's own voice. (Six years later, Dickens adopted Bronte’s innovations in Bleak House, but most readers would agree that, despite its deserved high status in British literature, his heroine, Esther Summerson, is no match for Jane’s vibrancy.)

Jane Eyre may endure for the simplest of reasons: it grabs the reader by the neck on its first pages and never lets go. It effortlessly fuses setting (a raw winter day at the emotionally cold home of Jane’s guardian, Mrs. Reed), characterization (Jane’s “consciousness of my physical inferiority” to Mrs. Reed’ children), and action (her withdrawal to the library, then Mrs. Reed’s punishment: confining her to “the red room”).  From the start, she is an underdog whom we want to win. By the end, Charlotte Bronte convinces us that she deserves to, as well.

(Portrait of Charlotte Bronte ca. 1839 by J. H. Thompson)

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