Friday, April 21, 2017

Anne Bronte: The Realist

I've never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Or Agnes Grey. I've read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights a million times, but nothing by the youngest Bronte sister. But I plan on rectifying the situation by putting both novels on my summer reading list. 

Anne Bronte was the youngest of the three and published her first novel, Agnes Grey, in 1847 at the same time her sisters published Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Over the years, neither of her books have received the same acclaim as either of her sisters, although later critics called her prose "perfect" and suggest that had she lived longer, she would have written a novel to surpass Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

(Anne Bronte, public domain)

All three of the girls were deeply affected by their brother Branwell's alcoholism. His slow death and degradation could not have been pretty. Long bouts of sickness followed him as well as debt and disgrace. When drunk (which was most of the time), he was demanding and abusive to his father and his sisters. The domestic violence of their household was no doubt the fodder for Anne's depiction of such matters in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Whereas Charlotte and Emily used their experiences with Branwell to spin more romanticized tales of wild love for a dark hero whose sins can and will be redeemed by the end of the story, Anne's view was much more realistic. Alcoholism was tragic, violence was ugly, and sometimes there were no happy endings. Charlotte Bronte's view was most likely tempered with a heavy helping of romanticism from her time in Brussels when she fell in love with a married man, and Emily may have drawn upon the notion that bad boys, like her brother, could be changed by love. 

Anne did not shy away from the stark and disturbing depiction of a woman shackled to a man in this state of degradation. Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a commercial success, many criticized its blunt description and graphic storytelling about such matters. To this, Anne replied,

"...when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts–this whispering 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience."*

I agree. This is profound wisdom. Although many of us prefer to read the romanticized version of the Byronic hero in Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff, the idea of saving a man fallen so far from grace has led many a woman down a thorny garden path and left her trodden in the mud.

Have you ever read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Agnes Grey?

*Quote from A Celebration of Women Writer's biography on Anne Bronte by Mary Mark Ockerbloom

Friday, April 7, 2017

Charlotte Bronte's Marriage

In my blog last week on Emily Bronte, I wrote that Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel. This week, I'll add that Charlotte Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre, runs a close second.

(public domain)

Over the years, I may have read Jane Eyre more than any other novel--many times for pleasure, others for high school English or college classes. I read it with the kind of joy that accompanies reading the elements of the genre--a house settled on the untamed moors; dark corridors; mysterious screams and cries in the night. And, of course, the surly, brooding hero, who finally succumbs to the love of the gentle, plain, and staid heroine.

Mr. Rochester and Jane are iconic figures of Romantic, gothic fiction. I find it fascinating that both Emily and Jane wrote novels containing such passion when their circumstances early on were so bleak, and neither of them ever found fulfillment in real-life romance. Emily died without marrying, and Charlotte entered into a marriage of mutual respect but without love.

(Charlotte Bronte, public domain)

In 1839, when Charlotte was twenty-three, the Reverend Nussey proposed marriage. She turned him down and told him she was not practical enough to be a clergyman's wife. Instead, she worked as a governess to help support her family. Within a few years, Charlotte would go on to publish Jane Eyre under the pen name Currer Bell and achieve great success. She would also lose all three of her siblings to death within a two-year period.

Charlotte’s father was a minister, and she was all too aware of the difficulties of being a minister's wife. But in 1852, she was courted by the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, curate of Haworth, who had been in love with Charlotte for some time. Charlotte would have been thirty-six years old--a spinster. At that age, any prospects at all could have been intriguing. However, her father vehemently opposed the marriage, partially due to Nicholls's poor financial state. Charlotte was not completely convinced of her regard for the clergyman either, pronouncing him conventional and stiff. However, later, when she rejected him, she was impressed with his overwhelming show of emotion (he nearly collapsed). Apparently, this suggested that Nicholls was capable of some great feeling. Afterwards, Nicholls left Haworth for many months.

No doubt this gave her time to review her reasons behind rejecting him, as well as the possibility that he might be her last opportunity. Charlotte's close friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, reminded her that marriage was profitable for women as it provided them with structure and clear duties. In this interim, Charlotte's novel Villette was published, a story based upon her own experiences and failed romance while teaching at a boarding school in Brussels. 

In 1854, Charlotte's father softened his view of Nicholls, and she accepted the clergyman's proposal. Her father initially agreed to be part of her wedding but at the last minute felt he could not, and Charlotte walked to the church alone. Although it seems Nicholls was a kind and good husband, Charlotte's letters during this period suggest her shock and bewilderment at finding herself in this new situation. She described becoming a wife as both "strange" and "perilous." As it turns out, perilous was the right choice of words, as a year later, Charlotte became pregnant, contracted a terrible illness, and died. Her death certificate shows tuberculosis as the cause, but it seems that was not the case. Scholars now believe she suffered from severe morning sickness, which brought on dehydration. She was just weeks from her thirty-ninth birthday.

Most accounts suggest that Charlotte respected Nicholls but did not love him. Marriage did not live up to her romantic expectations or the raw passion of her marvelous novels. It would seem Mr. Rochester remained an elusive ideal (as he does for so many today). Some scholars even suggest that in the end, Charlotte subconsciously willed and allowed her own death. 

Have you read Jane Eyre lately? 

For more information on Charlotte Bronte:

Friday, March 31, 2017

Who was Emily Bronte?

My favorite novel is Wuthering Heights. I first read it when I was around eleven years old and was immediately drawn to the rugged landscape, the bleak tone, the unfulfilled longing that cried out from the pages.

Masterpiece’s To Walk Invisible, a two-hour film based on the three Bronte sisters, aired last Sunday night, and in my opinion, it was extremely well done. Raw, honest, and surprising, the movie affords a stark look at these women who produced such monstrous works of literature under male pen names.

Even though Wuthering Heights has always been my favorite novel, I confess to know very little about its author (other than the fact that she wrote under the name of Ellis Bell and never married). Obviously, Emily Bronte loved the character of Heathcliff. Much like the character of Catherine, despite Heathcliff’s darkness and evil doings, Emily saw past the posturing and understood he was a tortured soul who had been deeply wounded. Some scholars believe he may have been fashioned after her troubled, severely alcoholic brother, Branwell. Or perhaps his character represented one side of a romanticized battle between the suitable, socially appropriate gentleman—like Linton—and the wild, rake of a man who was Heathcliff.

Perhaps Heathcliff represented the internal struggle—a tug of war of between what was and what could be. The movie suggests Heathcliff was born of a story she overheard from someone else, but I suspect it was more than that.

So who was Emily Bronte?

(Emily Bronte/public domain)

Her sister, Charlotte Bronte, described her in this way: “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”

(Emily's dog, Grasper)

Her life was short (she died at thirty due to tuberculosis) and most of it she spent at home in her father’s parsonage in Yorkshire. When she attended school abroad with Charlotte, she was terribly homesick and longed for the moors. Reserved, shy, and stubborn to a fault, Emily was uncomfortable around people, and she was often found in the company of animals (and in her imaginary world of Gondal, created by the Brontes when they were children).

It was not easy living in the Yorkshire moors, and the Brontes were not well-off. Economics were certainly one reason for the girls seeking publication. Their house was in constant upheaval due to their brother’s alcohol and drug addiction. Emily was known to exhibit anorexic symptoms during times of extreme stress. Much like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, she would refuse to eat for days. Biographer Katherine Frank suggested that Emily spent much of her life in a state of psychological hunger in her biography, A Chainless Soul. “Even more importantly, how was this physical hunger related to a more pervasive hunger in her life–hunger for power and experience, for love and happiness, fame and fortune and fulfillment?”

It is interesting to note that Emily Bronte left behind virtually no correspondence except for two letters and a lot of raw, passionate poetry, which is extraordinarily good. Here is an excerpt from "Oh, Thy Bright Eyes Must Answer Now."

So, with a ready heart, I swore
To seek their altar-stone no more;
And gave my spirit to adore
Thee, ever-present, phantom thing
My slave, my comrade, and my king.

A slave, because I rule thee still;
Incline thee to my changeful will,
And make thy influence good or ill:
A comrade, for by day and night
Thou art my intimate delight,

My darling pain that wounds and sears,
And wrings a blessing out from tears
By deadening me to earthly cares;
And yet, a king, though Prudence well
Have taught thy subject to rebel.

And am I wrong to worship where
Faith cannot doubt, nor hope despair,
Since my own soul can grant my prayer?
Speak, God of visions, plead for me,
And tell why I have chosen thee!

The rest of Emily Bronte’s life has been pieced together through others' comments about her.

I highly recommend watching To Walk Invisible. If you didn’t catch it on Sunday, you can still watch it on Masterpiece’s website.

Have you ever read Wuthering Heights? If so, what is your opinion of the novel?

More good info on Emily Bronte found here:
Emily Bronte

Friday, March 24, 2017

Juvenile Crime in the Regency

Charles Dickens’s classic novel, Oliver Twist, offers up a glimpse of the hard-knock world of England’s nineteenth century. Workhouses and orphanages were a fact of life for unfortunate children who had nowhere else to go and no one to care for them. Poverty and severe neglect sent these children into the streets. Like the character of Jack Dawkins, many turned to crime and pick-pocketing to survive. In the cities, some of these boys and girls were motivated and led by adult Fagin-types who showed them how, when, and from whom to steal. In the countryside, wayward children sometimes roved in bands and were involved in highway thievery and looting.

public domain

Unlike today, children were considered accountable for their crimes (and worthy of capital punishment) by the age of seven. Punishment could be severe. Technically, children could be executed for any number of infractions. Records from Newgate Prison suggest children’s death sentences were often commuted to lesser punishments (many were sent to Botany Bay in Australia); obviously, most people did not like to see children hanged. Nevertheless, execution for brutal crimes was not unusual.

In 1629, John Dean was convicted of arson with malice aforethought and was hanged. He was thought to be around eight or nine. In the nineteenth century, however, records show most children executed were between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. By the 1830s, execution of children was rare, and as the public changed their thoughts about capital punishment in general, public executions greatly diminished.

It is interesting to note that many girls were hanged as well. The last girl hanged in the nineteenth century was in 1849. Sarah Harriet Thomas was eighteen when she was hanged for the murder of her mistress. It was recorded that she was so distraught and hysterical as she stood before the gallows that even her executioner was unnerved by the end of it.

For more information on this topic:

Friday, March 17, 2017

Would you like a little poison in your beer?

It's St. Patrick's Day, and all day long pubs will be serving up green beer for the occasion. The idea of adding green food coloring to a beverage always put me off. Doesn't the food coloring taint the beer? But a little green food coloring is nothing compared to the disturbing face I learned a few years ago, when my hubby and I toured a microbrewery in South Carolina. The guide shared with us that some beers contain propylene glycol--the same ingredient used in anti-freeze! I've never been much of a beer drinker, but that was enough to put me off beer forever. However, before I sound off on the modern food and beverage industry and their attempts to poison the masses, I must address a similarly disturbing additive often found within the beer served in Regency taverns and public houses... Read on to find out.

In celebration of St. Paddy's Day, here are nine fun facts about one of the world's favorite beverages and its use (and abuse) during the Regency.

1. Those who drank beer, wine, or other spirits lived longer lives. This was mostly due to the contaminants in the water. People often threw garbage, spoils, and fecal matter out into the streets. As a result, bacteria infected the run-off streams and rivers. Those who could afford it drank beverages that had gone through the fermenting process, which took care of nearly all bacteria.

2. During the Regency, ale contained a much lower alcohol content (less than 1%) and it was consumed at most every meal. It was not unusual to have beer with breakfast.

3. Hops was used as a preservative and had the added benefit of acting as antibacterial (not to be confused with antibiotic purposes. Beer didn't work very well for medicinal purposes).

4. Beer was often used as a meal replacement as it contained many calories, vitamins, and nutrients.  

5. Even children drank a sort of beer called "small beer." This beverage went through several fermentation processes and contained just a little bit of alcohol.

6.  Because of the heavy hops use, certain types of beer had a bitter flavor and came to be known as "bitters." This was one of the most popular kinds of beer in public houses.

7. Beer was heavily taxed to help pay for the war with France. Much of the burden fell upon the tavern owners, who were left with the quandary of demand exceeding their stock. In order to make the beer go further, they often added a mixture of strychnine and water. They had no idea that strychnine was poisonous; it was only later when doctors began seeing an inordinate amount of patients with strychnine poisoning, that this practice came to light.

8. Most of the well-to-do classes did not go to public houses and therefore did not manifest strychnine poisoning symptoms. They brewed their own ale, stout, and porter and stored them on their property.

9. Some men were said to have preferred the taste of beer laced with strychnine, and after the use of the chemical fell out of practice in the late 1800s, many men actually requested strychnine-laced beer.

Anti-freeze or Strychnine? Which would you prefer? 

Sources and more information on this subject:
"Drinking Tea, Wine, and Other Spirits in Jane Austen's Day"
"When Beer was Poisoned"
"A Flask of Regency Liquor"

Thursday, March 2, 2017

For Love and Honor

Okay, so it's not exactly Regency. Actually, it's medieval historical fiction...and it is fantastic.

For Love and Honor, Jody Hedlund's newest novel, will release next week on March 7th. I was truly blessed to win an advance review copy in a giveaway, and I am thrilled to feature the novel here today.

Jody writes inspirational and romantic historical fiction and has penned the love stories of Martin Luther and Katharina (Luther and Katharina) and John Newton and Polly (Newton and Polly). For Love and Honor is part of her YA historical romance series.

Set in 1391 England, the story follows the courtship of seventeen-year-old Lady Sabine and twenty-year-old Sir Bennet. Lady Sabine and her grandmother visit Maidstone Castle with the intention of purchasing art. On the way there, she and her grandmother are accosted by highway robbers. In order to scare the bandits, Sabine reveals a secret about herself: she harbors a birthmark--a red blemish on her forearm. She suggests that this might mean she's a witch. The robbers flee. Once at Maidstone, Lady Sabine meets the young, handsome Sir Bennet.

Threatened with his family's impending financial ruin, Sir Bennet has been told he must marry for money, as neighboring lords seek to attack his family in order to satisfy their debts. But Sir Bennet despises the notion of marrying a woman for her wealth. Nevertheless, when he meets Lady Sabine, he likes her for who she is, not her money.

Eventually, Lady Sabine falls for Sir Bennet and he for her. Meanwhile, word of her birthmark has spread to those who would do harm to Sir Bennet's family. Lady Sabine is accused of being a witch, placing the couple in a dangerous, life-threatening dilemma. Will Sir Bennet be able to save his love before she is burned at the stake? Will trust and love win out over secrets and darkness? The ending of For Love and Honor is fast-paced and very suspenseful, with just the right mix of medieval battle and romance.

Although the novel is marketed toward teenagers, adults will enjoy it as well. It is not heavy on history by any means and focuses mostly on the budding romance between Sabine and Bennet. With the popularity of the CW's teen-targeted show Reign, medieval and Elizabethan romances will most likely surface with some regularity in the book world. Put in the right context, this time period can be very romantic, indeed. I was always a fan of Sharon Kay Penman's Here Be Dragon series for that very reason. I look forward to reading more of Jody Hedlund's historical fiction, including the remainder of the YA series.

You can pre-order For Love and Honor HERE and check out Jody's website and her complete selection of books HERE.

What good books have you read lately?