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: