Sunday, February 14, 2010

Patricia Ingham – ‘Authors in Context: The Brontës’

George Eliot on Jane Eyre:
All self-sacrifice is good – but one would like it to be in a somewhat nobler cause than that of of a diabolical law which chains a man body and soul to a putrifying carcase. However, the book is interesting – only I wish the characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of news reports. (p. 26)
Exactly so, George! Couldn’t agree more with the second part of that. In the light of Wide Sargasso Sea and The Madwoman in the Attic, it is interesting that her take on the book is so anti-Bertha. But then George Eliot had good reason to dislike the institution of marriage, and to see it as a bar to love rather than a consecration of it. In Shirley, Charlotte Brontë acknowledges this tendency to read fiction by way of oneself, when she has Caroline Helstone point Robert Moore in the direction of Coriolanus, with the following purpose:
It is to stir you; to give you new sensations. It is to make you feel your life strongly, not only your virtues, but your vicious, perverse points. (Volume I, Chapter VI)
It is useful to be reminded, though, that there are other points of view. Ingham’s book is a whistle-stop tour of the various contexts from which the seven Brontë novels sprang, plus a chapter on ‘Recontextualising the Brontës’ in which adaptations on stage, screen and in song are listed and briefly accounted for. Between 1910 and 1926, twelve films were made of Jane Eyre, whilst Wuthering Heights (being altogether pricklier) got only one, in 1920, and had to wait until 1939 for another. Ingham does a good job of tracing the plots of the various Jane Eyres, showing how the focus stays mostly with Rochester, with a submissive Jane, until the ‘tokenism’ of Delbert Mann’s 1970 film shifts to Julian Amyes’ faithful balance in his 1983 BBC series, and finally Robert Young’s 1997 film has Jane dominant. Which is to miss the point too: ‘this is not the equality that the novel asserts’ (p. 241).

The earlier chapters give the contexts of the Brontës’ home life, ‘The Fabric of Society’, ‘The Literary Context’, class, gender, mental health and religion. Haworth sounds as though it was pretty horrible in the 1830s / 40s – life expectancy actually ran below the Brontë siblings’ early death dates, though most of the population were manual labourers and didn’t live anywhere as rarefied as the parsonage. The round-up of divisions in Christianity was useful, too (for instance, if you had no idea what Methodism was). Two Lunacy Acts in 1845 improved care for the insane to the extent that: ‘any asylum with more than 100 inmates was obliged to employ a medical superintendent’ (p. 63), which makes Rochester’s behaviour towards his first wife seem more charitable than the feminists would have it.

Particularly good is the chapter on religion, which shows the differences between the faiths of the three sisters in terms of their ideas about salvation. James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner is mentioned as a favourite book; it is one of my favourite books too, but it must be terrifying if you actually take it seriously. A satire on the idea of predestination, it shows the moral and mental chaos which can ensue if someone believes that his actions have no bearing on his salvation, because he is already saved. Anne believed that everyone would ultimately be saved; Charlotte was less sure, and saw her own weaknesses as indications that she may have been already damned. Examples are given from her novels of Christians who fail in their duty because they lack an accompanying human warmth – St John Rivers from Jane Eyre is held up as the moral nadir of the book, because of the scheming, premeditated way (odd that it is OK for God to predetermine) he sets about ensnaring Jane, in comparison to Rochester’s hot-headedness. Emily is the most interesting here, though, because the least fixed. Ingham describes Wuthering Heights as an ‘open text’, and suggests several possible ways in which it can frighten the life out of you:
Is it straining too much to see the novel as an evocation of the ultimate suffering in humans and a metaphorical version of the idea of hell as the absence of a loving God which, by translating it into human terms, illuminates the Christian concept? Or is the metaphor reversed so that the idea of an absent God or heaven is used to represent the torment of human passion which is always ultimately frustrated? Or is the novel arguing that such suffering and hatred rules out the existence of a loving God, a revision of the problem of evil? (p. 213)

The ‘Dude Watching’ cartoon is by Kate Beaton and can also be found here. Thanks to T. for pointing that out.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

L’inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924)

Like many popular singers, Claire Lescot attracted more admirers than she knew what to do with. Many were rich and powerful, and promised to take her away from it all. Claire had to admit that she did want to get away, but wasn’t at all sure that this was the way to do it. For these men bored her frightfully; the last thing she wanted was more of the cosseting with which her career already provided her. She wanted action, adventure, new places, new thrills. She announced that unless somebody did something really exciting, and soon, she was going to leave it all behind for a time and embark on a journey around the world. The announcement was made at a dinner party in a house whose décor positively ached with modernity: leading in to the main hall were two functional staircases, in the left and right corners, and one in the centre with steps askew, like crooked teeth or fallen columns. In the centre of the room were tables laid out in a horse-shoe formation, on a floor with a black and white pattern, bold and interlocking like a Navajo rug. Around this central square was a moat, in which swam some ducks. Doves flew about the room, to no-one’s surprise. The servants wore papier-mâché heads with fixed smiles, but there were real people inside – at least this is what the host told his guests. The whole thing bored Claire so much she could almost have cried. But she could not be bothered, so instead she listened to the compliments as they poured in, and deflected the proposals.

But one guest, arriving late, was not to be so easily put off. Einar Norsen, unlike the other admirers, was so sincerely convinced of his love for Claire that it was all he could stand to watch her talk merrily to his rivals. Through the course of the evening he grew increasingly agitated, and when she made her remark about travelling abroad, alone, he wrote a note for her and left the dinner party, to drive home down the high coastal road. He drove furiously, his vision blurred, the twilight trees and the road seeming to split into two and then four separate overlapping fields of vision. Abruptly the car swerved left, until it hung precariously on the cliff. It tipped until it was vertical, then fell into the sea. Back at the house, after dinner entertainment was in full swing – dancers, fire eaters, a man spinning a barrel in the air with his feet – and Claire refused to take Einar’s note seriously. He would kill himself because she was going away? Preposterous! But despite herself, her interest was piqued. She liked the geekiness of it. A little later Einar’s death was reported at the house by a simple country girl who had seen the car fall into the sea. She drew back at the grandeur of the room, and four servants with papier-mâché heads moved slowly forward to terrify her still further.

But Einar was not dead. He had contrived to make Claire believe so, in order to tempt her to his home, where he could show her an invention which he believed would change her mind about going away. Some spectacles and a stick-on moustache were crucial to organising this, but I forget the details. Revealing his true identity, he explained that he had developed a system which would allow Claire to sing to her audience across the world, as with a radio, but that it would also allow her to see their reactions on a screen. They tested it: Claire sang into a microphone, and on the screen appeared an African woman in a grass skirt, sitting in a mud hut, looking in surprise at a speaker. Einar pressed home his point that Claire could have all the excitement she wanted without ever leaving the house. Claire seemed reasonably impressed at this. Things seemed to be going Einar’s way.

A rival with heavily made up eyebrows had other plans. Djorah de Nopur, an exotic prince of some sort, whose suit had been rejected, plotted against the pair. At the theatre after a performance of hers he advised her not to go back to Einar’s house because, ‘you will never reach it alive’. And so it very nearly proved: Djorah introduced a deadly snake into the back compartment of her car, placing its small unlocked cage amongst the branches of a shrub which she had been given alongside the bouquets. Sending off her chauffeur on some pretext, Djorah drove her himself. Another journey along the high coastal road saw Claire bitten on the wrist, shouting and banging in vain against the compartment window. Djorah pressed on at top speed, demonic, triumphant, and Claire finally slumped back in her seat. On arrival, Einar retrieved her limp form from the back of the car and wondered what to do. The obvious thing would have been to call an ambulance. Instead – and without even employing this as a back up strategy – Einar took Claire in his arms up to the laboratory, where he kept the radio performance machine and all his other inventions. He summoned his own servants / automatons, in black gloss papier-mâché head-pieces, and set to work making his laboratory flash and shake, swing and explode. There were cogs, there were pendulums. Wearing extended welders’ goggles, Einar really gave it everything he had. The same stark black and white patterns from the dinner party were brought alive, and it was clear that something astonishing was going on. Something more exciting than fame, fortune and proposals from princes. If only she could have seen it. At length Claire Lescot opened her eyes.

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