Sunday, December 09, 2007

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Tales of Angria’

It must have been the summer of 1996, because I still have the essay I handed in the following November. It was some way into that year’s long vacation from university, and Villette was on the reading list for the forthcoming Victorian module. I read the opening chapters on a family picnic while others paddled in the stream or sunbathed or read too. The first thing I noticed was that the prose was awkward, the phrasing all backwards (from the first page: ‘When I was a girl I went to Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit’). The second thing was the prickly but endearing friendship between Polly, a precocious little girl of six, and Graham, a ‘faithless-looking youth of sixteen’. Graham condescends to play with Polly when un-distracted by his peers, and she takes to him more than is quite good for her. Although the friendship is dependent on Graham’s whim, it is beautifully depicted, and immediately involving. There is a dynamic of affection expressed through insult which exists between Polly and Graham. I would be surprised if something similar had not existed between Charlotte and Branwell – in fact, it is here in Tales of Angria, every time she addresses the ‘reader’ (she is writing mostly for him, as he does for her), and when she satirises his high flown militaristic style.

This was point one in favour of Villette; point two was the chapter ‘The Long Vacation’, which captured perfectly the dreadful isolation and ennui I never had the wit to dispel during long holidays. Point three was narrator Lucy Snowe’s hopeless (and convincingly hopeless) infatuation with Graham when she met him again a decade on – and which I aped, blow for dull aching blow, that same summer. Point four was Lucy’s far more genuine love for the unglamorous – in fact, the downright objectionable M. Paul Emmanuel, the squat authoritarian fellow school teacher with whom… Well, let’s not spoil the whole thing for anyone who’s dropped by and has yet to read it. If you take anything from this blog at all though, I would urge you to do just that. If your heart ever trembles, if its warmth is ever undersold by shyness or reticence, if you need someone to tell you every danger is far away… It won’t do that, but it’ll chime just marvellously with your romantic foreboding.

Tales of Angria is far removed from Villette; it contains the final five instalments – on Charlotte’s side, at least – of the saga she wrote with Branwell between 1832-9, about a kingdom supposedly situated in Africa (only there are moors, and it is suspiciously wet and Yorkshire-like), and about the struggle for power therein. The two giants in the struggle are the Duke of Zamorna, the popular ruler who is in power throughout this volume, and the Earl of Northangerland, his ageing arch rival, recently and decisively conquered as the first story, ‘Mina Laury’, begins. Relations between the two are convoluted: Zamorna is married to Northangerland’s daughter Mary, and Northangerland to Zamorna’s old flame Zenobia. Northangerland’s illegitimate daughter Caroline is Zamorna’s ward. It gets tricky to follow, especially as the narrator hardly ever lets you know everything that’s going on in any given scene. Usually even the identities of those present are concealed for several pages – there will be hints, and eventually one of editor Heather Glen’s notes will take pity and say, ‘Oh for God’s sake it’s Zamorna’, or whoever it might be. Initially these highly secretive practices reminded me of The Count of Monte Cristo (the last book for which I had to write down the plot in order to understand it), and the intention is the same: both books want to dazzle the reader with surprising twists and turns. Concealment creates suspense, and dark hints as to what is about to be revealed are a good way of getting a reader to consider how awful it is going to be in advance. The principle is that, if things are going to seem better in the morning, if they never turn out as badly as you fear they might; then let’s prolong the night almost indefinitely, let’s hold the readership in fear until they can’t stand it any more. Dumas frequently does this brilliantly; Brontë less well, on the whole, but she has her moments – the end of ‘Caroline Vernon’, for example.

Concealment in Brontë (unlike in Dumas) has its roots in her own temperament, and it doesn’t disappear once she moves on to less gung-ho fiction. Jane Eyre’s plot revolves around Rochester’s concealment of his first wife in his own attic, and Jane’s concealment of where it is she has run off to once she becomes aware of this. It is only in Villette that Brontë manages to combine concealment as a plot device with the painful and involuntary tendency towards concealment which is the product of her shyness. There is a fleeting hint of this in ‘Henry Hastings’, in the feelings of Henry’s sister Elizabeth, who is (guess what?) a self-sufficient and hardworking teacher:

She never wished to attract [respect] for a moment, and still, somehow, it always came to her. She was always burning for warmer, closer attachment. She couldn’t live without it. But the feeling never awoke, and never was reciprocated. (p. 288)

‘Henry Hastings’ is my favourite of the five tales here, because it gives over describing the choleric anger of near-indistinguishable warlords and their dastardly deeds, and concentrates for a time on the two things Brontë was born to write about: the absolute affection that can exist between siblings (or close friends), and sexual love. That Elizabeth is Charlotte is clear from the Duchess of Zamorna’s appraisal of her: ‘…not very pleasing […] She’s odd, abrupt’ (p. 266) – as are Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre. That she loves her brother is in the wonderful phrase – conveyed by a look only – ‘Your faults and yourself are separate existences in my mind.’ (p. 233); this is Polly’s attitude to Graham in Villette, too.

Equally moving is the walk Elizabeth takes with suitor William Percy, whose heart is described as ‘a tenacious soil’ (p. 285) – it needs to be, of course, because Elizabeth’s reserve prevents her from flirting with him. When she does start to respond to his cautious advances, it is telling that she does so with an insult:

‘But if I wanted a sixpence, you would be the last person I should ask for it,’ said Miss Hastings, looking up at him with an arch expression very natural to her eyes, but which seldom indeed was allowed to shine there. (p. 295)

Insults are good in Charlotte Brontë (see also M. Paul Emmanuel in Villette), because they indicate familiarity, concern and a shared sensibility. They indicate that the hard work of ice breaking is over. Charlotte’s ghost will hopefully understand, then, when I say that this relatively short passage of quite a large book (Chapter III of ‘Henry Hastings’, about 20 pages) is its only moving section. Elsewhere she succeeds at other, lesser things – Charles Townsend coming in out of the rain at the beginning of ‘Stancliffe’s Hotel’, for example, is a good vivid scene; the building horror of ‘Caroline Vernon’ is effective; Lord Hartford is truly gruesome. The ‘Roe Head Journal Fragments’ given at the end of the book testify to how absorbed in Angria Brontë felt (and how frustrated that her job prevented her from spending more hours conjuring it up), but time and again, when she comes to describe a character who is different from herself, she does it in negative terms, as though skirting around her real subject:

She does not know human nature, she does not penetrate into the minds of those about her; she does not fix her heart fervently on some point which it would be death to take it from; she has none of that strange refinement of the senses which makes some temperaments thrill with undefined emotion at changes or chances in the skies or the earth, a softness in the clouds, a trembling of moonlight in water, an old and vast tree, the tone of a passing wind at night, or any other little accident of nature which contains in it more botheration than sense. Well, and what of that? Genius and enthusiasm may go and be hanged. (p. 243, from ‘Henry Hastings’; William Percy soliloquizing about Jane Moore)

Only when the lack she describes above had been turned inside out, and placed at the centre of a narrative, would Brontë really hit her stride.

No comments:

Blog Archive