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.

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