I can’t remember right now whether it is in a letter or in one of the novels (Villette, maybe?) – but at some point Charlotte Brontë, either directly or through one of her French-studying heroines, bemoans the fact that English has no exact correspondence for the French word éffleurer… Continue reading
It is her year too, after all…
And I came across Carrie Frye’s musings about… oh, several things, actually: Claire Harman’s new biography, Charlotte’s rather desolate 1843 summer break in Brussels, its portrayal in Villette, and the very, very early days of writing Jane Eyre. Also, first drafts, recent discoveries and readerly thrills… Continue reading
They’ve arrived to me in the most roundabout of ways. They’ve heard I “know about the Brontës” – which is somewhat true, considering that I’ve given a number of talks about the family, and garnered some attention, years ago, with a short play about brother Branwell.
So they wonder, would I be interested in coordinating a huge inter-school project about Charlotte Brontë and youth problems… Continue reading
I consider myself very much a Brontë fan – a love sparked both by the sisters’ novels and by Juliet Barker‘s fine, huge, rich, incredibly detailed biography of the whole family. By and about these three extraordinary sisters and they wayward brother, I’ve read all I could lay my hands on – including all the Angria&Gondal juvenilia published so far – and I’ve written a monologue in poor brother Branwell‘s voice…
So yes, I consider myself a far gone Brontëite.
All the same, I had never realised, before reading this article by Imogen Russel Williams*, that one has to be either a Jane Eyre person, or a Wuthering Heights person. To say that one can’t be both may sound a tad extreme – but think of it.
Think of yourself: chances are that, if you like Jane’s independent streak and (mostly) quiet rebellion against convention, you cannot stand Cathy and Heathcliff’s over-the-top – not to mention deadly – histrionics. On the other hand, if you love wild Cathy and brooding Heathcliff, and their stormy love, you are likely to find poor Jane more than a little insipid.
This came as something of a revelation to me, and had me chuckling as I recalled to mind a good number of bookish conversations… Just think of anyone you’ve ever talked Brontë with: there must have been the moment when someone waxed lyrical on either JE or WH – and someone else pointed out that yes, yes, but there is no comparison to the other sister’s work.
And Anne? Poor Anne – nobody ever seems to care much about Anne. It is a little hard to imagine rabid readers at each other’s throat over Agnes Grey, or even The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – although, back in the day, the latter caused a good deal of scandal, and was labeled as extremely coarse and vulgar. Little, quiet Anne had a trick of tackling highly unpleasant themes in a singularly unromanticized way that shocked a little even her sisters. She seems to have been a gutsier and more mature writer than both her sisters – and yet, how many Wildfell Hall persons do you know?
Instead, according to Imogen Russel Williams, you are likely to know quite a few Wuthering Heights fans, and a handful of Eyreites: it would seem that wild lovers in windswept moors carry more force than plain and stubborn little governesses. I cannot say I’m dreadfully surprised.
Myself, I side with Charlotte – and while I rather prefer her later works (with a predilection for Shirley – so sue me), I’ll take Jane over her sister’s Cathy&Heathcliff any day of the week. Much as I love the notion of Emily still playing make-believe in her late twenties, I cannot help myself: I find all of her characters, especially her leads, extremely unpleasant. If I must have any sympathy for anyone at all, it is for poor Edgar Linton – and I’m sure that wasn’t Emily’s intention…
And how about you, o Readers? The world being thus divided, whose side do you take?
* And isn’t this a lovely, novel-worthy name!
- Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey (1847) (beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com)
What can I say? I have a thing for minor works. The less liked, known and read ones. The ones you name, and eight times out of then are met with stares between wary and blank.
And if an author only experimented once with historical fiction, and the result is unanimously regarded as minor and weaker – that’s where I unerringly give my predilection.
Take Charlotte Brontë: only once did she dabble with history. Recent history, and local, and small scale – for her Shirley is set in Regency Yorkshire, against the Napoleonic Wars and early Luddite riots. Partly written as a piece of escapism as Charlotte struggled with the illness and death of her three siblings in short order, Shirley is indeed an uneven affair. And yet, I love it for what works in it (Robert Moore, the Yorkes, Dr. Helstone, the three curates…), and what doesn’t still provides fascinating glimpses on the artistic growth of Charlotte-the-novelist, as well as the mind of Charlotte-the-woman.
Dickens wrote two historicals: the enormously famous A Tale of Two Cities, andhalf-forgotten Barnaby Rudge. I love both, but have a soft spot for Barnaby. It’s a rather purple tale set against the Gordon Riots – a nearly-surreal anti-Catholic insurrection in early 18th Century London – and sports a singularly ill-conceived eponymous hero, and the flattest pair of cardboard lovers. And yet, poor mad Lord Gordon and his evil secretary, Grip the Raven (that was to inspire Poe), Miggs the maid, Dolly Varden, the winter night in the inn at Chigwell, and most of all the assault on Newgate prison, make the whole memorable. Uneven as they come, but where it works, it’s more than worth the pain.
Same goes for Steinbeck. Is it very bad of me to confess that The Cup of Gold is not only my favourite Steinbeck, but the only Steinbeck I really like? I suppose it is – also because The Cup is unmistakably ‘prentice work – but what’s a girl to do? It’s not so much Morgan-the-pirate, as Morgan-the-liar – the man who spends a whole life in the effort of fashioning his life according to his expectations, by way of storytelling and actions in equal parts. Except, the man is so busy making up his own myth, he never quite grasps that the more he weaves it, the less his listeners believe him.
And in the same vein, I could go on and say that of all the works of A.C. Doyle, Brigadier Gérard is my favourite, and when it comes to Kipling, I like the short stories much better than the novels, and I love Yourcenar’s The Abyss more than Memoirs of Hadrian…
I don’t know. At times it’s the historical setting, at times it might just be sheer contrariness, but what draws me most is, I think, the occasional awkwardness of an author still seeking his or her voice. I have a liking for the imperfections caught in the texture of the writing, for the still rough edges, for the contrast between what works and what doesn’t, the friction with the unusual genre, the inner mechanism glimpsed through the cracks… Ah well – it’s a weakness.
And how about you, o Readers? What minor works do you like? And why do you like them?