Monday, 28 January 2013

The Works Of Charlotte Brontë

2017 Edit: I have added a little more depth since first writing this post in 2013, having since finished reading/rereading the books discussed.

A while back, as you may recall, I was lamenting…

…the lack of a favourite author.  Since then I have discovered that I own an awful lot of books I don’t even like and that even when I like, or love, a book, that doesn’t mean that I’ll like other work by the same author.

For example, Charlotte Brontë.

Jane Eyre is one of The Favourite Books…

But when I tried to read…


…part of The Brain dribbled out of The Ears just looking at it.  The Illustration on The Cover is from a picture called ‘A Sheffield Landscape (Yorkshire)’.  It is grey and brown and of some factory chimneys.  WHY WOULD I WANT TO READ THIS BOOK?

Okay, let’s let the inside of the book sell it instead.  On the very first page of The Novel, the second paragraph, Brontë says this:

‘If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken.  Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie?  Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama?  Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard.  Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.  It is not positively affirmed that you shall not have a taste of the exciting, perhaps towards the middle and close of the meal, but it is resolved that the first dish set upon the table shall be one that a Catholic – ay, even an Anglo-Catholic – might eat on Good Friday in Passion Week: it shall be cold lentils and vinegar without oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs, and no roast lamb.’

After reading three or four chapters, I agreed with her.  There is no stimulus.  It took me weeks to read a few pages as more and more of The Brain dribbled away.

Maybe it gets better later.  Shirley isn’t even in it yet.  But if you can’t grab your reader in three chapters, it doesn’t really matter what happens after that.  Brontë goes out of her way to describe every single character in the first few chapters, all irrelevant information since the reader doesn't know who she's talking about yet and all this information falls by the wayside of the mind.  Get to the PLOT already.

I'm disappointed I didn't enjoy the book.  It's certainly trying to be a feminist story, even more overtly than Jane Eyre.  Both the female leads, Caroline and Shirley, lament the way a woman is treated in the world, one wanting to work and the other to own her own land, but there's something fundamental missing in these characters, and neither of them achieve their potential, both eventually settling down and vanquishing any power they may have had.  In Jane Eyre, Jane is a passionate, fiery character on the inside, repressed and broken on the outside, creating an all round compelling character.  In Shirley, Caroline is all browbeaten and crushed and never manages to stand up for herself, while Shirley is confident and fiery and never struggles or manages to evoke any sympathy towards her character.

In one scene, reminiscent of something similar in Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, the two women risk their lives to warn the men of danger but arrive too late to be of any use, making what could have been a dramatic and exciting and feminist moment totally redundant and irritating.  At least in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Marguerite's actions, while coming too late to be of use and ultimately actually making the situation more difficult for the Pimpernel, make Percy aware of his wife's bravery and love.  Whereas in Shirley, no one even knows what Caroline and Shirley almost did, so it's totally useless and lame.  Not to mention that it's set over the backdrop of the industrial revolution, which apparently doesn't interest me in the slightest, if how boring I found both this and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South is anything to go by.

The plot itself, when it bothers stirring, is almost compelling.  But never quite gets there.  Caroline and Robert fall in love, but Robert needs to marry for money and Caroline is poor, so he decides to treat her like poop in order to stop himself falling in love with her any further.  Caroline, despite being young and naive, understands what he is doing and doesn't fight for him, but being poor is unable to escape and get a better life.  The pain this causes both characters is certainly stirring.

But then enters Shirley.  Shirley has money.  Robert wants to marry Shirley.  Caroline pretty much nearly dies of a broken heart and no one notices.  Turns out Shirley isn't interested in marrying Robert and the reason she acts attracted to him is because she just happens to be in love with his identical brother.  Ri-ight.  Sure.  The fact that there isn't really a love triangle at all is a real boring twist.  Caroline has been moping over nothing and Shirley has barely any interesting traits at all, while Robert continues being a massive jerk until you're busting at the seems for some retribution.

Really, really near the end of the book, Robert's brother Louis turns up and he and Shirley have a painfully irritating will they won't they relationship where they both fancy each other but don't just get on with it.  The idea that the audience could give the slightest interest about a character introduced so near the end is silly.  This is not how plot structure works!

Meanwhile, Robert attempts to apologise to Caroline for treating her like dirt and not noticing she nearly died, and she just rolls over, brushes it all aside.  What?  No.  Make him grovel!  But in the end, Caroline just accepts Robert even though he has been horribly cruel to her, while Shirley gives up her independence to some idiot, after making such a fuss about not wanting to do that earlier.

It's just not a good enough story.

And then there’s Villette…

Now, I haven’t read it in ten years, so The Memory of it might be a tiny bit off, and I was a teenager at the time and a total bum-brain, but I’m pretty sure it ends like this…

Thanks for THAT, Charlotte.

‘Lucy must not marry Dr. John; he is far too youthful, handsome, bright-spirited, and sweet-tempered; he is a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and of Fortune, and must draw a prize in life’s lottery.  His wife must be young, rich, pretty; he must be made very happy indeed.  If Lucy marries anybody, it must be the Professor—a man in whom there is much to forgive, much to ‘put up with.’  But I am not leniently disposed towards Miss [Snowe]; from the beginning I never meant to appoint her lines in pleasant places.’
~ from a letter written by Charlotte Brontë while she was still working on Villette, as put in her biography by Elizabeth Gaskell.
The whole thing feels like a parallel version of Jane Eyre.  The same situations, character-types and relationships pop up in all of Brontë's books, like you're hopping from Earth-1 to Earth-2 and so on.  Except in Villette, it's like a version of Jane Eyre where the characters are all repulsive and you can't really root for anyone and nothing dramatic happens.

And finally, The Professor…

This was Brontë’s first novel, except that nobody wanted to publish it.  Later she reworked it into Villette but after her death her publishers and husband decided it was different enough to publish after all.

Firstly, if you've read Villette, then The Professor is not different enough.  And if you haven't, well, it's clearly not good enough to publish.  Brontë's male narrator fails hopelessly to convince.  The story is turgid and has almost no drive at all.  At least in her three published-while-she-was-alive novels there are characters you feel for.  The Professor is just bland and interminable.

Although there is a certain Brontë archetype in there…

If you go from The Professor to Jane Eyre to Shirley to Villette, there's a very distinct downward trajectory of misery.  I know that Brontë had a brief, tragic life, in which her dreams weren't realised, her heart was broken and her beloved siblings all died young, and it's clearly apparent in her writing too, as each story becomes a little more hopeless and her characters suffer a little more, until finally there's no such thing as a happy ending at all, no matter how much the protagonist might suffer and strive to get there.

So in conclusion, I still don't have a favourite author.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I look forward to your enthusiastic and loving comment.