Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Novels of Charlotte Brontë

I have only brief comments about her four books, except for Shirley.
  • The Professor. This was her first completed novel, although it was not published until two years after her death. It is told from the point of view of a young Englishman who goes to Brussels to become a teacher. (He does this because he has no money, no talent or ambition for anything else in particular, and no family except a rich older brother who dislikes him.) In Brussels he gets involved with two women, who are also teachers. There are many autobiographical aspects to this novel. It's interesting to note that although Brontë went to school in Brussels and fell in love with her headmaster, there is no character in this book which corresponds to him.
  • Villette. This was Brontë's last completed novel; it is almost a mirror image of The Professor. A young Englishwoman goes to Brussels, first as a student and later becoming a teacher. She falls in love with her headmaster. The Professor has a happy ending but Villette does not.
  • Jane Eyre. So much has been said about this book that I doubt my ability to add anything. It was considered scandalous when it first came out, even though the heroine refuses to live in sin with the hero. But she is undeniably uppity. She freely asserts her love for him, and even goes so far as to declare that they are equal -- a penniless female and a rich man? Preposterous. But by the end of the book, Jane has come into some money and Rochester has been cut down to size. So perhaps they do end up equal. (Incidentally, the happy marriage which concludes The Professor is also depicted as a marriage of equals.)
  • Shirley. I like Shirley better than Jane Eyre because it has a larger cast of characters and a wider array of themes, as described below.
The main characters are Caroline Helstone, an orphan who lives with her uncle, a minister, and Shirley Keeldar, also an orphan, but an heiress and the owner of large amounts of property in the neighborhood. (At the time this book was written, "Shirley" was a man's name. I've heard that this book was responsible for it becoming a woman's name, but I find it hard to believe that this book was ever that popular.)

Unlike Jane Eyre, in Shirley female relationships are central. Caroline is extremely shy and retiring. She has no friends until Shirley arrives and takes her under her wing. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore, a local mill-owner. He is attracted to her, but tells himself that he's too busy making a living to think about getting married. Also, being poor, he hopes to marry a rich woman. Caroline has no money but Shirley has pots of it (in fact, she is Robert's landlord.)

But Caroline is never jealous of Shirley. Their friendship is too strong to be disturbed by the actions of such a trifling man as Robert. (This despite the fact that Caroline has known Robert for years, and Shirley only for a few months.) Like Mr. Rochester, Robert eventually gets taken down a peg. But before this happens, Caroline goes into a dangerous decline and almost dies.

She is not merely dying of a broken heart. She's convinced that a) Robert will never marry her; b) therefore, she will never marry; and c) an unmarried woman has no reason to live. Her life has no purpose. Caroline is saved, not by Robert, but by the sudden appearance of her long-lost mother. (Caroline had always been curious about her, but her uncle would never tell her anything.) This mother-daughter reunion is the heart of the book.

Two of the other motifs in this novel that interest me are the Industrial Revolution, and religion.

As I mentioned, Robert is a mill-owner. He wants to embrace new technology, which means bringing in machines. The local workers are outraged, and there are several scenes of sabotage, as well as armed confrontations between labor and management.

When I say "religion," I mean women and religion. Caroline's uncle, the minister, has a very low opinion of women (although ironically, he likes Shirley, who is a feisty little thing.) At one point, Caroline and Shirley have a discussion with another misogynist, a member of the working class. A good Protestant, he asserts his "right of private judgment" in interpreting the Bible. The girls ask him if women have the same right -- but no, they don't. They have to accept the interpretations of their husbands, fathers or ministers.

He quotes from the Bible to support the subjection of women, and then asks Caroline how she would interpret that quotation. She replies "I dare say, if I could read the original Greek, I should find that many of the words have been wrongly translated, perhaps misapprehended altogether." I was astonished. I didn't think that people started questioning translations of the Bible until much later. (Also, it shows that despite Caroline's meekness, she has a strong mind and a proud spirit.)

Charlotte Brontë apparently said that Shirley Keeldar was a portrait of her sister Emily (who died while Shirley was being written.) I cannot see the author of Wuthering Heights anywhere in the character of Shirley. Wuthering Heights is stuffed to bursting with passion: anger, hatred, love. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that nobody in the book is happy and nobody does anything nice for anybody else, until the very end. (Do I like Wuthering Heights? I do, actually, although not as much as I used to. But its author seems to be completely unaware of the fact that not everybody behaves like that.)

Shirley, on the other hand, appears to be a fundamentally happy person. She is usually cheerful, and very generous. She is rather arrogant and fond of having her own way, but that is due as much to her position as lady of the manor as to her personality. Unlike the people in Wuthering Heights, she is never cruel or violent. I'm not saying that she lacks passion, but she is moderate in expressing it. Occasionally she gets angry, but that only makes her cool. Towards the end of the book, we find out that she is in love with someone, but she doesn't want him to know.

Shirley may be a depiction of what Emily would have been like if she had grown up under different circumstances, but that doesn't mean she shows what Emily was really like.

Another comment: Charlotte was said to be very close to her siblings, and I can believe that watching them die all around her was one of the most traumatic -- and formative -- influences on her life. It's interesting , however, that she never depicts positive sibling relationships in any of her books. (Emily has a couple pairs of siblings in Wuthering Heights, but they don't especially get along.) Unlike Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë's heroines are always essentially alone.

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