Yeah, I was Inspired by a Book Again

Tenant

We’ve had major “stay in with a book” weather in New England, so I just re-read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She impresses me more and more and that’s sad, because she only wrote two novels.  Death be not proud, suggested another writer, and I second that.

The post, though, is really about the Preface to the Second Edition. I’d like to quote some of it because I was moved by the way it echoed from the 1840s into today.

…I wished to tell the truth…But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn…for the mud and water in which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor’s apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises, than commendation for the clearance she effects.

“Acton Bell,” Bronte’s pen name, depicted a society of childish adults, bullies without inner resources or self-restraint. Not that you’d need those qualities back then if you were a wealthy landed gent with no natural predators. Or if you were a movie producer, or an ill-coiffed business tycoon with a red cap. Wait. Did I just mix things up? What we were talking about? Oh, a society that produced and valued this sort of thing, that criticized someone more marginalized for speaking up about it.

As the story of ‘Agnes Grey’ was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life… so, in the present work, I find myself censured…O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace—there would be less sin and misery…

That last sentence laid me out flat: With the privilege of a white-skinned/cis/nondisabled/hetero/American-born citizen, I often get to whisper “Peace” at will, both in Life and Creatively.

Some accused Bronte of indulging in the “coarse” and “brutal.”  They were probably extra-shocked that the journal of a female character records that coarse brutality. Helen Graham struggles to protect herself from oppression and abuse, but it still becomes her story because she writes it down. In Bronte’s novel, Graham and her journal survive by acting against the conventions of society. Other emptier, seemingly more powerful people disintegrate from the inside out. Creative check-mate. Food for thought.

 

(For Ali Smith and Ijeoma Oluo.)

 

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Bronte-Spoiling

BS

SPOILER ALERT: Jane Eyre

When an artist creates a character willing to bite someone to death, that’s not an artist I’d piss off. If I were you. Penguin Classics.

Consider yourself Called Out by a CPT.

It’s not enough the cover of your edition of three Bronte novels features those faces, all rose-blush cheeks and dewy eyes, borrowed from paintings by men. Then on the back flap, you offer a seven-line biography to cover three authors, and it says this:

Charlotte Bronte…wrote some of the most poignant romantic novels in the English language…Anne Bronte…was also a novelist and poet, whose works were chiefly influenced by issues of social injustice.

Charlotte Bronte assaulted, killed, maimed, set multiple fires, and struck things with lightning, just in that one novel. What is wrong with you? If you consider Jane Eyre a romance (no, not a Romance, which is a literary movement: you didn’t capitalize it) and not a book about “issues of social injustice,” then I suggest you switch over to Dick and Jane until you, like a newborn blind kitten, get your eyes open.

What are the CPT goals in posting this topic? Perhaps it is to defend a fellow-artist who also knew life challenges and financial struggle. But for whatever reason, I’m here to defend some honor. Not that there’s anything wrong with romances or genre writing: I’m a big mystery fan myself. It’s just that Jane Eyre isn’t a romance.

That label implies to me that she chose to write love/relationship-centered fiction. What I see is a complex work about human motivations and limitations, centered on the living of a 19th-century female life. That would include marriage (or not), and a strong sense throughout of having your selfhood and your value dictated to you by a society in which you have no voice.

The characters of all genders who represent that society in the novel do not recognize Jane Eyre’s personhood, her autonomy as an individual. If it were just they, it would be a great novel. But some of these characters do see and even love her, and still “epic fail” in this area. That’s what makes it more, makes it a vision of society, and that’s where Penguin lets her down.

Maybe artists can easily empathize with Jane Eyre over those same struggles: for economic stability, for fulfillment, for relationship, for authentic living despite the challenges. Some days I have had enough of being broke, of bad weather, and of annoying people with authority. She’s a sister in Up-against-it-ness, as was her author.

And Charlotte Bronte was as skillful as her sister Anne Bronte in viewing the world clearly from where she had to stand in it. Having limitations does not equal being limited, and they both prove it. They wrote what they saw, and it was unflattering to Power of many kinds. And it was boldly expressive of the female, the disenfranchised, the outsider.

Sure, Jane Eyre has a happy ending, albeit one slightly clouded by amputation and death. She winds up in a place where she can be herself and be in relationship, as much as actually possible. It’s relative, but still a victory. As a CPT, I like the ending: not “It will all work out just great”, but “Keep on. It will all work out reasonably ok, ok enough, considering you live against the current in the society you do.”

So Penguin Classics, you unjustly represented an artist whose representation we need. Shame on you, you know. The Brontes would write books about it.