Bronte-Saurus

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It seems fitting to follow the light and airy Georgette Heyer with my next foray into the roots of romance. Somewhere in the wilds of ______shire (Yorkshire, if you must know), six children were born to the family Bronte. Of the six, four made it to adulthood, three became authors, one became an alcoholic, and all died very young indeed. The three young ladies that managed to narrowly avoid death in their childhood all went on to author classics of literature and die before the age of 40. Quite the track record. The young man, sadly, also died young, leaving no issue and the heir to the Bronte throne has never emerged.

For this #36in12, I have chosen one novel by each of the Bronte girls – Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. I have struggled with the order of presentation, but I think I will just go by age at the time of death: Anne first, since she made it all the way to 29, then Emily, who made it to 30, and finally, the lone survivor of the Bronte girls, who passed quietly from the earth at the age of 39. Between 1816 and 1855, these girls churned out an astounding number of gothic treasures from their quiet rectory on the moors. I would have loved to have been a fly on their sitting room wall, as they talked over their plots and plans. I think they built castles in the air to escape from the lassitude of illness that colored their lives, and a fine job they did of it, too. Reader, the #36in12 project presents:

 Emily

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey

Anne, the youngest and least known of the sisters produced Agnes Grey in 1847. Agnes is a semi-autobiographical novel, based on her own experiences as a governess. Written in an epistolary style, I felt rather as if I were peeking into someone else’s diary. Going on the Masterpiece Theater theme, Agnes embarks on her career as a governess after being the petted family baby for eighteen years, still being told to go out and play as the family deals with a tragic financial reverse that sends Rector Grey into a permanent decline. Ambitiously, Agnes sets out to find a position and her first effort lands her in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield and their completely horrible children. Teachers today, please read of Agnes’ trials. She is reduced to actually holding the children’s’ hands and forcing them to write, suffering physical abuse at their hands, and generally making the average American schoolchild look angelic. The demonic children – possessed of the devil, I suppose – stunningly enough fail to acquire satisfactory progress, are shipped off to boarding school and Agnes is relieved of her command. Really, she was quite relieved.

Agnes’ next situation is better, though she encounters the spoiled country darling Rosalie, who feels it incumbent upon herself to enslave every man she meets. Sadly for Agnes, whose fancy has finally lit upon a worthy subject – the socially awkward but darkly Rochester-esque Reverend Weston – Rosalie finds a way to have a go at him too. Agnes indulges in her emotions only in print – outwardly, she is a model of propriety, but inwardly – oh, the still waters do indeed run deep.

I had never heard of Agnes Grey until a short time ago, when finding that my month was running low and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was long. Therefore, I cannot cross Wildfell from #theLIST, but I have met a new friend. Anne’s writing is strongly reminiscent of Charlotte and Anne touches lightly on themes that are common to all the sisters, but caresses them lightly, as if a rather reserved, old-fashioned friend had come to tell her tale. There is no trace of self-pity throughout her sufferings and a sharp bite of sauce underneath that quiet façade. The knock against Agnes is that the heroine never seems to grow of find fault with herself. I will be truthful here – in my journal, I am always right, too. Therefore, I had no real issue with her long-suffering goodness. I truly enjoyed Agnes Grey, and look more forward to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Yes, of Anne, I want more.

Emily

Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights

On to Emily, who passed her 30th birthday and faded from the earth, leaving behind a legacy of an I-don’t-know-what kind of work: Wuthering Heights. Once again, I have managed to avoid this book all my life and I had it vaguely categorized as a tragic romance and a portrayal of deep, undying love. I think I knew there was some star-crossed hi-jinks going on, but my mind had a vision of a tree standing over a barren moor, with Heathcliff standing tall and proud while Catherine claims her place at his side.

Reader, I was so very mistaken that I turn my face in shame.

The story of Wuthering Heights is long and winding, beginning with a man bringing home a child, hinted to be of gypsy origin, to live with his family, particularly his daughter, Catherine. No tales of familial warmth and support. As a matter of fact, the tale seems to wind around the continual theme of man’s inhumanity to other men (and women). Catherine and Heathcliff share a stormy childhood and grow into teens, as told by the faithful servant Nell to the tenant of the Grange, Mr. Lockwood. Yet, suddenly, while courting Mr. Linton, Catherine announces her undying love for Heathcliff, who lingers in the background, in his servant’s/shunned son guise, only long enough to hear that she plans on marrying Linton for his money. He abruptly departs, saying no goodbyes, and leaves Catherine to fumble through marriage to a milk-toast man without an ounce of spirit. Not an ounce. Heathcliff refashions himself as a man of wealth and mystery and returns, marrying Linton’s sister out of revenge, perhaps.

I have never seen so many people go into declines so quickly. Having read a fair bit of Victorian literature, I had heard about the ravages of a decline. People actually died from decline, and, in Wuthering Heights, they did-with appalling regularity.  I believe the decline was epidemic in _______shire during the eighteen-year span of the story.

Upon careful consideration, I believe that I, too, would lapse into a decline if all the awful interpersonal relationships dominated my life. There are incidents ranging from hanging puppies to keeping perfectly capable human beings in ignorance and filth. No one treats their spouse well and only manage to bury them decently grudgingly. Self-centered, uncontrolled passions rule Wuthering Heights, and I find no romance whatsoever.

Finally, Heathcliff loses his strength and falls into a decline too. High time, if you ask me. And we see the birth of the paranormal romance as his ghost and Catherine’s join in the (hopefully) peaceful afterlife. There was certainly no peace in their corporeal form.

The writing is beautiful and the descriptions of conditions are vivid – from the most beautiful to the most appalling. Filth and squalor line up neatly against moors dotted with harebells or covered in deep, silent snow. I certainly was uncomfortable with the people in Wuthering Heights, but I would love to stand on the moors. I suppose that is enough as I put Emily away. I find it very good news that her second (rumored) manuscript has never been found. I don’t think I could bear to read it.

Charlotte

 

Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre

And finally, Charlotte, who was the only sister to marry and subsequently expire during her pregnancy. She has the distinction of being the most prolific writer, simply because she lived ten years longer than either of her sisters. Her first novel, The Professor, did not find favor with publishers, when it made the rounds in the company of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights. Undiscouraged, she finished her sweeping epic of love and madness, Jane Eyre. I must confess here that I have long, long, long loved Jane and her tale of hopelessness turned to redemption. Jane is a character of fire, with strong running passions evident from childhood. Passion is, apparently, a bad thing, since she gets shipped off by her uncaring guardian to Lowood, where she suffers deep spiritual and physical privations and manages to lose her first friend from consumption. Charlotte was familiar with consumption, or tuberculosis, intimately, having encountered it in her own school days and losing all of her sisters, eventually, to the disease. The first to go was Maria, who was the saintly model for Helen Burns, over whom I have wept many a heartbroken tear for the last forty years. But Jane is indomitable and manages to survive, only to travel to Thornfield Hall, far away in _______shire.

Here, we once again meet the Byronic hero, Edward Rochester. Not a handsome man, but a man of passion and fire. He is a man of secrets and regrets, which he pours into Jane’s ears, little by little, bringing his tiny, plain, and poor governess into his full confidence except for that one, teeny, tiny fact – he keeps his mad wife in the attic. Now, there is nothing at all unusual about this arrangement.  Lacking in long-term mental health facilities that offered humane treatment to the insane, the attic was a pretty good option. Read about Bedlam and you will agree with me. Still, as Jane discovers this fact she pulls a Heathcliff and disappears in the dead of the night to tread close to death and build an independent life.

Jane’s fiery nature cannot be contained long and Charlotte seems to play with the paranormal as she hears a cry for her return to Thornfield across hundreds of miles. Her return brings a resolution to a long-suffering life, only to be borne because Jane’s spirit cannot be broken. Many are the trials she endures, but she always remains Jane. Jane will always remain, to me, a model of strength in adversity. She endures what she must, changes what she can, and accepts what she cannot. She is a serenity prayer who is not serene at all. Fearless and never helpless, Jane fights, but she fights fairly. When she could have lapsed from her principles or, worse, into a decline, she moves forward. Jane, Jane, Jane – how I love thee.

The Brontes made a mark on Victorian literature early and readers can see the roots of Christian romance (Agnes Grey), paranormal (I hesitate to call it this) romance (Wuthering Heights), and the birth of the Gothic novel (Jane Eyre). These sisters were as influential as any writer in their day, with their books devoured by a secret society of Victorian rebels who read novels when they were not instructive – merely entertaining. Their footprint on literature remains, a permanent impression on the literary collective conscience. This #36in12 was well worth the time and it knocks two off #theLIST. I make progress, I think.

Hearts:

Agnes Grey – 8/10 hearts. It was charming but not very deep.

Wuthering Heights – 6/10. I constitutionally cannot give anyone more if puppies are injured.

Jane Eyre – 10/10. She is my constant companion when there is no possibility for going on a walk that day.

There is Nothing Casual About This – The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

Like almost every other person on the planet, with the exception of my own daughter, I devoured the Harry Potter books, pre-ordering and waiting with ill-disguised impatience for the next installment to arrive. I realized that Rowling had ended the logical extension of the series with The Deathly Hallows. So, I went back and forth about pre-ordering The Casual Vacancy. I even put off reading it, because it was Rowling and not Potter.

After pulling an all-nighter to get to the end of The Casual Vacancy, I realize that Rowling’s magic still exists. It exists in her ability to set up characters in such a way that the ending is almost as unbelievable as it is inevitable. She creates a new world, only it’s not new. It’s the world we don’t often like to see, especially when we see ourselves. Rowling is a master of revealing character by actions and inactions and she creates a world in which both adults and teens have an interior life. Those interior lives guide the actions of all involved, for good or ill.

Mostly ill.

On this day after the United States presidential election, we have been stunned by the amount of campaign rhetoric that has bombarded us. In the town of Pagford, following the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a popular Parish Council member, factions of residents must decide if they will stand for his seat. The adults are in a tizzy of ambition, partisanship, and family pressure.

Ah, but they have forgotten that little pitchers have big ears, and therein lies the tragic flaw of the story. The youth of the villages have their own agendas and they act on their agendas as inexorably as their parents. The characterizations of the youth in the novel are where Rowling reminds us of her writing genius. They are flawed. They are products of both nature and nurture and they all – every one of them – act out in response to societal and school pressures.

Rowling skips nothing – prejudice, bullying, disillusion, failure, success, rejection, mental illness, drug addiction, and tragedy. All of it weaves together to create a world that we all know but, out of an intense desire to be polite, we ignore. But that world exists and, by not acknowledging it, we condone it.

There is an ineffable sadness to this work because we see ourselves in a variety of mirrors and we don’t much like it. There is redemption, if we choose to take heed of our reflection. The only question remains – will we act or will we stand silent? Silence, in this case, is a synonym for death.

If you are looking for Harry Potter and wands and wizards, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for outstanding character development, gritty realism, and the idea that you will see yourself and your children in the residents of Pagford and The Fields, read this book.

Read this book. Read it with an open mind and an open heart. You will be better for it. I know I have plenty to think about now.

10/10 Hearts. This is a must read that will stand the test of time.