Saturday, 17 November 2012

Charlotte Brontë on being involved and observing

Charlotte Brontë was famed, even back in her day, for writing in a very personal manner. The emotional involvement she put into her books was so real that it convinced the young George Eliot, who admired both Jane Eyre and Villette. It has also been the subject of criticism, because she could not write heroines who did not share some affinity to herself. But if you look closer her heroines come in two classes, those who are involved in the story, and those who are observers.

Jane Eyre is most certainly personally involved. The sufferings at Lowood are felt by her, the scenes that take place at Thornfield especially affect her life. Bertha Mason's existence affects her because she is Jane's impediment to marrying Mr Rochester. Mr Rochester's gloom is meant to be reformed by Jane. Even when she doesn't take part in the scenes where the high society people visit Rochester, she feels strongly because her rival in affections, Blanche Ingram, is present. Her escape to Moor End shows her personal development to renounce fleshly instincts, only to renounce sacrificing herself to religion. 

Then she observes St John's unfulfilled passion for Rosamond Oliver. But she does try to urge them to marry, only for St John to refuse it and propose to Jane instead as a substitute, because she is stronger and more determined than shallow Rosamond. 

Caroline Helstone is a quiet person and therefore doesn't really converse with many people whom she dislikes in her uncle's congregation. She is also painfully shy. But her thoughts are always with us, and her emotions often over-wrought. It is also the ordinary people of her parish that she doesn't really deal with. She is not, however, as alone as Charlotte Brontë would have us think. Apart from Shirley she doesn't seem to have a female friend her age in the district, but she does have the affections of Cyril and Margaret Hall, who have fatherly and motherly feelings towards her. William Farren is also fond of her, and so are Robert and Hortense Moore. With Caroline you are looking at a childlike girl, unlike Jane Eyre's more solitary surroundings. But like Jane, the world of the novel does revolve around her, even with the Luddite riots and the numerous subplots.  She is involved in Miss Ainley's charitable projects, Shirley's whimsical conversation and the so-called love triangle involving her, Robert and Shirley. But Caroline is essentially loveable to the reader (unless you hate weak weeping girls who pine for lost love) as those whom the author is sympathetic to are fond of her. Early readers loved her and thought her the best-drawn character in the book. Jessy and Rose Yorke speak to the older girl as equals with intelligence and affection, Martin Yorke has a schoolboy crush on her.  Even Mr Yorke has a slight tenderness for her as she reminds him of his old dead love. Louis Moore is perhaps one of the few sympathetic characters who seek to avoid her. Though we must consider he has her wellbeing in mind when he asks Shirley on purpose to inform Caroline when Robert is shot. One suspects that Louis Moore is aware of Caroline's feelings for Robert. 

Lucy Snowe on the other hand is an enigma. She observes, feels but is often distant from the subplots. Dr John's and Ginevra's courtship are not part of her life, neither is that of Dr John and Paulina. Though Mrs Bretton may invite her out, she is never fully part of their circle, and they do not understand the nature of her melancholy. She sees Madame Beck's peeping, spying and manoeuvres but until the end, they are observations of a character rather than part of a plot. Villette is a series of character sketches - to show us the sort of people Lucy sees and not so much how she is involved, but how she is NOT involved, because she is deficient in charisma, humour and liveliness. No wonder some people think she is manic-depressive or bipolar or something.  Mrs Bretton is fond of her, Paulina likes her as a friend, but there is still that distance, because both are in higher circles - not so much money-wise, but charisma-wise. They have connections whereas Lucy does not. She enjoys some solitude but she also hates being alone with no close friend in the world. Part of her affinity with Paulina is due to the fact Paulina can sit still and keep quiet instead of harrassing her with confidences. She enjoys the easy familiarity with her friends but their souls cannot come closer, because they do not say much to each other. There cannot be too much silence in a friendship. 

There are scenes where she is involved - her teaching of the horrible pupils of the Pensionnat - but there is a distance between them, and it shows you Lucy's drudgery and development rather than form the plot. Villette is definitely a novel of character. The mysterious nun and the notes that drop from nowhere do not involve her - they are merely incidents that she happens to notice. Why put all these useless incidents in, Charlotte? Only to illustrate how detached Lucy is from everyone around her. And it is a clever device. We do see her response, her snarkiness and bitterness with everyone else's doings that she is not part of. Which shows her character - detached, lonely and rational.

M. Paul does try to make her a part of his life, by getting her a new school and loving her romantically. But in the end he dies which brings us back to square one. Ironically Lucy's happiness when he is away reflects Charlotte's later need for time alone when she had married Nicholls who insisted that she accompanied him on his duties. Poor Charlotte. Perhaps she anticipated this side of her character - wanting time alone, and yet languishing away due to loneliness. If Lucy had married Paul how would it be? He would want her to be involved in his life, and she could not fit in with society there. She may succeed professionally, but emotionally and socially she has not really progressed.

Putting in the King and Queen is curious - she is definitely not part of them and the observations are short. Perhaps Charlotte was impressed by the King of Belgium, but I suspect she put him in to show how upper-class society is rather than merely an individual she chanced to notice. She wanted to show how hypochondria affects even the upper classes - that the King is so, could mean he is a symbol for the country - and therefore hypochondria could be a widespread problem. There was much concern and preoccupation in the Victorian era compared to the previous era, with industrialisation, lack of jobs, and material success as opposed to the spiritual and natural things that Charlotte associated with the Romantics, her idols. While the Prince Regent was known for excess and partying, the King of Belgium could reflect the more sober Victorian era - the qualities Prince Albert was known for. But this is mere guesswork. We do know that she wrote to her sister Emily about Queen Victoria's landing in Brussels to see King Leopold, and that Queen Victoria was a jovial, unaffected woman. Nothing too uppish about her - while the Regency upper classes were certainly uppish. The King's melancholy is one similarity between him and Lucy, and may perhaps align both middle-class teacher and royal King into a more equal position. Which is one thing she doesn't seem to share with her other middle-class acquaintances (according to the novel, that is). Could it be Charlotte's way of saying that melancholy is not so much a class issue, but a matter of the individual? Certainly Lucy is upset when Dr John tells her to cultivate happiness, because it doesn't come to her the way it comes to him. He is naturally jovial and charismatic: she is not. They are two opposite individuals despite being of the same class.

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