Saturday, 13 July 2013

"The Homely Web of Truth": Dress as the Mirror of personality in "Jane Eyre" and "Villette" by Jennifer Oldfield

Jennifer Oldfield argues that outward appearance help to create a readily believable vital character, including "physical build, facial characteristics, and style of dress." These are extracts from the Bronte Society of transactions, 1973.

Charlotte it seems was feminine, and even writes about dress, as shown in this letter to Ellen Nussey:
Dear Nell,
My striped dress is not cut cross-ways. I am much obliged to you for transferring the roll of muslin ...
I admire exceedingly the costume you have chosen to appear in the Birstall rout. I think you say pink petticoat, black jacket, and a wreath of roses - beautiful! For a change I would advise a black coat - velvet stock and waistcoat - white pantaloons and smart boots!
It is hard to imagine sensitive high-minded Charlotte occupied with matters of dress. And yet a great deal of material is mentioned in her books.
Texture of dress will always reflect the personality and situation of the wearer. Mrs Reed's gown rustles, made from stif, hard material; the outer trappings of a cruel and unbending authoritarian mind ... She also wears an exaggeratedly wide cap, so much adhered to by Victorian matrons as a signal of status. The petted and pampered daughters, Eliza and Georgian have "thin muslin frocks and scarlet sashes," with hair elaborately ringleted and combed.

Jane Eyre's own uniform shows she is poor and unprivileged, "Serviceable merely, but deny the girls all attractiveness and individuality."

Charlotte was self-conscious of her plain appearance. She writes about her visit to the Opera in London, with the Smiths.

We had no fine, elegant dresses with us, or in the world ... we attired ourselves in the plain, high-made country garments we possessed ... they must have thought us queer, quizzical-looking beings, especially me with my spectacles.
In her novels she is much concerned with appearance: observe Lucy's discomfiture in the pink dress while at the opera in Villette.

On the one hand, it furnished her wit a strong antipathy to over-dressed women. Her ideal was a quiet tastefulness, epitomised in Jane Eyre by Miss Temple, who, thought fashionable in purple dress with Spanish trimming, is in no way ostentatious. The two extremes on either side of this ideal are severe plainness and costly extravagance. They come together most entertainingly in Brocklehurst's harangue against luxury ... He is only halted by the entrance of three ladies "splendidly attired in velvet, silk and furs," and no other than his wife and daughters, The contrast is elaborated by further description of the needless luxury...
Charlotte Brontë's preference for absolute plainness is evident in the heavy irony of this description. She gives Jane an identical taste in the matter as one means of identifying her personality. On leaving Lowood, Jane has only on black stuff travelling dress, partly through choice, but also because she has no money for clothes. She feels keenly the subsequent lack of social status, as if dress is a badge of rank, as indeed it is.
In refuge from obvious social inferiority, Jane makes a principle out of simplicity and neatness. With a pride born of necessity, she lists her wardrobe; the black stuff dress, a black silk one, and a light grey one; "too fine to be worn except on first-rate occasions". It highlights he r common-sense, flavoured with naivety, and helps us to realise Jane's plain appearance, which is vital. Technically, Charlotte Brontë needs to create a certain image, and the terms she uses are chosen with care; "I was in my usual Quaker trim, where there was nothing to retouch - all being too close and plain, braised locks included, to admit of disarrangement - ". The words "trim," "close," "plain" show no sense of true inferiority. Rather the reverse is true, as though plainness is a virtue to treasure, since the simplicity affords no mask of deceit. Jane presents herself squarely, saying to the world, "take me, or leave me, as you wish."
This then is the deeper reason for the reaction against ostentation. Clothes can so easily be a disguiser of true identity, as Blanche Ingramreadily proves. From the first, in Mrs Fairfax's account of her dark beauty, dressed in white, with a splash of amber in her scarf, and in her flower adorned hair, there is the taint of knowing sophistication, linked immediately upon her arrival at Thornfield with lack of integrity. She lights on the scene in full splendour ... at which poor Jane pales ... But artifice is the key to all. None have either natural beauty, nor Jane's courage to face the world in their plainness.
Even plain dress may be a mockery of integrity, depending on the wearer's degree of self-knowledge, as with the grotesque asceticism of Eliza Reed. She is dressed in:
a straight-skirted, black-stuff dress, a starched linen collar, hair combed away from the temples, and the nun-like ornament of a string of ebony beads and a crucifix.
Jane herself is astute enough to realise the treachery of dress. Happiness can shine through a plain dress without assistance, while finery will always be foreign to her nature. She resists the "satin and lace" offered by Rochester, reminding him: "I am you plain, Quakerish governess." The worst form of self-betrayal would be to become thus "an ape in a harlequin's jacket."
Dress thus becomes integrated into the theme of illusion and reality with which is novel is largely concerned. Jane's sense of unreality towards her impending marriage focuses on the pearly wedding gown and transparent veil; the "white dream". The Lowood black frock is reality, the other is pure illusion. The dream's fragility is signified by the act of tearing the veil, performed by the figure who is the secret barrier between Jane and happiness. Jane is a stranger to herself in the white dress, heridentity lost in a dream soon shattered. With the return to reality, she puts on the black dress. She realises thought theough this action and through thought recovers her self-konwledge, along with despair. she is moreh erself in the anxiety over the damage to her black dress after its soaking on the moors than in the gorgeous white one; that familiar image of wish-fulfilment. The satisfaction taken in being neat once more recalls the early Jane. The old cottage bonnet and shawl which she removes on her arrival at Ferndean are as much part of her identity as her quiet, firm manner.
The pattern of contrast btween the unobtrusively plain and the extravagantly ornate is a simple one in Jane Eyre ... It poses in a concrete form the two opposite forces of sincerity and hypocrisy ... However its directness argues some falseness to experience, for the sake of clear pattern. After all the showily-dressed woman may have her own integrity, and this was recognised by Charlotte Brontë.

In Villette, however,
she had gained a closer hold on the complex relation between dress and inner qualities, together with the development of the ability to combine naturalistic description with metaphor. The logic behind this process is to convey a consistent idea about the nature of reality.

In the Professor, Frances is quietly and simply dressed. This theme persists in Jane Eyre and Shirley, but in the latter Charlotte realises brilliance in dress and facial characteristics need not mean shallowness and artificiality.
Dressing for the part again assumes central importance as a means of representing the hypocrisy rife in the world. This time, the crystallisation of the idea comes with the play production. All Lucy's antipathy to seeming other than she is emerges here. "To be dressed like a man did not please, and would not suit me," she declares. It is no mere whim or the fear of ridicule, but a deep sense of self-betrayal. The compromise, described in close detail, may seem an absurd affair, but Lucy's self-respect is salvaged nonetheless.
 In Villette, there is considerable developmjent of the technique in presenting dress. It is a novel concerned with how people dress, and the emphasis is spread more evenly than in Jane Eyre, over all the major characters. The child Polly is instantly recognised each time by her white, spirit-like dress, doll-sized and immaculate, to suit her tiny person. Later, as a young woman. sje is again identified by her close-fitting, white dresses, set against her rich, dark hair. The picture never varies, building up the impression of purity and innocence. Yet the child and the woman ought to present different faces. Paulina seems to lack maturity. White is the absence of colour, and there is a missing factor too in her development, leaving her an unreal figure.
In opposition stands the firm, bright figure of Ginevra Fanshawe. From the stockings she gives Lucy to mend, to the gloves, bouquets and trinkets presented by the mysterious Isidore, she is obsessed by what she must wear to offset her charms. At the banquet she matches Polly's colourlessness with a great splash of deep crimson. She must glitter and dazzle, whether in lilac silk set against her fair curls and white shoulders, or even in her dark blue school dress which highlights by contrast her fairness. Inevitably, Lucy prefers the plain style of the latter to the elegance of the evening dresses. But Ginevra is not content with simple print dresses. Vanity is the invader of her good-natured heart, making her empty-headed and ambitious, though not malicious or deliverately cruel.
Ginevra can profitably be set against Blanche Ingram of Jane Eyre. Both act as foils to similar heroines. But Blanche is malign and hard, her vanity is consciously destructive, her glamour hand-in-hand with duplicity. Ginevra is less of a villainess. Pride has not infected her good aspects so thoroughly, not ostentation so firmly taken root.
 The connection between opulence and internal vacuum is nevertheless insistent. Lucy despises "the confidence of conscious wealth" exuded by the Watsons, fellow passengers on the boat. She knows instinctively that beneath the show is mere cardboard. The ludicrous extreme is shown in Mrs Sweeney, the drunken nurse, whose one claim to fame is the mysteriously acquired and ill-fitting wardrobe of pslendid gowns, whose showpiece is "A real Indian shawl".
Once more the higher the social status of such women, the more pernicious is their influence. Ladies at the concert hall cover their lack of beauty and intelligence with perfect dress, but sit like puppets in a vacant dream. At that climax of unreality, the midnight festival, the women are flower and jewel adorned to the height of artificiality. Outstanding as an example of hollow luxury mingled with true evil is old Mme. Walravens, whose evil mind is weirdly revealed in the gorgeous brocade grown...
The incident is significant, and described therefore in great detail. Notice the oddness of the natural flower design on the stiff material, and the grotesqueness of those skeletal hands weighted down with gold, purple and green gems. To Lucy's drugged but hypersensitive mind, the figure reminds her of "a head severed from its trunk and flung at random on a pile of rich merchandise." The theme is the vanity of riches, and the poverty of soul of those who succumb. Lucy herself is careful to avoid the trap. 
She may watch the folly around her; the bougeouis smoothness of Mme Beck which conceals so well the cunning of her nature, and the insignificance of the schoogirls and mistresses who rely on the services on hair-dresser and curl-paper to prepare for the fray. For the fete day, all the girls wear white dresses with blue sashes; the Virgin's colours, as Lucy ironically notes. Her own courage fails at the vision of being so dressed. The apparently trivial matter becomes an urgent dilemma, sending her in search of some quiet shade of material. She finds a purple-grey crepe and is satisfied; "in this gown of shadow, I felt at home and at ease." The horror or self-betrayal always reaches its climax over choice of dress. Pink to Lucy, is the ultimate in frivolity, against which her nature revolts ...
But convention defeats even Lucy, though she is agonisingly self-conscious throughout the ordeal. A glimpse in a mirror at herself in a pink dress, with black lace mantle does not bring immediate recognitionn. The shock is of seeing herself as others see her; an uncomfortable experience which few can enjoy, least of all the diffident Lucy. Ironically, Ginevra's comment is that Lucy was "dressed, actually, like anybody else." which can hardly serve to raise Lucy's spirits.

[Ed: I notice that as Lucy gains confidence and sees more people, she starts to dress better. Apart from Mrs Bretton's insistence on her wearing the pink dress, which she detests, she later gets a pink dress of her own.]

The reader may begin to feel that Charlotte Brontë's own austerity has hampered any breadth of vision as regards the dress of her characters. Until, unexpectedly, a shift of viewpoint occurs. Concessions to the occasion on Lucy's part are gradually made. She dresses in her best for the theatre visit with Graham, and later risks the dazzle of pink print material, under M. Paul's tyrannous gaze. She guiltily offers the excuse of cheapness and practicality, but the truth is that she is experiencing a growth towards normality, identifying with other young women as her prospects of happiness improve. denial of what is beautiful and feminine in dress is in fact as unnatural as the painted figures who adorn the social heights. This is a great revelation for Lucy, and a new insight from Charlotte Brontë. Neutrality in dress as a harsh form of self-repression is in evidence for the first time. Lucy has an identity which longs to be pretty in a pink dress, instead of staid in grey or brown.  Strong as the link between deception and choice of dress is, the conclusion is no longer direct. Though the plain, emotionally unfulfilled girl is right to wear dull clothes, the blossoming and optimistic woman needs to reveal her light-heartedness in dress. There is no firm standard left, save the character's self-knowledge.
A study of dress in these two novels, which represent the height of Charlotte Brontë's achievement, has shown the exclusively feminine qualities of her novels, which surely ought to have scotched any rumour of male authorship, had contemporary critics taken notice of this kind of detail. Charlotte Brontë is not merely factual for its own sake, delightful as these pictures are. She is enabling us to visualise characters through their dress, so that we can compare them with accepted standards of judgement which still hold good, since apperance never ceases to influence our opinions. She makes a virtue out of an unfailing ability to recapture the finest details of dress, taking a step towards objectivity by providing factually accurate descriptions. More than this, a deliberate pattern emerges whereby dress comes, by implication, to involve the idea of disguise, and finally achieves thematic importance as a realisation of the illusion versus reality opposition; the duality of the world around which so much of her work revolves.
[Ed: Before I read this article, I wrote a series of posts about Lucy Snowe as art critic, which does touch some matters of dress. You can read them here, here and here.

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