Sunday, 14 July 2013

The role of fantasy in the work of the Brontes by Rebecca West

This address was delivered on May 1, 1954, and appears in the Bronte Society Transactions. Rebecca West writes:
Each of us is in a sense the universal man. The mind of every one of us is capable of making all possible decisions and executing all possible actions; but a part of the self, deeply buried and almost inaccessible to argument, refuses to let it exercise this power outside a certain limited range. This restriction determines what is known as character. Out goes Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Peace, Cromwell, Racine and the man next door, and what is left is Mr Smith. In the case of Mrs Smith, she is what is left after there has been ejected Florence Nightingale, Madame de Brinvilliers, Miss Florence Hosburgh, Dame Myra Hess and the woman next door. And Mr Smith knows completely only Mr Smith, and what he notices about other people, and Mrs Smith knows completely only Mrs Smith, and what she notices about other people; and what they notice is usually guess-work.
But there are people who possess a power lacking in the Smiths: the novelists and dramatists. They can say to themselves, "Supposing that I had not the kind of character I have, supposing that I had chosen to take quiet another group of decision and to perform quite another group of actions, how would I have felt, what would I have thought?" They can bring into emotion the psychological mechanism which they have never used for their own purposes, and imagine how it would operate in certain circumstances.  They live as real a life as their own, but with another personality, in a diferent scene; and when this mysterious process is carried out by the artist, it starts into activity a like but fainter process in his audience ... the Brontës also said, "This is what it was like to be Jane Eyre, or Heathcliff, or Catherine Earnshaw," and their readers, through the century that has elapsed since they wrote, have answered,  "Yes, that was what it was like to be Jane Eyre, or Heathcliff, or Catherine Earnshaw."
But some think the Brontës had no right to make that claim, and that we are wrong in assenting to it. and it must be admitted that there are certain features in their works which enable the dissenters to argue a case for rejection. The imaginative process has a deadly enemy in another and easier process, which we call fantasy-building, or day-dreaming.
The artist who is abandoned to the imaginative process tells us the strict truth about the experiences he undergoes within the other personalities which he invades. That is why we believe him.But the day-dreamer, the fantasy-builder, wishes to suppress the truth. He wants to tell a story which will make himself and his readers feel more virtuous and powerful and more beloved than they are, and give us an assurance that the universe is softly cushioned and will do us no harm. It is therefore unlikely that the imaginative process and the fantasy-building process will be carried on by the same person, particularly at the same time.
West says that critics argued that the Brontës were "lonely girls who were given to day-dreams, and their books are simply fairy-stories, and there can be no question of disciplined art about them." Without many pleasures, family deaths and without money or wealth, fantasy would have been the natural recourse.

This reminds me of Coleridge's definition of Fancy and Imagination: Fancy is a weak pallid thing, Imagination is divinely-bestowed.

Naturally they threw their energies into creating an imaginary world, such as many children create, and made themselves Angria and Gondal; unlike those other children they refused to leave it at adolescence ... It is no wonder that Charlotte's novels so often change into fairy-stories, and show us fairy-princes who wave aside beautiful women of great wealthy and high rank and choose as their brides mousey little women ... who also have pressed into their hands such lavish presents as a legacy of twenty thousand pounds or an entire girl's schoo, complete to the potted plants.
It is also true that Charlotte shows something quite unlike the artist's free choice of subject in her obsessional reversion to the scholastic, her determination in every novel that the last shall be first, and the tutor and governess shall be crowned king and queen, qhich gives us Jane Eyre and Edward Crimsworth and Lusy Snowe and Louis Moore. The abandonment to fantasy is so shameless that it tempts the over-fastidious critic to write down the other two sisters also as nothing but day0dreamers ... Not only was the imaginative process which is the heart of the novelist compromised in all of them, they failed in other respects. The charactesr imagined by a novelist have to be bound together into a novel by connective tissues, which has to be supplied by worldly experience and to be shaped by technical accomplishement. The Brontë sisters are supposed to have lacked both.

But West argues that Wuthering Heights must be classed with the best of Dickens, because she wrote the truth. "She is great, not because she was less of a Brontë than her sisters. but because she was more. They must, therefore, all have their title to greatness."

When we analyse Wuthering Heights to find the secret of the essential Brontë genius we find that it is not easy to make this analysis or to formulate its findings ... we readers fail her [Emily.] She attacks a fantasy which dominates most of her readers, indeed she lays hands on two fantasies that are common enough: and what she gives us is so ocmplicated that it taxes our intelligence to its limits. For the book has a triple significance. It is a novel, in which the imaginative process is used with power and honesty, and the truth is told about the characters; it is a critical work of a unique kind, in which a fantasy which was strong in her time, and had been strong through the ages, is set in relation to reality and exposed as a fiction; and it is a poetical work, for it presents an interpretation of the universe.

The opening passages involving Mr Lockwood to many readers seems pointless, but West says Emily was conscious of what she was doing.
Emily Brontë's theme was the conflict between love and hatred in the heart of manl and she was showing this conflict as it declared itself in an isolated group, which was tremporarily destroyed by an individual self-dedicated to destruction, and later raised to life again by love.
 To make this conflict fully visible, Emily Brontë restricts this group to two households only ... the measure of the degradation of this group, and the beauty that was thereby destroyed cannot be showen unless it be contrasted with normal society, in which a balance has been struct between love and hgartred and ther are no such prodigious extremes. This contrast could not be exhibited save by hte introduction of a stranger; and in getting MR Lockwood to tell us the story, as it was narrated to him by Nelly Dean, who stood midway between the group and the outer world, Emily Brontë  was showing a dazzling technical competence.

It once occurred to me Nelly's purpose in the novel was to show the viewpoint of a normal outsider of the strange beings in Wuthering Heights, to illustrate that they are strange. So that we do not over-sympathise which any character, but see it from her point of view. Were we to give it from Catherine's point of view, for example, we would be skewed in our judgement of the plot and character, and Catherine would not seem so selfish. But with Nelly we know their natures and their brutalities. And West does mention this "lens" that is a character who had an overall view of the story but was so detached from it that he could do justice to all the characters.

Lockwood is heartless; he led a girl to suppose he would marry her but will not marry her. Then as soon as he sees Catherine he wants to marry her, unaffected by her hostility, and curious rather than sympathetic towards her.

By this Emily conveyed to her readers that this was how worldlings took love, and that the Wuthering Heights group deserved the attention of the reader for the very reason that they took love in a very different spirit...
It is a novel about love, but many readers are mistaken about the sort of  love with which it deals.

That's true; silly teenage girls thinks Heathcliff/Cathy is sooo romantic; I think it is grotesque and horrible and yet fascinating, just like the Victorians did.  It seems to be about an obsessive love, that is not so sensual as the sign of emotional dependence and immaturity'; it is purer than romantic passion but more warped and eccentric. Catherine and Heathcliff do not seem to grow up much; they cannot adapt to other people for affection (strange as it sounds, because people are rarely like that) and seek each other not only because they love each other, but because they do not like other people very much, or as much. It is a love borne out of attachment, custom, habit, chemistry, and - sad to say - disappointment and desperation. The others are obnoxious; therefore Cathy/Heathcliff is The Only One. This is highly neurotic.

Emily Brontë loved her brother very much, and that may have been her reason, thought she probably did not realise it, for writing a novel about the destructive influence that one sort of love can have upon another. An woman might love her brother so much that she would not be able to leave her childhood behind her and advance into adult life and love a husband or lover. 
We know Emily stuck to Gondal in adulthood, hated the world and people, and was intensely attached to her home and family. Could the love in her novel be a representation of her ideal of love?

But in Emily Brontë's day the idea that quite innocent familt relationships mgiht deter the development of sexual love was not formulated, and the idea of incest exerted a powerful fascination on the imaginative ...she might have written it about the obsessive affection felt by a firl for a brother who was unlike the rest of the family, but she would have compromised her own subject by raising false suspicions in the reader that that affection was incestuous. She therefore represented Heathcliff as an adopted Earnshaw, and Catherine's foster-brother.
There is a case, in fact, of an intense brother-sister relationship, often speculated to be incestuous, but is unlikely to be so: William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

Emily Brontë makes only one arresting allusion to the possibility that Catherine and Heathcliff might have married; and that is in the conversation between Catherine and Nelly Dean, which Heathcliff overhears and which sends him into flight from the farm. But even those words do not ring quite true, and they serve the constructional purpose of getting Heathcliff away from Wuthering Heights rather than of exhibiting any emotional bond between the two which would have been appropriate in marriage ... the whole of her [Catherine's] soul meet the reader. In these marvellously explicit declarations she never describes herself as feeling any emotion towards Heathcliff which resembles sexual love....
Indeed she says that she sees no incompatibility between marrying Linton and being as close to Heathcliff as she has always been.
This would explain many things, since she is supposed to be sexless towards Heathcliff.  In fact I always wondered why, despite the fact Isabella married the man she loves, Catherine is relatively cordial to Isabella and doesn't seem jealous of the fact they are married to each other. And Isabella is definitely fine with Catherine: she doesn't see Catherine as a romantic/sexual rival, and she doesn't see her as a potential mistress of Heathcliff: she treats Catherine as an annoying sister who exerts a great influence on Heathcliff. Think of wives who resent their husbands who are closer to their sisters. And Victorian reviewers observed the purity and sexlessness of Catherine Earnshaw towards Heathcliff, and in this case the Victorians may be right.

She reproaches Linton because he objects to Heathcliff's visits, and she reproaches Heathcliff because he will not accept her marriage ... as she knew little of restraint and Heathcliff respected no law, had she been in love with him, she would surely have contemplated an elopement.  She cries out against her pain, but never once does she deine it as the pain suffered by a woman in love with a man who is not her husband. But she defines it again and again as the hell suffered by a woman in the grip of an emotion which cannot come to fruition for abstract and absolute reasons. What she wants is to be with Heathcliff as they were in her childhood, as they were when they walked on the moors. The man Heathcliff is of no use to her; she does not even like him ... She cannot go back, she cannot go forward, she is shut up in limbo with hr obsession. Her mind wanders; when she looks in the mirror the face she sees there does not seem to her to be hers; shje disintegrates; she dies. That is why we accept her death and do not for one moment suspect it as a device of the author to help the story to its climax. We have seen Catherine crucified on an unrealisable passion. 
Heathcliff is a Byronic hero. Anne denounced Byronic heroes, Charlotte celebrated him in Rochester, and tamed him in Paul Emanuel in Louis Moore. Emily slew him. She was sick of him.
Emily allowed the Byronic man power to captivate but almost nothing else. 
Just as he captivated Isabella, but he does not love her, and Isabella is still in love with him who abused her. To a rational audience he is cruel but captivating. Catherine jeers at Isabella saying Heathcliff is horrible and cruel and Isabella is worshipping an ideal. Her love for Heathcliff is thus pure, since she accepts his cruelty, which sounds more like family love than romantic love.
His deeds are not all magnificentl they are mean. As a child he could not hold his own with the Earnshaw children until he was able to blackmail them by threatening to tell tales to their father. It may be that when Heathcliff ran away and made his fortune he lived dangerously ... On his return he makes a very poor show when he confronts his successful rival, Edgar Linton, is knocked down by him, and runs away.  He never bends Catherine to submission; it is her self-engendered passion that subjugates her, though it is his power to captivate that keeps her bound.
I strongly recommend all Wuthering Heights fans to read this article - it speaks more truth about the book than all the romantic bullcrap churned by silly teenagers and movies. All the neuroses in Wuthering Heights is far more profound than the love stories propagated by these deluded so-called fans. As to whether Catherine actually feels sexual love for her husband, or Heathcliff for Isabella I do not know, but their family obsessive love is stronger than any sexual passion they might have for other people. I suppose they are developmentally challenged, just as their creator was challenged in certain areas of life (teaching for example, and talking to the outside world). And being innocent of sexual passion (Emily was never in love) she might have imbued her characters with the same sexlessness.

No comments:

Post a Comment