Thursday, May 30, 2013

Patrick and Branwell and Arthur, the other Brontës

Who's that mysterious khaki guy? Why, it's the leader and innovator of the family!
Juliet Barker, The Brontës  
Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1994
1003 whopping pp

So! I just finished reading Juliet Barker's 1994 biography, The Brontës. Barker wrote her book with the express purpose of refuting the Brontë mythos (isolated savage upbringing on the moors), revealing the family as they really really were, and salvaging the reputations of Patrick (Brontë père) and Branwell (Brontë frère). Because this is my first foray into Brontë biography, I cannot tell you what has happened since in Brontë scholarship, nor acquaint you, personally, with what went before and wrought up Barker to such a fever pitch of repudiation.

What I can say is that it is a big fat book, very entertaining, and, I should think, meticulously researched.  Some readers may be put off by the chapters about Patrick, long ere the appearance of his children (on the literary scene, or at all), but I was charmed by his decades-long efforts to clean up the Haworth water supply (though I was surprised that Barker didn't make the connection between the waterworks and Haworth curate/possible love interest William Weightman's agonizing death from cholera), to get his poetry published, and to survive small town political skulduggery.  Readers who, like me, are unacquainted with the biographical details except those derived from the very Brontë mythos that Barker deplores, will be surprised to see that Haworth in the first half of the nineteenth century was a not-unprosperous industrial town and transit hub with thousands of inhabitants, and not the lonely hamlet that it became after industry left, and in which visitors today can feel claustrophobic.  We will also be surprised to see, from the evidence of hundreds of letters, journal entries, and interviews, that Patrick Brontë was not a crazed tyrannical hermit who starved his daughters; that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne regularly attended concerts and lectures, subscribed to the lending library, read the papers voraciously, and did a lot of entertaining (Emily baked and managed the household; Charlotte couldn't even order a chop); and that Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte's unfortunate husband, actually did enjoy and encourage her writing, rather than repressing it.  We also get ample evidence of where the ë came from.  Good stuff.

In the case of the three interesting sisters, which is the reason that anybody would read this book, Barker does a great job of showing the contradictory details that round out the little that can actually be known about people who lived intensely private lives.  Charlotte left behind a great many unflattering and not always factual letters.  Emily and Anne left behind so little documentation that Barker does well, very well, not to speculate on their lives or feelings.  While some readers might be disappointed that Barker didn't try to invent and speculate, I found this refreshing.  Apart from some surprising spite that Barker seems to feel for Charlotte (in her attempt to give a human-scaled and full portrait of her, she gives way to some venom that one can imagine comes from getting too close to a subject, like being roommates), her account of the sisters is also compelling and satisfying.

One can see how a diligent historian might be drawn to write about Patrick and Branwell, who both wrote a lot, and whose letters and works were preserved:  there is simply more one can say with certainty about them.  Which is why it's disappointing that Barker, who could be so circumspect, peppered her meticulously researched work, which overturns a great many assumptions about the family, with a few polemical and unsubstantiated statements of her own, especially about Branwell's talents.  As she wrote of another writer on the Brontës, "While doing sterling detective work, Ratchford made a number of assumptions and presents the reconstruction as much more concrete than it actually is"--and this, unfortunately, is something Barker too indulges in, at times when her work would be much more plausible and, frankly, interesting, if she would just leave things open.

Of Constantin Héger, whose relationship with Charlotte is of the utmost interest, Barker constructs a timeline of growing intimacy and friendship between them, then a sudden rupture, after which Constantin's wife takes an aversion to Charlotte, Constantin gives Charlotte the silent treatment, and Charlotte, suffering miserably, begs and begs him for a renewal of his attention.  Barker concludes that, since Constantin never wrote any letters about it, the only possible interpretation is that there was nothing for him to say:  that he must necessarily have been a man of integrity who had nothing to be ashamed of.  Meanwhile, anybody who's ever known a man is saying, "Hm, I don't know about that."  I maintain that Barker's conclusion is possibly correct, but it is far from the only possible conclusion that might be drawn, and the scrupulous biographer who refrained from commenting on Emily's wholly undocumented love life should, in this case, have simply said there wasn't sufficient evidence to make any sure conclusion.

Regarding the juvenilia that the four siblings worked on in their youth, after carefully detailing how Charlotte and Branwell worked "simultaneously" on the Angria storylines, Barker insists that Branwell must have originated them; though we know from Barker's own evidence that Branwell would petulantly ignore Charlotte's efforts to drive the plot, Barker credits him with being the "inspiration" of her work.  When Charlotte turns down a marriage proposal from a man who physically resembles Branwell, Barker concludes that, since Charlotte tended to like women whose faces reminded her of her sisters, this MUST show something "deeply revealing" about her relationship with Branwell (although one might reasonably come to the conclusion that most--though not all--women don't actually get revved up by men who are dead ringers for their dead brothers).  Then, and at the very end, Barker writes disparagingly of Mrs. Gaskell's biography, "the Branwell who was his family's pride and joy, the leader and innovator, artist, poet, musician and writer, is barely touched upon, despite the fact that, without him, there would probably have been no Currer, Ellis or Acton Bell."

WHOA!

It is one thing to find Mrs. Gaskell's biography (and the mythos that sprang from it) biased and derogatory and, according to Barker's research, nefariously sourced and written.  Although I admire Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, I'm inclined to view Barker's findings in this regard as fair.  However, Barker provides no evidence to support the idea that Branwell was any more of an originator and inspiration to his siblings than they were to him.  Unfortunately, Barker begins to sound a little like Mr. Mybug from Cold Comfort Farm, who's writing a biography of Branwell that describes how his hateful drunkard sisters (especially Anne) forced him to buy gin for them and passed off his novels--"Shirley and Villette--and, of course, Wuthering Heights"--as their own.  In support of her argument, Barker reprints large extracts of Branwell's poetry and shares his early successes as a portrait painter.  So, I give you some more paintings by Branwell Brontë.




Poor kid.

I think that the evidence Barker does provide shows that the poor kid had some literary talent, and has been somewhat maligned in the mythos.  He appears to have truly enjoyed hanging out and writing with his sisters and reading and acting out the papers together, and been a far nicer and better-meaning guy than history has allowed him to be.  But he had addiction problems, problems with loneliness and love, problems with holding down a job--and his biggest problem of all was his desire to produce a major work of art and knowing he was never going to manage it before he wasted away and died.  It's impossible to say, from the evidence provided in this book, which way he'd have gone, if not for the addiction--or even if he'd never taken a single drink.  And I think it's really too bad to take a nice kid like that and laud him as a misunderstood genius, because Branwell, more than anybody else, would have resented earning the laurels for work he hadn't yet accomplished and proofs he hadn't yet provided:  it was the work that mattered to him, as it should for any artist.  And it's too bad to publish his earnest, half-baked poetry--no better than the poetry his sisters wrote at the same age, but no worse--and call it great.  It makes Branwell look like a pathetic dope, and it makes Barker look a teensy bit overzealous in her pleading.  Branwell deserved better than that, and the biography is SO much better than that.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Charlotte Bronte's "Phoebe," a review from 2009. Or, "Shirley"

** spoiler alert ** Here be spoilers.

Jane Eyre was a masterpiece, and it's hard to get around it in reading and reviewing Charlotte Brontë's other novels. That's particularly true for Shirley, which has the same slow build as JE and Villette, without either the weirdness and genius of JE or the meticulous portrait of depression in Villette, so I'll mention the book's flaws, first.

First, the unequivocal acceptance of the ideas that technological/industrial "progress" is both inevitable and, necessarily, a positive good, and that the goal of progress is to better the owner, while maintaining only the status quo for the workers, because self-respecting workers don't want betterment or development or enrichment or growth: they just want their "honest" wages, i.e., no more than they deserve. Despite Brontë's compassion for unemployed workers, the "honest" and starving, she seemed unable to imagine a form of Progress that promoted the enrichment, development, and growth of all--she's terribly concerned about the cheekiness and insolence of the lower classes getting "above" themselves, when they're not busy being murderous Luddite rabble. Which is painful, given her great concern, in this book and the others, to prove that women (gentlewomen) might, if educated and given opportunity, do worthwhile things--might better themselves, and others. This failure to extend the analogy to other classes is not atypical of 19C proto-feminism (or, for that matter, of 20C feminisms, at least until Marxist feminism and the great Third Wave of postcolonial feminism!), but I'll still point out that it'll irritate the contemporary reader (assuming the contemporary reader is even aware of these issues).

Second, we begin with about 200 pages in which Brontë exhibits the worst of her faults as a writer: philippics against the French (by which I suppose she meant Belgians) and/or Catholics; an overreliance on phrenology to depict character; embarrassing scenes in which our middle-class heros repress insolent yokels by using big words at them; and even more classical references and speechifying about the Moon than usual (Brontë could never have improved on SPOILER: Jane's anguished Moment with Nature/The Moon/The Female Divine after the discovery of Rochester's treachery; she should have let well enough alone after that). These defects appear in the other novels but are muted somewhat by the good parts; here, you spend the next 100 pages, after the introduction of the character of Shirley, wondering when she'll take charge of her mousy friend Caroline's predictably melancholy love life, kick out the annoying cast of extraneous minor characters, and show us some action.

But then, somewhere around p. 300, we do get action, and what action! Maybe because Brontë had finally buried her three ailing siblings, whose illnesses and deaths occurred between her first draft and this approximate point in the book; maybe, because she just wasn't all that good at beginnings, but, having introduced every single possible character who might occupy west Yorkshire, she could settle down and write a damn good story intertwining all their lives. Suddenly, a love quadrangle! A gender-bending, gun-toting heroine! And a RABIES plot! (There is no novel that cannot be improved by the introduction of a mad dog. Especially a mad dog named Phoebe.) And with all the new excitement and revelations going on, the reader looks back at the first 300 boring pages and sees how carefully Brontë constructed those pages. We see that powerful, rich, feminist Shirley, who bosses--sometimes literally--all the other men in the story, is as hampered by sexual inequality in the pursuit of love as downtrodden, poor, sad Caroline is: neither of them can ever make the first move, because the perceived lack of femininity in such a gesture would kill the love and respect of any man worth having. How unfair! The blood boils! (Until we see that Brontë agrees with this: it's an unjust situation, but it'd be still worse to behave like some unfeminine "Amazon"). We see how all the inaction and hemming and hawing in those early pages lead to moments of true regret and sorrow when the characters realize how they've wasted their lives (see the wonderful chapter of conversation between Moore and Yorke, "Rushedge, a Confessional"). And some of those dozens of characters that Brontë described in the beginning, for the sake of whose description she apparently sacrificed any notion of plot or theme, reappear to do extraordinary things: see Martin, the surly pre-teenager who hates "womenites," who's described in a paragraph and then disappears for, oh, 550 pages, suddenly pop out of the woods, utter some extraordinary dialogue, and give us some of the most funny and moving moments in the entire novel. Brilliant stuff!

Is this a three-star or five-star book? I don't know! I think that it's a book that might reward a rereading. But I don't think I'll read and reread it, as I do her other novels.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

À la recherche des revues critiques perdues

I've spent a lot of time writing book reviews on Goodreads.  Amazon has recently bought Goodreads.  I am moving my favorite reviews of favorite books to this blog.  All new reading reports will appear here.  There are no relative clauses in this paragraph; I shan't ascribe relation, causality, or anysuch to my betterreading or betterreviewing.

Hojotoho!  Heiaha! Friends who are also fleeing from Goodreads should feel welcome to send along their reviews too!

Without further ado....I just finished reading À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, as some translators would have it, or In a Budding Grove:  anyway, the second volume of Marcel Proust's À la  recherche du temps perdu/In Search of Lost Time) yesterday on the subway.  How do we take an impression of experience, when experience is as fleeting as light--and we're trying to capture it at the remove of distance and time?

I remember that I read Swann's Way in English a few years ago.  By the time I'd decided to tackle Jeunes filles en fleurs in the original language (ha!), I found I had virtually no recollection of the previous volume, which I'd thought I'd loved but couldn't recognize now at all (kind of like when the narrator wonders whether or not it's even POSSIBLE to tell a young girl you're in love with apart from any other girl at the beach) (which, sustained over two hundred pages, becomes increasingly amusing) (SPOILER ALERT:  the answer is, finally, "kind of."  But for some reason, it's really super easy to pin down every single detail of the face, clothing, voice, manner, and genealogy of your best guy friend).  My memory of French is a similarly broken and shifting thing (my web browser tells me that I've looked up the word "ôter" oh, about fifty times, without ever remembering it from the previous encounters.  It would seem that it, and the French language in general, just ôtent themselves out of my head.  It took me over a year to finish Jeunes filles, though I should say in my defense that during much of that year I was too busy eating French candy and having fights with customer service reps in French department stores to actually learn French.  So I just keep on keepin on, like a baby monkey on a pig, but nowhere as speedy. Or cute).  My next language resuscitation project will be rereading Swann's Way, but in French this time, which will provide funny memory echoes and yet be entirely new at the same time, which is appropriate.

In the meantime, here's my old review of Swann's Way, which also makes me ask:  who was the person who wrote this review?  I may find, upon re-/reading, that I'm not that person at all anymore, and that I don't agree with anything she said.

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (out of 5, duh)
Trans. Lydia Davis.  Penguin Classics, 2004.

This review contains spoilers, but nothing gets spoiled that you wouldn't figure out from the jacket flap.  If, indeed, you're the kind of person whose enjoyment gets spoiled at all by knowing plot elements in advance. 


What excites me most about this book is the combination of two apparently incompatible aspects:  first, the quality of poignancy, wit, comedy, and, like, realism, in the observations; second, the constant questioning of what observation and reality are.  The book is a novel that satisfies all our expectations of memoir/autobiography, yet foils any attempt to ask the questions that most irritate novelists:  is what happens in your book true?  Did it happen to you this way?  Did you make it up?  Is it real?

The narrator of Swann's Way states outright that true reality is to be found only in memory.  But the chapter/novella Swann in Love contained within this volume, which at first appears to have been summoned into literary and emotional reality by the bite of tilleul-soaked madeleine, is described by our narrator as the cribbing of another person's memories, narrated long after the events, and perhaps even secondhand--and bearing a suspicious resemblance to other events experienced by the narrator himself.  Can we trust the narrator's description of Swann's unrequited longing for Odette, when that longing looks so similar to the narrator's own longing for his mother's bedtime kiss?  Whose memory are we talking about anyway?  Whose reality?  Are we seeing a universality of feeling, the means by which the narrator (or the reader) can empathize with Swann's wildly different experience, the empathy that supposedly proves the honesty or truth of a scene?  (It is honest because it feels real to me; it is honest because it's exactly like the time that I....)  Or are we seeing an outlandishly stretched analogy that has been planted to highlight the artificiality of connection, of empathy?  Is Proust tricking us into exposing just how limited our imaginations are in apprehending existences separate from ours?  (If that which is honest is so only because it appears so to me, does that mean that nothing is honest which is outside my own experience and my own ability to analogize?  Am I really that egocentric?)

Even were we to succeed in establishing the narrative perspectives as memory/reality on one hand, and fiction/analogy/empathy on the other, both the novella and the framing story show us that memory and the experience of reality are tenuous:  our apprehension is limited and unreliable, and so much more so must be our memory of what we've apprehended.  Swann learns that his most cherished memories of Odette, accepted by him as truth, were--had always been--only later became--not what he thought they were.  When did they become lies--when they were happening, or when he found out--if they have indeed become lies at all?  So, if the narrator recognizes this in Swann, is he not suggesting to us that we should read the life at Combray, the remembered childhood, and in particular the incident of the madeleine with a gram of, if not skepticism, then of pity, and regret, and, yes, empathy, because all of us are made fools by our memories?  Because none of us has a better mastery of her own reality?  Maybe our narrator isn't savvy enough to have figured this out, but Proust certainly knows, that while Swann abjects himself before Odette, a slippery elusive lying cheating ho (maybe!?), those of us trying to grasp the truth of literature, of other people, and even of our own lives, experience a similar thralldom.

So, is it possible at all to answer all of these questions with a Yes?  Can one reconcile the experience of reality with the knowledge of its artificiality, the feeling of connection with the awareness of its limitation?  Can we appreciate all Proust's literary hijinks at our expense, while admitting that yes, we were convinced by his descriptions of the pink hawthorns in bloom, of Francoise's munificence at the market, of the aunts' vulgarity (among the most delicious descriptions), of the terrible need to confess to love and desire even if one knows that the object of our affection will be repulsed by our confession?  Can truth be found anywhere at all?

Why, yes!  The big Yes is Art.  The art of the fictive imagination, in making truth happen on the fly and where one doesn't expect it, in the wondrously absurd and therefore, somehow, convincing analogy of a jaded sophisticate's doomed love for a courtesan to a child's waiting for his favorite playmate to arrive at the park.  It is the artist's job to show us that the cake isn't real, but to make us taste it at the same time.