Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bronte Censors Bronte: Charlotte v. Anne

I have a Google Alert on for "Anne Bronte" because I am a major nerd. But you know, it comes in handy. I'm emailed links to things such as this blogger's musing on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as she reads it for the first time.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Bronte sisters, but Anne bears the worst of this burden, because the powerful Bronte mythology casts her as the quiet, least interesting, least talented sister. Of course that's all bollocks (although I'd argue Anne was indeed the best socialized and certainly the Bronte you'd want to invite to your dinner party---but does that make her least interesting and least talented? The wikipedia entry on Anne is much improved from how I remember it a while ago, if you're interested in more of the basics).

Regarding the blog post I linked: I wanted to post what follows this preamble as a response to the discussion in the comments section. However, making comments is limited to the blogger's own friends. Thus, this entry (which has grown and evolved from my modest would-be comment).

One commentator suggested Charlotte disliked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because Arthur Huntington, the violent alcoholic, is a portrait of their brother Branwell, and thus Anne was airing the family's dirty laundry by writing the book.

Here's where my response begins:

I actually think it may be a biographical fallacy to assume Branwell was the model for Arthur. . . if anything, I think Fergus might be based on Branwell. His physical description very closely matches the only male Bronte's appearance, and I think Branwell was the same kind of irreverent, flawed-but-lovable kind of jokester before he disintegrated into depression, alcohol , and opium.

Also, a real life Mrs. Collins (no relation), residing in West Yorkshire at the time, was in a very similar situation to the one depicted in the novel: she had an abusive and drunken husband and was considering leaving him. She came to Anne's father for advice at least a few times. . . . That situation resembles Anne's book much more than Branwell's does.

It's easy to forget Anne was pretty much the only sister to have an extensive life outside the family circle, and was the only one to find long-term success as a Governess. She spent 5 years living with the Robinson family. That included going on holiday with them; they considered her "indispensable." Surely, moving in those circles, she would gather experiences she could use not only in Agnes Grey, but also Tenant. Let'sremember, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about marriage and the dark side of domestic life, just as much as it is about alcoholism!

I also think this might go some way to explain Charlotte's distaste for the book. Anne almost certainly had to deal with many things during those 5 years, things which would have shocked Charlotte. It was during this time that Anne scribbled "sick of mankind and their disgusting ways" into her prayerbook, after all. That's usually read as disgust at her brother's suspected illict affair with Mrs. Robinson, but that is an assumption. Charlotte herself reports that Anne experienced and endured many horrible things during her very first year at the Robinson's, well before Anne used the family's good opinion of her to secure a job there for Branwell.

Also, Anne was a heretic. I'm not kidding, she actually was! She believed in Universal Salvation: she felt that even the most sinful souls will pass into Heaven after they have suffered for their sins. This is at odds with the High Church theology Charlotte exhibits in both her letters and works like Villette. Charlotte likely believed in eternal damnation; Anne did not. I think this means, while they condemn the same things, Charlotte might repress in an effort to keep sinners and saved clearly delineated, whereas Anne would be more inclined to publicize the immoral (as she does with Tenant), for we are all weak-willed mortals and we must be honest about our nature as such.

However, I think the main problem is simple: Charlotte, the eldest, infantalized Anne, who was, after all, the baby in the family. Charlotte always describes Anne as mild, sweet, weak, quiet, simple, even "nun-like." Yet, as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shows, Anne certainly had a core of steel, a powerful will all her own, and huge reserves of determination under the quiet exterior --- qualities her sister never credits her for in any biographical descriptions. Charlotte says as much: she dislikes Tenant because it was "too little consonant . . . with the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer" (never mind Charlotte had written no more than Anne at the time --- 2 novels apiece).

Whatever her reason, I wish Charlotte had not suppressed Tenant. She forbade it from being reprinted after Anne's death, and by the time her own death lifted the ban, Anne had been largely discounted as a writer and Tenant had been largely forgotten as a work of literature. It survived mostly in illegal and often mutilated editions (even today one must be careful: some cheaper editions still leave out sections. I suggest The Oxford World Classics edition; it also has Anne's own preface to the second edition, a remarkable if all-too-short defense of her text and a hint of her philosophy of literature --- including perhaps the most strongly proto-feminist statements a Bronte ever set to paper).

Before Charlotte's act of censorship, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been a best-seller, second only to Jane Eyre in popularity amongst the sister's books, but Charlotte did her best to pretend Anne had never written it. She says as much: Wildfell Hall "hardly appears to me desirable to preserve," she writes to her publisher as Emily and Anne's literary executor.

Thus a century or more judged Anne largely by Agnes Grey, the only thing in print and readily available. It's nice and well-executed, ironic and understated, but nothing too special. Tenant is Anne's masterpiece and is as deserving of it status as a classic as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are (and remember: when Anne wrote Tenant, she was younger than when Charlotte wrote The Professor --- just imagine what Anne might have become if she'd lived just a few years longer).

In the light of all this surmising, the pencil sketch of Anne (first picture in entry) is interesting. Anne is in Branwell's famous group portait, of course, but the picture near the top is the definitive image of Anne herself. And Charlotte drew it.

In a way, it was Charlotte's perception of her sister (popularized by Elizabeth Gaskell) that many people have seen when they look at the youngest Bronte. And that has coloured readings of Anne's work ever since; people approach it with an idea of what it is, and what the author is (and isn't) capable of, and these ideas trace their lineage to Charlotte's ideas of dear gentle Anne. Any time we come to a text, we are influenced by our preconceptions of both it and its author, but rarely can such a large majority of these be traced to a single source.

Thankfully this has started to change, but not in any significant way until 20-30 years ago. Before then, it was rare for Anne's texts to be subject to critical inquiry outside the context of Bronteana.

So. I find the relationship between Anne and Charlotte so intriguing. There was such love between them, that fact is absolutely clear (read accounts of Anne's final illness, when it was just the two of them left; it's heartbreaking stuff). I really don't intend to suggest Charlotte was motivated by malice, just misunderstanding. And here we are 159 years after the fact, and an elder sister's inability to see the genius in the younger influences us still.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Anyone subscribe to The New Republic?

And if so, would you be willing to e-mail me the full-text of Lorin Stein's "Baudelaire And The Perils (And Promise) Of Translation"? I would absolutely love to read it, but, sadly, can't afford a subscription to TNR at the moment.

In other news, some of you may have noticed that I'm overdue for a review. I haven't forgotten. In fact, I have two different reviews--one on Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin, the other on Bram Stoker's Dracula--germinating at the moment; however, I won't be able to write up either of them until this coming weekend because I still have to finish a couple freelance articles that are due this Thursday and Friday. Wish me luck!

Will be posting more soon...

Monday, February 25, 2008

A little bit of fun

I think I've spooked myself! I haven't made a peep since my first post (a full-on treatise about transhumanist anxiety in The Time Machine), and I think it's because I haven't felt moved (nor have I had the time) to make a long, involved, close-reading of another specific Brit-Lit text. I've been reading Mavis Beacon and finding days slipping away without knowing where they're going to (ending with a preposition! I do not apologize!)

But I must get over this. I must restart the word-generating machines in my brainstuff.

So! To that end: Natalie has already outed me as a RAVING Bronte maniac (I once went on pilgrimage to the Haworth parsonage for a birthday --- get the picture?). I'll speak to that with a round of . . . . (cue the theme music)

Bronte Novel Word Association! I hear this was being optioned by the networks just before the resolution of the writers' strike.

Let's do 'em chronologically, eh?

The Professor: Perverse!
Agnes Gray: Patient.
Wuthering Heights: Primordial.
Jane Eyre: Smoldering.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Outraged.
Shirley: Distracted.
Vilette: Desolate.

NOW IT IS YOUR TURN, tiny percentage of people who have read the entire Bronte canon!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

And NOW for something completely different...!

Monty Python does Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in semaphore:

Hee hee. That certainly cheers up this blustery, drizzly, miserable winter day!

And because, given mine and Michael's predilection for both Emily "Ellis Bell" Brontë and Kate Bush, the posting of the following video is inevitable, I give you also Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights":

Hoping that's made the rest of your weekend bearable...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nineteen News

How is the nineteenth century making the news lately?

The Texts:
- In The Vancouver Sun, Anakana Schofield extols the joys of nineteenth century novels and their film adaptations;

- The Los Angeles Times's Patt Morrison reviews Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher, a new novel that takes for its subject Tom Sawyer's lady friend;

- Students at Montreal's McGill University are mounting a production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler--except they've decided to transplant the story. Instead of nineteenth-century Norway, the story unfolds in the mid-twentieth century United States. Hmmm... I just don't know about that...;

- New bargain editions of nineteenth century novels and stories are seeing the light of day! Joining the incomparable Brian Nelson's new translation of Emile Zola's Le Ventre de Paris in Oxford University Press' spring catalogue are new editions and reissues of books that include Mansfield Park, Emma, Jane Eyre, L'Éducation sentimentale, A Confederate Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Faust, Part Two, War and Peace, a collection of Ibsen's plays, and a collection of Poe's short stories. All these texts will be published under OUP's Oxford World's Classics imprint, which is debuting the results of its makeover this April (the new look is a little reminiscent of that of Gallimard's Folio Classique imprint, non?); and

- I want this. [EDIT: And this.]

The Contexts:
- The 1857 Rebellion: Debates in Indian History is reviewed by Suranjan Das;

- A great little piece by Robert L. Mack. He manages to condense a lot of information about early-Victorian reading habits into a relatively small space;

- The Brits can breathe a sigh of relief: a new study absolves them of wrongdoing in Napoleon's death;

- Ever wonder how people whiled away their free time in the Wild West? Well, wonder no more!

- New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art have renovated the exhibition space that is home to the nineteenth-century pieces in its collection;

- If you happen to be in Manchester between now and April 6, 2008, you're in for a treat: the art of William Blake is being exhibited--and, natch!, for free--at the city's Whitworth Art Gallery;

- Historians are currently compiling archival documents for a collection on the American Civil War and the Ozarks; and

- In honour of the day, check out this post at NineteenTeen for some tidbits about Valentine's cards in our favourite century.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

"À une passante" (or "un passant," as the case may be)

Michael got us off to a great start the other day, but what's a new blog without a proper introductory post? Apologizing for my tardiness--those who know me know that my sense of time can be a little decadent/Decadent--I mark our debut nonetheless.

With a mind to continuing our invocation of Baudelaire--the blog's title refers to the English translation of his "Le Peintre de la vie moderne"--I could have just as easily titled this post "Au Lecteur"; however, given the way most people surf weblogs, it seemed more appropriate to address the passer by.

So, dear Passer By, why should you linger here? What will this blog offer?

Painters of Modern Life purposes itself as a forum for the interdisciplinary study of all-things nineteenth-century. How does it do this? Why, through the lens of the period's literature, of course!

In "Le Peintre de la vie moderne," Charles Baudelaire argues, if you'll pardon my being reductive, that the charge of the artist is to depict his age: to distill in aesthetic form the desires, difficulties, joys, and anxieties that are tied to his or her immediate time and space. To this end, Baudelaire suggests that the artist (or, for our primary purpose, the writer) must necessarily focus on the "transitory, fugitive element[s]"--fashion or custom, for example--because they reveal more about the communities they describe than those things which are held as eternally true. "Eternal truths" belong to all ages and thus none at all; fashion and taste are particular.

While Baudelaire's essay, which is couched as a review of an art exhibit, is most often cited as one of the earliest calls for that alleged rebellion against Realism--l'art pour l'art, or art for art's sake--the beauty of it is that, perhaps in spite of the poet-critic's best intentions, it acts as an apology for the nineteenth century's other literary impulses as well.

Literary styles are transitory--textual fashions, if you will; nineteenth-century novels, poems, and essays are thus as much literary documents as they are historical documents that may help us to understand the past. For example, Realist texts, mirroring the economic and social changes under industrialization, often took for their subject the trials of the middle and working classes. Naturalist works, with their preoccupation with psychology and criminality, reflect the public's growing fascination with the period's "scientific" advances. One might say, then, that literature paints life in its modernity.

It is for this reason that we have titled our little book blog "Painters of Modern Life," for to study the literature and the authors of the nineteenth century is to study life in the nineteenth century as well.

Consequently, not only will we post original criticism/reviews of nineteenth century literature, but we will provide historical context as well. Key concepts, literary movements, and events--Darwinism, Transcendentalism, and the Paris Commune, for example--will be highlighted in our Introducing... series.

Also featured here: news about new editions and translations of nineteenth-century texts, and about contemporary research into/criticism about the period. Consider Painters of Modern Life your one-stop shop for all manner of nineteenth-century literary minutiae!

Our approach, as I've mentioned above, will be interdisciplinary. Though we are united in our study of the nineteenth century, we three contributors differ in our areas of expertise and interest. While I'm sure both Dave and Michael could do a better job of introducing themselves and their interests than I can, this post would be remiss of its intent if I didn't try to do this on my own.

Dave, who finds himself smack-in-the-middle of completing a Ph'D (just finished those pesky comprehensive exams!), is our resident Americanist. His special interest in frontier narratives goes beyond the works of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, and Melville; his recent research includes positioning twentieth-century and contemporary alien abduction stories as the new horizon for the frontier tale. Dave has joked that he just does this nineteenth century-thing for his degree, that his real interest is in television. And while I don't doubt this, neither do I doubt his interest in the period to which this blog is devoted: he combines the two studies in his work on Deadwood, some of which has been published in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By.

Michael is our Brit-lit aficionado. He has a passion for all things Brontë with a particular soft-spot for Ms. Anne. As of late, when he hasn't been working on his first novel, Michael has been--in his own words--"thinking about futurism and transhumanism and cyborgs and fables," but given his review of The Time Machine, that rather goes without saying, doesn't it? What doesn't go without saying, though, is Michael's moonlighting as a Canadianist. He has studied the oeuvre of Jane Urquhart, who is herself fascinated by the Brontës, with as much fervour as the pseudonymously-published sisters.

As for me, well, my training is as a comparatist, so while my expertise is in French and Italian literary Naturalism and Decadence, from time-to-time I can be expected to tread on David's and especially Michael's toes (Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure ranks as my all-time favourite novel, and I really enjoy the work of George Egerton, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Brontë.) In addition to Naturalism and Decadence, I'm preoccupied by the links between allegory and fetishism, the rhetoric of hysteria, and the period's anxieties surrounding women's education and literacy. Nascent interests include freakery and the nineteenth-century circus sideshow, and the representation of the nineteenth century in contemporary literature and film.

Still with us, gentle Passer By? Or, if you've come this far, might we now say "gentle Reader"? Dave and Michael have charged me with the task of introducing our little project, so on behalf of the three of us, allow me to welcome your many future returns!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Time Machine and Victorian Transhumanism: A Different Kind of Anxiety

I promised myself that my first contribution to this blog would NOT be an underdone post-undergraduate essay, but lookie look, I'm sure something like the title of this post has crossed the desk of many a harried and underpaid sessional prof. Oh well. Must not get hung up on it.

So. Yes. The Time Machine. Good ol' Herbert George Wells with his scientific fantasy, his fable of the future, full of Darwin-informed fears that Marx would become biological. With each generation, the leisured upper-classes will become more frivolous and weak, the downtrodden worker will become stronger (and embittered!) for his struggles. Eventually, presto-change-o, the master-slave dyad is reversed. Right? That's how I've always been lead to read The Time Machine

It's the same kind of anxiety people feel regarding 'designer babies' --- you know, the idea that rich people can pay to have their offspring's genomes tweaked, thereby making class divisions biological. Strong intelligent bourgeoisie, dull-witted working-class drudges. Invariably, Morlock and Eloi are invoked whenever the media takes note of such an issue. Check out this example from The Daily Mail, entitled "Human race will 'split into two different species (link)'":

  • In the 1895 book, the human race has evolved into two distinct species, the highly intelligent and wealthy Eloi and the frightening, animalistic Morlock who are destined to work underground to keep the Eloi happy.

Of course, this isn't just a misreading. It's a colossal failure along the lines of calling Wuthering Heights a heart-warming romance (more on that later, I'm sure). It's almost as if the journalist had the basic concept of The Time Machine explained to them (yes I will be using 'they' and 'them' as singular gender neutral pronouns), but fundamentally misunderstood (or were misinformed) on all of the specifics. Yeah, the Morlock do work to keep the Eloi happy --- everyone knows content calves make the best veal.

The Eloi are not intelligent, and they appear to live a post-consumer existence, so the paradigm of wealth VS poverty is sort of not applicable. As for calling the Morlocks 'frightening,' well, that's kind of to the point, but 'animalistic?' Not only do I disagree, I'm going to argue the opposite.

The Eloi are simplistic creatures inhabiting a prelapsarian Eden. Science is not just undeveloped among them; they lack the very fundamental abilities of reason. They are unable to make simple cognitive partitions like test/control or even human/nature, mental organizations that the empirical method requires. Even language has atrophied among them. They posses none of the qualities that traditionally separate human and animal (a separation that is becoming increasingly blurry and permeable, but no matter, it was a pretty clear delineation in the late 19th century).

Meanwhile! Meanwhile, the Morlock are cunning. They understand cause and effect, and many times they are shown to experiment and deduce. They understand at least the basics of mechanics. More importantly, they are divorced from the natural world even as the Eloi are subsumed by it --- they live underground, in artificial tunnels and passageways. They are unequipped to deal with the light of the sun or the flash of a flame, both natural phenomenon. They farm their food (remembering that agriculture is a manipulation of nature and thus can be called unnatural, especially when practiced on an industrial scale).

So in a way, The Time Machine isn't class division made biological. It's technology made biological.

If it were a question of class, would not the Eloi use their cash (and thus their power) to maintain the status quo, as The Daily Mail mistakenly thinks they did? Oh surely, in the maelstrom of anxiety that is The Time Machine, there is a fretful awareness of the labour movement, socialism, and the inhumanity of industrial capitalism as practiced in 19th century Britain --- but if Communism had succeeded (as the Eloi's post-industrial idyll might initially suggest) why were not the workers (the Morlocks) freed from poverty and servitude to take their due portion? And if the schism into Eloi and Morlock is meant to represent the end result of a ruthless industrial capitalism where a leisured class lives off the sweat of the labourers' brow, how did the Eloi become (literally) prey to the Morlocks --- surely they would exercise their power and capital to maintain the status quo long before the proletariat started eating their flesh.

So, yes. The Time Machine is an old favourite. It can be read in an afternoon, which is what I did recently. And by golly gum if I didn't say to myself, after thinking all of the above: "the Morlocks are cyborgs! CYBORGS!"

I'm prone to excitable statements and I'm not sure that's quite what Donna Haraway had in mind. Haraway writes in a digital context; Wells, steam and piston. But the fact remains that Morlocks are rational, subterranean, pitiless: urban. The Eloi are pastoral, sensual, emotive: rural.

That's what the text is afraid of, at the eye of the hurricane of anxiety (and it is such an anxious text!) It senses the emergence of technologically-augmented urban humanity, a seeming new species of city dwellers, and, recoiling in horror, it turns them into monsters. Yet the alternative, the simplistic and stupid Eloi, offer no intellectual or artistic stimulation. As my father is fond of quoting, "how are ya' gonna keep 'em down on the farm / now that they've seen Paris?" --- the old is as dull and devoid of meaning as the new is terrifying and (seemingly) heartless. When Man and Machine come forward to the future, the Eloi embrace the Man, and the Morlock drag off the machine.

The Industrial Revolution had only just celebrated its first centenary when The Time Machine was published in 1895. London had experienced a near-exponential level of growth throughout that century. It's cliché but it is still worthwhile to remind ourselves of the following (from London Online):

  • Comparing the beginning of the 19th century with the end we see two starkly different cities both in terms of size and also in terms of technological advancement. In 1800 there were no railways, no cabs, no buses, no telegrams, no telephones, no gas, no electric-light, no 'penny post', and no new Metropolitan Police. In 1900 all of the above existed.

It's somewhat like Frankenstein, then, in its fear of what technology and science are capable of when they cross paths with biology, but it is informed by Darwin's theories just as Frankenstein is informed by then-recent discoveries regarding electricity and the electrical properties of the nerves. Frankenstein's monster is made from human parts, but is, through technological intervention, greater than humanity. Ditto the Morlock in the context of the Eloi.

So: just as the titular Machine itself transgresses the bounds of what humanity 'should' and 'should not' do, so the Morlock have become unrecognizable as human even as the exhibit the qualities usually used to delineate human from animal. Conversely, the Eloi are strongly identified with human children, even as they lack any of the intellectual traits which we usually call 'human.'

So: the Morlock are human, more human than the Eloi, but they have been cross-bred or 'tainted' with technology, as it is understood in the pre-digital pre-atomic steam era. The increasing pace of change, the sprawl of urban development that E. M. Forster would decry only 15 years later in Howards End, the continued integration and supplementation of human life with mechanical devices --- they prompted the nightmare that prompted The Time Machine.

And that's my first post, made! My first brushstroke on the Brit-Lit canvas as a Painter of Modern Life. It's an exciting time to be alive.


NB: oh, yes, a l'il nota bene action for y'all: I currently have no access to scholarly sources, and besides these are just my thoughts and ideas, not a conference paper. Chillax! Although please do suggest readings if you think any are pertinent. I'm hopin' to return to the ol' Ivory Tower some day not too far away (18 months?)