Monday, 26 January 2015

On Charlotte Bronte, and her heroines

Some writers, such as Chekhov, Turgenev, Jane Austen..., keep themselves detached, hidden from view. To quote them, one must always be careful- often, their personal opinions are not on the page. Some writers are also objective, presenting things and characters as they are without letting private feelings interfere with their art, but unlike the aforementioned, have too strong a personality to be invisible. Tolstoy is an example. Or Flaubert. And there are writers like Charlotte Bronte, whose overpowering personality can be felt on every page. She brings herself not only into the narrator, but sometimes makes characters her mouthpieces. We hear her, now and then, in Jane Eyre, in Lucy Snowe, in Shirley Keeldar, in Caroline Helstone, even in Rose Yorke, Mrs Pryor... We feel her presence everywhere, even in the descriptions of nature, for she tends to use nature to convey the emotions and passions of her characters that cannot be expressed with mere words, which very often seem to echo her own feelings.
And yet, in spite of all shortcomings, there are great compensations- no, great merits. Charlotte Bronte is no realist- her novels transport readers to a different world, a fascinating world created solely by her imagination. Charlotte Bronte doesn't patiently observe and record people's manners- rather, it seems like she creates characters out of her own mind, and breathes life into them. They might speak awkwardly, but their rich inner lives and the images the author depicts give them a convincingness, a vivid existence. I can see Jane Eyre before me. I can see Lucy Snowe. I can now see Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. Shirley is proof that even though in Jane and Lucy, Charlotte Bronte incorporates much of her own personality, experience and suffering, as a governess and as a teacher respectively, she can also write about characters that aren't images of herself. Caroline resembles Jane and Lucy in her quietness and introversion and love for literature, but we cannot find in her the strength and endurance of Jane and Lucy, because she's still young and inexperienced, still romantic, a bit naive, apparently unaware of the hardships of the world, which can be seen most clearly in her conversation with Mrs Yorke about a mother's life. Her insistence on becoming a governess as an escape from broken-heartedness, in an unready, unprepared state, shows both her innocence and her mental weakness- not only is she rather withdrawn, passive, even submissive, but she also lacks independence and strength and perhaps a rich inner world to deal with a disappointment in love. 1st she wants an escape. Later she gets seriously sick. Things like this don't happen to Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, who are more like stoics. At the same time, it feels like Caroline's life is empty, until Shirley appears. 
Shirley, like Jane and Lucy, is strong-willed, independent and self-determined. Like them, she loves literature and poetry and nature, and has a rich imagination. Like them, she voices Charlotte Bronte's indignation at the gender inequality of society. The similarity, I suppose, ends there. Her social position and wealth give her advantages and freedom, she can do anything as she pleases, including doing business, talking politics, making use of her money to help others. More than that, she has charm and vivacity, without any of the coquettishness and affectation of many girls in wealthy families. She has a man's name and a man's job, and takes no interest in "feminine" things such as dressing up, going to parties, being coquettish, etc. Charm doesn't sound like Bronte, nor does vivacity- the images we often have in mind, hearing Charlotte Bronte's name, are often of young women in black or grey, working hard to earn their own living, stoically accepting and enduring hardships, keeping feelings within themselves though sometimes they may have an outburst. But here we have Shirley, who is sociable and charming and well-liked and vivacious. She stands in contrast to Caroline's timidity and passivity, she influences people and galvanises them. The easiest example is Caroline, who changes and becomes more active, more open, because of Shirley and starts doing things she wouldn't do without Shirley. Shirley also influences Mr Helstone for instance, who generally doesn't have high opinions of women and who nevertheless follows her and takes part in her project. 
Some people may find Shirley too ideal and thus unrealistic, but she's not so perfect. She does have quite a temper and a few times seems a bit tempestuous, such as when she gets angry at Mrs Pryor after the attack of the mill, and later apologises. I think, there seem to be 2 persons within Shirley, she has another side in her, a childlike side. She can also be proud. 
In spite of all the drawbacks, the characters appear vividly. Charlotte Bronte even makes readers want to be friends with Caroline, or Shirley, or both. 
To get back to the point I tried to make at the beginning of this post, Charlotte Bronte's personality is all over the pages, I think we can feel fascinated by her novels when we are drawn to the author herself, her fascinating, overpowering personality, her Romantic soul, her refusal to stay within bounds (that is, we must accept her limitations and faults). When readers don't feel that way about Charlotte Bronte, I guess the novels don't give them much. 


  1. Charlotte Bronte is a curious being. Despite her flawed technique, she has this strange effect on me: when I read other good authors, I see the scenes clearly before me, as an observer. But when I read Charlotte Bronte, I become the character, and see through their eyes.

    I love the Shirley/Caroline dynamic too. It's not often I see the BFF phenomenon given a large part in many great novels.

    1. Do you find it unnatural/ unconvincing that Caroline's still friendly towards Shirley and not very jealous of her, though she thinks Shirley and Robert are in love and may marry?
      G. H. Lewes thinks so, for one.

    2. Actually, Caroline becomes a little more reserved towards Shirley. Shirley remarks on it. She half-accuses Caroline of not enjoying her company. But Caroline has an internal logic, and I find it consistent that her jealousy doesn't affect their friendship very much. Remember that Caroline is depressed and fading away when Shirley befriends her, and brings out the best in her. Caroline doesn't have much in common with the other young ladies in the district. Shirley is the only girl near her age whom she can really get along with. Shirley makes her feel happy and confident, and is her intellectual equal. She takes care of her, tells her to be more demonstrative of her affection for Robert, and above all, needs her. Caroline is not used to being needed by anyone, not even Robert. She needs someone stronger to depend on, someone to love her, but she also wants to be needed. Notice that Caroline only seems to be truly happy after she finds out that Mrs Pryor is her mother. Shirley might have been an attempt to find an emotional mother-substitute. Caroline is tender-hearted; possibly because Shirley is so likeable and seeks her, the unremarkable girl above all the other young ladies in the neighbourhood, she is overwhelmed by Shirley's good points that her bad point (possibly loving Robert) is cast into the shadows. Caroline is not very vindictive, not like Jane or Lucy. She is pessimistic; she has resigned herself somewhat to the fact that Shirley and Robert may marry (but is still upset over it). Even before she met Shirley she felt Robert may not marry her, Caroline. To her their marriage seems natural. She is forcing herself to face what she thinks is the truth.

      From personal experience, I can say that this case, though unusual, is convincing. One time a friend and I fancied the same guy. I had gone through some problems and this friend had taken me under the wing and I was particularly grateful to her. While I was upset she fancied the same guy, it did not in the least lessen my liking for her. I liked being with her. I considered the triangle just an unfortunate circumstance because she was nice to me. If she had been awful, no doubt I would have felt vindictive. But if people like me and are nice to me, I can't help liking them.

    3. Makes sense. I agree with you.
      About your 1st comment, I liked her a lot many years ago. Now it's cooled.

  2. C, have you read Flaubert?