Tuesday 27 January 2015

Misty Monday

I took these photos yesterday afternoon, with my recently bought smartphone. No filter.

Politics in Shirley

I haven't read The Professor, but Shirley is probably Charlotte Bronte's most political novel.
The novel, set at the beginning of the 19th century, focuses on Luddite attacks. The industrialist is represented by Robert Moore, who is initially determined not to give in at any cost and doesn't care what happens to his former workers after they're fired. The working class are generally seen as a group, especially the Luddites, but there's 1 individual- William Farren, a good, honest man put out of work. The author's views are clear. She disapproves of the Luddites' violent acts and portrays the leader of the 1st attack, Barraclough, as a drunken man, but at the same time sympathises with workers such as William Farren, and understands their anger. She sympathises with Robert Moore and sees the need of industrialisation, modernisation and technology development, but also makes him soften, repent his harsh attitude and find another job for Farren.
Her attitude is seen more clearly with the aid of some other characters. Mr Yorke, for instance, can be extreme and intolerant in his politics (interesting detail: he chooses to speak Yorkshire dialect though he can speak standard English and French), and bigoted in some matters, but after all he's good-natured, proud to those above him and kind to those below him, having sympathises with and always helping the working class. Shirley, 1 of the wealthy ones in the novel, helps others with her money. In short, Charlotte Bronte shows us the working class in their difficult times, their unemployment and poverty and suffering, their anger and desperation and thoughtless violent acts. The solution she offers, it seems, is that each person has to work, live a good, useful, honest life, and those more able should give a hand to help those less fortunate- Shirley does charities, Mr Helstone donates his own money to the church, Miss Ainley lives like a saint and places others' needs above her own, Mr Yorke helps the poor, etc. Apparently, it's easier to write about Luddites than about Chartists, while I would prefer to know her view on Chartists and their demands. 
The other political aspect, as one may expect, is about women. It's characteristic of Bronte. She rants about the limitation of choice for women, exemplified by the case of Mrs Pryor, who only has the choice between marriage and a governess's life, and suffers from both, until she works for Shirley. Charlotte Bronte depicts sexists, such as Joe Scott, or milder, Mr Helstone and Martin Yorke. She creates conformist female characters, such as Misses Sympson and Misses Nunnely, who think that what's strange must be wrong, what's unusual must be improper. 
Then she makes her characters speak. Caroline and Shirley discuss women's lives and job opportunities. Mrs Pryor speaks about her suffering as a governess and as a wife and tells Caroline that life is an illusion. The spinsters talk about their experience and unhappy unmarried life. Caroline dwells on the grief and solitary life of Mrs Pryor and her lack of choice, and the smallness of a woman's life. Rose Yorke rants about the "long, slow death" of all the women around her and yearns for something greater, fuller, more exciting out there. Mrs Yorke, a cynic, rants about the difficulties of being a mother and bringing up a bunch of children, and scolds Caroline for being a sentimentalist who knows nothing about the world. Caroline, who is generally timid, has an outburst before Mrs Yorke, which shows that, timid as she is, she has a strong will and a voice to defend herself. Shirley rants about men's misconceptions of women and misrepresentations of women in literature. Shirley ridicules Joe Scott for his sexism. Etc, etc. 
In all of these cases, we feel that it's also the author speaking, not only the characters. 
Then Mrs Yorke is silenced. Joe Scott is ridiculed. Martin Yorke yields. Mr Helstone the sexist sees Shirley as an exception, and follows her in her project. Mr Yorke, in a discussion on politics with Shirley, cannot respond to her arguments. Her characters win, she wins. 
I can't help thinking of Virginia Woolf, who writes that Charlotte Bronte "had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?"
In short, from the aesthetic point of view, she puts all of her private feelings into this novel and lets them distort her art. 
From the political point of view, here she addresses the women's condition question further in Shirley than in other novels. In Jane Eyre and Villette, she mostly focuses on the life of a single person, here she elevates it, expands it, universalises it. Here, choosing the 3rd person's point of view, she explores the feelings of many girls and women, and writes about the smallness of a woman's life, the lack of opportunities, the limited choice, the suffering in the life of a governess or a wife when she has the misfortune of living with an unkind family or a bad husband, the solitary life of governesses and spinsters, the burden of a mother of many children, etc. In Jane Eyre, she, through Jane Eyre, argues that women have as much feeling as men; in Shirley, she indirectly argues that women have as much sense, as Shirley takes part in business and talks about politics just as men do. 
Shirley is, in my opinion, 1 of her weaker works, but it's interesting, and different. Here is a political novel by an author associated with Gothic novels and romance and bildungsroman. Here is something different. 

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. 

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Aha! (Reading Daniel Deronda)

Some interesting bits in Daniel Deronda
"Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach, and will reject the statement as a mere outflow of gall: they will aver that neither they nor their first cousins have minds so unbridled; and that in fact this is not human nature, which would know that such speculations might turn out to be fallacious, and would therefore not entertain them. But, let it be observed, nothing is here narrated of human nature generally: the history in its present stage concerns only a few people in a corner of Wessex—whose reputation, however, was unimpeached, and who, I am in the proud position of being able to state, were all on visiting terms with persons of rank..." 
Pride and Prejudice
"My dear boy, you are too young to be taking momentous, decisive steps of that sort. This is a fancy which you have got into your head during an idle week or two: you must set to work at something and dismiss it. There is every reason against it. An engagement at your age would be totally rash and unjustifiable; and moreover, alliances between first cousins are undesirable. Make up your mind to a brief disappointment. Life is full of them. We have all got to be broken in; and this is a mild beginning for you." 
Mansfield Park
"Some beautiful girls who, like her, had read romances where even plain governesses are centres of attraction and are sought in marriage, might have solaced themselves a little by transporting such pictures into their own future; but even if Gwendolen's experience had led her to dwell on love-making and marriage as her elysium, her heart was too much oppressed by what was near to her, in both the past and the future, for her to project her anticipations very far off..." 
Jane Eyre

Sunday 4 January 2015

Russian Literature Challenge 2014: wrap-up

I managed 11 books, or 12 if Pnin counts. Level 3. 

1/ Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

2/ Chekhov's 40 Stories (Anton Chekhov)

3/ Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev)
I also read about half of A Hunter's Sketches

4/ Lev Tolstoy's Short Fiction- Norton Critical edition, which includes The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Family Happiness

5/ War and Peace (Lev Tolstoy)

6/ Memoirs from the House of the Dead (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

7/ Nikolai Leskov: Selected Tales

8/ Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol)

9/ The Overcoat and Other Short Stories (Nikolai Gogol)- Dover Thrift edition, including "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich", "The Nose" and "The Overcoat"

10/ A Hero of Our Time (Mikhail Lermontov)

11/ Rudin (Ivan Turgenev)

12/ Pnin (Vladimir Nabokov)- if it counts

I also read the correspondence between Flaubert and Turgenev:
Articles and essays I've read about Russian literature, such as those by Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, James Wood... are not included here. 

The Russian giants not only have vision, depth, complexity and genius but are also revolutionary and ahead of their time. Take Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground is 1 of the 1st existentialist works. Tolstoy's War and Peace is not seen as a novel but many postmodern novels, in the same way, also transcend genres such as The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Book of Daniel, etc. Gogol is absurd and modernist long before modernism, paving the way for authors such as Kafka. Chekhov's against conventions, against unrealistic conclusive endings. Lermontov successfully creates a mingling of voices and perspectives (whereas years later in England, Anne Bronte aims for the same effect in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall but goes for a poor method and structure- making the whole novel a letter and placing a diary in it). 
Overall, it has been a good year. None of these books disappointed. If I have to choose only 5 favourites among these, they are War and Peace, Dead Souls, Notes from Underground, A Hero of Our Time and Fathers and Sons (chosen with difficulty and lots of wavering- Pnin is left out because it's originally written in English). 
I'm also glad that after Nabokov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I've discovered some other great writers of Russian literature. Especially grateful for Gogol and Lermontov. 
Looking forward to an interesting year with Norwegian literature*.

*: I don't have high expectations, but we'll see. Amaze me. 

Saturday 3 January 2015


I finished reading Turgenev's Rudin (trans. David McDuff) some time around Christmas- confused and busy, I didn't know what to write. Even now I don't know how to approach this novel and how to feel about it. 
The image of a superfluous man, an intelligent, sensitive man without a will, without determination, without a purpose, is more vivid and lively in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time and Flaubert's Sentimental Education, but this comparison is probably unfair for Rudin. To dismiss it as a 1st novel, as something seems to be lacking, is perhaps also unfair for Turgenev. The fault is apparently mine, I don't get Rudin, and shouldn't write about it. 
1 of the issues I have is with the character of Rudin, who is meant to be an intelligent, well-educated, eloquent man, whose chief flaw is inaction, idleness. He lives off other people's money, achieves nothing and doesn't make use of his abilities. His intelligence and knowledge are seen very clearly in his discussions with the empty-headed Pigasov, especially when Rudin 1st appears in the novel, but lots of times, for me, he doesn't sound intellectual, but empty, pretentious, banal, mostly when he talks to Natalya. Or is that how Turgenev wants readers to see Rudin? What bothers me more: it's implied that Rudin with his passive, inactive tendency is set against Natalya, who is stronger in will. She urges him to work, to be useful. However, their last conversation, after the mother knows about their relationship, produces a different effect- because I see Rudin as not only inactive and idle but also pretentious and unreliable (he's not even certain of his feelings for Natalya), she's mistaken to expect much from him, and her surprise at his decision to submit shows naivete and something like an immature rebellion rather than a strong will or anything admirable. Her mother indeed underestimates her and fails to understand her, but she's not entirely wrong about Rudin. What does Natalya expect him to do? 
In any case, I should stop here. This post only proves what I already wrote at the beginning: I don't get Rudin


I've just got back from Paris (my 5th time, yes). Hence the absence. Was there from 23/12 to 2/1, I'm suffering from post-vacation blues. It'll take some time to get back to normal.