Although The Victorian Art of Fiction devotes as much space to useful discussion of Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot, I most enjoyed the attention paid to Charlotte Brontë. The anthology includes two essays exclusively about Brontë, and she receives substantial treatment in several others. What’s fun about Brontë is that she made readers, whether they liked her or not, uneasy.
The book’s first essay in an 1848 anonymous review of Jane Eyre, perhaps the earliest. The reviewer basically loves Jane Eyre, is amazed by it, but also disquieted:
To say that Jane Eyre is positively immoral or anti-Christian, would be to do its writer an injustice. Still it wears a questionable aspect. (26)
The reviewer recommends that Currer Bell “ be a little more trustful of the reality of human goodness, and a little less anxious to detect its alloy of evil.” As an aside, one of the reviewer’s lines about Jane is a classic: “Never was there a better hater” (18).
Margaret Oliphant, writing in 1855 is similarly taken with Brontë and similarly nervous. C. W. Russell, a Catholic priest, acknowledges the power of Brontë (“this strange, and, with all her power, unpleasing and unamiable writer”, 100) but is willing to take the next step. In “Novel-Morality: The Novels of 1853” he argues that Brontë’s novels are plainly irreligious, and, particularly, anti-Catholic. His position is narrow but specific, and he uses the actual text of the novels as evidence, which is more than Leslie Stephen can bring himself to do.
Leslie Stephen’s 1877 “Hours in a Library: Charlotte Brontë” is a life-and-works essay that insidiously crushes the novels under the Brontë biography. Stephen repeats the usual adjectives (“power” and “intense” and variations thereof, for example “a character so intense, original, and full of special idiosyncrasy,” 260) but refuses to accept that Charlotte Brontë is a literary artist:
The most obvious of all remarks about Miss Brontë is the close connection between her life and her writings. Nobody ever put so much of themselves into their work… And, as this is almost too palpable a proposition to be expressly mentioned, it seems to be an identical proposition that the study of her life is the study of her novels… She has simply given fictitious names and dates, with a more or less imaginary thread of narrative, to her own experience… (262)
Simply! More or less! I said “insidious” because of Stephen’s method of argument. He begins reasonably enough, but on each page rotates the frame slightly. The balance between the life and works shifts, bit by bit, until, by essay’s end, Stephen takes the novels as nothing more than biographical evidence of pathology. The nadir is his use of the confession scene in Villette, “a true story, like most of her incidents” (274), which provides evidence of “a mind diseased,” by which I think Stephen means “uneasy,” and which is true, if the mind is that of the fictional Lucy Snowe, rather than the non-fictional Charlotte Brontë.
More juicy Stephen tidbits. If Brontë were better read in philosophy “her characters would have embodied more fully the dominating ideas of the time” (262), which Stephen apparently thinks would be a good thing. Emily and Wuthering Heights make their only appearance in the anthology, to be dismissed this way: “Emily Brontë’s feeble grasp of external facts makes her book a kind of baseless nightmare” (273). Rochester “ is in reality the personification of a true woman’s longing (may one say it now?) for a strong master” (271). The lessons of Brontë’s novels “imply a blasphemy against the most divine instincts of human nature” (274). Leslie Stephen is not Charlotte Brontë’s ideal reader.
I paid special attention to the writings about Charlotte Brontë because of a preposterous idea I have been ponderating about Villette, which has led to an even more preposterous idea about Jane Eyre, all of which would take some real effort to put in order, even for mere blog posts. I worry that I have badly misread her – why else has no one else seen what I see? Stephen’s essay build my confidence. Maybe I’m misreading her, but I’m not alone.