So this all began with Villette (1853), a book I read last summer. I absolutely loved it’s “astounding insular audacity.” I read it as part of a readalong at The Valve (thanks, Rohan!) and found myself responding to it quite differently than anyone else, and I began to identify the difference in my understanding of the narrator. I was reading the narrator, Lucy Snowe, as a writer, an imaginative, tricky, skillful, and intelligent one. Most readers – subsequent research suggests, most critics – read her as a case study. After a little digging and a little thought, I am convinced that this approach misses a lot of what is in the novel.
But – making the case would be a lot of work. It would require a significant amount of secondary literature spadework, rereading Jane Eyre and Villette, carefully (purely a pleasure), and, here was the worst part, reading Charlotte Brontë’s other novels, Shirley (1849) and The Professor (1857, but written much earlier). The Professor, especially, what a drag. Essential reading*, because it was Brontë's first pass at some of the Villette material, but, I assumed, a terrible novel.
I was right! Dull, badly written, undramatic. Actively, aggressively bad in places, unlike her sister Anne’s contemporary Agnes Grey (1847), which was pleasant, even-tempered, and entirely mediocre. Took me forever to drag myself through The Professor. I began to work on the theory that the narrator was actually a mental patient, and that the other characters were actually inmates, nurses, and doctors at the asylum. This idea greatly improves passages like this one, nominally a teacher’s description of a young student:
She was an unnatural-looking being – so young, fresh, blooming, yet so Gorgon-like. Suspicion, sullen ill-temper were on her forehead , vicious propensities in her eyes, envy and panther-like deceit about her mouth. (Ch. 12)
No such luck. The Professor is just a hodgepodge. I’m sure it’s no worse than most unpublished first novels. No, I’m sure it’s better. Sometimes the sound of the later Brontë is audible. I particularly like this:
Novelists should never allow themselves to weary of the study of real life… life must be all suffering – too feeble to conceive faith – death must be darkness – God, spirits, religion can have no place in our collapsed minds, where linger only hideous and polluting recollections of vice, and time brings us on to the brink of the grave, and dissolution flings us in – a rag eaten through and through with disease, wrung together with pain, stamped into the churchyard sod by the inexorable heel of despair. (Ch. 19)
Yikes! I have no idea why this passage is in the book, why the character is worried about what novelists do. He’s writing a non-fiction memoir, for ”the public at large” (Ch. 1). Don’t worry about that “must” and “us” – the narrator simply means people who have “plunged like beasts into sensual indulgence,” people nothing like him, or anyone else in the novel, but then why does he bring it up (answer, I hoped: he’s a raving lunatic)? Biographers probably read this and think “Ah ha, Branwell!” I read it and am impressed by how quickly Brontë learned to control this wild rhetoric – Jane Eyre was written immediately afterward, and published in 1847.
The Professor pretends to be a memoir. So does Jane Eyre. So does Villette. Don’t know about Shirley. If critics have spent much time – any time – investigating what that means, I missed them. There is an enormous volume of material on Jane and Lucy as narrators, and a small amount of work on Jane, especially, as a story-teller, which looks very useful to me, but where is the work on these fictional women as writers? Now that I have broken through The Professor, maybe I’ll get somewhere myself. Shirley’s not that bad, is it?
I was wondering about other fictional memoirs, which led me to double-check The Great Gatsby, which after about three sentences led me to reread it (‘cause it’s awesome). I went to the Fitzgerald secondary literature thinking someone would explain the book-writing device to me. Instead, I discovered that almost no one had even noticed it. Weird.
Maybe this should be on top of the post: Any ideas about or references to how fictional writers of non-fiction do their work would be greatly appreciated.
* Essential for this project! Otherwise, The Professor is only for Brontë cultists and completists.