Thursday, May 27, 2010

A blasphemy against the most divine instincts of human nature - Leslie Stephen and Charlotte Brontë

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.


  1. Wow. He really backs up his latter-day image as the Victorian patriarch par excellence with that "the dominating ideas of the time" line, doesn't he? One would hate to diverge from the dominant ideas of the time, heavens.

    I've heard the "Rochester as personification of woman’s longing for a strong master" line before, & it always strikes me as a strange book about which to make that argument, given the whole second half of the novel where Jane runs away & only returns to Rochester after he's blind & crippled, and seems much less uneasy to be marrying him once she's the one in charge and he stops threatening to buy her jewelry & silks & things.

    I continue to wonder to what extent Woolf's feelings about the Brontës were informed by her father's; in a way her preference for Emily (her insistence that Wuthering Heights is superior precisely BECAUSE it commits to its own vision and looks neither right nor left, whereas Jane Eyre gets distracted by "real world" politics) is sort of the flip side of Stephen's dismissal of Emily's "feeble grasp of external facts." Which goes hand-in-hand with Woolf's claims in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" that there were just too damn MANY external facts in late Victorian novels, and let's have a little more psychological insight already.

    Lastly, I wonder which instincts Leslie Stephen considered "the most divine of human nature"...?

  2. Nobody ever put so much of themselves into their work…

    Oh, blah blah, give me a break!

    I really don't understand the anti-religious rap either, though anti-Catholic I can see. Also, I've only read Jane Eyre, but I wasn't ever so...freaked out by the "intensity" of it.

    You really have to stop teasing us about this Villette business, though.

    Emily, I enjoyed your comment, especially Woolf's opinion of Wuthering Heights. That sounds just like how I feel about it. And exactly why I thought that Stephen quote was ridiculous!

  3. So I have this theory, based, I know, on very weak evidence, that Stephen did not actually read any Brontë novels, but just watched the movies.

    That line about strong Rochester is something, isn't it - "a true woman"? The novel contains a string of men who try to crush little Jane, who find her to be a threat for some inexplicable reason, and are then themselves all crushed, sometimes literally. Stephen, come to think of it, is just getting in line.

    Woolf's view makes a great deal of sense to me. Wuthering Heights is a more conceptual novel. As tastes shifted towards conceptual art, Wuthering Heights would get a second, favorable look. Emily looks more like a Modernist.

    Except - Nicole's right, I've got to get on this thing. If you see that I'm reading The Professor or whatever, you'll know I've gotten serious.

    Villette certainly has some strong anti-Catholic language, along with much general Belgium-bashing, some of which is likely to reflect Charlotte's own views. Of course, there is no way to tell how much from the novel itself, which is fiction.

  4. I'm really enjoying your Victorian fiction posts and am now really curious about your preposterous Bronte idea!

  5. I agree about the risks and limits of the 'reading-through-biography' approach, especially when it's impossible for Stephen to have known or thought about Bronte's biography as we might today. I think his discussion about the morality of Bronte's novels is not ludicrous, though; the last part of his essay in particular hits on something that becomes a real contrast between Bronte and George Eliot, which is how they handle the problem of what Stephen calls "the opposite poles of duty and happiness." Jane Eyre is a key text in feminist criticism because it finds a rather unrealistic solution by which Jane can do her duty and have her happiness too, thus allowing the novel to stand for a kind of individual self-fulfilment the value of which we seem to assume is self-evident and unproblematic. But I think Stephen's question is a good one: "What would Jane Eyre have done, and what would our sympathies have been, had she found that Mrs Rochester had not been burnt in the fire at Thornfield?"

    Stephen's admiration for Bronte is conspicuous--he places her "very high" in the "hierarchy of imaginative thinkers"--but I don't think he's wrong, either, to argue that she is not a novelist of ideas or a "philosophical thinker," but that her greatness lies in other areas. To him, and frankly to me, this does bring her down a notch or two compared to other novelists, despite her evident genius. I see some connections between his discussion of this issue and the emphasis Masson places on "our novelists also being philosophers."

    Perhaps Stephen was prescient when he says, of earlier pejorative criticism of Bronte, that "it is easy to win a cheap reputation for generosity [toward the writer] by trampling upon the dead bodies of the luckless critics who blundered so hopelessly."

  6. I think you're right, Stephen must have only watched the movies and never read the books. That explains everything ;) I am curious about your Bronte idea.

  7. Rohan - thanks for the thoughtful comment. I had the most trouble with this essay, by far. What intellectual or characterological flaws in me does that dislike point to?

    One possibility - and I know we differ here - is that I probably move C. Brontë up a notch or two for not being a novelist of ideas. The more I think about what she as doing stylistically in Villette, the more impressed I become with her, but the more the ideas recede. I need to figure out how to reconnect the pieces.

    I kind of have an answer (which will have to wait) to Stephen's question, which I agree was penetrating, absolutely central, and one I want to remember.

    As for the "luckless critics" - ha! To future seekers after cheap reputations - please show me more mercy than I've shown Stephen!

  8. Great discussion. I'm only halfway, maybe a little bit further, through reading Stephen's essay. Don't know that I've read it before, but it does seem pretty typical. That is, he's bringing his philosopher toolbox to bear on a writer's body of work, with an extra strong dose of biography thrown in. His primary thesis is that her fiction is virtually a journal of her own life, which is clearly a sort of way to diminish her accomplishment. But he does seem to value her ability as a writer and as a characteristic British female novelist. He's just skeptical about the "Bronte thing," the idea that this was an exceptional romantic, poetic family of geniuses. It's a weird approach to criticism. I was curious about your thoughts on his comment on Emily Bronte's poetry, since I think you were reading it fairly recently.

    It's interesting that the "dominating ideas of the time" debate is still going on, led most recently by Walter Benn Michaels. Should fiction have a broader social and economic agenda, or is it okay for it to be personal and psychological? It seems like it should be okay for it to be personal--there aren't any rules.

    I think I left off in the midst of the comparison of Paul Emmanuel and Uncle Toby. I might try to say more over at my place once I'm done, and can form an actual argument; we'll see.

  9. Stephen was the right man for the Dictionary of National Biography job, wasn't he? I'm skeptical of the "Brontë thing," too, which helped less than I had hoped.

    The line about Emily's poetry is a great example of a different, although I'll bet related, problem - I sometimes just did not know what Stephen was talking about. "Emily's naturally subjective mode - to use the unpleasant technical phrase - found its most appropriate utterance in lyrical poetry" (268).

    "unpleasant technical phrase"? "appropriate"? I am not mocking Stephen here, not at all. He is using a vocabulary that I don't understand, which is not his fault. I need a period specialist to translate for me.

    I hope you do write something on this essay. I learned a lot from it, although maybe not what I was meant to. And I certainly agree on that last point. I want fiction to do everything. But not all in one book, or one writer!