Friday, September 24, 2010

A rag eaten through and through with disease, wrung together with pain - why I read The Professor, and why I read The Great Gatsby

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  I’m sure it’s no worse than most unpublished first novels.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.


  1. "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."

    I'm tempted to answer: in interstitial space, like characters in movies who obviously brush their teeth, even though we never see it.

    Blind spots are lovely, really.

    The only references that I can think of involve fictional characters who write fiction, like Lonoff in Ghost Writer or Tarnopol in My Life as a Man.


    And I vaguely recall a passage or two in Atonement about Briony and her word-wielding powers. Hers is largely a non-fiction that self-consciously breaks down after Part 1, or so I recall.


  2. Oh, Atonement, absolutely. That's a nice complex investigation of a similar idea. I don't remember the exact conceit of the Zuckerman books. Maybe you mean Lonoff's office, Zuckerman's description of Lonoff's study. Good stuff. Haven't read My Life as a Man.

    I really want the glimpses into that interstitial space that sneak into the writing itself. In Villette, for example, I think there are plenty. In Gatsby, just a few, but they provide crucial clues.

  3. Interesting you are reading the Great Gatsby-I think the last 5 or so pages of that are just totally beautiful-I have Tender is the Night on my read in 2010 list-I have read a couple of Fitzgerald's short stories but I was not crazy for them-I still have not read Shirley or The Professor yet and will read them just so I can tell myself I have read all the Bronte Novel-

  4. Here's my take on Shirley:

    I don't have good news, but I'm guessing it's better than The Professor.

  5. Hang on, Shirley has an omniscient narrator? Maybe I can skip it then. Dorothy, what a favor - you've saved me 600 poor pages. I must have read that post, but I clearly blocked it out.

    mel - I had this crazy contrarian idea that Tender Is the Night was superior to Gatsby. Now, after this last run through Gatsby, I'm not so sure. In the ballpark, at least. The Professor should be read only for the reason you suggest - to neurotically check it off a list.

  6. I quite enjoyed Shirley- uneven but with plenty of good bits eg the description of the curates at tea and the Yorkie natives, the friendship between Caro and Shirley, the romances.It's only omniscently narrated in places and I certainly don't think you should overlook it!

    As a completist, I found it interesting to hear more about Belgium from Bronte, as the Moores are half Flemish and have just returned to their father's birthplace. The description of Hortense Moore and her ways sounds rather like Lucy Snowe.

  7. "Hang on, Shirley has an omniscient narrator?"

    An omniscient- or apparently omniscient- narrator is not necessarily reliable.

  8. No, no - Vanity Fair is gleeful evidence of that. But reliability isn't really the issue I'm concerned with in the Charlotte Brontë Project. Well, no, it's part of the issue. But it's important that the fictional text be imitation non-fiction, that a fictional character is writing a fictional non-fictional book.

    The more I write, the more ridiculous this sounds.

    But if Shirley is some sort of hybrid, that's interesting for it's own sake. Is it like Bleak House? I was wondering if there were other novels like that. Plus, more Belgium - all right, it's back on the pile.

  9. After thinking about this series of posts, I've found myself on a tangent thinking about early epistolary novels. How useful it must be to write both sides of the correspondence...

  10. Not exactly on topic, but when I find you reading and thinking about Fitzgerald, I wonder about the links that you make between Fitzgerald and Flaubert, since I know Flaubert is more or less at the heart of the WE program. Not that you're not doing your thing quite nicely here, of course.

    The other Fitzgerald connection I'm currently curious about is Compton Mackenzie and Sinister Street, set at Oxford, which apparently provided the blueprint for This Side of Paradise. Not a book that's just lying around everywhere, have to make a trip to the library.

  11. Those epistolary novels make certain kinds of stories a lot easier, don't they? But part of the fun of the Modernist (and a fair number of pre-Modernist) novelists is their playful experiments with different solutions to old problems.

    I don't know anything about Compton Mackenzie. Someone could read him for the Scottish Challenge, I guess. It would be all right if no one does. Boy, do I dislike This Side of Paradise. That oh-so-clever undergraduate messing around. It's zippy, though, so I can see why it was a hit.