Revisiting the Brontes

June 24, 2009 at 1:17 am 1 comment

The Bronte Sisters, as painted by Branwell Bronte

The Bronte Sisters, as painted by Branwell Bronte

I must have been 14 years old when I tried to read Wuthering Heights for the first time. I remember being quite confused about the whole thing, not being able to keep all the Cathys straight and not being able to understand what in God’s name was wrong with this Heathcliff person. In all, it was a failed attempt.

Roughly the same thing happened when I tried to read Jane Eyre, at about the same age. The romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester is the part best remembered and most portrayed in popular culture, so it’s worth pointing out that there are 130 pages before Jane comes to Thornfield Hall, and a period of 120 pages where she leaves it and goes to live with her drippy cousins. That’s a lot of non-stuff for a 14-year-old who really just wants to read King of the Wind again.

After reading Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, though, my interest in Jane Eyre was piqued again. Jane Eyre was shelved right next to Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and of course I couldn’t read Anne and Charlotte and ignore Emily’s only novel, so I swept through all of them within the course of a few months. And since they really all fall together as a group, I decided to group their reviews together:

To-morrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.

Jane is absolutely one of the most real and identifiable women in fiction, period. Yes, Elizabeth Bennet is great, and yes, everyone loves Little Nell or Nancy or any of Dickens’ women. But they fall short of Jane, and I think it’s because Dickens didn’t write about real women, he wrote about idealized women, and Jane Austen never let her characters speak directly to the reader.

That’s not to say that Charlotte Bronte is better than either of them; Jane Austen is a better social satirist, for one thing, and for that matter, so is Dickens. But neither one of them could have written the character of Jane, possibly because they were both so revolutionary. Charlotte Bronte is also, in her own way, but she has a dedication to the status quo that allows her to write a sentence like, “Preconceived opinions, forgone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot,” and have the reader completely understand the conviction behind that.

Ah, the evils of drink

‘It’s easily done,’ replied he…’to abuse your friend and knock him on the head, without any assignable cause, and then tell him the deed was not quite correct, but it’s no matter whether he pardons it or not.’

Anne Bronte suffers from trying to keep up with her sisters. It’s hard to stand out in any company that includes Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and she’s certainly an decent writer in her own right. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not her most well-known work, either: that distinction falls to Agnes Grey, which I have not read. It’s important to keep that in mind, I think, when assessing this book.

The main problems appear to be this: Anne Bronte is not sure how to write men, and she is really dedicated to placing moral lessons in her work.

I arrived at the first conclusion from the fact that very few of Gilbert Markham’s actions are those of a sane human being. No one just whacks people over the head on the street when they are jealous, except characters created by an author who truly feels that men are inexplicably violent, sex-crazed creatures. This view is further confirmed by the actions of most of the men throughout the novel. Anne Bronte writes better once she switches to a female point of view; the middle 300 pages or so mostly take the form of journals and letters written by the female protagonist, and are written in a much more fluid, sensible style.

However, it was during this middle part that I arrived at my second conclusion. Anne Bronte hates drinkers. She also thinks most men are alcoholic brutes, and therefore women should be very very careful when getting married because they might find themselves married to a Troublesome Drunk rather than the Handsome Young Man they fell in love with.

This is all well and good, as alcoholism is generally viewed as a negative quality in a future life partner. However, I’m not sure a book needed to be written about it, let alone a book where the ostensible protagonist is MIA for 300 pages.

Also not sure about the...bowl?

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from a fire.

Emily and Anne share a similarity in structure: a story told by a woman, with a narrative frame narrated by a man. Possibly this was to give credibility to their aliases as male writers Ellis and Acton Bell. However, this is just about their only similarity.

Emily Bronte has an excellent sense of what makes for a good story; plenty of drama, a dramatic setting, and some sketchy morality, seasoned with a dose of adultery and lost inheritance. One begins to feel for Cathy and Heathcliff not because they are good people, but only because, as Cathy says, they are the same — no other couple in the history of literature was so clearly meant for each other. Even Romeo and Juliet are nothing more than horny teenagers compared to Heathcliff and Cathy.

And yet, Emily writes this story with such care that the reader understands why Cathy married Linton, and even why the other Cathy (Catherine, I suppose) married the other Linton. She is also so skilled at intermingling relationships that, though the original Heathcliff and Cathy are never married, they essentially are, twice, as Catherine marries first Heathcliff’s son and then his protegee. She leaves the reader with a sense of tragedy through Heathcliff’s hopeless, desperate passion for Cathy, a tragedy that lingers far after the last page, but also gives the reader enough of a resolution so that they come away satisfied.

Emily’s characters, as one-sided as they might appear at first glance, are much more like Charlotte’s than Anne’s. Heathcliff is not just amoral; his moral compass has been lost, and he is therefore taking the only road he can see for himself once his guidance and purpose has gone. Catherine Linton is such a delightful person, and yet through her, we can see how Heathcliff’s toxicity infects everyone around him, and how once it is removed, there might be hope of redemption for those left behind.

One final note: Heathcliff might be passionate, but he is not a romantic figure. Did everyone else but me miss the part where he hangs Isabella’s dog? What about that scene screams “Laurence Olivier was born to play this part”?

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Entry filed under: Classics. Tags: , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  June 24, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Lovely! I’ve only ever read Jane Eyre (and absolutely loved it), but I am contemplating Wuthering Heights (if only so I can understand what all the cultural references truly mean). Thank you for this run-down and for not neglecting poor old Anne!

    Reply

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