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Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Brontë’

14 MAY, 2015

Charlotte Brontë on Faith and Atheism

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A specimen from the fossil record of Truth and Reason.

“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1841 essay on character and the key to personal growth, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Exactly a decade later, Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) — a mind at least as brilliant as Emerson’s and a spirit at least as expansive — tussled with this vital and vitalizing interplay of hope and unsettlement as she faced one of the most momentous frontiers of the human experience.

In an 1851 letter to her friend James Taylor, found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s altogether indispensable 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (public library), 35-year-old Brontë urges Taylor to read a book that had just unsettled her worldview in a most profound way — Letters on the Nature and Development of Man, a collection of correspondence between English social theorist Harriet Martineau and American missionary George Henry Atkinson.

After enthusing about the book’s impact, Brontë writes to Taylor:

Of the impression this book has made on me, I will not now say much. It is the first exposition of avowed atheism and materialism I have ever read; the first unequivocal declaration of disbelief in the existence of a God or a future life I have ever seen. In judging of such exposition and declaration, one would wish entirely to put aside the sort of instinctive horror they awaken, and to consider them in an impartial spirit and collected mood. This I find difficult to do. The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank — to receive this bitter bereavement as great gain — to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do this if he could?

Brontë was perhaps more sensitive than most to the anguish of this “hopeless blank” — nine years earlier, she had experienced one of its sharpest and most personal permutations in the heartbreak of unrequited love, the ultimate devastation of hope for communion met with blankness. (One wonders where Taylor stood on this most intimate continuum of hope and hopelessness — he had proposed marriage to Brontë three times, to no avail. Indeed, the beloved author received a fair share of marriage proposals, which she declined with great psychological mastery.)

And so, with sturdy self-awareness and crystalline coolness, Brontë goes on to articulate the reason so many people believe — choose to believe — in the truth of “God” even when it clashes with the facts of reason and reality:

Sincerely, for my own part, do I wish to know and find the Truth; but if this be Truth, well may she guard herself with mysteries, and cover herself with a veil. If this be Truth, man or woman who beholds her can but curse the day he or she was born.

English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, long before the concept of vacuum existed in cosmology. Artwork from 'Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.'

Click image for more.

But Brontë, a woman of intense intellect, decides not to dwell on the unsettling notion of this “hopeless blank” and instead approaches the issue like a scientist — by seeking out alternative hypotheses and subjecting her theories to an objective peer review:

I wish to hear what some other person thinks, — someone whose feelings are unapt to bias his judgment. Read the book, then, in an unprejudiced spirit, and candidly say what you think of it. I mean, of course, if you have time — not otherwise.

Taylor did find the time to read the book and seems to have vehemently dismissed its premise, for Brontë wrote to him in another letter five weeks later:

I do most entirely agree with you in what you say about [the] book. I deeply regret its publication for the lady’s sake; it gives a death-blow to her future usefulness. Who can trust the word, or rely on the judgment, of an avowed atheist?

Brontë’s response, of course, is to a rather crude conception of atheism equating the absence of belief with the very sense of “unutterable desolation” she so feared. But if, as Richard Dawkins reasoned in coining the word “meme,” our ideas evolve much like our genetic material does, then Brontë’s primitive interpretation of faith and materialism is a necessary step in the evolution of our more nuanced contemporary ideas. Having come of age in a deeply religious era as the daughter of a clergyman, she belongs to that pivotal species of ideological amphibians who first emerged from the oceans of religion to step tentatively onto the solid land of reason and secular thought — even if by merely questioning dogmas that had been accepted for eons and being unsettled by alternative views of reality.

It is in no small part thanks to such unsettled ponderings, however primitive, that a century and a half later we can afford to speak of spirituality without religion and watch our scientists turn to Dante for answers and heed Carl Sagan as he whispers posthumously: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

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21 APRIL, 2015

Charlotte Brontë’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters of Unrequited Affection

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“When one does not complain … one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.”

Four years after English novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) turned down a suitor’s marriage proposal with her assertive yet generous masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model, the tables turned and she found herself on the opposite end of unrequited love.

In 1842, Charlotte and her sister Emily moved to Brussels to teach English and music, respectively, in exchange for board and tuition. When their aunt died suddenly that October, the sisters had to leave the boarding school and take care of the family crisis. The following January, 28-year-old Charlotte traveled back to Brussels by herself and fell madly in love with Constantin Héger, the founder of the school and her personal tutor in French. She returned home to Haworth a year later but remained besotted with Héger — a married man with children — and began writing him letters of extraordinary emotional intensity, at times as frequently as twice a week. Héger, who barely responded, finally let his wife take over the situation. Madame Héger wrote to Brontë instructing her that she may write once every six months at most. Héger tore up Brontë’s letters, but his prudent wife fished them out of the garbage and stitched them together for preservation purposes.

In 1894, four decades after Brontë’s death, Héger’s daughter showed the recovered letters to another former pupil of her father’s, Frederika Macdonald. Originally, Macdonald advised secrecy in light of the missives’ emotional complexities, fearing that the public wouldn’t understand that the now-famous novelist’s feelings for her former tutor weren’t an “ordinary improper affection” but “a consuming sentiment burning down self-respect and self-restraint.” But the letters changed Macdonald’s own view of Brontë, infusing her previous image as a wholesome Victorian goddess of feminine domestic duty with an air of romantic recklessness — a shift that seemed significant enough in shaping posterity’s understanding of this complex woman that Héger’s own children donated the four surviving letters to the British Library in 1913, seven decades after Brontë had penned them.

They were published in The Times on July 29 of that year and were eventually included in the British Library’s altogether delectable volume Love Letters: 2,000 Years of Romance (public library), which also features passionate missives by Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and Henry VIII.

Page from Charlotte Brontë's letter to Constantin Héger (British Library)

In a letter to Héger from early January of 1845, 29-year-old Brontë relays her deep disappointment of finding no mail from him and writes:

I said to myself, what I would say to someone else in such a case: “You will have to resign yourself to the fact, and above all, not distress yourself about a misfortune that you have not deserved.” I did my utmost not to cry not to complain —

But when one does not complain, and when one wants to master oneself with a tyrant’s grip — one’s faculties rise in revolt — and one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.

Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me —

Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing you again — How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its suffering?

Despite the lucid awareness that Héger would likely “lose patience” with her for writing the letter, which she even acknowledges in the letter itself, Brontë is gripped with the all-consuming mania familiar to those whose composed ordinary selves have ever been colonized by the psychic parasite of extraordinary infatuation. She implores:

I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches — all I know — is that I cannot — that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship — I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope — if he gives me a little friendship — a very little — I shall be content — happy, I would have a motive for living — for working.

Illustration from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

That Brontë voices the pitiful internal bargaining of those desperate with desire is only, perhaps, to her credit — to stand by one’s feelings with such openhearted vulnerability even in the face of clear and imminent rejection is one of the greatest acts of courage:

Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger — No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love — I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship — I am not accustomed to it — but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels — and I cling to the preservation of this little interest — I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

In accordance with our pathological allergy to uncertainty — the same strange psychology that leads those awaiting a diagnosis to almost prefer bad news to no news — she beseeches:

Perhaps you will say to me — “I no longer take the slightest interest in you Miss Charlotte — you no longer belong to my household — I have forgotten you.”

Well Monsieur tell me so candidly — it will be a shock to me — that doesn’t matter — it will still be less horrible than uncertainty.

She ends with a plea for sympathy disguised as a damning admonition — perhaps to Héger’s wife, who ultimately handled the letters, and perhaps in part to posterity, to those of us reading her heart today:

I don’t want to reread this letter — I am sending it as I have written it — Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it — “she is raving” — My sole revenge is to wish these people — a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months — then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.

One suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words much.

The following year, the Brontë sisters self-published their pseudonymous joint collection of poems that catapulted them into literary stardom and Charlotte began writing Jane Eyre — one of the greatest novels of all time, which centers on a young woman’s sincere love for a man set to marry someone else; in the novel, unlike in Brontë’s own life, once the otherwise rational and collected heroine professes her love in an openhearted declaration, the byronic hero forsakes his romantic commitment to the other woman and proposes marriage to Jane.

For more beautifully heartbreaking love letters, see those from Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer and Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, then restore your faith in requited love with the passionate correspondence of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and Vladimir and Véra Nabokov.

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01 MAY, 2014

How to Turn Down a Marriage Proposal Like Charlotte Brontë

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A bold defiance of oppressive gender ideals, packaged as the ultimate it’s-not-you-it’s-me gentle letdown.

“There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage,” George Bernard Shaw asserted in his 1908 meditation on the subject. “We look for communion, and are turned away,” Denise Levertov wrote in her poem “The Ache of Marriage.” Bridging the thinking of dangerous nonsense and the turning away is the marriage proposal — and its considered refusal.

From Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) — Anna Holmes’s magnificent collection spanning centuries of missives, which also gave us Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite breakup letter and this moving breakup moment from the Vietnam War — comes an outstanding contribution to the genre from none other than Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855).

On the last day of February in 1839, eight years before Jane Eyre was published, Brontë received a letter of marriage proposal from Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate whose sister Ellen was one of her close friends. Brontë’s reply, written on March 5, 1839, is nothing short of brilliant — assertive yet generous, unambiguous yet kind, and a masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model. She essentially spells out why she would make a terrible mate by the era’s standards for what a good wife means — “her character should not be too marked, ardent and original” — channeling with equal parts humility and dignity her quiet confidence in being the antithesis of these qualities.

My dear Sir

Before answering your letter, I might have spent a long time in consideration of its subject; but as from the first moment of its reception and perusal I determined on which course to pursue, it seemed to me that delay was wholly unnecessary.

You are aware that I have many reasons to feel gratified to your family, that I have peculiar reasons for affection towards one at least of your sisters, and also that I highly esteem yourself. Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative. In forming this decision — I trust I have listened to the dictates of conscience more than to those [of] inclination; I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you — but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. It has always been my habit to study the character of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original — her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose — you would think me romantic and [eccentric — you would] say I was satirical and [severe]. [However, I scorn] deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.

[…]

Farewell—! I shall always be glad to hear from you as a friend

Believe me
Yours truly
C Brontë

Brontë remained unwedded until a year before her death, when she married Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate, who had been in love with her for years. (“Currer Bell,” the male pseudonym she had used to secure unbiased consideration of her works with publishers, was based on Nichols’s middle name.) One has to wonder whether Jane Eyre would’ve ever come to life, and gone on to inspire generations, had Brontë succumbed to the era’s oppressive standards of female domesticity.

Hell Hath No Fury is an enchanting read in its totality, featuring letters from both ordinary lovers across the ages and such cultural icons as Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Queen Elizabeth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Boleyn, and Virginia Woolf. Ten years later, Holmes followed it up with the equally, if very differently, delightful The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things.

For more meditations on marriage, see Charles Darwin’s endearing list of its pros and cons and Susan Sontag’s youthful rant.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2013

Jane, the Fox and Me: A Gorgeous Graphic Novel about the Travails of Youth Inspired by Charlotte Brönte

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A tender illustrated story about acceptance and belonging.

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality,” Nora Ephron wrote. “If I can’t stand the world I just curl up with a book, and it’s like a little spaceship that takes me away from everything,” Susan Sontag told an interviewer, articulating an experience at once so common and so deeply personal to all of us who have ever taken refuge from the world in the pages of a book and the words of a beloved author. It’s precisely this experience that comes vibrantly alive in Jane, the Fox, and Me (public library) — a stunningly illustrated graphic novel about a young girl named Hélène, who, cruelly teased by the “mean girls” clique at school, finds refuge in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, she sees both a kindred spirit and aspirational substance of character, one straddling the boundary between vulnerability and strength with remarkable grace — just the quality of heart and mind she needs as she confronts the common and heartbreaking trials of teenage girls tormented by bullying, by concerns over their emerging womanly shape, and by the soul-shattering feeling of longing for acceptance yet receiving none.

Written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault — who also gave us the magnificent Virginia Wolf, one of the best children’s books of 2012 — this masterpiece of storytelling is as emotionally honest and psychologically insightful as it is graphically stunning. What makes the visual narrative especially enchanting is that Hélène’s black-and-white world of daily sorrow springs to life in full color whenever she escapes with Brönte.

When Hélène reluctantly goes on a class trip, she finds herself humiliated in front of everyone. As she resigns herself to the outcasts’ tent, her fictional friend no longer provides sufficient consolation and assurance that she’s worthy of friendship.

Just then, a small red fox appears before the tent — a tender creature whose gaze gives Hélène a momentary glimpse of that soul-to-soul connection she so desires.

But it only lasts a moment — one of the mean girls scares the fox away, claiming it is rabid and leaving Hélène to believe that there must be something diseased and defective about anyone who seeks to connect with her.

But as the class returns to school, a new girl joins the outcast group, unconcerned with the circle’s social standing. Géraldine is simply content to be surrounded by people she likes who like her back, people with whom she shares that simple yet profound being-to-being connection that Hélène had found in the fox’s eyes. And, just like that, Hélène comes to see that the only way to un-believe all the hurtful things others say about her is to simply stop worrying about it all — and to believe that the deep sense of acceptance and inner peace she found in Jane Eyre and the fox springs from her own soul.

Jane, the Fox, and Me is an absolute treasure that blends the realities of children’s capacity to be cruel, the possibilities of transcending our own psychological traps, and literature’s power to nourish, comfort, and transform.

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