Thursday, April 21, 2016

From real to fantastical

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. Although she was the most prolific of three sisters, all writers, she is remembered mostly for one novel, a classic of English literature, Jane Eyre. The Brontë Parsonage Museum, which holds the most important Brontë archives, owns a journal Charlotte kept intermittently, and for a short time, while living at Roe Head School. It is interesting, commentators says, since it can be seen to have served ‘as a gateway from the real world into the fantastical’.

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 near Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was the third of six children. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth, also in Yorkshire, where her father was curate. The following year, her mother died, and Charlotte’s aunt joined the household to look after the children. In 1824, the four eldest daughters were sent to a clergy daughters’ school in Lancashire, but soon after both of Charlotte’s older sisters died of tuberculosis. She and her sister Emily returned to live at the Haworth Parsonage with their younger siblings Bramwell and Anne. Brontë biographers note how the children at home encouraged each others imaginative games and creative writing.

Between 1831 and 1832, Charlotte was educated at Roe Head in Mirfield, less than 20 miles southeast of Haworth, where she made friends with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor who became lifelong correspondents. From 1835 to 1838, she returned to Roe Head as a teacher, and thereafter took positions as governess in various families. In 1842, she moved to Brussels to attend a school, where she taught music in exchange for her tuition. It was not a happy experience and she was back at Haworth in 1844. By this time, she had written a number of stories (posthumously published as her juvenilia), but in 1846 the three sisters paid for the printing of a collection of poems, published under assumed names - though, biographies say, only two copies were ever sold.

The following year, Charlotte Brontë sent her second draft novel to Smith, Elder & Co. (a first novel, called The Professor, not having found a publisher) which published it almost immediately as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography under Charlotte’s pen name Currer Bell. The book was a commercial success, leading to speculation as to the identity of its author, speculation that only increased when Emily published Wuthering Heights under the pen name of Ellis Bell, and Anne published Agnes Grey under the pen name of Acton Bell. Tragically, over the next year or so, all three of Charlotte’s remaining siblings died - from tuberculosis also - Bramwell and Emily in 1948, and Anne in 1949. Although Anne had published her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1948, Charlotte, as her heir, refused to allow it to be reprinted (and it was not until 1854 that a new edition, much edited, was published).

Shirley, the second of Charlotte’s novels to emerge, came out in late 1849, and a third, Villette, in 1853. Given the success of Jane Eyre, she was persuaded to visit London now and then, for a few weeks at a time, and, with her true identity now known, was received in literary circles. She became acquainted with Harriet Martineau, William Makepeace Thackeray, for example, and Elizabeth Gaskell. In June 1854, she married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, becoming pregnant soon after. But she, too, was to die tragically young, the following March, with her unborn child. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Brontë Society, Victorian Web, The Poetry Foundation, or Online Literature. Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë is freely available at Internet Archive or here.

The Brontës were not diarists by nature, but there are fragments of diary material left by Emily and Anne - see Emily Brontë peels apples - and Charlotte. Charlotte’s diary-like texts, six of them amounting to around 2,000 words, were written during her years at Roe Head school. Most of the entries are quite long, and undated - and some of them can be previewed at Googlebooks in The Brontës: Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal - Selected Writings edited by Christine Alexander (Oxford University Press 2010). The British Library website mentions ‘Charlotte Brontë’s journal’, and gives one extract. However, more information as well as images of the journal itself with transcriptions can be found as part of the online exhibitions The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives at The Morgan Library & Museum. The exhibition notes say: ‘Having begun writing a straightforward diary entry - a real-time description of her life at Roe Head - Brontë had stepped seamlessly into fiction. She allowed her high-flown storytelling to provide an antidote to the dreary everyday, her diary serving as a gateway from the real world into the fantastical.’

The following extracts are taken from The Morgan Library Museum exhibition website, which says the text has been ‘lightly punctuated for readability’.

4 February 1836
‘Well, here I am at Roe-Head. It is seven o’clock at night, the young ladies are all at their lessons, the school-room is quiet, the fire is low, a stormy day is at this moment passing off in a murmuring and bleak night. I now assume my own thoughts; my mind relaxes from the stretch on which it has been for the last twelve hours & falls back onto the rest which no-body in this house knows of but myself. I now, after a day’s weary wandering, return to the ark which for me floats alone on the face of this world’s desolate & boundless deluge. It is strange. I cannot get used to the ongoings that surround me. I fulfil my duties strictly & well, yet, so to speak, if the illustration be not profane, as God was not in the wind, nor the fire, nor the earth-quake, so neither is my heart in the task, the theme or the exercise. It is the still small voice alone that comes to me at eventide, that which like a breeze with a voice in it [comes] over the deeply blue hills & out of the now leafless forests & from the cities on distant river banks of a far & bright continent. It is that which wakes my spirit & engrosses all my living feelings, all my energies which are not merely mechanical, & like Haworth & home, wakes sensations which lie dormant elsewhere.

Last night I did indeed lean upon the thunder-wakening wings of such a stormy blast as I have seldom heard blow, & it whirled me away like heath in the wilderness for five seconds of ecstasy, and as I sat by myself in the dining-room while all the rest were at tea the trance seemed to descend on a sudden, & verily this foot trod the war-shaken shores of the Calabar & these eyes saw the defiled & violated Adrianopolis shedding its lights on the river from lattices whence the invader looked out & was not darkened. I went through a trodden garden whose groves were crushed down. I ascended a great terrace, the marble surface of which shone wet with rain where it was not darkened by the mounds of dead leaves which were now showered on & now swept off by the vast & broken boughs which swung in the wind above them. Up I went to the wall of the palace to the line of latticed arches which shimmered in light, passing along quick as thought, I glanced at what the internal glare revealed through the crystal. 

There was a room lined with mirrors & with lamps on tripods, & very darkened, & splendid couches & carpets & large half lucid vases white as snow, thickly embossed with whiter mouldings, & one large picture in a frame of massive beauty representing a young man whose gorgeous & shining locks seemed as if they would wave on the breath & whose eyes were half hid by the hand carved in ivory that shaded them & supported the awful looking coron[al?] head—a solitary picture, too great to admit of a companion—a likeness to be remembered full of luxuriant beauty, not displayed, for it seemed as if the form had been copied so often in all imposing attitudes, that at length the painter, satiated with its luxuriant perfection, had resolved to conceal half & make the imperial Giant bend & hide under his cloudlike tresses, the radiance he was grown tired of gazing on. 

Often had I seen this room before and felt, as I looked at it, the simple and exceeding magnificence of its single picture, its five colossal cups of sculptured marble, its soft carpets of most deep and brilliant hues, & its mirrors, broad, lofty, & liquidly clear. I had seen it in the stillness of evening when the lamps so quietly & steadily burnt in the tranquil air, & when their rays fell upon but one living figure, a young lady who generally at that time appeared sitting on a low sofa, a book in her hand, her head bent over it as she read, her light brown hair dropping in loose & unwaving curls, her dress falling to the floor as she sat in sweeping folds of silk. All stirless about her except her heart, softly beating under her satin bodice & all silent except her regular and very gentle respiration. The haughty sadness of grandeur beamed out of her intent fixed hazel eye, & though so young, I always felt as if I dared not have spoken to her for my life, how lovely were the lines of her small & rosy mouth, but how very proud her white brow, spacious & wreathed with ringlets, & her neck, which, though so slender, had the superb curve of a queen’s about the snowy throat. I knew why she chose to be alone at that hour, & why she kept that shadow in the golden frame to gaze on her, & why she turned sometimes to her mirrors & looked to see if her loveliness & her adornments were quite perfect. 

However this night she was not visible—no—but neither was her bower void. The red ray of the fire flashed upon a table covered with wine flasks, some drained and some brimming with the crimson juice. The cushions of a voluptuous ottoman which had often supported her slight, fine form were crushed by a dark bulk flung upon them in drunken prostration. Aye, where she had lain imperially robed and decked with pearls, every waft of her garments as she moved diffusing perfume, her beauty slumbering & still glowing as dreams of him for whom she kept herself in such hallowed & shrine-like separation wandered over her soul, on her own silken couch, a swarth & sinewy moor intoxicated to ferocious insensibility had stretched his athletic limbs, weary with wassail and stupefied with drunken sleep. I knew it to be Quashia himself, and well could I guess why he had chosen the queen of Angria’s sanctuary for the scene of his solitary revelling. While he was full before my eyes, lying in his black dress on the disordered couch, his sable hair dishevelled on his forehead, his tusk-like teeth glancing vindictively through his parted lips, his brown complexion flushed with wine, & his broad chest heaving wildly as the breath issued in spurts from his distended nostrils, while I watched the fluttering of his white shirt ruffles starting through the more than half-unbuttoned waistcoat, & beheld the expression of his Arabian countenance savagely exulting even in sleep, Quashia triumphant Lord in the halls of Zamorna! in the bower of Zamorna’s lady! while this apparition was before me, the dining-room door opened and Miss W[ooler] came in with a plate of butter in her hand. “A very stormy night my dear!” said she. 

“It is ma’am,” said I.’

5 February 1836
‘Friday afternoon. Now as I have a little bit of time, there being no French lessons this afternoon, I should like to write something. I can’t enter into any continued narrative—my mind is not settled enough for that—but if I could call up some slight and pleasant sketch, I would amuse myself by jotting it down. 

Let me consider the other day. I appeared to realize a delicious, hot day in the most burning height of summer, a gorgeous afternoon of idleness and enervation descending upon the hills of our Africa, an evening enfolding a sky of profoundly deep blue & fiery gold about the earth. 

Dear me! I keep heaping epithets together and I cannot describe what I mean. I mean a day whose rise, progress & decline seem made of sunshine. As you are travelling you see the wide road before you, the field on each side & the hills far, far off, all smiling, glowing in the same amber light, and you feel such an intense heat, quite incapable of chilling damp or even refreshing breeze. A day when fruits visibly ripen, when orchards appear suddenly change from green to gold.

Such a day I saw flaming over the distant Sydenham Hills in Hawkscliffe Forest. I saw its sublime sunset pouring beams of crimson through magnificent glades. It seemed to me that the war was over, that the trumpet had ceased but a short time since, and that its last tones had been pitched on a triumphant key. It seemed as if exciting events—tidings of battles, of victories, of treaties, of meetings of mighty powers—had diffused an enthusiasm over the land that made its pulses beat with feverish quickness. After months of bloody toil, a time of festal rest was now bestowed on Angria. The noblemen, the generals and the gentlemen were at their country seats, & the Duke, young but war-worn, was Hawkscliffe. 

A still influence stole out of the stupendous forest, whose calm was now more awful than the sea-like rushing that swept through its glades in time of storm. Groups of deer appeared & disappeared silently amongst the prodigious stems, & now and then a single roe glided down the savannah park, drank of the Arno & fleeted back again.

Two gentlemen in earnest conversation were walking along in St Mary’s Grove, & their deep commingling tones, very much subdued, softly broke the silence of the evening. Secret topics seemed to be implied in what they said, for the import of their words was concealed from every chance listener by the accents of a foreign tongue. All the soft vowels of Italian articulation flowed from their lips, as fluently as if they had been natives of the European Eden. “Henrico” was the appellative by which the talker & the younger of the two addressed his companion, & the other replied by the less familiar title of “Monsignore.” That young signore, or lord, often looked up at the Norman towers of Hawkscliffe, which rose even above the lofty elms of St Mary’s Grove. The sun was shining on their battlements, kissing them with its last beam that rivalled in hue the fire-dyed banner hanging motionless above them.

“Henrico,” said he, speaking still in musical Tuscan, “this is the 29th of June.” Neither you nor I ever saw a fairer day. What does it remind you of? All such sunsets have associations.” 

Henrico knitted his stern brow in thought & at the same time fixed his very penetrating black eye on the features of his noble comrade, which, invested by habit and nature with the aspect of command & pride, were at this sweet hour relaxing to the impassioned & fervid expression of romance. “What does it remind you of, my lord,” said he briefly. 

“Ah! Many things, Henrico! Ever since I can remember, the rays of the setting sun have acted on my heart, as they did on Memnon’s wondrous statue. The strings always vibrate, sometimes the tones swell in harmony, sometimes in discord. They play a wild air just now, but, sweet & ominously plaintive Henrico, can you imagine what I feel when I look into the dim & gloomy vistas of this my forest, & at yonder turrets which the might of my own hands has raised, not the halls of my ancestors like hoary morning [illeg.]. Calm diffuses over this wide wood a power to stir & thrill the mind such as words can never express. Look at the red west—the sun is gone & it is fading. Gaze into those mighty groves supernaturally still & full of gathering darkness. Listen how the Arno moans!’

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