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Friday, April 29, 2016

Charlotte Bronte & Darth Vader

Warning: This post contains spoilers on Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. Continue reading at your own risk!

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, Caroline Helstone lays on her deathbed. Although the doctors cannot give a reason why she is dying, Caroline is fading away. So Mrs Pryor, Shirley's friend and former governess, jolts Caroline with emotional shock treatment: she tells her that she is her mother.

For all you Star Wars fans out there, this moment reminds me of Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker: "I am your father."

Like Darth Vader, Mrs Pryor is masking her former identity. Like Darth Vader, she has done terrible things. She abandoned her daughter as a child, and she stayed away, day after day, year after year, until she could assess Caroline's character. Only when she decided that she liked who Caroline was, and that she had turned out all right despite her abandonment, and only when it seemed obvious that Caroline would die if she didn't tell her, did she reveal her former identity, her secret, and her terrible crimes.

Caroline may have turned out all right, but like Luke Skywalker, she was raised by an uncle who treated her callously. No warmth existed between them all. Her only hope for happiness lay in marriage. But when Robert Moore loses interest in her, she loses interest in life. Thus, when she grows sick, she lacks a reason to live, and drifts off toward death.

True, Mrs Pryor didn't kill anyone. True, Mrs Pryor left Caroline in the care of a responsible family member. But does this let her off the hook for her abandoning her child? Caroline grew up with a terrible absence inside her. She lived for two decades feeling alone and unloved. Isn't Mrs Pryor responsible for that? Isn't that, really, a terrible crime?

Most of us will never physically abandon a child. But is it okay to absent yourself from a friend or relative's life because you've got issues? Because you've suffered? Does that let you off the hook for not doing everything you could to make a family member feel important to you? That regardless of what you feel about their character or actions, that he or she really, really matters to you?

Abandonment is easy. Devoting yourself to so-called good works is easy. Making friends with people you readily identify with, and spending all your free time with them, is easy. What's hard is... 

Really, no matter how old we get, we're all still children inside.

"Caroline, you don't know the power of the Dark Side!"

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Horatio Nelson

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, the title character visits her old family schoolroom. There she talks with her nephew, who seems in low spirits. He's a weak boy, who needs physical assistance to get around. Yet he can't help but notice the tall, handsome men who swirl around Shirley, desirous of gaining her attention. He sees before him a life he can never have. He will never be strong. He will never gallop across the fields on a horse. He will never twirl a beautiful young woman across a dance floor. Hence, he believes he cannot hope to marry well, or gain the affections of a woman who desires a strong, virile husband. When he shares his concerns with Shirley, she reveals how differently she sees the world, and how she finds value in others.

"You need not be sorrowful. Have I not often told you who was almost as little, as pale, as suffering as you, and yet potent as a giant and brave as a lion?"

"Admiral Horatio?" 

"Admiral Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Duke of Bronte; great at heart as a Titan; gallant and heroic as all the world and age of chivalry; leader of the might of England; commander of her strength on the deep; hurler of her thunder over the flood." 

"A great man. But I am not warlike, Shirley; and yet my mind is so restless I burn day and night—for what I can hardly tell—to be—to do—to suffer, I think." 

"Harry, it is your mind, which is stronger and older than your frame, that troubles you. It is a captive; it lies in physical bondage. But it will work its own redemption yet. Study carefully not only books but the world. You love nature; love her without fear. Be patient—wait the course of time. You will not be a soldier or a sailor, Henry; but if you live you will be—listen to my prophecy—you will be an author, perhaps a poet."

Shirley may not be a great lover of poetry, but she sees her nephew's strengths, and encourages him to achieve his potential. As England is bogged down in the Napoleonic Wars, she points to one of her country's foremost leader: Horatio Nelson. As she points out, he may not boast the most impressive, desirable figure, but people respect his leadership, and are grateful for how he has protected their country. 

Even today, people still look up to this heroic figure. At least they do in London, when they visit Trafalgar Square.

Out of all the great leaders of England, Charlotte Bronte's character Shirley picks out Horatio Nelson as a role model. 

I wonder what could have piqued her interest in the man?

Dragon Dave

Related Posts from Loving To The Manor Born
A Memorial to Horatio Nelson
Horatio Nelson and the Bronte Sisters

Monday, April 25, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Artistic Suppression

A couple admire the Bronte Parsonage Museum
in Haworth, England

The similarities detailed in the previous post between Charlotte's novel Shirley, and her sister's Anne's novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are as unarguable as they are inescapable. What is less clear is why, a year after Anne's death, Charlotte elected to suppress Anne's second novel. When Charlotte refused to allow the publishers to reprint The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne's second novel fell into obscurity for years. Was Charlotte jealous of her sister's success? Or did she not wish her readers to discover the similarities between the three novels?

Perhaps Charlotte suppressed her sister's second novel because it brought her too much pain. Anne's novels drew largely on her life, and the people close to her. As such, they speak truthfully to the characters, situations, and social issues she described. And by the time the publishers requested the reprint, Charlotte had endured great pain. 

Just like Charlotte's character James Helstone, Anne died too early in life, as did her sister Emily. Their brother Branwell, a young man known for his good looks and character, had also passed away. Unlike her sister's however, Charlotte's brother underwent a disturbing change before his death. While Branwell retained his good looks, addictions to alcohol and opium took their toll on his character. He fathered a child out of wedlock, and it has been alleged that he grew similarly cruel and depraved to Anne's character Arthur Huntington in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Regardless of Charlotte's reasoning, we can all be thankful that her suppression of her sister's second novel failed. Ultimately, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall proved too powerful to be lost or ignored. It survives not only as popular entertainment, but an important historical novel. 

Still, with regard to Anne's novels, I side with Charlotte Bronte. While I liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I enjoyed Agnes Grey more. But then, we all prefer some novels to others, even if they were both written by a favorite author, don't we?

Dragon Dave

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Charlotte Bronte's Bicentennial

The views around Haworth are nothing less than amazing. The views from the nearby hillside trails equally so. And yet, one must pause and wonder how they would have looked two hundred years ago. 

On April 21, 1816, Charlotte Bronte came into this world. She lived here, in the village of Haworth, in the parsonage of the local church, surrounded by townspeople and brick-and-slate houses. Yet, like all her sisters, the nearby fields, hills, and moors--nature in all her untamed glory--infuses her writing. 

I wonder where she is now, and what beauty and glory she is contemplating. I wonder what she would think of modern Haworth. I wonder if she is gazing down upon her beloved hometown today, on the bicentennial of her birth, and if so, what she is thinking. Don't you?

What do you see, when you walk and look and live in your hometown? How do your surroundings inspire you?

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 18, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Alternative History

Following the path down to the lake
outside Haworth, England.

Warning: This post contains spoilers with regard to Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. It also contains spoilers both of her sister Anne's novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Read further at your own risk!

In Shirley, heroine Caroline Helstone falls ill. Mrs Pryor, Shirley's former governess, sits by her bed night and day. When Caroline seems at death's door, Mrs Pryor throws out a bombshell. After her husband's death, she entrusted Caroline to her brother-in-law's care, and assumed the last name Pryor to shield her identity. She is, in reality, Agnes Helstone. She is Caroline's mother!

Mrs Pryor then does a very intriguing thing: she tells Caroline that before married her father, and became Mrs Helstone, her name was Agnes Grey. Just like Anne Bronte's title character in her novel Agnes Grey, she worked as a governess. And just like Helen in Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she married a man who seemed not only handsome but also good. Only after her marriage did she discover that cruelty accompanied that kindness. 

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arthur Huntington's increasing alcoholism leads him to be terribly cruel to his wife. To protect herself, and their son from Arthur's depravity, Helen flees her home. She assumes the name Helen Graham, and takes up residence in Wildfell Hall. 

Unlike in Anne's novel Agnes Grey, Charlotte's character of Agnes Grey (or Mrs Pryor) marries unhappily. Unlike in Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte's character of Agnes Grey never details her husband's depravity. She explains to Caroline, in a few vague phrases, how James Helstone grew terribly cruel to her. While still a handsome man, after their marriage, he revealed himself as a villain. Nevertheless, the way physical beauty united with cruelty and depravity of nature made her fear the person her daughter would develop into. For Caroline was a beautiful baby.

These days, authors feel free to explore all sorts of alternative fictional scenarios. What if someone shot Adolf Hitler in his childhood? What if gunpowder was never invented? Alternative History has grown into a vibrant portion of the Science Fiction & Fantasy genre. Even big name authors, who are generally known for their speculations of the future, have felt its attraction. Eminent Science Fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, in The Years of Rice and Salt, weaved an entire novel around this premise: What if the Black Death wiped out everyone in western Europe? Modern authors even feel free to delve into the past of famous characters, such as those written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, and speculate what might have occurred had Sherlock Holmes traveled to America, or the Bennett sisters received training as zombie hunters.

While nothing is new in storytelling, I have to wonder if what Charlotte Bronte did in Shirley was common or rare in her era. Did her contemporary writers routinely borrow characters from other authors, and place them into their own novels? Or was Charlotte Bronte attempting to do something new in her novel Shirley?

What do you think? Does Charlotte Bronte's character of Agnes Grey constitute plagiarism or an homage? And does her work serve as an important precursor of today's popular sub genre of Alternative History?

Dragon Dave