Posts Tagged ‘Bronte Sisters’

Book note: Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

August 30, 2022

VILLETTE by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is about a complicated young women who didn’t fit what was expected of women in the Victorian age.  It also is about the cultural clash of an English Protestant in a French Catholic environment.  I read it in a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

The novel’s zig-zag plot has so many abrupt turns that I thought the author may have been making it up as she went along.  But, no, at the end, everything comes together like a solved Rubik’s cube.  I think it would make a good TV mini-series.   

Charlotte Bronte

Lucy Snowe, the narrator, is courageous, self-reliant, resourceful and also opinionated and judgmental.  She expects little of the world and much of herself.  Inside her stoic shell, she is highly sensitive and subject to mood swings.  A little thing can send her from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, or vice versa.  Her greatest fear is exposing her emotional vulnerability.

She is left an orphan in her teens, and makes a living as a nurse-companion to an elderly invalid woman who needs 24-hour care.   This means, as my friend Judith observed, that she comes of age without having been socialized into how young ladies of her era should think and behave.

Her employer dies unexpectedly when Lucy is in her early twenties.  She is faced with the problem of earning a living and she has no network of family and friends to whom to turn.

She leaves for London, figuring job opportunities are greater there.  Somebody tells her there is good money to be made teaching English as girls’ schools in Belgium.  She immediately buys a boat ticket for Belgium.

She lands in the fictional city of Villette and heads for the nearest girls’ school.  She loses her way and arrives at the school at midnight in a pouring rain.  She talks her way into a bed for the night, and then into a job.

The owner of the girls’ school, Madame Beck, is herself an interesting character.  She is domineering, interfering, manipulative and utterly ruthless when it comes to upholding her own interests and the interests of the school.  But she is also sensible, fair-minded, a capable administrator and a good judge of character.

(Bronte, by the way, refers to Madame Beck and all the other Belgian characters as French.)

Lucy is set to work as Madame Beck’s personal servant and governess (tutor and nanny) of her children.  

 One day, on a few minutes notice, she is asked to teach a class of older teenage girls in place of an English teacher who failed to show up.  

The rowdy French girls are all set to make life miserable for the substitute teacher.  But Lucy quickly picks out the ringleaders and humiliates them.  She even locks one of them in a closet.  Her authority established, she goes on to teach the class.  

She notices Madame Beck watching through a keyhole.  From that day on, she leaves the nursery behind and is a full-fledged English teacher.

(more…)

Love and marriage as it used to be

January 26, 2022

THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL by Anne Bronte (1848) with an introduction by John Weeks (1979)

Most educated people have heard of the Bronte sisters—Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights.  I didn’t know there was a third sister, Anne Bronte, until one of her novels was selected by my novel-reading group.

Her best-known novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a shocker in its day, which is why Charlotte didn’t want it to be republished after Anne’s death.

What made it so shocking?  The heroine was a wife who’d run away from her husband.

Marriage then was an iron-clad contract.  Indeed, someone who broke off an engagement could be sued for breach of promise.  Once married, the woman was transferred from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.

England in those days was a patriarchy—a real one.

Married women could not own property.  Everything a wife owned, including what she earned herself, belonged to her husband.  The husband could even take her children away from her.

Marriage was the transfer of the woman from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.  The only truly independent women were, like Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, fatherless, unmarried and in possession of sufficient property to support themselves.

Many Victorian novels tell of unhappy marriages and abusive husbands, but the wife, if she is to expect any sympathy from the reader, must do her best to put up with it.  Freedom only came when the abusive partner died, which, iIt must be said, very commonly happened in not only in novels, but in real life.)

###

We begin with reminiscences of Gilbert Markham, a classic unreliable narrator.  He’s a nice young man working on the family estate, oblivious to what is going on around him, but providing enough information that the reader can see what he is blind to.

For example, he is unaware of how his mother and sister cater to his needs and wishes because the man of the house comes first.  He doesn’t notice how the desperately the young women in his circle want and need to get married.  What for him is an amusing flirtation is, for them, a question of their whole futures.  The women in my novel-reading group said his is typical male behavior.

Gilbert’s attention is captured by a mysterious Helen Graham who has moved into a remote, previously-vacant house called Wildfell Hall with her small son.  She is cold and stand-offish, especially to men, but also lonely.

They gradually grow closer, despite his blunders, based on his tendency to act impulsively after jumping to false conclusions.

Finally she gives him a diary that tells her back story.

(more…)

The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

September 12, 2019

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

(more…)