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Entries in Charlotte Brontë (3)


The Garden in VILLETTE

It's hard to miss the symbolism: Lucy Snowe, a reclusive and reticent narrator, is drawn to a garden and its secret alley behind what was once a convent, now a school where girls plan their sexual escapades.

The root of this garden in VILLETTE probably isn't the garden of Eden, although that image lies far back behind it. Instead, it's the medieval notion of a hortus conclusus, a walled garden, a secret place, and perhaps an attempt to find a little bit of Eden in this world.

The notion of a hortus conclusus probably got started with the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. In the Renaissance, Mary is most often placed indoors to receive Gabriel's news that she will give birth to Jesus. But early representations usually placed her outdoors, most often in a small enclosed space like this:

Yes, there she is, in a garden like Eden. Mary, whose son will save the world, is the new hope, placed in a site that reminds us of humanity's original sin. But there are several other reasons for her placement. Mary's purity is stressed, since she is set apart from the world in this walled space. Often, her domesticity is highlighted as she spins, knits, or does other household crafts. And her fertility is emphasized, since she's surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. Indeed, some mystics went so far as to indentify Mary herself (or a least her uterus) as the ultimate hortus conclusus.

By the late Middle Ages, the hortus conclusus most often had a fountain at the center, sometimes with four walkways that divided it into four quadrants. It had also become a very social place--or more specifically, a place where women gathered to do household tasks or just enjoy each other's company. Again, it's hard to miss the symbolism: in a culture obsessed with virginity, women have the most freedom in a walled space that contains its (their?) fertility. Here's a scene by an anonymous German painter, der Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins. While it venerates the Virgin, it also looks like a common day out in the garden for her and her staff. Notice the presence of a couple of men who clearly pose no threat, even if they are wooing the ladies.

By the 1400s, the ideal of the hortus conclusus was found throughout European culture. Indeed, the inner cloister in an abbey or a convent (like this one at Senanque in southern France) is itself modeled on the hortus conclusus. If you consider that the hortus conclusus was itself a symbol of Mary's virginity, then you can see the full iconography: monks, themselves celibate, walking the cloisters that border the garden without ever entering it.

Perhaps one of the most famous representations of the hortus conclusus is the tapestry cycle now in the Cluny in Paris, now called "The Lady and the Unicorn." These images have been resistant to interpretation. There is still much debate about what they mean. They may be fully secular in nature, a knightly romance tale come to thread--or they may be a complex allegory of Mary's virginity and her ability to capture the elusive and unique unicorn in her garden, perhaps a reference to Christ. But there is no debate that was depicted is a hortus conclusus.

All this said, a hortus conclusus is a secret place where women meet in safety and where the very threats to their safety are expressed (for example, both a place to preserve women from rape and to institutionalize their status as inferior beings in need of protection). It is itself associated with both frustrated and expressed sexuality.

And in case you think the hortus conclusus has fallen out of modern discourse, here's a contemporary work of art by Hans Rüngeler (born in 1957) called, in fact, "Hortus Conclusus."



Is Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre?

The C. B. Richmond chalk portrait of Charlotte Brontë, done in 1850 (three years after JANE EYRE--here, she's thirty-four)I don’t know if you’ve been following this story, but it seems an Italian investigative journalist in New York may have solved the mystery of who Elena Ferrante is. Click here for the latest op-ed on the story from the NYTimes.

This op-ed is a great piece for us right now. It’s relatively easy to read an author’s life back into her or his work. But it’s something of a deception, if not a bald logic fault, particularly for works written in the Romantic Era (around 1800) and following. (If you want to read the original article that broke the story, it’s here.)

A powerfully imaginative work—what we would consider a great work of literature—has one significant hallmark: it creates a world unto itself. It so encapsulates experience and indeed the essence of what it is to be human that it makes its own rules, creates its own time, and spins a fabric of reality to suit itself. The author’s life is finally (and at best) tangential to the work.

Sure, every author starts with “what they know.” But great authors move quickly out and away into a vast canvas of imaginative strokes. Twain grew up near the Mississippi River and worked as a river pilot in his teenage years--but these are only small starting points for the unbelievably complex novel that Huck Finn narrates. Huck's very voice is not Twain's but an amalgam of white Southern and African-American dialects.

Notice, too, how we don’t make the same autobiographical move with painters. “Picasso painted this nose because his mother’s nose was. . . .” Or choreographers. “Mark Morris made this dance en pointe because his father once said. . . .” It seems absurd, right? It is so with books, too.

What’s more, you can always find what you’re looking for. In a long novel, you can surely find things that are replicated from an author’s life. In fact, I’ll be willing to bet you could read any novel and find things that are replicated from my life. “In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooks cannot have a small dog because she’s so near-sighted—and I notice that Mark always wears glasses.” Absurd, no? But the point is that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—and doing so may not in the end make a compelling, logical case for interpretation. 

Such an idea is particularly crucial for JANE EYRE. It’s tempting to read Charlotte Brontë into the book. And in some ways we sure can. In fact, in the second half of the novel, the impulse to read her life into the book will prove almost overwhelming with the introduction of one central character.

But for now, the larger “problem” beyond mere details remains the fictional world she made, a world of fury and frustration, one that in many ways does not reflect the peaceful, sometimes pastoral, and often quite happy life Charlotte lived. Of course she was unhappy at times. We all are. But her frequent, extended visits with friends around England, her devotion to her family, her education in Belgium, her high times in London, and the aching sadness she felt over the deaths of her mother and four siblings are all things apart from the great novel she wrote. The case of a Polish/German immigrant Jewish translator writing the novels we call “Ferrante’s” shows that a powerful imagination is capable of creating its own world.

The first page of the fair copy of the JANE EYRE manuscript


The Brontës

As we start our five-month (!) tour of everything Brontë, I thought we might look at the lay of the land--and the women who lived on it.

As you probably know, the Brontës lived most of their lives in the parsonage at Haworth, up on the northwestern section of the Yorkshire moors. The name "Haworth" probably means something like "hawthorne enclosure"--and gives you some idea of the landscape in which it is set. However, there has long been the myth that the town was merely a remote village in a forbidding landscape. Juliet Barker in her gigantic, 1000-page, beautifully researched biography of the family has gone to some lengths to prove that Haworth was certainly no more remote than many other small towns in England and was in fact an agricultural center for the region, complete with many shops, local crafts, a fairly prosperous church, and even a dissenter congregation (a mix of Methodists and Baptists) at the other end of town. Although the family did have to walk to the rails, they were well served with easy connections even down to London. Here's a picture of the parsonage where the three writing sisters grew up:

Note the close proximity of the graveyard. The house has since had a wing addition to the far side and now houses the Brontë museum. The church where their father, Patrick Brontë, preached was damaged, torn down, and rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, although some parts of the original tower and foundational elements remain.

Here is a street of modern-day Haworth. Almost all of these structures were extant when the Brontë sisters were alive. You'll see it's a small but rather attractive farming town.

The so-called "Brontë myth," instigated by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray during Charlotte's lifetime and in full swing even today, demands the story that the sisters lived in bleak isolation with little access to the real world (that is, London). Given that Haworth had shops and markets, given that it had fairly good rail connections (for the time), given that Charlotte eventually became the most famous woman in England (after the queen) and the toast of high-society parties across London, and given that both Charlotte and Emily got a fairly advanced education abroad in Brussels, the myth has to work hard to stay relevant. No, the sisters were not Oxford dons or urban intellectuals. But they were not quite the country bumpkins they are still made out to be today, even by the Haworth tourist industry.

That said, the moors did beckon, particularly for Emily, but for Charlotte as well. They were a place of great if austere beauty, particularly in the spring.

We tend to see the moors through the lens of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And no doubt, they're a frosty, damp place. But we should also remember that Emily Brontë's poetry celebrated the moors for their wild aesthetics, their abundant flowers, and their endless skies. And yes, their snowy, soggy landscape in the winter.


As to the Brontë sisters themselves, there's only one fully verified image, painted by their wastrel of a brother, Branwell. He fancied himself an artist although alcohol and perhaps laudanum took their toll early on. He painted this portrait of the four of them, then he painted himself out and put a pillar or chimney in his place. The painting has since been restored so you can see a ghostly image of Branwell in the center. The sisters are, left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. As you may know, they first published under male pseudonyms. So perhaps we should say, left to right, we see Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell.

Recently, a disputed photograph of the sisters has made the rounds. Found in France, it shows three women in almost operatic costume, typical of early nineteenth-century traveling clothes. Many biographers and scholars now accept the photograph as authentic. Some still do not, including some of the best scholars as well as some of the guardians of the lucrative Brontë myth/tourist industry. I'm not enough of a scholar to vouch for or against its authenticity. It purports to show, left to right, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

Finally, there is one portrait of Charlotte, sketched in 1850 by George Richmond after she became famous for JANE EYRE. She's about thirty-four here. All her siblings are dead. Branwell died of conditions related to alcoholism at 31 in 1848; Emily, of consumption at 30 a few months later; and Anne, of consumption at 29 about six months later. (Two older sisters died years before.) Although not a vain person by any means, Charlotte liked this portrait enough to hang it up in her home when she married her father's curate, George Nichols, in the last year of her life. I see the knowing gaze of a witty if prim survivor. (She, too, would pass early, in 1855 at 38, most likely from dehydration and malnutrition caused by extreme morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum.)