Sunday, May 29, 2011

Voices of the romantic revolution: Charlotte and Emily Brontë

The following remarks are taken from an essay by Virginia Woolf (in The Common Reader, 1925).

"There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passion. It makes them poets, or, if they choose to write in prose, intolerant of its restrictions. Hence it is that both Emily and Charlotte are always invoking the help of nature. They both feel the need of some more powerful symbol of the vast and slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can convey. It is with a description of a storm that Charlotte ends her finest novel, Villette. 'The skies hang full and dark—a wrack sails from the west; the clouds cast themselves into strange forms.' So she calls in nature to describe a state of mind that could not be otherwise expressed. But neither of the sisters observed nature accurately as Dorothy Wordsworth observed it, or painted it minutely as Tennyson painted it. They seized those aspects of the earth which were most akin to what they themselves felt or imputed to their characters, and so their storms, their moors, their lovely spaces of summer weather are not ornaments to decorate a dull page or display the artist's power of observation—they carry on the emotion and light up the meaning of the book.

"The meaning of a book, which lies so often apart from what happens and what is said and consists in some connection with things in themselves different have had for the writer, is necessarily hard to grasp. Especially is this so when, like the Brontës, the writer is poetic, and his meaning inseparable from his language, and itself rather a mood than a particular observation. Wuthering Heights is a more difficult book to understand than Jane Eyre, because Emily was a greater poet than Charlotte. When Charlotte wrote she said 'I love', 'I hate,' 'I suffer'. Her experience, though more intense, is on a level with our own. But there is no 'I' in Wuthering Heights. There are no governesses. There are no employers. There is love, but it is not the love of men and women. Emily was inspired by some more general conception. The impulse that urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into a gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel—a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely 'I love' or 'I hate', but 'we, the whole human race' and 'you, the eternal powers . . .' the sentence remains unfinished. It is not strange that it should be so; rather it is astonishing that she can make us feel what she had it in her to say at all. It surges up in the half-articulate word of Catherine Earnshaw, 'If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it.' It breaks out again in the presence of the dead. 'I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break, and I feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter—the eternity they have entered—where life is boundless in its duration, and love in its sympathy and joy in its fulness.' It is this suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature and lifting them up into the presence of greatness that gives the book its huge stature among other novels."

4 comments:

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