Monday, 16 January 2017

Charlotte and her Sisters: On the Death of Emily Jane Brontë and On the Death of Anne Brontë

In May 1849, a 33-year-old Charlotte Bronte, who had cared for her younger sisters and brother as the eldest since her older sisters’ deaths in 1825, found herself sibling-less. Branwell Bronte had died the previous September, Emily followed in December and now Anne succumbed in Scarborough, where she was buried apart from the Bronte clan.

Branwell's portrait of his sisters (with painted over self portrait)
Charlotte had turned to writing poetry on the death of Emily. Penned five days after her sister’s death, On the Death of Emily Jane Bronte concentrates on the pain Emily has been spared, but her sisters have to endure in grieving for her – ‘My darling, thou wilt never know/The grinding agony of woe/That we have borne for thee’ – and ends with traditional Christian joy at the better world Emily has gone to (‘We will not wish thee here again’) and the hope afforded by the promised reunion in the afterlife (‘give us rest and joy with thee’).

A month after Anne’s death, Charlotte’s second poem on grieving reads very differently and is much more raw. While her poem for Emily starts with a direct address (‘My darling’), the initial focus of the latter poem is the bleakness of Charlotte’s own existence: ‘There’s little joy in life for me,/And little terror in the grave;/I’ve lived the parting hour to see/Of one I would have died to save.

It is much harder for her to rely on religious comfort when losing Anne also means losing the last of her siblings and continuing her existence alone: ‘And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,/Must bear alone the weary strife’. The poem’s central two stanzas dramatise Charlotte’s internal struggle at her sister’s deathbed – wishing for an end to Anne’s suffering, as she had for Emily, and fearing to go on alone. She is horrified at the ‘stillness that must part/The darling of my life from me’ in the same breath as she expresses her thanks to God for not extending Anne’s pain.

There is no question of which emotion will win out. Charlotte knows that ultimately she is not given a choice. Her life may be ‘weary strife’ but it will continue for as long as God decides (in reality another six years, before she died in the early stages of pregnancy, barely nine months after her marriage).

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist blog about next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Theatre Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Imperial Theatre, NYC

“No single English novel attains the universality of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace,”
Encyclopedia Brittanica

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 War and Peace is a mammoth undertaking. The story of love, death and philosophy against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia sprawls across four volumes, encompassing nearly 600 characters, and you soon feel immersed in its detailed and vibrant world.

Josh Groban with the cast of The Great Comet
New Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (hereafter The Great Comet), achieves a similar feat, even with its much more limited scope. New York’s Imperial Theatre has been transformed from a traditional proscenium arch into an interactive space, with many spectators sat on the stage, gangways for the performers to cavort through the audience and red velvet hangings and paintings over the walls, allowing you to feel like you have really stepped into a nineteenth-century drawing room.

Dave Malloy’s play dramatises a few chapters of Tolstoy’s novel — the period just prior to the appearance of the comet, including Pierre’s duel and Natasha’s seduction and thwarted abduction. The focus is helpful in terms of improving accessibility (during the first song the chorus even tells you that you should be looking at your programme and consulting the family tree) and creating emotional payoff in a short space of time, although the production was most affecting for me during Pierre (Josh Groban)’s solos, which touched most explicitly on the novel’s broader existential themes.

Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford
There is little dialogue and the music ranges from traditional Russian tunes to old school Broadway ballads to rave and electronica, whatever will best convey the plot and mood, to which the play strives to be loyal. Many of the chorus members play instruments as they move through the crowd and Pierre often frequents the central orchestra pit, taking over at times from the musicians. Groban, along with Denee Benton’s Natasha, Brittain Ashford’s Sonya and Gelsey Bell’s Mary, really is the emotional heart of the drama, but the audience also responds well to the eccentric caricatures – mad Prince Bolonsky (Nicholas Belton), proud Muscovite matriarch Marya (Grace McLean) and ‘hot’ Anatole (Lucas Steele).

If you’re in NYC and up for a riotous night, The Great Comet is definitely a show to watch. Plus it might even help you bluff your way through a conversation about War and Peace

Do you know of any other shows you think the Secret Victorianist should see next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Birth of the Brontë Legend: Reading Gaskell reading Charlotte

Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857, two years after its subject’s death, is the kind of text that today seems more often to be quoted than read.

At any rate this is certainly true amongst the undergraduate population. As an English Literature student I had some idea of those aspects of Charlotte’s life that Gaskell emphasised (Charlotte’s closeness to her siblings, her sense of duty, and her mental strength compared with her physical weakness) and those aspects that the biographer chose to downplay (Charlotte’s relationships with Belgian schoolteacher M. Heger and her publisher George Smith, for instance, or the identification of Jane Eyre’s Lowood with the Clergy Daughters’ School, where Maria and Elizabeth Brontë died).

But reading The Life now, after years steeped in Brontë-lore (e.g. other biographies all of which took Gaskell as their starting point, exhibitions such as the Morgan’s wonderful bicentenary celebration), is a fascinating experience. Gaskell set out to memorialise her friend and fellow novelist, but what she set in motion was a cult-like fascination with, not just Charlotte’s novels, but the personality behind them, the family that lead to them, and the very land that now bears the name of ‘Brontë country’.

The Brontë Parsonage today
Here are a few aspects of the biography that stood out most to me as having had a profound effect on the afterlife of the Brontë ‘myth’:

1. ‘Explaining’ the Brontës through reference to their environment and isolation
Gaskell begins the biography with a detailed description of Keighley, Haworth and the surrounding countryside, emphasising the neighbourhood’s bleakness and relative isolation.

A representative paragraph:
All round the horizon there is this same line of sinuous wave-like hills; the scoops into which they fall only revealing other hills beyond, of similar colour and shape, crowned with wild, bleak moors—grand, from the ideas of solitude and loneliness which they suggest, or oppressive from the feeling which they give of being pent-up by some monotonous and illimitable barrier, according to the mood of mind in which the spectator may be.

Throughout The Life, she emphasises the uniqueness of the Brontë children’s upbringing in such an environment, painting the moors as the perfect backdrop for literary inspiration – something many later interpreters of the family’s lives have followed her in. She also establishes a connection between Emily in particular and the moorland, another commonplace in the Brontë fable. Here, she quotes from one of Charlotte’s letters:

My sister Emily loved the moors.  Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; —out of a sullen hollow in a livid hillside, her mind could make an Eden.  She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best loved was—liberty.

Cut off from civilisation, set apart from their peers and raised in the wild, the siblings are described as strangely old before their time:

The hieroglyphics of childhood were an unknown language to them, Gaskell writes.

2. The romanticisation of the Brontës’ early deaths
Linked to this is the romanticisation of the siblings’ deaths, so close together and so tragically young. Gaskell ends the first chapter of the biography by quoting the inscription on the Haworth church tablet in full (the tablet that existed then but was later replaced) and we are never allowed to forget the imminent threat of illness, the fragility of the family as a whole:

Now Emily was far away in Haworth—where she or any other loved one, might die, before Charlotte, with her utmost speed, could reach them, as experience, in her aunt’s case, had taught her. 

This depiction of the Brontës as close to death, even from infancy, and crushingly aware of their own mortality is relatively commonplace, but we’d do well, I think, to consider the normality of fatal illnesses in society at this time. The Brontës might have been especially unlucky, but they were not unique in the number of tragedies they underwent. In Gaskell’s rendering Charlotte’s approach to death is most striking in its pragmatism and religious conviction.

3. The emergence of Branwell as a shadowy and intriguing figure
Finally, Gaskell’s excessive praise of Branwell, despite his ‘faults’ and ‘vices’, set the tone for decades of speculation about the Brontë brother.

He was very clever, no doubt; perhaps to begin with, the greatest genius in this rare family. The sisters hardly recognised their own, or each others’ powers, but they knew his.  

The boy who should have been a genius, an artist, or the greatest novelist of all has been a strange addition to the story of three female writers of extraordinary talent. Gaskell was trying to prove Charlotte’s femininity, to praise her sisterly pride in her brother. Instead, she spawned various conspiracy theories.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

10 thoughts I had watching The Nutcracker as an adult

With Christmas just around the corner, the Secret Victorianist went to Lincoln Center this week for the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky’s 1892 work was the first full-length ballet I saw as a child and watching the excited children arriving for this performance, decked out in dance clothes and party dresses, brought back many fond memories.

But what goes through your head when you’re watching The Nutcracker as a much more cynical adult, and without a child in tow? Read on to find out…

Image from the NYC Ballet's production
1. I wish it was acceptable for me to dress like Clara. Could I get away with a large pink hair bow? I could definitely get away with a large pink hair bow. Maybe I should embrace Lolita fashion.

2. I’m glad I didn’t have to decorate that Christmas tree — it’s huge.

3. The adults don’t seem to be having much fun at this party. Where’s the punch?

4. These toys are very gendered. Somebody complain to Target.

5. And now the tree is even bigger? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Image from the NYC Ballet's production

6. Call the exterminator! Are they mice? Are they rats? Either way, somebody kill them quick.

7. Clara is outside in a nightgown? While snowflakes are dancing around her? Give that child a coat!

Image from the NYC Ballet's production
8. Clara, you’re too young to find a prince. Wait a few years. Keep playing with your dolls before you play the field.

9. A strong female leader? Who gets to wear a tiara and tutu? I’m very pro-Sugar Plum Fairy. This story is more feminist than I thought.

Image from the NYC Ballet's production
10. So much Christmas. Casual racism. Overwhelming nostalgia. All the feels.

Do you know of any other NYC productions you think the Secret Victorianist would enjoy? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.