Saturday, 21 September 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: B is for Brownies in the Brain


‘for the Little People, what shall I say they are but just my Brownies, God bless them! who do one half my work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself. That part which is done while I am sleeping is the Brownies' part beyond contention; but that which is done when I am up and about is by no means necessarily mine, since all goes to show the Brownies have a hand in it even then.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ (1892) firmly situates the creative impulse to write in the subconscious – an area of mind outside the writer’s control. For Stevenson, visualising the birth of his creative processes is easier if he peoples his brain (humorously) with ‘brownies’ – elf creatures famed for their helpfulness. His playful conceit can even redirect critics to the ‘brownies’ when they seek to apportion blame to his work (For the business of the powders, which so many have censured, is, I am relieved to say, not mine at all but the Brownies).

But the idea – and the essay – are not solely light-hearted. In the passage quoted above Stevenson hints that locating creativity in a dreamland can have negative effects for the appreciation of the artist, be this in terms of self-satisfaction (which can only come from ‘fondly suppose[ing]’) or from the praise of others (his presumed reader). More than this, in a way reflecting emerging theories of psychology, dreaming is troubling, and born of trauma. Stevenson’s exposure to the strictures of extreme Protestantism as a child is linked to the stories his night time brownies bring – stories which often, if not always (Stevenson says his dreams are occasionally a ‘surprise’), have a frightening edge.

Stevenson is not the only nineteenth-century writer of Gothic who talks about creativity in this proto-Freudian way. Take the following passage from Bronte’s (earlier) Jane Eyre (1847) when Rochester looks through Jane’s portfolio of pictures. Jane responds to Rochester’s questions about how she felt when painting the disturbing images like so:

‘To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.’

Rochester is dismissive about the exposure she can have had to pleasures but says:

‘you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints.’

This argument is meant to explain the intensity of feeling working creatively has inspired in a girl with no experience of passion. What is more, as Jane doesn’t have the skill to execute her work to higher standard, her ideas – her dreams – must have been all the more extraordinary. Rochester says:

‘you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably.  You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar.  As to the thoughts, they are elfish.’

Like Stevenson, he draws on the language of the supernatural to explain the workings of the brain. Immediately after this he sends Jane to bed, so disturbed is he by the peculiar drawings. Jane’s paintings are passionate and suggestive of sexual passion, and they also seem distinctly masochistic. She was ‘tormented’ by her perceived failures, she worked on them for whole days without respite, her pleasure was ‘keen’, walking the line between enjoyable and painful sensation. Jane, like Stevenson, is a victim of childhood trauma – and so her imagination is a source of protection and further (self-)violence.

Edward Nash's portrait
of Robert Southey
As Jane, so Charlotte. Take this passage from a letter written from poet Robert Southey to Bronte in 1837:

‘The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else.

Southey’s advice is tempered by his views on gender – he doesn’t believe women should write or they will not be ‘fitted’ to their roles. Charlotte can produce creative work, but only to the detriment of her mental health. In her reply, Bronte does not refute this – she makes out that she prefers her inner world, one she has, with her siblings, populated like Stevenson has his own:

‘It is not easy to dismiss from my imagination the images which have filled it for so long; they were my friends and my intimate acquaintances, and I could with little labour describe to you the faces, the voices, the actions, of those who peopled my thoughts by day, and not seldom stole strangely even into my dreams at night. When I depart from these I feel almost as if I stood on the threshold of a home and were bidding farewell to its inmates.

Bronte’s explanation relies on the blurring of realities – different states of consciousness – and the time we have dedicated to each. Stevenson’s brownies seem relatively well-behaved compared with those of Charlotte Bronte and her Jane who can appear un-summoned in the day. The flavour of her analysis is Gothic – the ‘home’ of her brain becomes a self-made prison with ‘inmates’ – but the conclusions we draw are psychological.

Psychoanalysing authors is not the only response we can have to this. We can also see both Stevenson and Bronte identifying themselves in a tradition by which authors of Gothic seek to mystify their own writing processes – a tradition which finds a particularly potent example in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). This is a text with long-reaching influence over the Gothic genre, whose inception (thanks to the ‘Author’s Introduction’) is a key part of its legend.

Richard Rothwell's portrait
of Mary Shelley
Shelley recounts how she conceived her story when she, her husband (P. B. Shelley) and Byron each set out to write a ghost story in the summer of 1816. To start with she:

felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.’

She argues:

‘Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.

The ‘dark, shapeless substances’ clearly suggest a dream world and this is, finally, where material for her novel is found:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.’

Frankenstein’s monster is born and, fittingly for a work which questions creation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein becomes a model for the tortured psychology of the writer.

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