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 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 or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 11 December 2016

Salome, Wilde and Strauss

Wilde complained to me one day that someone in a well-known novel had stolen an idea of his. I pleaded in defence of the culprit that Wilde himself was a fearless literary thief. "My dear fellow," he said, with his usual drawling emphasis, "when I see a monstrous tulip with four wonderful petals in someone else's garden, I am impelled to grow a monstrous tulip with five wonderful petals, but that is no reason why someone should grow a tulip with only three petals." THAT WAS OSCAR WILDE.

Robert Ross

Patricia Racette in the Met's 2016 production
Last week, the Secret Victorianist visited the Metropolitan Opera in New York to see Patricia Racette as the eponymous character in Strauss’s 1905 Salome.

The opera, which is performed in German, is based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play of the same name — a play written in French, banned by the censors and famously illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in the first English version (1894).

Beardsley's illustrations
Originally deemed shocking for its overt sexuality and liberal depiction of Biblical characters, it was from accusations of plagiarism that Robert Ross defended the play in his Note on the text in 1912. For Ross, Wilde’s freedoms with his sources, such as conflating the Biblical Herods, are necessary for artistic innovation and literary thievery is acceptable as long as improves the sources it plunders. I couldn’t help but wonder then what Wilde might have made of Strauss’s opera and the Met’s current production.

For an opera, Salome is incredibly true to the play it is based on — from the lyrics that the performers sing, to the reactions it invokes. Beheadings still fascinate and appall, erotic dances titillate. Even today the opera still has the ability to shock — not just through the fleeting full frontal nudity, but also in the sense of danger that pervades, in the story, yes, but also in the staging and the music.

Beardsley's illustrations
What has changed perhaps is our response to Jochanaan. When once audiences and readers baulked at the combination of eroticism with their own religion, today, sitting watching in Manhattan, it’s hard not to find John the Baptist’s prophecies as alien and unsettling as the play’s more pagan symbolism.  It’s easy to imagine that for early audiences Jochanann and Salome were two great oppositional forces, carrying almost equal sway, but today’s Salome is undoubtedly dominated by its titular character.

At only one act, this is one of the shorter operas I’ve seen, but one that draws you in to a discordant and unsettling world. I only wished the Met’s production could have staged the moon that dominates Wilde’s imagining of Herod’s court, Beardsley’s illustrations and the singers’ words:

Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb.  She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.

Do you know of any NYC productions you think the Secret Victorianist should watch? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.