Thursday, 17 August 2017

Art Review: Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, SFMOMA, San Francisco

The Secret Victorianist found herself in San Francisco last week and took the opportunity to see a second exhibition dedicated to the work of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at the SFMOMA.

'Between the Clock and the Bed' (1940-1943)
The New York City Neue Galerie’s Munch and Expressionism, which I reviewed back in February 2016, had looked at the relationship between the Norwegian painter and his expressionist peers and featured his most enduringly famous painting — ‘The Scream’ (1893). But this SF exhibit was focused on the artist himself, highlighting the synergies between works produced by Munch at very different points in his career and life in its thematic arrangement.

Munch’s numerous self-portraits make up the centrepiece of the show, which takes its title from the 1940-1943 painting ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’, in which the artist stands, his face blurred, apparently waiting for death.

'Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek' (1911)
Munch stares out at visitors from every side of the room, thoughtful in pastels (‘Self-Portrait with Hand Under Cheek’, 1911), despairing with a bottle of wine (‘Self-Portrait with Wine’, 1906) and even burning in Hell (‘Self-Portrait in Hell’, 1903), underlying his interest in rendering the psychological in paint.

'Self-Portrait with Wine’ (1906)
With similar artworks side by side, Munch’s obsession with specific scenes and images, sometimes across decades, becomes clear.

‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ (1903)
There’s the death of his fourteen-year-old sister, Johanne Sophie, which he dubs ‘The Sick Child’ and plays with, using various paint techniques.

'The Sick Child' (1907)
‘The Scream’ is recognisable in the dissolving faces of ‘The Kiss’ (1897) and the backdrop to ‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892).

‘The Kiss’ (1897)
Loneliness pervades the exhibition as the only way to form a relationship with others seems to be to lose something of yourself.

‘Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair’ (1892)
The last work I viewed before exiting the gallery was ‘Eye in Eye’ (1894), a painting where skeletal male and female figures reminiscent of Adam and Eve stare at each other in a contentious, more than romantic, scene. That is the tension, the question Munch brings to life — what is the price of joining your personal psychological drama and pain with another’s?

‘Eye in Eye’ (1894)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you’d like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Film Review: The Beguiled (2017)

A little girl weaves in and out of the shadows of trees in Virginia, digging her fingers into the earth and picking mushrooms, before stumbling across a bloodied Union soldier. It sets the mood — dark, visceral and gritty (especially by costume drama standards) — for Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 movie.


Deserter John McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself transported from the horrors of battle to the perhaps even more brutal world of a girls’ school, where two teachers (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and five students (including Elle Fanning) live in intense isolation, waiting for news of the outside world, breath baited in fear (and, in some cases, anticipation) at the thought that Union soldiers may attack, rob from them and rape them.

The film does a beautiful job of bringing us into these women’s world. They stitch, cook, garden with visible effort, compared to the lacklustre embroidery efforts we’re used to seeing in film adaptations of nineteenth-century works. The school’s slaves have fled. There are no men. We almost feel the effort as the girls pump water or lift the hoe.

The lighting is also incredible. The candles aren’t just period props but appear to be the only source of light, giving the film the appearance of a Gothic painting, with girls, dressed in white, flitting through the shadows. The camerawork puts us in the position of a voyeur, peeping into the house and spying from behind tree branches.

Where then does the movie go so wrong?

Despite a talented cast and the gorgeous production, the movie feels vapid. Characters are underdeveloped, motivations unclear, and the dynamics between the women, which have real promise in the early scenes after McBurney’s arrival, go undeveloped. The story has little more depth than the film’s overly revealing trailer and, consequently, there’s no emotional payoff to match the atmosphere.

Dunst and Farrell in particular struggle to make something of their characters’ few lines of feeble backstory and we’re left with so many questions that it’s hard to see this world as three-dimensional at all. It’s more compelling as a series of beautiful tableaux, the viewer’s imagination creating what the filmmakers could not.

What did you think of the 2017 The Beguiled? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Traces of Angria and Gondal

The 5th of June 1826 was a seminal day in the Bronte household. It was the day Patrick Bronte brought his children — Charlotte (10), Branwell (9), Emily (7) and Anne (6) — a set of toy soldiers, which were to become a major part of their literary development.


More accurately, Patrick bought the soldiers for Branwell, the boy, but Charlotte describes how all four children immediately claimed a soldier. Charlotte named hers after the Duke of Wellington, a hero of hers, so of course Branwell chose to favour Bonaparte. Emily’s doll was dubbed ‘Gravey’ for his grave expression and the baby of the family, Anne, found her soldier demoted with the title ‘Waiting Boy’.

The children’s playacting with the soldiers soon turned to written outputs. They crafted tiny books and magazines (such as the one the Secret Victorianist saw at the Morgan Library’s exhibition), designed to be small enough for their dolls to read. And they created worlds — first the Glass Town Confederacy, then Angria, and then, when Emily and Anne became frustrated with their lesser creative roles in the latter’s development, the younger siblings’ world, Gondal.

Glass Town, Angria and Gondal were an incredible blend of the real and imagined, combining the Brontes’ riotous creativity with what they knew of the outside world (its politics, geography and emotional dramas). And the sagas they sparked extended well beyond their childhoods, with creative production of prose and poetry continuing into the group’s twenties. In fact it’s occasionally proved difficult for scholars to identify which of Emily’s poems are Gondal poems and which were inspired by personal feelings, unsurprising given the importance of these worlds to the siblings and the unfortunate loss of all the Gondal prose.

It’s tempting to see the Brontes’ choices of soldiers as indicative of their personalities and later creative outputs. Charlotte, who picked the hero, remains foremost in our thoughts today, Branwell plays the villain, Emily has become a gloomy symbol of the Gothic moors and Anne can’t quite shake her reputation as the quiet one.

It’s easy to read Bronte juvenilia and look for traces of the famous novels the sisters in the family would go on to produce, but, perhaps, we should look for traces of these wild, passionate, collaborative worlds in the stories we’ve grown so familiar with — not be awed by what’s often been judged ‘genius’ but instead see children, playing with their dolls.

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

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Secret Victorianist on Governors Island: Castle Williams, NYC

Last weekend, the Secret Victorianist visited Governors Island and explored the fort designed to protect New York City – Castle Williams.

The courtyard at Castle Williams today
Designed by Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, the man from which the building takes its name, the fortification was constructed between 1807 and 1811. Its circular shape was highly innovative at the time, giving soldiers stationed at the fort’s casements a wider field of range from which to defend New York Harbour.

Entering the fort
Built initially to stave off attack from the British, the castle served as a barracks for Union soldiers during the Civil War, before being repurposed as a military prison, a usage that continued well into the twentieth century.

My favourite part of the building’s history was learning about the years when the Coast Guard was in residence (1966-1997). In their early years on the island, Coast Guard families brought new life to this nineteenth-century fort, as it provided a space for a nursery, meeting rooms and various clubs and studios for the small population.

A model of the original design
It’s hard to imagine the New York of the 1800s, so, today, Castle Williams is an oddity — a nineteenth-century precaution against a threat that never came to fruition, a building that has undergone transformation after transformation, tied to the varied history of Governors Island.

The fort that once sought to protect the city is now dwarfed by it. It is only a backdrop to family outings, cycle parties and picnickers. This weekend Governors Island was overrun by women in pastel pinks knocking back rosé at the annual Pinknic festival, next weekend new boatloads of day-trippers will pause, read a sign about Castle Williams’ past and move on.

Pinknic revellers
Which NYC spots would you like to see the Secret Victorianist to explore next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Window to the Past: Victorian Ouseburn, George Whitehead

We may think we have a good idea of what life was like in the nineteenth century, but what of the world outside novels, divorced from royalty, far distant from the gas lamps of London and the dramas attendant on the personalities who came to define an era?

Anne Bronte's sketch of Holy Trinity Church, Little Ouseburn
The journal of George Whitehead (1823-1913), sometime carpenter and consummate busybody, is a portal to such a world. For over 60 years, in journals dedicated to births, marriages, deaths and ‘sundries’, he recorded the comings and goings of life in Yorkshire villages Little Ouseburn and Great Ouseburn, with meticulous detail and limited, if blunt, commentary.

He records everything, from the mundane…

Two gates hung across back lane against Clarkes stack yard corner July 6th 1847

To the dramatic…

John Johnson Mr Woodd’s cowman at Thorpe Green hung himself in the cart horse stable March 14 aged 53 years 1856

Boswell Atkinson of Whixley died Nov 5th he cut his throat Oct 26th Mrs Ibbotson confined Nov 15th & died Nov 18th through Atkinson cutting her throat & shock to the system 1893

To the personal:

Our little pony died suddenly Janry 30th 1858

I cut my great toe nearly off Oct 22nd I went on crutches for one month then a fortnight with the boot front cut off then one week with Father’ boots then began with my own all right 1866

And, as you read on, a picture emerges of a village that’s representative of the great changes the century is witnessing:

I sat at Mr Monkhouse’s Lendal York for my first Cartes devisits 6/- pr dozen August 13th 1864

The eleventh telegraph wire on our high road put up July or Augst, 1891

It’s a fascinating read. You never know what the next sentence will bring and start to feel part of a community you can never enter into.

Equally interesting is the book’s very existence in print. It was published in 1990 with all proceeds going to Holy Trinity Church in Little Ouseburn and mentions three intended audiences in its Editor’s Note – inhabitants of the Ouseburns, historians and those tracing their family history. Many readers, like me, stumble over the journals due to their connection to the Brontes. Anne and Branwell Bronte both worked in the area in the 1840s at Thorp Green, a local manor.

The journals’ existence and survival are exceptional, even if the central life it records is not, and they seem destined for a vibrant afterlife, whether fuelling scholars or looked at as a transportive curiosity.

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

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin, 2016

It’s 1886 and Paris is divided over the ‘monstrosity’ of a tower being built in its midst. Scottish widow Caitriona Wallace is playing chaperone to the wealthy and unworldly Alice Arroll and her hapless engineering apprentice brother Jamie. And Emile Nouguier, a partner of Gustave Eiffel, is looking to soar higher, in his designs or in hot air balloons, over a city filled with gossip, intrigue and seduction.


To Capture What We Cannot Keep manages to evoke the atmosphere of Paris in the 1880s, while keeping us at something of arm’s length, never letting us forget that Cait and the Arrolls are outsiders, uneasily navigating a society where morality is optional but reputation is paramount.

Colin gives us rich historical detail and the characters do feel like products of their time, helping the novel read like a story that could have unfolded. But lovers of plot and unexpected twists may be disappointed. The romance unfolds with few surprises and its pacing suffers at times. Cait is complex and Emile a worthy love interest for her, but the supporting cast plays stereotypical roles — devilish count, foolish virgin, plotting former mistress.

Beatrice Colin, 1963-
The novel also suffers from an overloading of sensual detail common to the genre, where historical heroines often read as more enamoured of scents, fabrics and their corresponding metaphors than their male counterparts. The exception to this is in her descriptions of the tower, where Colin does a good job of capturing its delicate precision balanced against its growing domination of the city’s skyline, its masculine assertion against the fear that it may sway, teeter and fall.

The novel takes patience and will appeal to Francophiles and romance readers perhaps more than to lovers of literature from the period. One of the best things about it is the title, which encapsulated my feelings upon finishing the novel. It’s a story of transition, of longing for something that we cannot hang onto, as the story, and the building of the tower, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Do you know of any more 21st-century novels set in the 19th century that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Secret Victorianist and Manga?

Since starting the Secret Victorianist four years ago I've seen shows, read books and attended events I might never have heard of was it not for this blog. That's how I ended up working as a Consultant on a translation of Kazuhiro Fujita's The Ghost and the Lady - a two-volume manga starring Florence Nightingale as one of its central characters.


Check out my interview with The OASG about the story and what I learned about this unfamiliar genre and the challenges of bringing two very different cultures together.

Are you working on a project you'd love the Secret Victorianist to be involved with? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Art Review: Monet: The Early Years, Legion of Honor, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago the Secret Victorianist was in San Francisco, where I took the opportunity to see the first major US exhibition dedicated to Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) early years as an artist.

The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (1865)
Covering the period 1858 to 1872, the exhibition includes Monet’s early exhibits at the Salon, such as The Pointe de la Hève at Low Tide (exhibited in 1865), works rejected by the Salon, including innovative snowscape The Magpie (1868-9), and paintings that show his debt to other artists, like Luncheon on the Grass (1863), an homage to Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting of the same name.

The Magpie (1868-9)
What emerges is a picture of Monet as a rule-breaker — something hard for us to imagine given his prominent place in the art history canon today. The term Impressionism wasn’t coined until the 1870s, taking its name from Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), and the exhibition does a good job of outlining why many of Monet’s experiments were rejected by the Parisian art world.

Luncheon on the Grass (1863)
But the exhibition also gives us a glimpse of Monet as a young man, struggling to survive with a young family. His 1878 The Red Kerchief, for instance, is a portrait of his first wife, Camille Doncieux, who died only a year later, Jean Monet Sleeping (1868) shows the artist’s oldest child at only a year old and Adolphe Monet Reading in the Garden (1866) captures a serene day in Monet’s often difficult relationship with his father.

The Red Kerchief (1878)
There are also paintings that conjure up different locations, which may be surprising to those who are most familiar with Monet’s Water Lilies series, painted at Giverny (where he first rented a house in May 1883). In 1871 he travelled to the Netherlands, painting landscapes and studies of the Dutch buildings, such as Houses on the Zaan River at Zaandam. This exhibition features many works from this trip as well as his journey to London, where he captured the bleak British weather in paintings such as Hyde Park (1871), using the same techniques we often associate with his skill in depicting brilliant sunlight.

Houses on the Zaan River at Zaandam (1871)
Monet: The Late Years is slated for 2019 and will no doubt contain even more of the artist’s most famous and loved paintings. But this exhibition, on display in San Francisco until May 29, brings you into the life and mind of a talented young artist, with the vision to create and encapsulate a movement.

Hyde Park (1871)
Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would like? Let me know — here, on Google+, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Adolphe Monet Reading in the Garden (1866)

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Theatre Review: Vanity Fair, Pearl Theater Company, New York City

How do you take an eight hundred page 1840s novel and make it digestible in two and a half hours for the modern stage? According to playwright Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker, through multi-roling, pointed exposition and random inclusions of dances like the Macarena and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The result is, ironically, the theatrical equivalent of a novel that needs a good edit, skipping from entertaining to irritating to downright perplexing in the course of a scene.



What the production gets right

Scene Selection:
Hamill shows an adept adaptor’s eye in her choice of scenes from Thackeray’s original. Those who had not read the novel were never in danger of losing the train of a complex plot and the emotional pacing allowed for more character development than you might have expected, given the role hopping of most of the cast. The moment Emmy (Joey Parsons) and Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe) share, discussing how much they miss their children, is a great example of the lightness of the script’s touch here, boiling down Thackeray’s lengthy prose into tight and relatable dialogue.

Becky Sharp:
Hamill herself takes on the role of the infamous Becky Sharp and outshines the rest of the cast, contorting her expressions to resemble those of Thackeray's illustrations and bringing out the character’s humanity as well as her manipulative nature.

Staging:
The cast-operated curtains and wheeling furniture makes for rapid scene transitions and is ideal for a play that covers multiple locations and years. The staging evokes the swirl and momentum of the fair – the literal fair Becky and co. attend early in the novel and the fair of society, everyone wanting something, everyone selling something, all clamouring to be heard.



What was less successful

Crossdressing:
The play’s actors took on many roles, playing not only cross-gender, but once cross-species with Parsons taking a brief turn as the Pitts’ cat. This worked for the most part but took a turn for the pantomimic in the male actors’ depiction of women. In this modern retelling with a clear feminist agenda, men playing women for cheap laughs felt out of place and awkward. Debargo Sanyal as Briggs, Brad Heberlee as Miss Jemima and Ryan Quinn as Miss Pinkerton were the main culprits. I couldn’t help but wish the cast had just played their roles with total commitment and realism.

Dancing:
The crossdressing fit a wider pattern of the cast being too reliant on, and almost desperate for, audience validation and laughter. At several junctures, as mentioned above, they broke out their twentieth and twenty first century dance moves, which added little to the production beyond a confused tittering from the crowd. It looked more fun for them than it was for us and bewildered the audience, rather than making Vanity Fair more accessible. Somebody should have told them to cut it out in rehearsal.

The ‘Moral’:
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has no hero and no moral, facts which this product was keen to remind us of. But Hamill does introduce a moral of her own – that we should not be too quick to judge those who have gone before us, as one day others will look back and judge us. The idea is good, the delivery heavy handed and the point belaboured. It made me wish, as with many parts of the show, that the production team and cast would only trust us — trust the audience to ‘get’ it, to find humour without slapstick, to remain engaged without being spoonfed.

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

Monday, 20 March 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (2002)

Unwanted wives incarcerated in asylums, unwanted babies farmed out to criminals, a drawing master seducing his young lady student and a scholarly uncle sequestering his heiress ward from the rest of the world. If you’re well versed in the building blocks of Victorian sensation novels, there’s much about Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith that may seem familiar.


Yet this 2002 thriller manages to defy expectations in new and exciting ways – not just by introducing sensational plotlines and dialogue that would have been inadmissible to Collins, Braddon and Reade (a central female/female romance, a bibliographical study of pornography, plenty of ‘fucks’, ‘cunts’, and, my personal favourite, ‘fucksters’), but by forcing us to reassess who we can trust and the false security our previous literary knowledge might have given us.

The novel starts in the unforgiving world of Borough, where men and women eat by stealing purses and skinning dogs. A debonair trickster known as ‘Gentleman’ has a plan - petty thief Susan Trinder, daughter of a murderess, must leave London for Briar, a country house near Maidenhead, to become maid to Maud Lilly and help him steal her away along with her fortune.

Sarah Waters (1966-)
This is the point at which we expect Sue to enter the Victorian world we know from novels – a world of hierarchy, etiquette and morality – but soon it becomes clear that she is in much more danger here, and it is dirty, amoral Borough that is the novel’s pattern for love and domesticity.

What comes next is a few hundred pages of twists and turns, double crossing and, at times, brutality. Could it have done with a more extensive edit? Yes, but Waters keep you guessing to the very end and reading fast to the finish line. The title Fingersmith hints at thievery, midwifery and female masturbation, yet it also conjures up the idea of a wordsmith, playing with readers’ emotions and stirring up their imaginations – appropriate given the novel’s final moments, and the original conception of sensation fiction.

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

Sunday, 5 March 2017

A Dickensian Master Class in Powerful Openings: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.


The opening to Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities is so famous today that the words seem timeless, even as its themes – a polarisation of political opinion and a desire to designate everything as either good or evil – feel peculiarly timely.

Dickens’s 100+ word sentence is one that would make most English language teachers blanche, so what is it about this opening that readers find so evocative? And what can we learn from this bending of grammatical rules?

Repetition isn’t always a sin
As writers, we’re often warned against repeating words or sentence formations. Yet parallel structures can be powerful when employed wisely.  As a writer you need to be aware of the effect this has. Dickens’s repeated clauses make the passage feel solemn, liturgical, and even funereal – fitting, in light of what’s to come.

Keep your readers guessing
Readers love to make predictions about what’s coming next – in your plot and in your prose. By pairing opposites (‘best’ and ‘worst’, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’) Dickens allows us to guess the word that will complete the next clause. This is so effective that he doesn’t even need to include the word ‘hell’. It hangs in the air, an unspoken threat.

Lead with drama
Dickens leads with this series of hyperbolic statements only to undercut what he has just said, labelling these descriptors as the protestations of the ‘noisiest authorities’. Yet it is the catchy opening that we remember. As writers, we are often advised to start our novels and chapters with something memorable but we should be aware of how this can alter our prose’s meaning and reception. 

Are there any other famous passages you would like the Secret Victorianist to write about next? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Exhibition Review: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Whether it’s because of their waspish waists, their uncomfortably large bustles and crinolines, or their much-mentioned prudishness, we have a continued fascination with what Victorians were like under their clothes.


So, finding myself in London unexpectedly this week, the Secret Victorianist paid a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum for the Undressed exhibition, a brief history of fashionable unmentionables, which is now entering its last month on display to the public.


The exhibition covers three centuries and includes a huge array of pieces, from an eighteen-century working woman’s stays to David Beckham’s tighty whities for H&M. But of course it was the Victorian items I was here to see. Here were some of my highlights:


The Duchess of Kent’s drawers: The exhibition didn’t quite allow you to peak under Queen Vic’s petticoats, but you did get to gawk at a pair of her mother’s drawers. These were cumbersome and knee-length and could have provided enough material for 20+ modern day thongs, but the waist was incredibly small, especially given their cut suggests they might have been used for maternity-wear.


A cartoon on the dangers of lacing: I’ve written before (here) about the internal damage that could be done by corsetry. And the V and A displayed this cartoon showing the grim reaper promoting the trend of tight lacing:


Summer corsets: This was something I knew less about previously. The exhibition included several lighter corsets for summer months, which were used by naturally slim women and ladies living in the colonies. In these, whalebone was replaced by strips of ribbon or by netting, making them marginally more comfortable, although I still won’t be racing to try them out in hot weather (especially minus air conditioning…).



David’s fig leaf: Queen Victoria was so horrified when she saw Michelangelo’s David that a fig leaf was commissioned to protect his modesty, or, at least, attendees’ sensibilities. Seeing it here, divided from the statue, made me think about how easy it is to find an exhibition on underwear solely intellectually stimulating, devoid of the ability to shock, shame or titillate.


The exhibition does a wonderful job of exposing the bizarreness of our continued fascination with undergarments (think waist trainers, fetish-wear, underwear as outwear) by divorcing the items on display from the body. What’s left is an enlightening lens through which to examine culture – the Victorians’ and our own.

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

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.