Tuesday 1 October 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: C is for Caroline's Coriolanus

In a previous post, I looked at how emotional truths surpass the other benefits of classical learning for Charlotte Bronte heroines. But it’s not only in studying classical languages and literature that this preference for emotional education is expressed. In Shirley (1849), Shakespeare (particularly his Coriolanus) comes in for the same treatment, as Caroline Helstone, usually the pupil of French under the tutelage of Hortense, turns teacher of English for the evening, to the stern and initially emotionally unresponsive Robert. She introduces the ‘lesson’ like so:

‘Your heart is a lyre, Robert; but the lot of your life has not been a minstrel to sweep it, and it is often silent. Let glorious William come near and touch it. You will see how he will draw the English power and melody out of its chords.’

Caroline’s language is distinctly un-academic and the model of reading she subscribes to one based on emotional exchanges – between reader and listener (for whom the act of reading, like teaching, acts as a wooing ritual), but also between reader and writer (Caroline is on first name terms with William!).
She goes on to explain this exchange in terms suggestive of spiritual union, gesturing towards the marital:

‘You must have his [Shakespeare’s] spirit before you; you must hear his voice with your mind's ear; you must take some of his soul into yours.’

Robert picks up on the religious language, asking if the study of Shakespeare will act like a ‘sermon’ in making him ‘better’, but Caroline’s answer suggests that reading, like sexual love, can be morally ambiguous:

‘It is to stir you, to give you new sensations. It is to make you feel your life strongly—not only your virtues, but your vicious, perverse points.’

Reading then is most important as an opportunity for emotional self-revelation – not an introspective, exclusive analysis, but the sort of awareness of human commonality which is necessary before forming romantic relationships with others becomes possible. We have seen how accuracy in Latin and Greek appears unimportant compared with discovering emotional ties to the classical past in much nineteenth-century reception by women readers. In a similar way, Caroline’s lesson in Shakespeare encourages Robert to abandon his critical faculties, to surrender head to heart:

‘As he advanced, he forgot to criticise; it was evident he appreciated the power, the truth of each portion; and, stepping out of the narrow line of private prejudices, began to revel in the large picture of human nature, to feel the reality stamped upon the characters who were speaking from that page before him.’

Reading Shakespeare properly for Caroline means, at times, forgetting Shakespeare exists at all, or seeing his characters as windows into the human soul. Her lesson concludes in trying to apply what the play ‘teaches’ to Robert’s own circumstance, as a leader (like Coriolanus) to his workforce:

‘you must not be proud to your workpeople; you must not neglect chances of soothing them; and you must not be of an inflexible nature, uttering a request as austerely as if it were a command.’

But in this lesson Caroline is ignored. What the couple’s reading of Shakespeare leads to instead is love – and this love, in true love plot fashion, relies on mutual emotional education.

What should be ‘D’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know below or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And don’t forget to like the blog on Facebook!

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting take on the scene. I find this an infuriating book, but full of thought-provoking aspects...