Throughout Charlotte Bronte’s life and works, France and the French language and culture occupied a prominent place in her mental landscape. It is, however, a conflicted place. On the one hand, she almost revered the French language, seeing it not only as an employment asset and hence a route out of provincial stagnation, but also as a sign of personal cultivation. On the other hand, France was home to at least three social phenomena which are demonised in her work: the Catholic Church, a lax attitude to sexuality, and a pettifogging system of domestic surveillance. Charlotte’s image of France was thus constructed as ‘other’ to English culture in two opposite senses: as the object of desire and as the locus of fear and loathing. A refinement of this effect is that the desirable qualities tend to be associated with men, while the disgust and hatred are centred on women.
This statement is a generalisation, but it is drawn from well-known aspects of Charlotte’s life and works. It was almost certainly Charlotte who devised the plan to go to Brussels with Emily to perfect their French and German and it was her energy and determination that carried it through. After her stay in Brussels, Charlotte is particularly pleased to receive books in French from her friend William Smith Williams, and for a while tells him that she learns by heart a passage in French every day. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte represents Jane as feeling quiet satisfaction in her ability to reply to her French pupil, Adèle, in her own language; it is a sign that she is in touch with ‘culture’ in its larger sense. The Yorke family in Shirley (based on the family of Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor) are admired for their easy familiarity with French culture, which stands as a sign of larger travels, and speculative, interesting minds ready to debate politics and philosophy. In Villette, it is M Paul Emanuel who represents the widening of horizons, the stretching of the mind, which Lucy prizes above comfort and security.
Some of Charlotte’s fervour and nostalgia for the French language after Brussels could, of course, be attributed to her hopeless love for her French teacher, M Heger. It is no accident that all of her fictional heroes are French-speaking; Robert and Louis Moore and M Paul Emanuel are native speakers, William Crimsworth teaches in French, and even Mr Rochester has lived in Paris and understands French well. Charlotte’s predisposition to admire the French language, however, may have predisposed her to fall in love with its speakers. In any case, there seems no doubt that Charlotte Bronte constructed the sign ‘France’ as an ‘other’ in the sense of an object of desire.
On the other hand, France was the home of some of her most loathed cultural attributes.
Rochester’s tale of debauchery centres on a French courtesan, Céline, in Paris, and when Jane congratulates herself on having escaped life as a ‘kept mistress’, she imagines it taking place in Marseille. In Shirley Hortense Moore stands for everything that is pernickety and soul-destroying in domesticity. While Hortense tortures Caroline with intricate stocking-darning and drawer-tidying, Mme Beck in Villette keeps her pupils under control by means of a sly system of surveillance which irks Lucy’s British and freedom-loving soul. Also in Villette, Lucy encounters the insidious power of the Catholic Church, in the scene where she is drawn by desperate loneliness to undergo confession, in the legend of the nun who was walled up alive for a sin of the flesh, and in the story of M Paul’s sad ward, Justine Marie.
One intriguing aspect of this topic which I invite others to explore is that Emily, who shared much of Charlotte’s reading and her experiences in Brussels, does not show any such effect in her work. Although Emily also spoke French and German, and both sisters wrote essays, at M Heger’s behest, in imitation of renowned French stylists, there is no system of reference in Emily’s work suggesting that these cultures were superior to British culture or that an English writer had anything to learn from them. Nor, on the other hand, does she demonstrate any xenophobic paranoia. Yet commentators on the Belgian devoirs have shown that Emily engaged more closely than Charlotte with the philosophical ideas contained in the essays set up for imitation, and Stevie Davies in particular has argued that Emily was the real intellectual of the family, absorbing European ideas ranging from musical style to scientific theories.
My question, therefore, is why, in Charlotte’s work, France is flaunted as an ‘other’ characterised by opposite extremes, while in Emily’s work the perhaps more profound influence of French ideas appears to be assimilated to the point of invisibility.
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