Monday 20 February 2017

Brussels Brontë Group, talks on "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were the subjects of a day of talks by members of the Brussels Brontë Group on 11 February. It was a tradi-tionally rainy Saturday in February, and members of the Brussels Brontё Group sought refuge in the rich world of complicated women and windswept landscapes to hear two more fascinating talks from the group members.

In the morning, Judith Collins walked us through Disguise, deception and concealment in Jane Eyre. Her inspiration for this topic were the two scenes when Rochester dresses up, first in the charades and then as the gypsy-woman. She says: “it occurred to me that although these were literal disguises, that is, he changed his clothes so that he wouldn’t be recognised, there were other sorts of disguises in the novel.”

Toby Stephens as Mr Rochester

Indeed, Judith focused  on three levels of disguises employed by Rochester: dressing up physically, covering up his feelings for Jane until he knew they were returned and, most importantly and cunningly, his predicament of being previously married. She made a strong point about Rochester’s disguise being about subverting and distorting the truth or simply lying, as opposed to concealment, which “just” implies not revealing the entire truth, which was more Jane’s case.

Paul Gretton talking on Wuthering Heights

The analysis was interspersed with readings of crucial scenes between the novel’s central couple, expertly re-enacted by Group members Kate and Paul (who was evidently practicing for his own talk later that day). Through evoking and analysing these extracts, Judith showed that as their relationship developed and gained momentum, Rochester was removing the layers of his disguise gradually and very carefully. He only came clean to Jane after a confrontation with Mason on the failed wedding day forced him into a corner. Only then did they become equal in terms of knowledge, even if they remained separated morally. Before this happened, in the process of revealing himself, Rochester continually manipulated the information as well as its recipients. He willingly misled Jane into believing that the night fires were caused by Grace Poole (since he’s still covering up the existence of Bertha) or that he was honestly courting Blanche Ingram (since his feelings for Jane are still under disguise).

Even the physical disguise was related to what lay hidden deeper – Rochester attempted to elicit a declaration of love from Jane, but with his elaborate schemes only managed to force her deeper into hiding. Blanche Ingram, even though not the intended target, also ended up confused and misled by his machinations and cryptic communication. As Judith concluded, “although the charades and the gypsy scene are ostensibly physical disguise, during the course of events the reader gains a partial insight into Rochester’s disguised emotions, and also of Rochester’s predicament”.

Ian McShane as Heathcliff

After an extended lunch break, we were treated to some more animated readings from Paul Gretton, illustrating his own talk on  the subject of Literary themes and sources in Wuthering Heights: The Disruptive Intruder, The Fascinating Baddie, The Star-crossed Lovers, Digging up your Girlfriend ... (as one does) .

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
These declamations included Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Grendel and the Green Knight respectively embodied the figure of a “Disruptive Intruder”: someone visibly different, albeit described vaguely enough to remain a mystery. Someone who enters a well-established, prosperous society or group, to introduce an element of uncertainty, otherness, and, as a consequence, suspense. Apparently Emily Brontё wouldn’t have had the chance to read either of those texts and use them as inspiration for her peculiar novel, but the topos surely had appeared in other literary sources, like Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s plays to name just a few. Heathcliff seems just that kind of an intruder: dark, mysterious and foreign, initially he even communicates in a language that cannot be understood. And much like other Disruptive Intruders in the literary canon, he also instigates all the action.

There is a myriad of other popular topics making an appearance in the novel, including “The Fascinating Baddie” in the vein of Macbeth, Richard III, The Giaour and again Paradise Lost, and the “Star Crossed Lovers”, or illicit love leading to disaster of Romeo and Juliet and Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

But the second theme Paul chose to illustrate in more detail was “Digging up One’s Girlfriend”. In the time of the Brontёs, this would have been a particularly relevant leitmotif, linked to the practice of resurrectionism, or digging up the bodies from fresh graves and delivering them to surgeons for practice. Paul also pointed out that Victorians had a vivid interest in death, with their death masks, death photography, taxidermy, and elaborate cemetery architecture among others. Digging up a loved one’s corpse would be a typically gothic element in the story, but it would also be circumscribed in a broader tradition of love transcending death (think Orpheus and Eurydice) and lovers united in death (think Tristan and Isolde) in literature as well as opera. German romantics, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner, used this source of inspiration. But possibly the most immediate example known to Emily could have been the story of The Bridegroom of Barna, published in the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (known to be read at the Parsonage) in November 1840.  This exuberantly entertaining story included all the main tropes, complete with a cursed suitor rejected by the maiden’s family, a window scene between the star-crossed lovers, death by heartbreak and dramatic scene at the graveyard with the grieving lover clasping his bride’s corpse in his arms (and then falling dead into her grave).

Paul has provided us with more background information on his topic. Click here to access the document.

Ola Podstawka

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