Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A day to remember: the Brussels Brontë Group meets Lucasta Miller and John Sutherland


Our annual talk(s) around the time of Charlotte Brontë’s birthday, which this year fell on the exact date (21 April), proved a memorable day in the Group’s annals, with talks by two important figures in Brontë studies and literary criticism, Lucasta Miller and John Sutherland.

Brussels Bronte Weekend 2018
Our wonderful speakers



Lucasta Miller and the ‘Brontë Myth’
When I asked a committee member to bring along her copy of The Brontë Myth to display at the event, she said that her copy was almost too well-thumbed and dog-eared for the purpose. I could say the same of my own – much loved and much read. Published in 2001, it chronicles the ways in which the Brontës have been re-interpreted and re-imagined by readers, critics, enthusiasts in each succeeding generation. The enduring fascination with their lives as well as their works and the mythic stature they have acquired means that our view of them is inevitably shaped by the familiar images that make up ‘the Brontë myth’. It is difficult for us to see the Brontës impartially.

In her lively and relaxed talk, Lucasta focused in particular on the origins of that ‘myth’. This is generally assumed to be in Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë, but as Lucasta showed, the person responsible for the earliest beginnings of the ‘Brontë myth’ was a member of the family itself. After her sisters’ deaths, it was Charlotte who first presented a highly selective and, many would argue, deliberately manipulated view of both Emily and Anne, as editor of an 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. In a Biographical Notice on the writers hitherto known to the public only as Ellis and Acton Bell and a preface to Wuthering Heights, she not only revealed her sisters’ true names and gender but presented a view of them intended to refute accusations of ‘coarseness’ both in Wuthering Heights and in Anne’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Charlotte’s task was not made easier by the fact that while she wished to present her sisters in a favourable light and was a great admirer of Emily’s poetry, she herself shared readers’ reservations about both these novels!

In honour of Emily Brontë’s bicentenary, Lucasta concentrated on Emily but admitted that she remains elusive however much one tries to demythologise her. We have three fat volumes of Charlotte’s letters but only a few scraps of correspondence and diary papers of Emily’s. We have reams of Charlotte’s and Branwell’s juvenilia but Emily and Anne’s Gondal saga has disappeared – possibly destroyed by Charlotte after their deaths, as many have speculated. However, Lucasta suggested that even if we had more information it might not tell us the things we want to know about Emily’s inner life. She was reserved both as a person and as a writer. Unlike Charlotte, she was not directly biographical in her fiction.

As Emily’s interpreter, Charlotte stands between us and her sister, beckoning with one hand and pushing us away with the other. She was devoted to Emily and losing her was probably the most traumatic event of her life, yet even Charlotte did not have access to Emily’s inner world. After Emily’s death Charlotte put elements of her into the character of Shirley in the novel of that name but, said Lucasta, it is a highly romanticised version of her.

Elizabeth Gaskell disliked what she had heard about Emily and did not attempt to analyse her in any depth. The anecdotes she included in her Life of Charlotte Brontë of Emily beating her dog Keeper and cauterising the wound after being bitten by another dog created the image of her as a ‘scary dog-beater’, said Lucasta, which changed little until the 1880s when her first biographer Mary Robinson presented her in a more genial and normal light. Even Robinson, however, felt obliged to ‘explain’ the ‘evil’ in Wuthering Heights, which she did by blaming Branwell’s influence and making him the villain of her biography.

In trying to approach Emily, Lucasta concluded, we are all to some degree like the hapless Lockwood in the opening chapters of Wuthering Heights, puzzling over Cathy’s diary. Lucasta even has some sympathy for another hapless interpreter, Emily’s 1936 biographer Virginia Moore, who mis-read the title of one of Emily’s poems, Love’s Farewell, as ‘Louis Parensell’, and believed she had discovered the name of a real-life lover of Emily’s. We all struggle when we try to interpret Emily Brontë.

John Sutherland and his Brontësaurus
‘Brontesaurus’: one member’s pictorial response to John Sutherland’s talk

John Sutherland’s recent Brontësaurus, like his earlier collections of essays on puzzles in classic fiction, such as Is Heathcliff a Murderer, that made him a best-seller, ranges entertainingly over a miscellany of Brontë curiosities. His talk to the Brussels Brontë Group was similarly wide-ranging. We spent an enjoyable hour listening to a talk that blended Brontë conundrums with thoughts on literary criticism and autobiographical details illuminating his personal responses to literature.

He told us, for example, how being a ‘Junior Leader’ instructor, leading discussions with American kindergarten children on puzzles in nursery rhymes and fairy tales (Why does Jack go up the beanstalk the second time? Why do Jack and Jill go up the hill to fetch a pail of water, against the principles of hydrodynamics?) is one way of developing the skills he brings to his classic fiction conundrums.

For us in the Brussels group it was particularly interesting to learn that the first Brontë work John Sutherland read, at the age of eleven, was The Professor. He was struck by one of Edmund Dulac’s illustrations showing the narrator William Crimsworth unenthusiastically contemplating a career as an employee in his brother’s mill while dreaming of a more congenial destiny. The child John Sutherland was also at a crux in his life, being about to take the eleven-plus. Had he failed, his mother’s ‘plan B’ was for him to become a bricklayer, quite a lucrative trade in the rebuilding post-World War Two. As it transpired, he passed the exam and went on to become a ‘professor’ like Crimsworth in the novel. This is related in The Brontësaurus in The Idiot Child and Me (the ‘idiot child’ was how Charlotte referred to The Professor, her first novel, which failed to find a publisher until after her death).

The somewhat random nature of the books fed to John by his mother in childhood helped to make him a voracious reader of minor Victorian literature as well as a lover of more canonical authors such as Trollope, Thackeray … and the Brontës.

He pointed out that at the start of his career in the 1950s, the Brontës were not yet always fully admitted to the literary canon in an academic world dominated by the orthodoxy of F.R. Leavis, who was dismissive of them in ‘The Great Tradition’. John referred to two critics he has particularly admired: Frank Kermode and Dorothy Van Gent. Kermode highlighted the fact that the works that acquire the status of literary ‘classics’ never become ‘dated’ and accommodate different interpretation by each succeeding generation, a point that chimes in with Lucasta Miller’s morning lecture on how the Brontës are constantly re-invented. A lesser-known critic, Dorothy Van Ghent, is the subject of an entry in the Brontësaurus (‘Windows’). John Sutherland’s reading of fiction was enriched by her exploration of the imagery of windows in Wuthering Heights in her book The English Novel – Form and Function.

A reference to the current focus on postcolonialism studies led on to some of the themes in the Brontë novels that intrigue John Sutherland in the context of colonialism. Such as: where does the money that Jane and Rochester live on happily ever after come from? The answer, John told us, is from slave labour (Jane’s money comes from her planter uncle in Madeira, Rochester’s from the Jamaican plantations of his first wife’s family).

There were speculations on other puzzles in the novels. How does Heathcliff acquire money and education in his three years away from Wuthering Heights? Is Rochester a murderer? (Does Bertha really hurl herself from the battlements of burning Thornfield Hall or is she helped on her way, and is the innkeeper at the Rochester Arms primed to tell Rochester’s version of the event?)
John’s talk was originally scheduled for last October but had to be cancelled because of illness and we are very pleased he was able to make it here this year. To have talks by Lucasta Miller and John Sutherland on the same day felt like an embarrassment of riches, and we were further spoiled by Georgette Cutajar, who baked cakes and cookies to accompany our welcoming coffee.

Helen MacEwan

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