Sunday 28 February 2010
Breaking the Brontë Mould
In the photo, Nicholas Marsh in Brussels with Isabelle Peere (lecturer at Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis which hosted his talk), Helen MacEwan and students of the university and of the British School of Brussels
On Saturday 27 February Nicholas Marsh, who is editor of Palgrave Macmillan's Analysing Texts series and has written books for the series on authors ranging from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, came to Brussels to analyse Wuthering Heights, one of the works he has written on. He talked about its narrative frame, one of the most fascinating aspects explored in his book on the novel.
Mr Marsh has taught in further education and secondary schools and the series, which was conceived by him, is intended first and foremost for students and is based on examination of key passages in the texts in question. He is also the author of the popular How to Begin Studying English Literature.
Our members turned out in force and we were joined by a large contingent of students of Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis which hosts our events, and a group of sixth-formers from the British School of Brussels with their teachers.
Because of the disruption of the Brussels-Paris Thalys train service, Nicholas Marsh had driven from Paris, where he lives, to be with us at 11 a.m. We're very grateful to him for accepting our invitation to talk to us and for getting up early to do so! His talk was much enjoyed for he speaks as lucidly and interestingly as he writes.
After dispersing for lunch on this surprisingly pleasant sunny day given the terrible weather we've been enduring for so long, we returned to watch a documentary film on the Brontë family. Both talk and film provoked plenty of discussion.
Emily Waterfield was there and has written this report on the day:
Two events hosted by the Brussels Brontë Group on 27 February aimed in their different ways to shake up received notions about the Brontës. A biographical film gave a clear introduction to the family, from Patrick’s marriage to Maria Branwell in 1812, through the lives and deaths of his wife and six children. It steered clear of many myths and much of the romance that have grown up around the Brontë family, looking instead at the everyday and the factual. Notably, the film focused on the many houses and interiors the sisters would have known and which feature in all their works, rather than on the Yorkshire moors so famously associated with them.
The scholar Nicholas Marsh meanwhile gave a presentation on the multi-layered and often problematic structure of Wuthering Heights. Author of the ‘Analysing Texts’ study of Wuthering Heights, Mr Marsh argued that by examining its language and voices we can appreciate far more of it than through a simple understanding of the story’s events.
By analysing selective passages narrated by Lockwood and Nelly Dean, he suggested that Emily was deliberately “breaking the frame” by adopting a subversive narrative structure.
One way of understanding this would, he said, be in terms of the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton’s theory of ‘possible consciousness’, whereby no-one is capable of expressing more than the understanding imposed by the period in which they live – and furthermore according to which any effort to go beyond this leads to a breakdown of language. Seen in this light, Cathy and Heathcliff’s bond goes beyond what Emily Brontë’s time could consciously deal with.
Mr Marsh’s own way of describing the limitations imposed by the structure was to suggest seeing the main story (Cathy and Heathcliff) as a flood, and Nellie or Lockwood as a hosepipe, vainly attempting to channel the torrent.
We are made aware of this limitation from the opening pages of the book. Lockwood begins his narrative with a redundant date: 1801, apparently in an attempt to impose some factual order on the events that follow. The chapter is then dominated by vague guesswork (“Here we have the whole establishment of domestics, I suppose”) and efforts to translate the unfamiliar northern language into Lockwood’s own affected terms (“‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in story weather”.)
Nelly is also a “guesser” whose assumptions and understanding do not match the responses of the novel’s main protagonists. When Cathy lies dead, Nelly tries to comfort Heathcliff with talk of “heaven…lamb…child…her life closed in a gentle dream.” Heathcliff in response “dashed his head against the knotted trunk and…howled…like a savage beast.”
As Mr Marsh said, “There is an insistent feeling that this is being seen through a limited point of view.”
Why then impose this strange structure on passages so powerful that they still move us today?
There was of course no suggestion that Nelly or Lockwood represent Emily’s own voice, or that she would have been incapable of adopting a more empathetic persona: the striking differences between Lockwood’s educated vocabulary, Nelly’s sentimentality and Heathcliff’s monosyllables, for instance, show her to be capable of convincingly changing voice at will.
In part, the audience were told, the narrative structure echoes the limits of other “frames” in the novel: the boundaries of Thrushcross Grange, crossed by the younger Cathy despite her father’s efforts, or the frame of the elder Cathy’s coffin, broken by Heathcliff.
In part, added Mr Marsh, Nelly and Lockwood can also be seen as Emily’s critique of early Victorian attitudes.
But above all, he said, Wuthering Heights is “a book about imposing unreasonable demands”.
This attitude helps us to understand Lockwood’s strange dream in Chapter 3 of the book, when he is subjected to 490 lengthy parts of a sermon and reacts angrily to the preacher’s assumption that his brethren will listen to more. “Seventy times seven have I plucked up my hat and been about to depart – Seventy times seven have you preposterously forced me to resume my seat. The four hundred and ninety first is too much.” The riot against him provoked by his outrage suggests he should have gone along with the unreasonable “first of the 71st.”
As the dying Cathy says to Heathcliff, “If I dare you now, will you follow?”
In the bottom photo, Nicholas Marsh with members of the Brussels Brontë Group. From left to right: Patty Simou, Maureen Peeck, Myriam Campinaire, Nicole Verhaghen, Nicholas Marsh, Helen MacEwan, Sherry Vosburgh, Marina Saegerman, Brigitte Merle, Patricia de Gray