Brussels member Selina Busch reports on the talks given by Elizabeth Merry and David Grylls at our 7th annual Brontë weekend in Brussels.
On Saturday, we welcomed two speakers from the UK.
Elizabeth Merry is a lecturer for NADFAS (National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies) in the UK and abroad on literature, art and architecture. Elizabeth gave this presentation to BRIDFAS (Brussels Decorative and Fine Arts Society) last year. Not many of our members were able to attend that talk, so we invited her this Saturday to present it to our group.
David Grylls directs (or rather directed, as the day before this talk, he retired!) the literature programme at the Department for Continuing Education at Oxford University. He has written books on Charles Dickens, George Gissing and Victorian parent-child relationships. His current project is a book on the treatment of sex in Victorian fiction.
As they were growing up, almost every item in the house containing images were a course of inspiration to their impressionable minds. Until the middle of the 19th century, children’s books hardly existed, at least not in the form we know today. Literature for children mainly existed in the form of moralistic, religious stories, meant to improve the morals of children. The sources of inspiration to Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne were Blackwood’s Magazine with tales of explorers, copies (engravings) of paintings and reproductions of John Martin’s paintings of apocalyptic scenes from the Testament hanging on the walls of the Parsonage and many pictures in books, including the influential work Bewick’s History of British Birds. Everything was grist to their mill.
An important moment in their young lives, which sparked a whole creative outpouring, was the toy soldiers Branwell received from Patrick for his 9th birthday which started off a whole imaginary world: the History of the Young Men. Their imagination led them to create their own kingdoms, Angria and Gondal, giving them limitless unchartered, exotic territories to create, as Chief Genii. They invented their own thrilling stories filled with powerful characters, which were all written down in minute little books and were given form in drawings, maps and sketches.
Their real-life hero Byron, whose works they read (their reading wasn’t censored) would become an obsession. The Byronic hero would be a great influence throughout their creative lives.
All the children were self-taught; they learned about art through copying. Their minds worked like sponges; they absorbed everything in great detail. Given that none of them had ever seen an original work of art, their eye for detail in their faithful copies is remarkable. Sometimes, they would embellish an image they had seen to suit their own needs for their particular characters or imaginary cities.
When Branwell grew up, he was given lessons in oil-painting by a professional artist, William Robinson, a pupil of the great portrait painter Lawrence. An early oil painting is the familiar ‘Pillar’ portrait of the Brontë teenagers, which he painted when he was 17. It was previously believed he later painted himself out of the painting because of his self-loathing later in his troubled life, but it is now considered that it was in fact because he wasn’t satisfied with the composition. Branwell went on to study portrait painting, but he later gave up any idea of a career in professional portrait painting.
Charlotte also showed great talent and even she, at one time, considered becoming a professional artist. But the minute handwriting and obsessive detailed copying she did as a child ruined her eyesight for the rest of her life. And oil-painting wasn’t considered to be a woman’s profession. As so-called ‘copying’ manuals came into the Brontë household, she avidly copied the great masters; her observation of mouths, noses &c, show the determination to improve her skills. These studies resulted in fine drawings after engravings of e.g. a Madonna and child by Raphael. Her watercolours of landscapes and plants are also highly executed. In contrast with Branwell, with whom she collaborated on Angria, hers is a fascination for the romantic side in her stories, which is clearly visible in her portraits of Zamorna and refined, beautiful ladies.
Where Branwell and Charlotte in their Angrian world would use the lure of the exotic, daring and romantic and copied mainly sources from illustrations in books and magazines, Emily would look to nature as a source for her art. The countryside and climate featured in her Gondal work were directly based on her beloved Moors. She didn’t like copying other people’s works and looked to her immediate surroundings as a source of inspiration. Very few drawings of hers remain, but her exquisite drawings of the household pets speak of her love for nature and animals, which she preferred to people.
Elizabeth finished her talk with Anne. She was the only one of the three sisters who actually liked children and we were shown an image of a pretty little girl with golden hair.
At the end we saw one of Anne’s most intriguing drawings: Sunrise at Sea, a compelling picture telling a hopeful message. Elizabeth commented that it had similarities with a well-known work of art by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’. She argued that the Brontë children, though they chiefly saw engravings of English and classical painters, might possibly have been aware of the visual art of the continental Romantic movement.
With Elizabeth’s beautifully illustrated presentation, we witnessed a spellbinding and illuminating lecture.
After lunch, the lecture room in the University St. Louis was centre stage for a completely different subject.
Dr David Grylls took the rostrum to talk about Sex in Victorian Fiction, which is the title of the book he has recently finished. This would prove to be an entertaining and very interesting topic which had attracted quite a crowd of listeners. Dr Grylls, the perfect speaker, had both the knowledge and wit to entertain us for nearly two hours, and brought many interesting facts to our attention not covered in previous talks!
The lively mood was set when he mentioned a series of modern-day spiced up novels with titles such as Pride and Promiscuity, Sense and Sensuality. And he told us how people often react in two ways when he mentions the title of his new book: 1) There ISN’T any sex in Victorian literature or 2) Ah yes, the Victorians were a dirty lot!
How did Victorian novelists talk about sex without talking about it? And where did this constraint come from? One factor was the increasing sensibilities of the strong Evangelical movement of that period. Another major factor was the mechanisms of Victorian publishing, where it was decided what was acceptable or not. Novels, real bound books, were really expensive in the Victorian period and if you wanted to read the latest novels, the circulating libraries, or in magazines, were the only places where you could obtain them. These libraries, for example Mudie’s, had a strict code on what was acceptable. For instance, when Jude the Obscure came out, it caused uproar (it was nicknamed Jude the Obscene) and was withdrawn from the circulating libraries, after which sales collapsed. Any hint of a sexual nature, and the novel was taken from the shelves.
Because of this censorship, which started to change slightly as the 19th century progressed, you’ll often find various versions in different editions. In the case of Hardy, he re-wrote sentences and passages in different editions. Dr Grylls gave examples of this change in attitude.
There were ways in which novelists got round the tricky set of rules. Victorians novels are full of courtship and romance, and authors devised numerous strategies for hinting at sexual desire or implying the existence of feelings that could not be openly stated. The novels are filled with both carefully and cleverly constructed narratives and symbols which would be understood by the Victorians themselves.
For instance, there are ways of describing pregnancy: ‘in the family way, in an interesting condition, delicate, an extra room needed to be found in the house!’ In Dickens’ David Copperfield, the reference to Dora’s stillborn child is not always understood by modern readers. Sometimes, in Wuthering Heights for example, we suddenly discover that a female character is pregnant, yet no mention is made of it anywhere in the text before. In Gaskell’s Ruth, we see a 2-month gap between Ruth’s seduction and her being pregnant (but apparently unaware of it).
Another example is how writers would describe scenes relating to prostitutes, brothels or rape. E.g. never in Oliver Twist does Dickens ever mention that Nancy is in fact a prostitute. Nothing is ever said openly, no actual words used, but readers of that time were expected to deduct the meaning of what was written. This of course differed depending on whether you were a mature male reader (familiar with the ways of the world), or a young innocent girl, protected and guarded from all the vices.
Today however, the modern reader can misconstrue words and sentences, as language and its ‘meaning has changed. ‘Making love’ in the Victorian sense means something altogether different to today’s understanding of the term. This change of perception can have hilarious consequences, and Dr. Grylls had plenty of examples up his sleeve to make us laugh.
In particular, the significance of suggestive symbols, objects and images were discussed in the second part of Dr. Gryll’s talk. To name but a few examples: music, colours, archery, flowers, jewelry, hair, and smoking. All these descriptions of small details would have been meaningful for Victorian readers. In music, the suggestion of a couple was hinted by the sweet combining of voices in mutual song, e.g. Frank and Jane in Jane Austen’s Emma. Colours depicted moods and virtues: red for love and sensuality, white for chastity or purity. Describing a female archer would often show off her figure. In Jane Eyre we find a reference to jewelry, as Rochester wishes to adorn Jane with jewels, which symbolise sexual possession. Jane refuses to be ‘bought’.
A important symbol is that of hair, in particular female hair. Lovers give each other locks of hair as personal keepsakes, a man secretly steals clippings from a woman’s hair, women’s long tresses are combed, rich woman wear hair pieces in order to be more desirable. But there is also another sexual significance of female hair: when it is loose and flowing it often symbolises sexual abandonment or even madness. Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre stands for both these.
One last symbol Dr Grylls explained to us was smoking, in particular cigars, associated with masculinity and symbolising the gratification of male desire. Seducers often smoke cigars -Eugene Wraybourn in Our Mutual Friend, George Osborne in Vanity Fair when he lights his cigar with one of Amelia’s letters. And what about the scene where M. Paul blows cigar smoke in the writing desk of Lucy Snow? Or the one where Jane tries to slip away from the garden as she detects Mr. Rochester cigar smoke.
Dr Grylls could have continued to entertain us for some time, but alas, time was up, and our day of excellent talks from these very good speakers was was at an end. How lucky we were that they were willing to join us in Brussels.