Thursday 3 May 2018

More on the April 21st talks - John Sutherland

Professor John Sutherland came to the Brontës early in life, but not in what you might call the usual way. He may be the only person to have started his Brontë experience with The Professor – the book Charlotte referred to as her ``idiot child’’ and the one most people probably read last, if at all.

As Sutherland explained in his talk on April 21 to the Brussels Bronte Group, the novel struck a chord with him when he first read it as a pre-teen, particularly a scene early on before the protagonist, William Crimsworth, heads to Brussels. The volume included six illustrations by Edmund Dulac, and one was of this scene in Chapter II:

At a distance of five miles, a valley, opening between the low hills, held in its cups the great town of X----. A dense, permanent vapour brooded over this locality -- there lay Edward’s “Concern.”

I forced my eye to scrutinize this prospect, I forced my mind to dwell on it for a time, and when I found that it communicated no pleasurable emotion to my heart -- that it stirred in me none of the hopes a man ought to feel, when he sees laid before him the scene of his life’s career -- I said to myself, “William, you are a rebel against circumstances; you are a fool, and know not what you want; you have chosen trade …”
Edmund Dulac illustration from J.M. Dent's 1922 edition of The Professor

Sutherland said he felt a real kinship with this hero of The Professor, all alone on a hillside, looking down; not knowing what choice to make and wondering what he’s going to do. He had an offer to go into industry, but he wanted something more.

As it happens, Crimsworth ditches ``trade’’ and takes off for Belgium, while Sutherland went on to become a professor in his own right, writing many books on literature, including several on the Brontës, such as The Brontesaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë (and Branwell). Sutherland seemed right at home in Brussels helping us celebrate Charlotte’s birthday, as well as Emily’s bicentenary.

In his wide-ranging talk, one of the key points that Sutherland stressed was the importance of women in the literary criticism of the Brontës. ``The most enlightening critics that I have read are women; and it goes right back to Mrs. Gaskell,’’ he said, referring to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Biography of Charlotte Brontë published in 1857. He also highlighted Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who wrote acclaimed introductions to the Brontë works in the 1890s; Dorothy Van Ghent, author of an influential 1950s essay on Wuthering Heights; Kathleen Tillotson, author of Novels of the Eighteen-Forties; and Q.D. Leavis, wife of F.R. Leavis and a literary critic in her own right.

While her husband omitted the Brontës from his Great Tradition, Q.D. Leavis later wrote a ``very perceptive’’ essay that compared Wuthering Heights with the 1962 French film Jules et Jim, Sutherland said. For Leavis, the two works are ``about the same thing’’ – a female character plays two men off against each other, Sutherland explained. She is trying to find an identity for herself and the only power she can have is to some extent putting the two men into a rivalrous situation, he said.

Sutherland also explained the insight into Emily’s novel that he got from Dorothy Van Ghent’s essay on Wuthering Heights in her 1953 book The English Novel: Form and Function. Van Ghent took the window as the dominant image in the story of Cathy and Heathcliff and detailed its significance in three key scenes in the novel – the encounter with Cathy’s ghost; when Cathy is dying and insists on having the windows open; when Heathcliff’s body is found with the window open. Van Ghent saw windows as the barrier between the inside and the outside worlds, Sutherland said, a perception that ``gave me the shape of the fiction.’’

Wuthering Heights was the second Brontë novel Sutherland read, also as a schoolboy, and he said he ``felt as I think a lot of people feel when they first read Charlotte, Emily or even Anne -- they are on the edge of things.’’ He touched on Anne’s second novel later on, saying: ``It seems to me that there is no more searching analysis of what alcoholism is than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’’ But it’s about more than drinking. ``It’s about what addiction is, and the ways in which addiction can ruin lives.’’

After his gratitude for the insights of literary critics, Sutherland in the end harked back to his own initial readings of the Brontës and suggested that perhaps ``innocence and discovery are all you need’’ to appreciate a work of literature.


We have already posted these pictorial notes from John Sutherland's talk, but we can't get enough of it!
(courtesy of an anonymous Brussels Brontë Group member)

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