Monday 22 October 2018

Emily Bronte talk and reading on October 13th - report

The Brussels Brontë Group commemorated Emily Brontë's bicentenary on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, with a talk on Wuthering Heights by John Bowen, professor of 19th-century literature at the University of York, followed by a celebration of Emily's poetry.

Professor John Bowen
Professor Bowen delved into the strange appeal of Wuthering Heights despite the violence and cruelty in the novel and the public’s enduring fascination with the book more than 150 years after it was first published.

The title of his talk was bleak -- `Dividing the Desolation’, taken from the first paragraph of the novel. But Prof. Bowen showed how that first paragraph highlights the richness of Emily Brontë’s language right from the start. While focusing on the depth of ideas in Lockwood’s declaration that  
``Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us,'' Professor Bowen also touched on the multiple layers of meaning in phrases like ``solitary neighbor’’ and ``be troubled with.’’

Then we were off on an exploration of the characters in the novel and what they mean to different readers and critics. Along the way, Prof. Bowen touched on the importance of naming in Emily’s novel, Charlotte Brontë’s feelings about Heathcliff, and Heathcliff’s feelings about himself. And throwing in an entertaining rendition of Joseph’s colorful chidings in Yorkshire dialect.

Bowen, who is president of the Dickens Fellowship, also mentioned Charles Dickens’ apparent antipathy to the Brontës. There is only one recorded instance of Dickens talking about the sisters from Haworth, and that is someone’s note about a conversation with the novelist in which Dickens said he never read the Brontës but ``disapproved of the whole school.’’ But reading Bleak House, it's hard to think that Dickens hadn't read Jane Eyre, Prof. Bowen said.

On Wuthering Heights, the question he wanted to ponder was: Who is the main character? And relatedly: what is central to the novel? These may sound like straight-forward questions, and most of us no doubt had our own straight-forward answers. But Prof. Bowen demonstrated the complexity of the queries and how they go a long way to helping understand how readers react to Emily’s book.

Critics and readers have disagreed virtually since the novel was first published in 1847, he said. Is it about Heathcliff? Is it about Heathcliff and Cathy? Is it about the two Catherines? Is it a multi-generational family saga? [At least one member of the audience was disappointed that the moors weren’t part of the discussion.]

Even the narrators of the novel can’t agree on what it’s about – Mr. Lockwood thinks initially that it might be a story about him and Heathcliff; Nelly Dean knows it’s all about Heathcliff. Then Lockwood hesitates between different understandings of the story that he's hearing from Nelly. Bowen likened Lockwood to an over-enthusiastic novel-reader as he jumped to speculate about an affinity with Heathcliff – when of course the two characters are so different.

While Lockwood is dividing the desolation with Heathcliff, we as readers of the novel have to decide how to divide our attention among the characters, Prof. Bowen said. Which ones do we give more weight to than others? Emily Brontë has a particular way of guiding – but also dividing – the reader’s attention among the different characters. Many important disagreements about the book seem to stem from critics' and readers' different senses of who they care about, he said.

Right from the start, a discussion about characters was central to deciding what the novel is about. Prof. Bowen cited one of the very first reviews of Wuthering Heights, in Spectator magazine in December 1847, which begins with a discussion not of plot, not of theme, but of its characters.

Which characters the reader chooses to focus on colors how one interprets the novel. And the disagreements don’t go away as the novel becomes more familiar and gets more discussed over the years. Prof. Bowen cited literary critic Q.D. Leavis, in her influential reading of Emily’s novel (which also was discussed by Professor John Sutherland when he spoke to our group in April).

Leavis declared the first Catherine’s story ``the real moral center of the book’’ and called Heathcliff an ``unsatisfactory composite,'' saying Heathcliff was ``an enigmatic figure only by reason of his creator's indecisions''. Saying he ultimately doesn’t agree with Leavis’s reading of Wuthering Heights, Prof. Bowen said there's no easy way to reconcile the different interpretations of the novel. The conundrum points to an important aspect of how the book captures our attention. The motor of the plot and our attentiveness to it are constantly in motion, Prof. Bowen said.

One reason not to consider Heathcliff as the center of the novel, Bowen said, is the title that Emily gave it. The names of the other Brontë novels -- Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, Agnes Grey, The Professor -- all point readers to a single central character. Only Wuthering Heights and later Villette encourage us to distribute our attention differently, to a group of characters.

From the naming of the novel, Bowen segued to the naming of Emily’s characters in it. Most novels have a much more straight-forward relationship with naming than Wuthering Heights does, indicating that Emily was aware of how unstable naming and identification can be. This comes through in the multiple and echoing names the two Catherines go through, and also the singularity of Heathcliff’s one name.

As readers try to decide which characters they might want to focus on, the old servant Joseph has some pointed advice: most of them are ``nowt’’ (nothing or nobody in the Yorkshire dialect). Bowen read off some of Joseph’s colorful criticisms:
`marred, wearisome nowt!'
`gooid fur nowt, slatternly witch!'
`a raight nowt; and shoo's another’
`nasty ill nowt'

On Heathcliff, Charlotte seems to have trouble coming to terms with her sister’s character. Whereas Charlotte famously called him ``a Ghoul — an Afreet’’ in her preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and questioned ``whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff,’’ she was more generous toward Heathcliff in an 1848 letter to her publisher: ``… some of his spirit seems breathed through the whole narrative.’’

Prof. Bowen said part of the distinctiveness, creativity, and strangeness of Wuthering Heights comes from the fact that, though Heathcliff is arguably the main character, the book gives the reader almost no access to his consciousness. It's very customary in the English novel for the central character to have a very close, self-revealing relationship with the reader, Bowen said, citing Jane Eyre and Villette‘s Lucy Snowe as prime examples.
But we almost never get inside Heathcliff’s head. In one way, he has centrality; in another way, you get almost no access to Heathcliff’s internal thoughts. It’s through other people in the book that we gain insight about Heathcliff’s character, whereas in Jane Eyre, the reader is deeply aware of Jane's thoughts and feelings.

But there is one place late in Wuthering Heights where we come close to hearing Heathcliff’s inner thoughts. In a scene in chapter 33 where love seems to conquer revenge, Nelly reports Heathcliff telling her: ``I don't care for striking: I can't take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case: I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.’’

A recognition or a revelation for Heathcliff, the scene is ``the moment when Heathcliff is most articulate about himself,’’ Bowen said.

In the afternoon, group members read aloud some of Emily’s most famous poems, including `No Coward Soul Is Mine’, `Remembrance’ and `The Prisoner.’

Readers of Emily's poems - they were all brilliant!

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