Tuesday 15 February 2022

Some thoughts on a member’s talk

A few years ago, Robynn Colwell was walking home through the beech forest near her house in Brussels, when she stopped to enjoy the autumn colours. She had been puzzling over the role of Charlotte Bartlett, in E.M. Forster's novel A Room with a View. The sight of the trees caught her attention; in a few moments, she resolved the conundrum that had been bothering her. 

Robynn told of what she had learned in a presentation to the Brussels Brontë Group last week. Her talk, Seeing the Wood for the Trees, was beautifully written and delivered, making for a memorable evening.

Charlotte Bartlett is the cousin of Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of Forster’s novel. The book opens with the words: “The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all”. The Signora, a Londoner, had given them rooms overlooking a central courtyard, contrary to her assurance that they would have rooms with views of the Arno. Charlotte is Lucy’s chaperone for this first trip to Florence.

The novel ends with a scene in which Lucy, now married to George Emerson, is on her honeymoon in the same boarding-house, this time in a room with a view. Robynn had been puzzling about the last paragraphs in which the couple are discussing Charlotte’s behaviour. The issue is that Cousin Charlotte had strongly disapproved of George, whose impropriety had led him to kiss Lucy, not once but twice. Lucy believes that Charlotte could not have known that George’s father “was at the rectory … for she would have stopped me going in, and he was the only person alive who could have made me see sense.”

Indeed, Mr Emerson made Lucy admit that she loved George, and gave her the strength to tell her family and friends of her love for him. George told Lucy that she was mistaken because his father had awoken from his doze to see Charlotte standing in front him. He went on to suggest that Charlotte must have always hoped that they would marry, even though that hope “was far down in her mind.” Lucy was at first sceptical, but “then, remembering the experiences of her own heart, …  said: ‘No—it is just possible’.” Robynn realised that Charlotte had done more than allow the decisive meeting to take place. Paradoxically, by continually warning Lucy about George, she had ensured that Lucy would not forget him.

Looking at the beech trees, Robynn reflected that their brilliance in autumn is a sign of the spring to come. She realised that, like the burnished leaves, Charlotte keeps hope alive, and that A Room with a View is all about hope. Charlotte Bartlett was more than a character, she was a very important “plot device” used by Forster to convey the key meaning of the text.

Robynn Colwell

Robynn drew on other novels to provide further examples of how secondary characters can be more significant than we might at first think. For example, in Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason and St John Rivers are not only central to the plot, but serve as models of two extremes. Bertha is governed by her passions and unable to exercise any self-control, and St John is unable to give way to any passion and governed by tight self-control. They serve to sharpen Jane’s self-understanding, and she forges her own way between them. She can then decide to return to Thornfield Hall in search of Mr Rochester. Robynn argued that in that most famous line “Reader, I married him,” the stress should be on the word “I” as it shows that Jane had chosen to do what she wanted. 

I live in a village in Normandy named after “la Forêt” that surrounds it. Locals often liken being under the great beech trees to being under the high arching roof of a Norman cathedral. During my walks, I have been thinking about Robynn’s talk. First and foremost, it did what reading good literary criticism does, in that I now want very much to reread A Room with a View as soon as possible!

In the discussion after the talk on Zoom, a member commented on the likeness between Miss Bartlett and Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma. Miss Bates is garrulous in the extreme; dashes in the text take the place of some of the ceaseless stream of chatter to spare us from having to read her every word. Nevertheless, at the crux of the novel, she is generous in her reception of Emma, after having been mocked by her the previous day. Emma understands that she has been forgiven, and she returns home to find her father with Mr Knightley, who had criticised her behaviour. Her father, unaware of the insult, praises her, but Emma shows proper humility at this “unjust praise.” Then, blushing and “with a smile, and a shake of her head, which spoke much,” she looked at Mr Knightley, and it was “as if his eyes had received the truth from hers.” This crucial moment sets the way clear for a certain happy ending for the couple.

Like Miss Bartlett, Miss Bates conveys an important message. Hers is about kindness; she is kind to others, and also a person who deserves kindness. Mr Knightley’s behaviour to Miss Bates, such as sending crates of his best apples although his stock is running low, sets the standard for everyone in the village of Highbury to follow. When Emma, fractious and tired at Box Hill, allows her wit to override her natural kindness, she is not only hurtful to Miss Bates, but also untrue to her better nature, which makes the scene so difficult to bear reading.   

Another similarity between Miss Bates and Miss Bartlett is that both are spinsters. When Harriet Smith, Emma’s unsuitable protégé, heard that her friend did not intend to marry, she could not believe it, and exclaimed: “But then to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates.” Forster’s text hints that the risk of being a spinster like cousin Charlotte preyed on Lucy Honeychurch’s imagination. Before Lucy listens to her heart and accepts that Charlotte helped her, she described her cousin as “dreadful, frozen Charlotte,” and also commented “how awful to grow old in Charlotte’s way.” The text is not explicit, but these could be references to spinsterhood. The fact that the Misses Bartlett and Bates are spinsters makes their roles all the more poignant. Life had surely disappointed Miss Bartlett’s hopes, and been unkind to Miss Bates, yet both showed the fortitude to rise above their own experience.

Another point that should be made about the two characters is that both are the source of much humour. This makes their functions as plot devices more marked because they are serving two additional roles, one to communicate essential truths, and the other to provide plenty of comedy. A reader must be alert to this duality; that is, be ready to enjoy the jokes, but ready to empathise with characters in order to be able to learn from them.

Such similarities between Miss Bates and Miss Bartlett may not be entirely coincidental. Robynn was studying Forster’s novel as part of a creative writing course, the motto for which was “read one hundred, write one.” The late Frank Kermode was a professor at University College London and later at King’s College Cambridge. E.M. Forster was at King’s as an undergraduate, and later became a Fellow, and then an Honorary Fellow. He also lived in college for nearly thirty years until his death in 1970. Partly inspired by this link between them, Professor Kermode gave a series of lectures, which he later put into a book, Concerning E M Forster, in which he stated that Jane Austen was “a favourite of Forster’s.”

What is more relevant, however, is a comment made about Forster’s own book on literary criticism, Aspects of the Novel. This book has sometimes been criticised for being too restricted in scope, in particular for saying “remarkably little” about his contemporaries, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Speculating on how Forster would have responded to this criticism, Kermode suggests he “might well have replied by pointing out that he was happy to have learned his basic craft from Jane Austen.” It seems there is good reason to find similarities between the Misses Bates and Bartlett.

In this context, it is interesting to note that adaptations of Austen’s and Forster’s novels in film, television, plays and radio have proved enduringly popular. Their success is often attributed to three key factors: the strength of dialogue in their work, the roundness and depth with which the full cast of characters are depicted, and of course the comedy. It seems Forster learned his lessons well.

Robynn’s talk also reminded me of a passage in Tellers and Listeners, The Narrative Imagination by the late Barbara Hardy, professor of English literature at Birkbeck College. She quoted a passage from Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree in which a local rustic, who was timid and rather feeble, was suddenly moved to tell a story to the other members of the choir. Needless to say, he was not a good raconteur. Professor Hardy wrote: “His story is pathetically full of monotony and anti-climax, rather than sound and fury … [Thomas] Hardy uses the pointlessness of it for his own imaginative purposes, to instruct us to the ways of listening with generous love.”

Robynn’s talk showed us that great writers can use the most minor characters to tell us about the most important themes of their works. We need to listen to them with proper attention to hear what they have to say. No doubt, this is one reason why some novels can be read and reread many times and always give us pleasure.

Dawn Robey


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