Wednesday 19 October 2022

Death in Charlotte Brontë’s late novels

In a suitably macabre pre-Halloween presentation, Dr. Edwin Marr gave a fascinating talk on death in Charlotte Brontë’s late novels Shirley and Villette
Both of these works are complex and contradictory texts that grapple with many of the tensions surrounding death, grief and burials, he said in his talk to the Brussels Brontë Group on Saturday 15 October 2022. 

“They are tricky, unstable and confused,” Dr. Marr said. “And just like the gravesite and our experience of mourning. they are challenging and unsettling to experience.” 

He started by describing the dual nature of burial itself. On the one hand, the grave is a site of commemoration, a literal monument to the person interred within. But at the same time, the act of burial is also an act of concealment, he said. 

Charlotte used her two late novels to engage with some of these contradictions surrounding death, Dr. Marr said. The books can be seen as sounding boards to rationalize and comprehend death and what follows it. 

Dr. Marr used two works by William Wordsworth – whom we know the Brontës read extensively – to help elucidate this duality of the grave: his Essay upon Epitaphs and the poem We Are Seven. Both works illuminate burial as a “liminal state” – as a gateway to the next life. These works argue that, while the grave represents an ending and separation, it simultaneously signifies memorial, connection and continuity, he said. 

This dual aspect of death and burial as commemoration and concealment comes through in both Shirley and Villette, as well as themes of repression and revelation, he said.

Charlotte’s writing of Shirley (1849) was interrupted by the deaths of her siblings and the author used the writing process as a “tonic” to help her process her grief, Dr. Marr said. As Charlotte was suffering under her grief at losing all her siblings, finishing the novel provided her with an “alternative reality,” where the author could decide who lived and who died. And Charlotte writes her sisters into the novel, “a sort of epitaph” to the lost sisters, he said. 

Dr. Marr keyed in on the famous Chapter 24 – The Valley of the Shadow of Death, with its portents of doom and reference in its first paragraph to a grave opening up and an “unthought-of calamity – a new Lazarus.” But he also discussed the “magic mirror” that the narrator uses to show Mr. Yorke the future – with the death of his daughter, Jessy – where Charlotte tries to break down not only the boundaries between life and death, but the walls separating the author from her characters, too. 

"We really feel that this is an author who is suffering under her own grief and trying to take control over the unknown aspects of life," he said. 

Another example of contradictions regarding the grave is in Chapter 6, with Caroline Helstone longing to hold conversations with the dead and break down the barriers between life and afterlife. But later, in Chapter 13, Caroline very much desires for the grave to remain shut, when she is thinking about the old graves under the out-kitchens. 

Shirley ends on a decided lack of clarity, with Charlotte refusing to “offer directions” toward the story’s moral and denying us any help in understanding what we’ve encountered, he said. “It feels like Charlotte already is preparing the ground for the closed-off approach” that we would see later in Villette, a novel “largely defined by its obfuscations,” he said. 

Although not much happens in terms of plot in Villette (1853), the novel is a “rich mental tapestry of a young woman undergoing love, loss and bereavement and coming to terms with her sense of self,” Dr. Marr said. “And as part of this process, constantly exploring the tensions between what is revealed and what is hidden.”

One of the times that we see this most keenly demonstrated is when Lucy buries the letters that she had written to John Bretton. “I meant also to bury a grief,” she says. The act of burial symbolizes Lucy’s repression as she hides her anguish and enshrouds a failed relationship. But it is also an act of memorial. Lucy is “meticulous in her interment” – putting the letters in a sealed jar and setting a stone on top, Dr. Marr said.

Later she finds her foot resting on “the stone sealing the small sepulchre” of the letters – “physically connecting her to the buried letters and her buried griefs,” Dr. Marr said. As Lucy imagines “the tomb unquiet” and “disturbed earth,” Charlotte is showing us the very real dangers of such repressive thinking. By burying the letters, Lucy had seemed to want to close the door on that chapter of her life; but the letters come back to haunt her.

“Through the act of burying the letters, what she has really achieved is the firm cementing of them in her mind,” he said.

The ghost of the nun works in a similar way to personify the dangers of burial and repression.

“Bury things at our peril,” Dr. Marr said. If we try to repress things too deeply, they will only come back to “haunt us in a more terrifying form.”

Even non-morbid moments assume this kind of tension and paradox. When Lucy goes to the museum to see the Cleopatra painting and feels a simultaneous moment of repulsion and enrapture; and when she watches Vashti and calls the performance “a marvelous sight, a mighty revelation” but at the same time “a spectacle low, horrible, immoral.”

At the end of the novel, we are back in the “realm of repression,” Dr. Marr said. “Here pause; pause at once. There is enough said,” Lucy says. Though she offers a glimpse of hope for a “rescue from peril” and the “fruition of return,” the most likely return would be along the lines of the letters and the nun – “a ghostly revenant haunting instead of a joyous return of the hero,” he said.

In a final bit of ambiguity, Dr. Marr said that Lucy’s hopeful suggestion of “a happy succeeding life” may not refer to their lives on earth, but life after death.

In both of her late novels, Charlotte uses narrative contradictions to explore the inherent tensions in the processes of death, bereavement and interment. The result is two books that are truly defined by the haunting presence of death.

No comments: