Tuesday 30 April 2024

Octavia Cox on Anne Brontë and sea symbolism

It has been said that what the Yorkshire moors were to Emily Brontë the sea was to her sister Anne – a soul-enlivening physical space and an inspiring imaginative element. Oxford University’s Octavia Cox explained exactly what the sea and the seaside meant to Anne Brontë in an absorbing talk to the Brussels Brontë Group. 

The sea and the seaside feature importantly in Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as well as in her poetry, Dr Cox said in her presentation on Saturday 20 April 2024. 

Agnes says in chapter 24: 

‘But the sea was my delight … It was delightful to me at all times and seasons, but especially in the wild commotion of a rough sea-breeze, and in the brilliant freshness of a summer morning … Refreshed, delighted, invigorated, I walked along, forgetting all my cares, feeling as if I had wings to my feet …’

Trips to the shore became fashionable in the Victorian period and Anne spent more time at the seaside than any of her siblings. While working as a governess for the Robinsons for several years in the 1840s, Anne accompanied the family on their long summer holidays to Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. Anne had a collection of pebbles from the Scarborough beach that she kept at Haworth, Dr Cox noted. 

'Cliff Bridge at Scarborough' by Francis Nicholson

“We know Scarborough was incredibly important to Anne, as it’s where she chose to go as she was dying,” Dr Cox said. Anne died within sight of the sea on May 28, 1849. 

Anne includes images and symbolism of the sea in her poetry, as well as in her novels. In addition to her own experiences at the sea shore, she was also influenced by Lord Byron’s poetry about the ocean, Dr Cox explained. One bit of Byron’s verse in particular can be seen reflected in some of Anne’s poems. This is the section of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that came to be known as Byron’s “Address to the Ocean,” Dr Cox said. In these verses, Byron celebrates the feelings of exhilaration that are brought about by contemplating the ocean, she said:

… Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll! … 
Unchangeable save to thy wild waves’ play —
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow —
Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now. …
Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty’s form
Glasses itself in tempests; … 

“In Byron’s imagery, the sea symbolized freedom and the divine, and we see the same Romantic tendencies in Anne Brontë’s poetry,” Dr Cox said, giving an example from Anne’s poem “The Captive Dove.” 

Oh, thou wert made to wander free
In sunny mead and shady grove,
And, far beyond the rolling sea,
In distant climes, at will to rove! 

Dr Cox also quoted from Anne’s poem “Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day,” in which the poem’s speaker is inspired by the wind to imagine its effect on the ocean: 

I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today! 

“Clearly, when the speaker’s soul is invigorated, she couples that with sea imagery in her imagination,” Dr Cox said. 

She went on to explain how water imagery from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress also influenced Anne in her writings. “Just as Bunyan’s characters must navigate a dark river to reach the Celestial City, Anne’s poems depict the passage through life as akin to crossing tumultuous waters to reach spiritual fulfillment,” Dr Cox said. “This religious, spiritual imagery through the sea symbolism underscores themes of faith, perseverance and the eventual attainment of heavenly peace/bliss and overall a deep commitment to glorious hope,” she said. 

'Agnes Grey' illustration

The same imagery and symbolism can be seen in Agnes Grey. “The novel intertwines themes of spirituality, freedom and renewal through the symbolism of water,” Dr Cox said, focusing especially on the ending of the story. In the final chapter, Agnes and Mr. Weston are finally reunited and they stand on a promontory taking in a “glorious view” over the water. 

“So by the sea, Agnes has finally achieved a sense of free, autonomous self, an exhilarated spirit stripped of worldly cares,” Dr Cox said. Also, Mr. Weston’s house is only two miles from the sea, so in their married life, “they will have continuing access to the restorative, exhilarating, spiritually cleansing sounds and sights of the sea,” she said. 

Dr Cox then contrasted the end of Agnes Grey with that of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, showing the differing ways the sisters used sea imagery and symbolism. In Anne’s novel, while there is agitation in the sea, Agnes and Mr. Weston are calm and hopeful as they contemplate that “restless world of waters” at their feet. 

Lucy Snowe in Villette, on the other hand, is herself restless and unresolved. “The unsettledness at the end of Villette is the opposite of what is intended at the end of Agnes Grey,” Dr Cox said. 

The sea symbolism at the closing of Agnes Grey “evokes a settled, secure, moral, Christian ending – a pilgrim Christian leaving troubling waters and looking forward to entering the Celestial City,” Dr Cox said. 

But for Charlotte at the end of Villette, the sea “symbolizes inconclusiveness and uncertainty and a lack of settled attainment, and even whether or not that’s possible for a human mind.”

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