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Monday, April 21, 2014

Happy Birthday, Charlotte Bronte!

Photo of Charlotte 1854.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Charlotte Bronte was born on this day in 1816, 198 years ago. She was one of a largeish family of children, but by the time her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of illness probably caused by time in an unpleasant boarding school, there were only four left - Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell. Charlotte didn't waste the experience: her alma mater turned up as Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

The Bronte kids, whose father was a parson, did a lot of writing together, poetry and fiction, all set in their own universes, Gondal and Angria. Unfortunately, they all ended up dying young, but their childhood writings are still in print, as are the published novels.

There was a novel by Antonia Forest, Peter's Room, in which a group of children think it might be a good idea to play around with the Bronte children's universe of Gondal. It was particularly interesting, I thought, in that there's a negative view of the girls' feelings about school, which meant they were interrupted in their world-building activities.

I haven't read a lot of their work, but there's no question that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are special. I had to read Wuthering Heights for English Literature at high school. I remember one of the boys bemoaning the fact that all the girls were Heathcliff fans - and I can see his point. Both novels are Gothic-themed, but Heathcliff and Cathy are not at all sympathetic characters. I think I've said before on this blog that in my opinion they are unpleasant lovers who totally deserve each other. All the same, it's an amazing, powerful novel about what can happen when two selfish people are obsessed with each other. I loved it - but I don't love Heathcliff.

Jane Eyre is another matter. Jane is not a wimp, or the kind of Gothic heroine who faints at the drop of a hat or screams a lot. She isn't physically attractive either. She is a former abused child who decides to make the best of things and create a life for herself. The Reeds don't succeed in cowering her; if anything, she scares them!  She loves Rochester, but won't be his mistress or his bigamous wife. It's rather a shame that it has to end with her going back only when he's helpless, but the author does allow him to get back his sight.

Rochester is a much nicer man than Heathcliff. He was duped, let's face it, by a family wanting to marry off their daughter quickly before he noticed there was something not quite right about her. Despite all that, he looks after Bertha. He says he could have sent her to an institution, but didn't want her to be mistreated, as tended to happen in mental hospitals in those days. Even when she's set the house on fire and he could just let her jump, he tries to save her - that's how he goes blind in the first place.

Adele, the little girl, is almost certainly not his child, just the daughter of a former mistress. All the same, he took on the responsibility of caring for the child when her mother dumped her.

So, when he finally falls in love with a woman worth loving, he does the wrong thing in hopes of having a little happiness. Not good, but you can understand it. You can also understand Jane's departure when she finds out.

In any case, these are characters I could care about. And I do.

Happy birthday, Charlotte!


A latte beckons said...

Peter's Room is one of my all time favourite novels! Such an interesting exploration of shared world-building and the perils (and temptations) of living in the imagination.
I thought I was the only person in the world who'd read it, I'm so glad I'm not :-)

Sue Bursztynski said...

I bought it remaindered. Took me a while to get around to reading it, but glad I did. :-)

A latte beckons said...

My school library had the lot but I found my copy of Peter's Room years later on a shelf of paperbacks being used as decoration in a Spanish restaurant in Smith St. So glad I persuaded them to sell it to me, it's worth a fortune now :)