Nothing Nice about Them

Terry Eagleton

  • The Brontës: Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal edited by Christine Alexander
    Oxford, 620 pp, £12.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 282763 0

Many authors begin writing in childhood, but that the Brontës did so seems peculiarly apt. There is something childlike about their sensibility, with its merging of fantasy and reality, its mixture of rebelliousness and awe at authority, its blending of submission and self-assertion. Like the Brontës, children can be passionate and impulsive, but they also crave a certain discipline and appreciate the need for order. If they can be anarchic, they can also be brutally authoritarian. They like to know who is in charge, even if it is only to calculate what they can get away with. They can also be violent, and the sisters’ novels are laced with a sometimes murderous aggression. Almost all relationships in their world are power struggles, spiced from time to time with a sadistic delight in making others suffer and a masochistic drive to self-immolation. Charlotte’s Villette is full of such erotic perversities.

Apart from Anne Brontë’s writings, there is nothing moderate or middle of the road about these extremist fictions. They do not fit easily with the mainstream English novel from Austen and Thackeray to George Eliot and Henry James. The Brontës are a long way from the genial, civilised, ironic tones of that tradition. Perhaps this is partly because they were only half English, and their father came from a country whose literature was always more Gothic or Romantic than realist. They are closer in sensibility to the histrionic, hyperbolic Dickens, who took the games he played with his children with alarming seriousness.

The violence set in early with the Brontës. In a fragment by Charlotte reprinted here, the protagonist, irritated by the presence of a grubby urchin in a house to which he has been invited to tea, suddenly seizes a poker and strikes him to the ground, even though the child had merely been standing gormlessly about. ‘The scream that he set up was tremendous, but it only increased my anger. I kicked him several times and dashed his head against the floor, hoping to stun him.’ This kind of thing would pass almost unnoticed by the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. When the child’s horrified family come running in, the hero, anxious to stay in the house a little longer for his own selfish reasons, coolly lies through his teeth, informing them that their ‘sweet little boy’ fell down as they were playing together.

That his wrath springs from a very Charlotte-like contempt for the unwashed hordes around Haworth is confirmed by the provincial, distastefully plebeian quality of the dinner (roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes) that is then served. As the family, who are clearly half-famished, fall eagerly on their food, the narrator feels ‘a strong inclination to set the house on fire and consume the senseless gluttons’, despite the fact that they can ill afford to share their meal with him. There is nothing nice about the Brontës, as there is about Elizabeth Gaskell, for example. They have the voracious demand and implacable sense of entitlement of emotionally deprived children, which in some ways is what they were.

Children can find ambivalence hard to handle, loving their parents but also raging against them, and some of the Brontës’ fury and frustration arose from their own Janus-like situation. They were English but also Irish, the offspring of a father who had blazed a remarkable trail from a poverty-stricken Ulster cabin to Cambridge and Anglican orders. ‘Brontë country’ for the Irish is the stretch of County Down where he was born, and Branwell, the feckless, drunken, stage-Irish brother whose first name was actually Patrick, was once burned in effigy by the plain people of Haworth with a potato in his hand.[*] The Brontës may have tried to become plus anglais que les anglais, in a long tradition of literary emigration to these shores, but their neighbours weren’t fooled.

The family was lower middle-class, caught between a hard-headed contempt for the gentry whose pampered brats the girls were forced to teach as governesses, and a High Tory disdain for the politically disgruntled working class on their doorstep. The West Riding of Yorkshire was one of the stoutest strongholds of Chartism, and the children’s early years witnessed the ruination of thousands of handloom workers in the region. In classic petit-bourgeois style, the Brontës admired hard work and frugality while feeling a cut above the populace, and respected their social superiors while also resenting them. In these childhood writings, this tension is resolved in the figure of the Byronic lord, at once rebellious and respected, in whom it is not hard to see a dry run for Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester.

A kind of upper servant, at home neither in the kitchen nor in the drawing-room, the Victorian governess was a painfully displaced figure, at once cultivated and something of a skivvy; and when the genteel-poor sisters were sent out to work, their sense of internal exile, already strongly marked in their childhood scribblings, became even sharper. Anne’s bitter, melancholic poems, some of which are reprinted here, sing the joys of being an outlaw, but also reflect on its costs. A similar tension can be found in Emily’s impressive early verse, some of which also appears here.

As women writers, the sisters were internal exiles of a different kind, semi-outsiders in a male-dominated literary world. That women could write as they did struck some contemporary reviewers as outrageous, even obscene. They had dealings with literary London from a far-flung provincial outpost, proud of their cosmopolitan cultivation yet firmly rooted in their own region. As if all this were not ambiguous enough, they were also stranded like D.H. Lawrence between country and city, full of a Romantic yearning for the moors and likely to have witnessed a good deal of urban destitution. According to Christine Alexander, the erudite, meticulous editor of this volume, there were 18 small textile mills in Haworth alone. The children were bred in the womb of industrial modernity, among the smokestacks of early Victorian England, and the emotional pattern of their work obliquely reflects the passions and conflicts of that period. Their novels don’t portray bread riots or mass rallies but they belong unmistakably to the Hungry Forties.

Partly to keep this oppressive world at bay, as well as to compensate for its harshness, the sisters reached back in their fiction to Gothic romance and fairy tale, whose magical devices could be used to unpick problems that resisted realist solutions. If you can’t get Jane back to Rochester in a convincing way, you can always have her hear his plaintive cry on the wind. And if mad Bertha stands in the way of their union, you can topple her from the burning rooftop in an agreeably sadistic Gothic cameo. The rage that makes a character take a poker to a child is also released to maim, blind and disfigure Rochester, who has dared to tempt Jane into a social and moral wilderness. But the disfiguring also evens up the power balance between the two, and even puts the heroine on top. Charlotte’s novels are adept at having things both ways, allowing her heroines to fulfil their desire but to do so on socially acceptable terms. Wuthering Heights, by contrast, is a tragedy (one of the astonishingly few tragic novels in England between Richardson and Hardy) because no such reconciliation is possible.

These childhood texts are almost all fantasy and extravaganza, with few allusions to the dreary conditions of life experienced by their authors. ‘Nasty factories,’ the young Charlotte tells us in one sketch, ‘discoloured not that sky of dull, hazy, colourless hue.’ The sisters become bona fide novelists when they learn to fuse fantasy with a luminously precise realism, as in Wuthering Heights, or to play one mode off against the other, as in the best of Charlotte’s work. In her youthful forays into art, however, fantasy and reality tend to collide rather than collude: ‘Here the traveller stopped, little more is known of the story, except that the fairies restored him to his family, who became devout members of the Church of England.’ Transitions from the mundane to the improbable are not always deftly handled: ‘As soon as we had read this letter, we ordered a balloon …’ This 14-year-old prodigy can write stunningly accomplished prose, but cannot spell the word ‘briefly’. An artist’s insight into the human soul is occasionally exaggerated: ‘Two or three gentlemen entered, one of whom I knew by intuition to be called Dr Charles Brandon and another William Locksley Esq.’

At this probationary stage, we are treated to imperial adventures and aristocratic love affairs in exotic locales, not all of which would win the approval of the post-colonial critic: ‘Tringia lay at my feet, dissolved in peaceful slumber, dreaming no doubt that he was in his native shades of Chili gathering rich wild grapes clustered on every vine, or sporting with his hairy brethren among the old umbrage.’ Since Tringia can gather grapes, one assumes that he is not a dog but either a nifty-fingered ape or a human. With Charlotte, who gloried in British colonial victories and hero-worshipped the Duke of Wellington, the latter is probably the safer bet.

If Charlotte’s Toryism won out over her rebellious streak, the opposite was true of her rapscallion brother, Branwell. When he was not cadging gin money from his cronies, Branwell was busy poisoning himself with what he could scrounge from the Haworth pharmacy. Chronically unemployable, he spent much of his time carousing with raffish artists in a Bradford hotel, and ended up as an embezzling ticket clerk on the railways. The final text he scrawled, before dying wasted and bronchitic in his father’s arms, was a begging note for gin.

It is not hard to detect a shadowy resemblance between him and Rougue, the hero of one of his own tales reprinted here, a man of catholic tastes who can be found at various times ‘sipping incessantly from a bottle of the most fiery liquers’, drinking ‘a vast drought’ of ‘raw brandy’, ‘be[taking] himself with vast zeal and fervour to the keg of rum’ and swallowing ‘a vast bumper of claret’. Given the erratic nature of his prose, one suspects that Branwell might have been behaving like his character in the very process of portraying him.

Rougue and his pirate crew defeat a British ship in battle, which the patriotic Charlotte would not have tolerated; and though his men decapitate some of the British soldiers, the pirate chief is allowed by Branwell to go unpunished, becoming a viscount and marrying the young Brontës’ favourite imaginary noblewoman, Lady Zenobia. Like Charlotte, Branwell manages to have it both ways, but only because his fiction is incapable of taking itself seriously. As child writers, the difference between Branwell and his sisters is that the sisters simply needed to persist, whereas Branwell simply needed to stop. His laboured wit, florid rhetoric and flat-footed prose were as disastrous as every other aspect of his life.

A typical early Charlotte story begins in a luxurious palace in which the ground suddenly splits open and an evil spirit appears in the sky. Wildness and civility lie side by side, as they did in a parsonage full of spiritual gentlefolk on the Yorkshire moors. But they also overlap in the condition of childhood, which is on the cusp of nature and culture. Children are more natural than adults in the sense of being more innocent and spontaneous, but also in the sense of being more savage and unruly. They thus illustrate what is defective in civilisation as well as what is valuable in it. Besides, nature in the Brontës’ writing is in the process of shifting from its Wordsworthian to its Darwinian sense, which makes its violence and ruthlessness all the more evident. Children are small smelly goats (or kids), little Calibans on whom nurture has yet to have much effect. As instances of unreclaimed nature, they are as appealing as they are alarming. Heathcliff is a heathen living on a heath, at once brutish and vibrant. The Victorians could never decide whether children were angels or demons, as Dickensian sentimentalism vied with evangelical disapproval. The fact that they are relatively free from social constraints, like the young Heathcliff and Catherine footloose on the moors, is part of their allure; but it is also what makes them callous, selfish, anarchic and potentially dangerous. Wuthering Heights is much concerned with the way a surfeit of civility can sap your vigour, but a deficiency of it can make you predatory and pitiless. Culture transcends nature, but must acknowledge its roots in this humble stuff.

From the viewpoint of the civilised Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliff and Catherine are frozen in some timeless mythological sphere, locked in a sexless, infantile symbiosis which could never have matured into an adult relationship. Indeed, what the couple share is scarcely a relationship at all, since there is no question of otherness involved. Looked at in another light, however, there is a utopian aspect to this ferociously violent love, one which cuts through social hierarchies and disdains the whole business of property, inheritance and the marriage market. It is a mark of the novel’s eminently dialectical structure that it refuses to allow the reader a simple choice between these readings.

Perhaps the Heathcliff-Catherine relationship is as sexless as it is because the two, unknown to themselves, are half-siblings, with an unconscious fear of incest. There is certainly a case to be made that in presenting his family with Heathcliff, old Earnshaw is actually palming off one of his bastards on them. Yet children unsettle gender distinctions in any case – not exactly because they are sexless, but because they are neither men nor women. Boys are especially enigmatic in this respect, being puny, piping males. Jane Eyre – small, waif-like, rather sexless in a sexy kind of way – is really a child. There is a good deal of cross-gendering and cross-dressing in the novels: Rochester dresses up as a female gypsy and his tall, muscular, swarthy wife, Bertha, looks uncannily like a female mirror-image of him. Shirley is really a Carlylean hero in drag. Charlotte’s female protagonists tend to veer between feminine passivity and masculine self-seeking, occasionally enlisting the former in the cause of the latter. If they find male power cruelly oppressive, they also see in it an alter ego. Among other things, it represents the condition in which they themselves would no longer need to be victims.

One reason children figure so much in Victorian fiction is that they are among the most vulnerable human beings, and thus symbolise a social order in which many men and women are weak, victimised and spiritually orphaned. The image of the afflicted innocent is powerful, though conveniently limited: the child cannot understand the systemic causes of its suffering, is powerless to alter them and demands instant relief rather than fundamental social change. Children are natural reformists. Viewing a predatory system through the eyes of a child hits it where it hurts but lets it off the hook.

Like Dickens, the Brontës associate childhood with death, nature and eternity. So did Wordsworth, who along with Blake effectively invented childhood for English literature. There is, however, an irony involved in writing about your early years in Wordsworth’s reflective manner, since the act of writing itself distances you from the pre-literate, unreflective child, testifying to your loss of Edenic innocence at the very moment you mean to recapture it. The child enjoys a kind of freedom the adult lacks; yet because he does not meditate on this freedom, and because this carefreeness is actually part of it, there is no depth of experience there to be re-created in later life. You’re only happy when you don’t know it. Writing while you are still a child, as the Brontës did, has the advantage of narrowing the gap between innocence and experience.

There are times when the Brontës seem sick with longing for that personal pre-history known as childhood. This can be dangerous for a writer, since too intense an experience of one’s early years threatens to de-realise what comes later. The paradisal quality of one’s childhood can become a prison. What allowed the Brontë children to avoid this trap, as these writings demonstrate, is their precociousness. To be precocious is to tip the balance between nature and culture firmly on the side of the latter, to live your childhood as if you were already an adult. You can thus stand askew to your own youthfulness, and so avoid being haunted by it for the rest of your days. Yet nothing is more amusingly childlike than a wise head on young shoulders. One thing that marks these writings as juvenile is their self-conscious effort at sophistication.

At an extreme, then, children can’t win. Either they live as spontaneously as Wordsworth’s roaming boys, in which case they have no spiritual depths to re-create later and thus no experience of childhood to speak of; or they are little Paul Dombeys, sunk in lugubrious self-reflection and equally bereft of youth. But life is not lived at an extreme, except in Wuthering Heights; and the Brontë sisters, who were nurtured by their childhood but not incarcerated by it, managed this paradox better than most.

[*] Terry Eagleton wrote about Branwell in the LRB of 8 July 1993.