More or less imperfect

Pencil sketch by Charlotte Brontë (right), which recent research reveals is a self-portrait, alongside George Richmond’s more famous portrait

Inverted Commas 6: Imperfect characters

Though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line) I have not undertaken to handle degraded or utterly infamous ones.

Charlotte Brontë introduces her authorial voice into Shirley (1849) a few times, including here in Chapter V. Now, Jane Austen intrudes herself rarely in her novels and that usually very briefly towards the end, in the last chapter or so. Charlotte, who (as discussed here) didn’t anyway have a high opinion of Austen, had fewer compunctions and here justifies her inclusion of flawed humans.

Child torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers; the novelist may be excused from sullying his page with the record of their deals.

So it is that her leading actors in this novel (set around 1812 when Jane was in reality revising First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice) allude to the Napoleonic wars, politics and social unrest, unlike Miss Bennet or Lady de Burgh, Mr Darcy or Mr Bingham (Austen’s novel had first been drafted a score of years before).

And yet, imperfect though some Austen characters may be, Jane doesn’t show potential protagonists in quite so unflattering a light as Charlotte does. Robert Moore for example declares that the poor “ought to have no sympathies; it is their duty to be narrow. Poverty is necessarily selfish, contracted, grovelling, anxious…” Though Caroline Helstone appears to be more ‘in the model line’ and the epitome of the kind, generous and intelligent young woman that one may admire, she is revealed as brittle, doubting; while other females — such as Robert’s sister Hortense — are more abrasive.

And yet we thrive on imperfect characters in fiction, do we not? Without their imperfections how can they progress to happy or tragic ends, how can they grow or become corrupted, how may they achieve great things or alternatively fail to realise their potential? What is a narrative about a perfect human being but a parable or allegory, a homily to pointedly indicate our weak wills and unspiritual natures?

However, despite the author declaring that she will not ‘handle degraded or utterly infamous’ personages in Shirley we will find that there are villains sufficient to create the external tensions that drive the plot forward, unlike the difficult conversations and misunderstandings that mostly animated Austen’s novels.

Maybe the charge of imperfection that Charlotte laid at the door of her characters was a reflection of her view of herself: a probable self-portrait underlines the low opinion she had of her appearance when we compare it to the more idealised chalk drawing by George Richmond in 1850, completed five years before the author’s death.

11 thoughts on “More or less imperfect

  1. While reading your post, a line from the Importance if Being Earnest came to my mind. Jack tells Gwendolen she is perfect and she replies:”I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments…”. She is right, imperfect characters develop, in a way or another, and that’s why they are interesting. Could you imagine a novel made of perfect characters? Boring. Nothing would happen.

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    1. Absolutely, Stefy. That’s why I refer to such narratives as allegories or parables: such perfection is impossible for the average reader to measure up to or identify with.

      My most hated folktalesl motif is that of Patient Griselda (after one of Bocaccio’s tales), in which a woman is subjected to numerous slights, indignities and abuses by a man to test her obedience, faithfulness and saintliness—a dreadful message of dubious morality, even if the narrative might have superior descriptive or literary qualities.

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    2. I’d have to agree too–the example that comes to mind was when I was discussing A Tale of Two Cities which I was once “buddy reading” with a friend. Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette were pretty much the ideal “hero” and “heroine”; and we found we had next to nothing to say about them, but with Jane Eyre, things were very different.

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      1. That’s just so with Dickens’ novel: I resented time spent with Charles and Lucie and longed to get back to Sidney and the others. Goody-goody characters are often just as bad as insipid or bland ones—like marshmallows they may be sweet but have no real body to them.

        For example, in Austen’s novels I often sympathise with her female protagonists while finding their male counterparts marshmallow-like. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park I find nearly insufferable. Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor had a male lead who was also insufferable but by Shirley she’d upped her game.

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        1. I haven’t read the Professor so far. Shirley as you say, and even Villette have so many less than perfect characters that give a lot of food for thought, and also keep one interested in them. In Daniel Deronda too the Gwendolen parts were far more interesting than the Mirah parts.

          Sense and Sensibility is in general my least favourite Austen since I simply can’t stand Marianne and to a lesser degree Mrs Dashwood- Edward was somehow more bearable.

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          1. Yes, Marianne turned out to be a wet drip and did irritate me, but at least she couldn’t be accused of being bland! As for The Professor, I’m glad I’ve read it, but if your tbr pile is as high as you suggest (virtually or otherwise) I’d give it a miss, especially as all the commentaries say that Villette is far better, covering similar ground—and you’ve already read it anyway.

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  2. I only recently started perusing the classics, having been (accidentally) sent a copy of Jane Eyre by Book Depository (a Worth press Signature Classics edition, to boot; what a wonderful way to discover the classics!), and suspect Brönte projects much of her less-charitable characteristics on to other people, though at the same time her personage is quite modest (when she meets Bessie Lee for the first time in eight years, she is quite unflattering of her assessment of Eyre’s appearance!).

    In any case, I do soo enjoy your posts, Calmgrove- thank you for providing a much-needed voice on classic literary concerns.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your kind comments, as a relative latecomer to classical fiction (I spent most of my adult life reading non-fiction or SFF) I’m enjoying reading many of those standards now with the benefit of some hindsight, historical perspective and improved critical faculties that come (I hope!) with experience! And am glad to share thoughts on them with others similarly stimulated.

      I’ve yet to read Jane Eyre — I’m slowly working up to it! — but Charlotte’s forthright opinions come over in what I’ve already read of her writings, and I’m sure she was sufficiently self-critical to know the failings she visited on some of her characters were partly her own.

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    1. Yes, I remember this delightful piece (was it really six years ago?!) and its reminder that what we value from characters are their human qualities, and that include faults as well as virtues—with the always hoped-for chance of redemption!

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