Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)
But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’
Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.
Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.
What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.
Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.
Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.
As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.
Charlotte Brontë: Emma (1855)
in Unfinished Novels
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993
Not to be confused with Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), Charlotte Brontë’s fragment of a novel remained incomplete at her death in 1855, forty years after Austen’s saw the light of day. As Tom Winnifrith in his introduction reminds us, Austen’s Sanditon and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood continue to fascinate us, getting us wondering what the authors may have intended had they managed to finish their tales; and the same applies to Emma. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess allegedly took Brontë’s broad hints for a plot and ran with them, but all we are truly left with in the original is that tantalising opening, the one beginning “We all seek an ideal in life.”
The first puzzle is the identity of Emma. Who is she? The narrator (who addresses us directly as “reader”) tells us she is the widow Mrs Chalfont, and we guess she is around forty (perhaps not coincidentally about Charlotte’s age). Thereafter she disappears from the fragment’s pages. Is she the titular character? We never find out.
The second mystery concerns the identity of the poor little rich girl called Matilda Fitzgibbon sent to a small girls school run by the Misses Wilcox. What’s the history of this taciturn girl? Who is her father, Conway Fitzgibbon, and why is there no trace to be found of him when the end of term arrives?
I’m coming to the end of one reading focus, the Wyrd and Wonder fantasy blogging event (cohosted by Lisa, Imyril and Jorie) and have been pleased with the material I’ve got through. And so the next focus which I fancy subscribing to is Cathy Brown‘s 20 Books of Summer.
Actually, for this event one is free to go with any number of options and so it is that I’ve aimed to be sensible by choosing just ten titles (though, as Cathy says, one can up this number, change titles, or even admit defeat).
Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1847)
There is a stock image of the Victorian governess, isn’t there: the stern, plain figure in black who is given charge of the upper- or middleclass family’s children, shepherding them from classroom to drawing room, and thence to bed. It’s easy to caricature this figure, as Joan Aiken did with the figure of Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or to portray her as a dominatrix for men (and women) of certain tastes, but I suspect that mostly the romantic view of the governess will rest on the titular person of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
However, the life of many a governess is portrayed more realistically in Charlotte’s sister’s novel, the semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey, which even more than Jane Eyre exposed the circumstances which governesses were expected to tolerate without a murmur. Clues that much of the story of Agnes (“pure, holy”) is based on Anne’s own experiences come in the opening paragraphs: both their fathers are clergymen in the north of England; both young women are twice engaged as governesses, the first post being short-lived though the second lasts a few years; and both are involved in plans to begin a school with family members (though in only one case does it come to fruition). And, from what we know of Anne’s life, the circumstances of Agnes’ treatment parallel the author’s own.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been the subject of much discussion and I won’t pretend that I’m going to add anything novel or groundbreaking to those conversations; all I can do is say what strikes me as interesting or enlightening, in the hope that you too may find it so — even if you disagree (in which case feel equally free to say so!).
In this rather long post I mainly want to talk about aspects of the novel’s central relationship, that between Jane and Rochester. I shall rely on points made by a study or two to structure my remarks but other observations will be largely mine. Are you ready? Then I shall begin!
Presentments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are signs: and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key. — Jane Eyre, II/6
The climax to Jane Eyre, as most readers know, comes with the narrator hearing Rochester’s voice calling “Jane! Jane! Jane!” though he is many miles distant, and he in turn hears her answering, “I am coming: wait for me.” And Charlotte Brontë has, if we are aware of it, given us plenty of hints that “strange things” are part and parcel of the novel, as this example from the second volume shows.
Presentments, sympathies, signs — what are we to make of these? Luckily Jane characterises them thus:
Presentiments are when impressions are anticipated in the form of a dream.
Sympathies can exist “between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives.”
Signs, “for aught we know,” she writes, “may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.”
She has dreams about one child or another, which she recognises as symbolic; the sympathetic bond she has with Rochester — expressed as a cord joining their bodies — finds its fullest expression in their telepathic communication; and the chestnut tree riven by lightning (though surviving) is Nature’s sign of their imminent but temporary separation. Magic and the supernatural thoroughly suffuses the pages of this classic.
As a novel Jane Eyre is full of balances and correspondences, as I’ve alluded to in an earlier post, another such one being orphan Jane’s religious education by Helen Burns in Lowood Asylum — as occurs early on — being matched by Jane’s cousin St John’s evangelical zeal towards the end. Indeed, as we may expect from a perpetual curate’s daughter, the pages are increasingly peppered with biblical phrases and references.
But running parallel with plentiful Christian images we have a contrasting concentration on the supernatural, almost pagan, world or plane, and especially on Faërie and fairytales, notably in the central Thornfield section. As always with these discussion posts there will be spoilers galore, so desist from further perusal if you’d rather not have revelations!
As promised, I’m continuing my appreciation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with further discussions, based on aspects of the novel I’ve not noted mentioned elsewhere or viewed quite as aslant. This post aims to examine Jane Eyre’s relations.
I use the term ‘relations’ in a couple of principal senses here: first, in terms of humans (Jane’s relatives, and her relationships with suitors) and, secondly, concerning how Jane appears to structure her narrative, that is, how in terms of patterns she relates her ‘autobiography’.
I’m certain I’m not the first to observe Charlotte’s creation as very like herself in terms of physicality, temperament, interests and even occupation: Jane, like Charlotte, is small and very much ‘a plain Jane’, holds strong opinions, reads similar books and is a sometime governess. What is strikingly different is that Jane is an orphan and an only child, whereas not only did Charlotte’s father outlive her but she herself had three surviving siblings when Jane Eyre was published.
Edith Nesbit: Five Children and It
Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993
E Nesbit does it again: do children never learn? Of course they don’t.
When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.
This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain.
Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason
Penguin Classics 1996 (1847)
Charlotte Brontë’s breakout novel, first published in three volumes, is now such a well-known classic, its story often summarised, discussed, filmed, retold, that any attempt I now make to précis it is, frankly, redundant. So I shan’t even attempt to do that; what I will do is draw out themes and ideas that have struck me on a first reading, and sincerely hope that I won’t be doing the author an injustice by in any way misrepresenting her.
I shall here pass over any deep psychological analysis of the author’s possible wish-fulfilment in outlining Jane’s supposed ‘autobiography’ (a subtitle proposed by the publishers, not by her), a narrative that borrows freely from people and places that she knew, and from many of her own personal experiences: that’s for specialists to wax lyrically on.
What I shall instead concentrate on in this review is not Jane as a feminist icon — because that’s also beyond my competency — but as an individual with agency, one who asserts her individuality even as she struggles with the love of her life:
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me! I am a free human being with an independent will…
Book-related update here, and thankfully it’s a short post.
I’m rattling on towards the end of Jane Eyre and will presently post some commentary and, soon after, a review. Unlike Charlotte Brontë’s later novel Shirley, which took me over a year to polish off, Jane’s story has proved to have more forward impetus. More later.
Meanwhile, though Moby-Dick was published (with the title The Whale) on 18th October 1851 in Britain, it first appeared under its now familiar guise a month later, on 14th November, in the States. I therefore officially retraced my steps from the very start yesterday after having stalled a couple of times a few years ago.
Call me tardy, but at least it was 168 years to the day after its American publication; and 2019 is of course the bicentenary of Herman Melville’s birth.
A fellow passenger on the voyage, Lizzie Ross, has already set off, so I will be following in her wake. I’m not sure how fast I’ll go or how often I’ll report on the journey; as there are around 135 chapters I hope it won’t take a third of a year to complete — maybe a rate of 20-25 chapters a week will see me navigate home before Christmas. Look out for entries from my ship’s log!
Have you read this classic? I know other bloggers have already embarked on this mammoth (should that be Leviathon?) undertaking; is it turning out or has it proved to be what you’d been led to expect?
‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘Was it not one of Robin Hood’s haunts?’
‘Yes, and there are mementos of him still existing.’
—Chapter XII ‘Shirley and Caroline’
Welcome to the most final post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (the very last despite what I suggested in an earlier piece) and welcome, especially, to the greenwood that is Nunnely Forest.
Newly established friends Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar have walked from the parish of Briarfield and are now overlooking the treetops surrounding the Nunnely Priory estate. In this novel, set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars and during a period industrial unrest, the thing we might least expect to come across might be the legend of a medieval outlaw.
But perhaps this is not so unexpected. For the two have not long before been extolling the virtues of each being a native of Yorkshire, and an independent thinker at that. Given that some Robin Hood legends are set in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire, but formerly part of the West Riding) the mention of the outlaw’s baunts is not entirely outlandish.
Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning.
Reader, I promised one last post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirleyand here it finally is. This discussion will attempt to tackle structure and history, so do please still your beating hearts if you’re hoping to read about unalloyed romance.
First, a bit of history. 1848 had been a year of upheaval in Europe, with attempted revolutions in several countries — only that in France achieved anything — and including Chartist agitation in Britain. The Chartism movement sought to widen suffrage and reform representation in Parliament, and this year saw demonstrations in England and a monster petition delivered. In the wake of these events Charles Kingsley, best known now for his ‘fairytale’ The Water-Babies (1863), published Alton Locke in 1850, an early novel of his which underlined the clergyman’s sympathy for the working man, for Chartist principles and Christian socialism.
After the relative success of Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë also contemplated a novel based on Chartist agitation, determined to produce something as “unromantic as Monday morning”. In the event she revised her plans which were ultimately to result in Shirley.
Why do I do it? Set myself another challenge, that is? When I’d decided I would have a break from it all? Clearly this is one of life’s mysteries.
It’s time for the Classics Club‘s 21st ‘spin’. The last one I opted to do was before last Christmas and my pick was Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Guess what? It took me till a month ago to finish it. Fingers crossed the next one will be more successful.
Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities Le città invisibili (1972) Translated by William Weaver Vintage 1997
In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.
After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.
I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.