Riches to Rags

A Little Princess:
Being the whole story of Sara Crewe.
by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Vintage Classics, 2012 (1905).

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they might do at night, an odd-looking girl sat in a cab with her father, and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

Chapter 1, ‘Sara’

With this atmospheric opening paragraph Frances Hodgson Burnett set her take on the Cinderella story in  the grimy capital of England’s capital, far away from India climes where the ‘odd-looking’ girl had spent her first seven years.

True to the story’s fairytale roots the author will introduce figures equivalent to the wicked stepmother, the ugly sisters and the fairy godmother, though the last will morph into a faint echo of the male lead in Beauty and the Beast.

But A Little Princess isn’t just a rags-to-riches story – even if for a while it appears to be mostly riches-to-rags – for Burnett clothed the skeleton plot with gorgeous details and imbued the ancient archetype with psychological insights. In so doing she created a classic that has scarcely dated, despite being more than a century old.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before.

The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen. It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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Two brothers

Haworth Church and Parsonage

Ashworth by Charlotte Brontë,
in Unfinished Novels.
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith,
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

“When Edward and I were in penury, kept chained together by want, and abhorring each other for the very compulsion of our union, I used to endure worse torments than those of hell. Edward overwhelmed by his strength and bulk. He used his power coarsely, for he had a coarse mind, and scenes have taken place between us [of] which remembrance to this day, when it rushes upon my mind, pierces every nerve with a thrill of bitter pain no words can express.”
— Sir William Percy, in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Duke of Zamorna’ (1838)

In discussing Ashworth, one of the four items in Tom Winnifrith’s collection of Charlotte Brontë’s uncompleted tales, I want to focus on a motif that she kept returning to in her novels, that of two brothers in conflict, a motif which only disappeared with Villette, her last finished work (published in 1853, a couple of years before her death).

One brother, who may be called Edward, was often (as with Sir Edward Percy) described as having a “savage, hard, calculating barbarity” while his younger sibling, frequently named William, was altogether more gentle and sensitive. In varying degrees of intensity that fraternal rivalry was pursued in narratives for roughly two decades until her writing tailed off before her tragic death.

I’ve already discussed this aspect in a review of The Story of Willie Ellin (1854) but in outlining Ashworth I want to consider how the unfinished fragment forms a link between Charlotte’s juvenilia and her later work and speculate about why her Two Brothers theme seems to be a continuing obsession.

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My brother’s keeper

Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.

As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.

And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.

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The nature of story

“What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” — Charlotte Brontë

A number of unconnected literary threads have come together and have somehow become inextricably tangled in my mind. After a review of Jenny Nimmo‘s The Snow Spider last month I’ve been ploughing through other fiction, including some of Charlotte Brontë‘s unfinished tales, until my current reread of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

It’s taken some comments from blogger Sandra to get me thinking about the nature of story for teller and audience, about how much storytellers might care to reveal about their creative processes, and about how precious is that fragile veil in every confessional box. What follows is a none too successful attempt to untangle those threads.

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Seeking an ideal in life

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?

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Verdopolis for ever

From Greenberg’s Glass Town

Isabel Greenberg: Glass Town
Jonathan Cape 2020

Before Charlotte wrote The Professor or Jane Eyre, and Emily Wuthering Heights, and Anne Agnes Grey the three Brontë girls and their brother Branwell were creator gods. The self-proclaimed Genii founded Glass Town, a place to populate with characters based on public figures of the day (such as the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon), literary ideals such as the Byronic hero, and social archetypes such as revolutionaries and blue-stockings.

Though Emily and Anne, fed up with their domineering brother Branwell and an acquiescent Charlotte broke away to create their own lands of Gondal and Gaaldine, the two older siblings continued with their country of Angria, while Charlotte continued with Angria stories when she became a teacher.

Isabel Greenberg has created her own version of the creation of Brontë juvenilia: in what she identifies as her historical fiction she has “embroidered, embellished and indulged in a great deal of supposing.” More than that, she has illustrated her fiction — full of “inaccuracy and anachronism and many flights of fancy” — with her own distinctive style, producing a delightful graphic novel in which Charlotte discourses with the imaginary Charles Wellesley as they survey the birth, development and fate of this unique paracosm.

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“It hath made me mad”

Here follow final thoughts on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, certainly for 2019, and definitely for now on this blog. At this point I just want to say a few words for the woman with no real voice in the novel, Bertha Mason, the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’.

Of course, she doesn’t really reside in the attic; moreover, we’re not told the exact nature of her madness — neither do we hear her speak (she only laughs or snarls) nor is there someone to speak for her. Jean Rhys in 1966 famously attempted to do so, in Wide Sargasso Sea, though she changed the timeline somewhat to suit the purposes of her fiction. But it can’t really be argued that Rhys’ protagonist is the same as Charlotte’s Mrs Rochester, nor that this ‘prequel’ is fully compatible with the Victorian original.

Meanwhile, Brontë certainly knew the tale of Bluebeard, for she has Jane picture Rochester’s wife confined to Thornfield Hall’s third storey, along somewhere which is “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle,” and — recalling the young Jane’s terror at being locked in the Red Room of Gateshead as a punishment — we can imagine how such imprisonment might impact on a particularly volatile individual such as Bertha Mason.

But the simile in the phrase “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle” quietly signposts the fact that this is not a simple retelling of the fairytale; and that, despite the literary echoes, this is a vastly more complex narrative that works on several level, perhaps like the different storeys of Thornfield Hall.

Can we find Bertha anywhere in this literary labyrinth?

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Eyres and places

Constantin Héger: a model for Edward Rochester? Image credit: https://alchetron.com/Constantin-H%C3%A9ger

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!

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“Strange things”

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1818) attributed to George Cruikshank (British Museum)

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!

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Many a quaint craft

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school…

I’ve been in a typhoon in the South China Sea when returning to Hong Kong in a China Navigation vessel in the 1950s; and crossed the Bay of Biscay in a vomit-inducing gale on a so-called mini-cruise in October — to be sure, a notorious time of year for storms.

Contrast these violent passages with more forgettable ‘calm sea and prosperous’ voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand in my pre-teens, or numerous uneventful cross-channel ferry journeys to France as an adult.

Sailings have featured in recent reads, and though I’ve disembarked from them I’m still aboard another; I’m hoping maybe you’ll be interested in hearing what was jotted down in the captain’s logs for these several sea passages.

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Jane’s relations

George Richmond’s initial portrait sketch of Charlotte Brontë

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.

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“An independent will”

Charlotte Brontë by her brother Branwell, restored detail

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…

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Thorny text

Though fans of the famed Currer Bell
Were abashed to be told, “He’s a gel,”
They got in such pickles
When she wed Arthur Nicholls:
“Bell, Nicholls, or Brontë? Pray tell!”

There are some books I read straight through, almost without taking breath. They mightn’t necessarily be light fodder but the forward impetus or sheer fluidity of the telling discourages me from anything but an immediate and fleeting reflection.

Then there are others which I cannot help but linger over, when I find myself figuratively reaching for the pause button. This is when I slip the bookmark into the pages, search for a pen, and begin annotating in an exercise book. A choice phrase copied, a tentative genealogy, a reminder of an incident in another piece of fiction, a recurrent theme, an inconsistency — all go into a notebook, one of a dozen or so now dating back fifty years, all now grist for a review, an online commentary, maybe a reassessment.

And so to Jane Eyre.

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Shirley’s neck of the woods

Gable of Gatehouse, Kirklees Priory (H P Kendall) 1937 © Calderdale Libraries

‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘It is.’
‘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.

And there’s more.

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