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.

Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

Continue reading “Bly spirits”

Sense and sensitivity

Book title image generated by https://t2i.cvalenzuelab.com/

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)

Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.

This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.

Continue reading “Sense and sensitivity”

Dido Twite and HMS Thrush

1807 aquatint by Robert Dodd of a Brig-Sloop (British Museum)

An addendum — sorry! — to discussion of The Cuckoo Tree

Dido Twite has been sailing with HMS Thrush for a goodly period of time. At least, so we may gather from a close reading of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, particularly Night Birds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge (also known as Dangerous Games) and The Cuckoo Tree.

It’s very likely that, after 18 months on board a whaler — during which time she has sailed from the North Sea, through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north to the Arctic Circle, and then back around the tip of South America into the North Atlantic — she has subsequently circumnavigated the globe for another fifteen months on board the Thrush.

What do we know about this naval vessel, from actual history and from fiction?

Continue reading “Dido Twite and HMS Thrush”

“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

Continue reading ““The dark side of human nature””

Modest and accomplished

The Cobb, Lyme Regis 1892

Jane Austen: Persuasion
Introduction and notes by Elaine Jordan 2000
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1993)

William Walter Elliot of his cousin Anne, after she modestly claimed minimal understanding of Italian: “one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.” — Persuasion: Volume II Chapter 8

Persuasion was the last completed novel by Austen, published posthumously in December 1817 in tandem with Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest completed novels. It’s likely that neither of these novels appeared with the titles Austen gave them (Northanger Abbey was provisionally called Catherine, and in an earlier draft Susan) but I wonder how the public would have viewed Persuasion if it had in fact been published as The Elliots, a handle which Austen family tradition asserted was her original choice of working title.

You might assume then that this is a story of a family from the landed gentry when in fact our focus is almost entirely on just one member of that family, Anne Elliot. Unusually for Austen novels there is a substantial backstory, which is that eight years before Anne was ‘persuaded’ to refuse young Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had few prospects ahead of him. She has since bitterly regretted her decision but, in common with many of women of her supposedly advanced age (she is 27 when this story opens), it’s more than just due the fear that she will never get another offer: it’s that she continues to have feelings for Frederick. On top of that, her father’s poor management of the Somerset estate has necessitated the letting out of the property so that the family can live in more straitened circumstances in Bath.

Continue reading “Modest and accomplished”

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.

Continue reading “Jane and Charlotte”