Leslie Stephen, “Charlotte Bronte”

Just a few choice bits from the latest essay I’ve been editing for my forthcoming anthology, Leslie Stephen’s piece on Charlotte Bronte from the Cornhill Magazine. First, an apt description of the uneasy balance required of either reviewer or critic between sympathy and analysis, charity and judgment:

Undoubtedly it is a very difficult task to be alternately witness and judge; to feel strongly, and yet to analyse coolly; to love every feature in a familiar face, and yet to decide calmly upon its intrinsic ugliness or beauty. To be an adequate critic is almost to be a contradiction in terms; to be susceptible to a force, and yet free from its influence; to be moving with the stream, and yet to be standing on the bank.

Stephen’s own analysis of CB does, I think, display something like the desired balance. Here, for example, he proposes a standard against which to measure her overall achievement:

Miss Brontë, as her warmest admirers would grant, was not and did not in the least affect to be a philosophical thinker. And because a great writer, to whom she has been gratuitously compared, is strong just where she is weak, her friends have an injudicious desire to make out that the matter is of no importance, and that her comparative poverty of thought is no injury to her work. There is no difficulty in following them so far as to admit that her work is none the worse for containing no theological or philosophical disquisitions, or for showing no familiarity with the technicalities of modern science and metaphysics. But the admission by no means follows that her work does not suffer very materially by the comparative narrowness of the circle of ideas in which her mind habitually revolved. Perhaps if she had been familiar with Hegel or Sir W. Hamilton, she would have intruded undigested lumps of metaphysics, and introduced vexatious allusions to the philosophy of identity or to the principle of the excluded middle. But it is possible, also, that her conceptions of life and the world would have been enriched and harmonised, and that, without giving us more scientific dogmas, her characters would have embodied more fully the dominating ideas of the time. There is no province of inquiry–historical, scientific, or philosophical–from which the artist may not derive useful material; the sole question is whether it has been properly assimilated and transformed by the action of the poetic imagination. By attempting to define how far Miss Brontë’s powers were in fact thus bounded, we shall approximately decide her place in the great hierarchy of imaginative thinkers.

I assume, though I stand ready to be corrected, that the “great writer” to whom he refers at the beginning of this passage is George Eliot (if anyone knows of any particularly forceful contemporary comparison of CB and GE, I’d be happy to be pointed in the right direction).[*see update below] Stephen concludes that CB’s place is “a very high one,” but he also has a standard for literary and novelistic greatness that includes linking one’s particular genius to broader philosophical and historical insights, and on his view, CB’s failure to make such a connection keeps her from reaching the very highest eminence. His main example here is his analysis of Paul Emanuel in Villette. Stephen considers M. Paul a great triumph, a wholly compelling and believable character, but he finds his “intense individuality” limits his literary significance:

He is a real human being who gave lectures at a particular date in a pension at Brussels. We are as much convinced of that fact as we are of the reality of Miss Brontë herself; but the fact is also a presumption that he is not one of those great typical, characters, the creation of which is the highest triumph of the dramatist or novelist. There is too much of the temporary and accidental–too little of the permanent and essential.

Seen from an intellectual point of view, placed in his due relation to the great currents of thought and feeling of the time, we should have been made to feel the pathetic and humorous aspects of M. Emanuel’s character, and he might have been equally a living individual and yet a type of some more general idea. The philosopher might ask, for example, what is the exact value of unselfish heroism guided by narrow theories or employed on unworthy tasks; and the philosophic humourist or artist might embody the answer in a portrait of M. Emanuel considered from a cosmic or a cosmopolitan point of view. From the lower standpoint accessible to Miss Brontë he is still most attractive; but we see only his relations to the little scholastic circle, and have no such perception as the greatest writers would give us of his relations to the universe, or, as the next order would give, of his relations to the great world without.

There is much to be said, of course, about the assumption that typicality is the mark of greatness, including about how far this standard is gendered. But not least because it is currently unfashionable to consider whether one kind of thing, one literary approach, is in fact better (higher, more significant, more admirable–choose your terms) than another, it is interesting to see a clear, temperate attempt to make just such an evaluative comparison. And Stephen is eloquent in his appreciation of CB:

We cannot sit at her feet as a great teacher, nor admit that her view of life is satisfactory or even intelligible. But we feel for her as for a fellow-sufferer who has at least felt with extraordinary keenness the sorrows and disappointments which torture most cruelly the most noble virtues, and has clung throughout her troubles to beliefs which must in some form or other be the guiding lights of all worthy actions. She is not in the highest rank amongst those who have fought their way to a clearer atmosphere, and can help us to clearer conceptions; but she is amongst the first of those who have felt the necessity of consolation, and therefore stimulated to more successful efforts.

I share something of Stephen’s prejudice in favour of those who “help us to clearer conceptions” (though fiction is often most celebrated today for its ability to confound and complicate moral and philosophical questions, there does seem some advantage to working through the fog to what Stephen calls “some more comprehensible and harmonious solution”). CB resolves some of her thornier problems by highly artificial means, as Stephen points out: “What would Jane Eyre have done, and what would our sympathies have been, had she found that Mrs. Rochester had not been burnt in the fire at Thornfield? That is rather an awkward question.” Indeed. Overall, he sees her unable to sustain a consistent answer to what I think he rightly identifies as a persistent problem in her major novels (as in so many others from the time): “Where does the unlawful pressure of society upon the individual begin, and what are the demands which it may rightfully make upon our respect? . . . She is between the opposite poles of duty and happiness, and cannot see how to reconcile their claims, or even–for perhaps no one can solve that, or any other great problem exhaustively–how distinctly to state the question at issue.” Notoriously, her more philosophical contemporary would insist on the primacy of duty, a position that has cost her the devotion of many feminist readers today (Lee Edwards, for instance, who in her essay “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch,” famously declared that the novel could no longer be “one of the books of [her] life”).

One more passage, though for now I have no time to add commentary on it:

The specific peculiarity of Miss Brontë seems to be the power of revealing to us the potentiality of intense passions lurking behind the scenery of everyday life. Except in the most melodramatic–which is also the weakest–part of Jane Eyre, we have lives almost as uneventful as those of Miss Austen, and yet charged to the utmost with latent power. A parson at the head of a school-feast somehow shows himself as a “Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood;” a professor lecturing a governess on composition is revealed as a potential Napoleon; a mischievous schoolboy is obviously capable of developing into a Columbus or a Nelson; even the most commonplace natural objects, such as a row of beds in a dormitory, are associated and naturally associated with the most intense emotions. Miss Austen makes you feel that a tea-party in a country parsonage may be as amusing as the most brilliant meeting of cosmopolitan celebrities; and Miss Brontë that it may display characters capable of shaking empires and discovering new worlds. The whole machinery is in a state of the highest electric tension, though there is no display of thunder and lightning to amaze us.

Update: Today as I was editing Walter Bagehot’s 1860 essay on George Eliot, I was reminded that there is a fair amount of comparison of CB and GE there, though not really addressing the specific grounds of philosophical thinking. A brief example:

[In George Eliot’s novels], there is nothing of the Rembrandt-like style of Miss Brontë: the light flows far more equally over her pictures; we find nothing of the irregular emphasis with which Currer Bell’s characters are delineated, or of the strong subjective colouring which tinges all her scenes. George Eliot’s imagination, like Miss Brontë’s, loves to go to the roots of character, and portrays best by broad direct strokes; but there the likeness between them, so far as there is any, ends. The reasons for the deeper method and for the directer style are probably very different in the two cases. Miss Brontë can scarcely be said to have had any large instinctive knowledge of human nature:–her own life and thoughts were exceptional,–cast in a strongly-marked but not very wide mould; her imagination was solitary; her experience was very limited; and her own personality tinged all she wrote. She “made out” the outward life and manner of her dramatis personæ by the sheer force of her own imagination; and as she always imagined the will and the affections as the substance and centre of her characters, those of her delineations which are successful at all are deep, and their manner broad.
George Eliot’s genius is exceedingly different. There is but little of Miss Austen in her, because she has studied in a very different and much simpler social world; but there is in the springs of her genius at least more of Miss Austen than of Miss Brontë. Her genial, broad delineations of human life have more perhaps of the case of Fielding than of Miss Austen, or of any of the manners-painters of the present day. For these imagine life only as it appeals in a certain dress and manner, which are, as we said, a kind of artificial medium for their art,–life as affected by drawing-rooms. George Eliot has little, if any, of their capacity of catching the undertones and allusive complexity of this sort of society. But though she has observed the phases of a more natural and straightforward sphere of life, she draws her external life from observation, instead of imagining it, like Miss Brontë, out of the heart of the characters she wishes to paint.

Bagehot’s is a tremendously interesting essay. It contains, among other choice bits, his [in]famous remark about Maggie’s relationship with Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss being an “enthusiastic homage to physiological law, and seems to us as untrue to nature as it is unpleasant and indelicate”–a remark which is, in context, less prudish and more philosophically significant that it seems in its sound-bite form–but that’s a subject for another post altogether!

Evaluating East Lynne

Working through Ellen Wood’s 1861 best-seller East Lynne with my sensation fiction seminar yesterday, I decided to come clean with my students: for all that I find many aspects of the novel interesting, even fascinating, and certainly worth our time in class, I also think that as a novel–that is, as an aesthetic artefact, an artistic production–East Lynne is second-rate at best. But, as I also told them, it’s challenging to justify this judgment. There’s no universal standard for greatness in novel-writing, after all, no ready measure of skill or accomplishment. G. H. Lewes praised Jane Austen for her perfect “mastery over the means to her end”; we need such a flexible notion of greatness in a genre that accommodates both Dickens and George Eliot, both Virginia Woolf and, say, George Orwell among its acknowledged geniuses. 200 years of novel criticism have taught us to be eclectic in our tastes and adaptable in our reading practices, to be wary of defining great traditions. And yet is it really so out of order to ask “but it is any good?” How could we answer this question, absent some template for first-rate fiction? (For the record, the class has been enjoying the novel, and it certainly has its defenders!) The only strategy I could think of was comparative. Since we obviously could not do point-by-point comparisons between entire novels, and because my primary interest was in the quality of the writing, rather than broader issues of theme, plot, or characterization, I put together some short passages for us to consider. Of course it’s an imperfect exercise, but I tried to be fair. The passage from Wood is both key to the novel and (I think) representative of her tone and style; the same (I think) is true of the other samples. All use intrusive (and moralistic) narration; all describe “fallen” women. Here they are:

How fared it with Lady Isabel? Just as it must be expected to fare, and does fare, when a high-principled gentlewoman falls from her pedestal. Never had she experienced a moment’s calm, or peace, or happiness, since the fatal night of quitting her home. She had taken a blind leap in a moment of wild passion, when, instead of the garden of roses it had been her persuader’s pleasure to promise her she would fall into, but which, in truth, she had barely glanced at, for that had not been her moving motive, she had found herself plunged into a yawning abyss of horror, from which there was never more any escape–never more, never more. The very instant–the very night of her departure, she awoke to what she had done. The guilt, whose aspect had been shunned in the prospective, assumed at once its true frightful color, the blackness of darkness; and a lively remorse, a never-dying anguish, took possession of her soul forever. Oh, reader, believe me! Lady–wife–mother! Should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the nature, the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees, and pray to be enabled to bear them–pray for patience–pray for strength to resist the demon that would tempt you to escape; bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you do rush on to it, will be found worse than death. (Ellen Wood, East Lynne)

Poor wandering Hetty, with the rounded childish face and the hard, unloving, despairing soul looking out of it—with the narrow heart and narrow thoughts, no room in them for any sorrows but her own, and tasting that sorrow with the more intense bitterness! My heart bleeds for her as I see her toiling along on her weary feet, or seated in a cart, with her eyes fixed vacantly on the road before her, never thinking or caring whither it tends, till hunger comes and makes her desire that a village may be near.

What will be the end, the end of her objectless wandering, apart from all love, caring for human beings only through her pride, clinging to life only as the hunted wounded brute clings to it?
God preserve you and me from being the beginners of such misery! (George Eliot, Adam Bede)

What were her thoughts when he left her? She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about—dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself?—she thought—not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs? The French maid found her in this position—sitting in the midst of her miserable ruins with clasped hands and dry eyes. The woman was her accomplice and in Steyne’s pay. “Mon Dieu, madame, what has happened?” she asked.
What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? (Thackeray, Vanity Fair)

The discussion that followed was certainly lively. Perhaps rather than recapitulating it, I’ll stop this post here and see if anyone out there would like to comment on how the passages compare.

Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

According to the back cover blurb on my edition of Miss Marjoribanks, Q. D. Leavis hailed its protagonist as the ‘missing link’ between Austen’s Emma and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. I can see the Emma connections much more clearly than the Dorothea ones, except perhaps as, towards the novel’s conclusion, Lucilla rather abruptly decides she’d rather improve the tone of an impoverished village than the tone of ‘society.’ On first reading, Miss Marjoribanks seems a rather purposeless book, though pleasant enough. Lucilla’s little crises offer no real drama and do not have any effect on her character (Elizabeth Jay’s introduction describes Lucilla’s constancy of character as one of Oliphant’s goals–but is it a good idea?). She’s the same self-satisfied optimist at the end as at the beginning. And the narration offers us no commentary to offset Lucilla’s own limited perspective. On the other hand, as an account of abundant energy with no place in particular to express itself–no worthy purpose to serve–the novel is effective, though perhaps (a second reading will help me decide) the book itself is too much the same, that is, puts too much energy into something not very interesting or important. Jay seems to think the novel is a kind of expose of the limited options Lucilla faces (her example of Lucilla pacing out the drawing room for her new carpet is good), but I don’t see evidence that the novel is aware of this problem or upset on Lucilla’s behalf. In Middlemarch, in contrast, the absence of a suitable vocation to absorb Dorothea’s energy and ambition to do good is explored self-consciously at many levels. Miss Marjoribanks is not at all an intellectual novel, and not one that imbues its social observations with much historical depth. I guess that’s why I’m prepared to link it to Emma more strongly–except that Austen too seems much more aware of the problems with her protagonist, and Austen also educates both us and Emma about the risks of self-satisfaction, egotism, and interference without real sympathy or understanding. There’s a strkingly concrete quality about Miss Marjoribanks, though, that I noticed also when I read Phoebe Junior (so far, these are my only two excursions into Oliphant’s fiction). Material objects are what they are, for example, as they are in Trollope; the community and its ordinary habits have a specificity to them that makes thematic or symbolic readings seem to be missing the point. At least in this case, Oliphant’s characters lack the depth, subtlety, and appeal of so many of Trollope’s (some of them seem just gimmicky, such as Mrs Woodburn and her love of mimicry). But you do get a sense of having peered into a world that, for us, is more foreign than we usually allow. At the moment, I am inclined to put Miss Marjoribanks on the syllabus for my graduate seminar on Victorian women novelists. We will be reading Oliphant’s autobiography, in which she famously expresses resentment about George Eliot’s greater success. We will be reading both Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, two of the most celebrated 19th-century novels by women, so we will have a good opportunity to discuss why Oliphant has not considered to be in that top rank, and whether the critical tools and approaches we have honed on writers like Bronte and Eliot work applied to someone like Oliphant who seems to be doing something rather different. (This is a question I often consider with Trollope, whose novels seem to render a lot of our usual ‘sophisticated’ reading strategies absurd.)