Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Brontë Garden Wins Gold Medal

Stone from a quarry near Haworth
The Yorkshire Brontë Garden won the gold medal at the 2012 Chelsea Garden Show. The Brontë sisters were known to walk in an area that closely resembles this facsimile, and are the inspiration for the 2012 entry.

Designed by Tracy Foster
The design is based on the neighbouring moors of the Pennines, a landscape that would have been recognizable to the sisters. The garden with its literary theme marks the 165th  anniversary since the first publication of  Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. The artisan garden also was given The People's Choice award.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Charlotte Brontë Story Discovered

When Charlotte was 25 years old, she and Emily Brontë were students at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, they received instruction in French Literature from Monsieur Heger. 

He taught them first to read and analyze the phrasing and structure of French passages and then to choose their own subject matter and write out their stories in a style that borrowed heavily from the original text.  

Approximately thirty of these homework essays (or devoirs) have survived. 

Recently, one of Charlotte’s stories, dated March 16, 1842 and entitled L’Ingratitude, has been found in the Musée Royal de Mariemont in Belgium. M. Heger’s son had given the story to a Belgian collector in 1913.

Brian Bracken, an archivist, found the little manuscript and discovered that “it was finished a month after Charlotte arrived in Brussels and is the first known devoir of 30 the sisters would write for Heger.” Bracken believes that Charlotte may have been using one of the works of the French fabulist La Fontaine as her source for the story of an ungrateful and foolish young rat that leaves the care and protection of his home for a more exciting life. The story is reproduced in French and English here:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Augustin Trapenard's Response to Genial Emily

Augustin Trapenard kindly agreed to respond to my previous post entitled "Emily Brontë's Diary Papers: Genius or Just Genial?"

Thank you so much for mentioning my paper "Auctorial (im)postures in Emily Brontë's Diary Papers". I found your review pretty interesting / challenging and it's always nice to confront your point of view with another Brontë lover ! 

If I may, however, I would like to try and make myself clearer.

1. At the end of the first paragraph, I clearly specify that the autobiographical fragments are particularly interesting as they bear the only comments that Emily ever made on her own writing. This is why they deserve, in my opinion, a close analysis. In other words, the point here is not the quality or complexity of Emily's writing but the fact she pictures herself at work - in her words and drawings. 

2. When I write that "the two sisters’ auctorial postures were at first deliberately staged as a discursive imposture", I simply comment on their original shared / joint authorship. The speech situation was indeed rather unique as they posed as one unique speaker. Who actually wrote what, we don't know and we're not supposed to.  

About the "illegible blotch", I'm not denying the alleged untidiness of Emily : I'm just proving that these texts were NOT meant to be read by anyone else than her and her sister.

3. Thus, when you write : "What if she really were just an intelligent, wonderful, loving sister who had no literary inclinations at all", you're not far, actually, from agreeing with me ! I'm precisely saying that these papers were mostly a game, and in no way an authorial stance or a literary act.  

I do think, however, that they can be interpreted as a sign of Emily's joyful refusal of any literary ambition. As I argue in my conclusion, these defying and playful papers may be considered as a first step in the constitution of her literary identity. Think of the Bell "nom de plume": it is not far from Emily and Anne's shared little secret in the Diary papers...

 4. As for Emily's role-playing and "dramatized, protean self-image", you must admit that I refer to the 1845 paper, where Emily stages Anne and herself as actors in a civil war and as multiple fictionalized characters. In my opinion, this taste for story-telling and fiction-making may explain the imaginative leap that made her write "Wuthering Heights". 

(Augustin has taught English and American Literature, with a special interest in Emily Brontë and in the notion of authorship in Victorian writings. As a literary critic, he has written for various magazines, radio, and television. He lives and works in Paris.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Emily Brontë’s Diary Papers: Genius or Just Genial?

Diary Paper November 1834

In most biographies of writers, you find the author reporting on the subject’s dozens, if not hundreds of letters left behind, as well as early drafts of their work, or discarded manuscripts that never got published. These works might have been kept by relatives or in museums, or stashed away in desk drawers. Charlotte's output of letters consists of 3 volumes. Writers must write. It's in their DNA. Emily and Anne wrote a couple of letters and a few pages of diary/birthday papers. Emily and Anne weren't writers, but Charlotte made them into authors when she announced to the world that Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell were three brothers. Later when the possibility of legal action necessitated her having to admit they were actually three sisters, she kept their male pen-names on the novels, and died before revealing their real names to her reading public. Why she did this is outlined and explained in detail in Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder.

A July 2009 article by literary critic Augustin Trapenard in the Brontë Studies magazine, entitled “Auctorial (Im)Postures in Emily Brontë’s Diary Papers” finds much to be admired in Emily’s writing. (The diary papers are also discussed in my book, but this link is quickly available.)

Trapenard begins: “Of Emily Brontë’s experience as a writer, the least we can say is that we do not know much.” He adds that reading the diary papers, “is enough to shatter the icon of Emily as a Romantic genius or Victorian martyr.” He says this because critics agree that the writing is bad and, as Juliet Barker points out, “the dreadful handwriting and spelling are scarcely credible as the work of a highly intelligent sixteen-year-old.”  If we were shown these papers without knowing who wrote them, we might bring a more objective eye to the childish musings, and view the writing as mediocre, but if we’re told Emily is a genius, we search through her words for a multi-layered profundity that simply isn't there. I personally don’t believe these diary papers contain sufficient complexity to warrant a close analysis, but if a critic like Trapenard wants to try, we should respect his efforts but be permitted to disagree. 

Emily and Anne wrote basic facts about their day and noted what had happened in the intervening years since their last diary entry. Trapenard states that “the two sisters’ auctorial postures were at first deliberately staged as a discursive imposture.” The sisters weren’t what they seemed. In one of the lines from the diary paper of 1834, the meaning must remain ambiguous because the last word is missing: “The last word of the phrase is an illegible blotch.” That's because Emily always got ink all over her hands and left blotches throughout her transcriptions of poems as well as on the diary papers. She rarely held a pen, so ink stains were a bi-product of her writing. Trapenard then analyzes Emily’s description of her interaction with Tabby the family’s servant. First, Emily’s remarks about Tabby telling her to peel potatoes: “Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O Dear I will derictly With that I get up, take a Knife and begin pilling.” 

Trapenard notes that the use of obsessive repetitions, the multiplicity of plosives and aggressive alliteration betray the speaker's refusal to work and her strong intention to challenge authority. But the hero’s weapon here is certainly not the kitchen knife (which she eventually takes to do her job) but the pen that she pokes at Tabby’s face. Could we dream of a better metaphor for Emily’s domestic rebellion?” 

He adds, “When writing is at stake, Emily appears as a powerful figure—and everywhere in the Diary Papers, her pen acts as a tool to renegotiate her position in the parsonage. Now if several critics have been alarmed by the writer’s untidiness, ill-spelling and childish syntax, I would argue that for a sixteen-year-old who has not ‘done [her] lessons and [. . .] want[s] to go out to play’, these mistakes may just be a creative, underground resistance to the rigid syntax of the domestic sphere.” 

He concludes, “The auctorial posture that Emily Brontë adopts is that of a role player, a chameleon actor, a Greek hypocrite whose multiple faces are veiled, in other words an impostor. For what is suggested here but a dramatized, protean self-image — an ethôs made of a plurality of fictionalized selves? Instead of legitimizing herself as a writer, Emily Brontë was paradoxically staging her writing as something totally private, thereby preventing anyone from authorizing her.

The image of Emily as a wild child running loose on the moors, storing visions and hearing truths with a mystic’s ear, is an image that people love. The emotional tie to the romantic version of the genius on the moors is understandable, which is why Emily is so much admired, but what if she really were just an intelligent, wonderful, loving sister who had no literary inclinations at all?  If we're honest, is there really that much depth in those childish musings? Most critics see them for what they are and scratch their heads in wonder, and ask how did Emily, within a few short months of the final diary papers, transform herself into the genius who wrote Wuthering Heights. O Dear, O Dear, O Dear that kind of versatility requires a substantial leap from peeling potatoes to “a dramatized, protean self-image.” 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Brontë Letter Goes to Auction

Tiny Manuscript from 1830
1.4" by 2.4"
In December last year, this mini manuscript sold for $1.1 million to the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris, and now a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to Miss Holmes, a woman who lived with the family of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, will be going up for auction this June.

Charlotte tells Miss Holmes that she can relate to the toil of governesses. She, too, had been engaged as one for several months, and later had introduced her readers to Jane Eyre, a character well familiar with the occupation while living at Rochester's manor. Charlotte understood how hard those women worked, and could well remember the weeks of loneliness spent in a stranger's house.

"That life has on me the hold of actual experience; to all who live it--I cannot but incline with a certain sympathy; and any kind feeling they express for me--comes pleasantly and meets with grateful acceptance."

Jane Eyre's experience as a governess was marred by the existence of the mad woman in the attic; consequently, she had to always look over her shoulder, for fear of physical harm or worse. The wild woman, locked in a room, is an apt metaphor for a woman's passion needing to be leashed, while her powerful sensuality waits for the right moment to escape the bonds of Victorian propriety. Charlotte's experiences as a governess usually forced her to subdue a different kind of passion: her frustration and anger over the lack of control of her wards, which drove her to conclude that she lacked the temperament for the job. She was able to transmit her experiences into Jane, a conscientious, moral, and intelligent character similar to the author herself, who also kept a watchful eye on those unruly thoughts and desires. 

Charlotte's letters provide further insight into her feelings about how difficult it could be for her when dealing with people. One letter in particular praises her good friend Ellen for her ability to interact easily with strangers and friends alike:

 "I know my own sentiments because I can read my own mind, but the mind of the rest of man and woman-kind, are to me sealed volumes, hieroglyphical scrolls which I cannot easily either unseal or decipher; yet time, careful study, long acquaintance overcome most difficulties, and in your case, I think they have succeeded well in bringing to light and Construing that hidden language whose turnings, windings, inconsistencies, and obscurities, so frequently baffle the researches of the honest observer of human Nature."

The 3-page letter to be auctioned next month is expected to fetch $30,000, or around $10,000 per page. This might be considered low since another letter of Charlotte's sold in June 2010 for $55,000. 

Margaret Smith has painstakingly accumulated about 950 letters, ranging from 1829 to February 1855, in a wonderful three-volume set entitled The Letters of Charlotte Brontë. The book is priced considerably less than those auction amounts, but the letters are obviously not the hand-written versions. Nonetheless, Charlotte's correspondences to her friends and editors provide a glimpse into this very private woman's thoughts and views.

What would Charlotte think if she knew her little 'scribblings' were selling for astronomical amounts of money? She would certainly be shocked, but her real concern might be that her private letters were being read by thousands of strangers.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Brontë Book Sells for $1.1 Million

When Charlotte Brontë wrote  'The Young Men's Magazine' in 1830, she was l4 years old. She wrote in tiny script to mimic an actual magazine's typeset, and may have used a magnifying glass to help her see her printed words.  In December, 2011, this tiny 19-page manuscript sold at auction for $1.l Million. 

One of Charlotte's tiny books

Charlotte and her younger brother Branwell made a number of tiny books with stories and articles based on Blackwood's Magazine, a popular magazine that their father Reverend Brontë subscribed to. The two young writers even included a table of contents and advertisements. A story in this 'Number 2' edition (there is a series of six), follows the adventures of a man who witnesses a murder, and contains a hint of what's to come in Jane Eyre when Bertha sets fire to Rochester's bed: the male character 'constantly raged about the spirits of Caroline Krista and Charles Wellesley dancing before him. He said that every now and then they glided through his eyes to his brain where an immense fire was continually burning and that he felt them adding fuel to the flames that caused it to catch the curtains of the bed that would soon be reduced to ashes.'

The director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum said, "The fact that it's unpublished and unknown makes it extraordinary." The discovery of this minute treasure was unexpected, which makes it all the more thrilling. Often, artefacts or letters surface 'out of the blue' to provide more insight into the mind of an artist or musician we thought we already knew, and our lives become richer for it. Here is a tiny precursor to a master work of literature that Charlotte would write 17 years later. The seeds of Jane Eyre had been hidden from view all these years, but now we see how her creativity mined the gems from her past and incorporated them into her adult fiction. What a wonderful new way to experience Charlotte Brontë.

This surprising discovery should encourage a willingness to explore the possibility that more secrets about this remarkable woman have emerged recently as well. Timing is everything. Perhaps the fact that I was able to uncover hidden revelations about this famous family is not unusual at all. As we see from this latest find, buried treasures occasionally do surface. Maybe Charlotte's spirit is amazed at the interest we take in her, and desires her admiring public know all. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Flossey, Keeper, and The Three Sisters at The Bronte House

This famous portrait just got a facelift thanks to the addition of those much-loved pooches, Flossey and Keeper.
A Family Portrait

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why Do We Love to Read?

Before I was old enough to go to school, my mother would tuck me into my bed at night, sit down beside me, and open a book. I would follow along with her, looking at the brightly coloured drawings, and listen to every word. The hieroglyphics under the pictures were impossible for me to decode, but my mother's voice and the action on the page assured me that great adventures were occurring right at that moment.

The question that circulated through my brain was, 'what happens next?' The suspense was thrilling. If I chose a book I knew by heart, the suspense factor intensified because, even though I knew what to expect, I anticipated the glorious sense of reassurance that all would be well. Some nights, my father would tell me a story. He never needed a book for assistance. He was an extempore storyteller, making it up on the fly, winging it, and elaborating with his collection of strange voices. He usually added humour, which made me think of comic books. My dad was usually busy, writing stories for a newspaper, so those moments with him before I went to sleep were lovely.

When I was finally big enough to go to school, I was able to read. Learning became fun for me because I didn't need to struggle with the words on the page. My curiosity about any subject could be satisfied with a few hours sitting with a good book. Knowledge of every kind, at my level of understanding, was now available. My vocabulary grew and my spelling improved. Small steps at first, but reading became a worthwhile endeavour when I needed to improve my grades.

The best reason for reading became obvious to me when I began reading for pleasure: I discovered my imagination had no bounds. The first grand books I read were The Three Musketeers and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Both books involved the adventures of four characters who form a special bond of friendship. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan fenced their way through the streets of Paris, shouting "all for one and one for all." They were great friends who made me want to learn how to sword fight.

The adventures of Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man sent me off into a magical world of Good Witches, Wicked Witches, Winged Monkeys, and Munchkins. Several episodes caused me to chew my gum faster than normal. When I closed the book, I didn't want my own lion or tin man or silver slippers; I wanted more stories.  Those books rocked my imagination, hooked me for life on the joy of reading, and motivated me to get a library card. Huckleberry Finn settled nicely into my book bag, and then Little Women arrived, followed by Heidi, and A Christmas Carol. 
Years later, Victorian novels entered my consciousness, and I couldn't get enough of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

"I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!"--Pride and Prejudice
" . . . for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short." --Jane Austen

"Reader, I married him." --Jane Eyre

We create a special bond that grows with each loved book we share with friends. Books take us on amazing journeys into knowledge, philosophy, mystery, and love as they quench the thirst of our curiosity. I bet you remember that first book from your childhood that carried you away to a rich land of wonders.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A New Portrait of the Brontë Sisters?

Anne, Charlotte, and Emily
This portrait that Branwell painted of his three sisters is the only known depiction of the three women, so far.

A Northamptonshire auction house is about to put a new painting (seen below) under the hammer. But is it really the famous Brontë Sisters? The most striking feature is the cleft chin all three figures share. This feature appears to be missing in Branwell's painting.

Anne, Charlotte, and Emily?

Thursday, April 19, 2012


When I saw this cobbled street in Haworth a few years ago, I wondered if I'd ever finish my book. The village inspired me to continue even when the task seemed impossible. Good thing I kept at it because now that it's done, I have time to meet other writers who share the same struggles. For too long, writers need to stay immersed in their thoughts in order to get the deed done, but during those months they lose touch with friends and acquaintances. The blogs I've been reading recently have provided a tremendous outlet for connecting with other writers and readers. After so many years typing out pages of text, I can finally enjoy their company. The writing was hard, but now it's fun to enjoy this new part of the adventure. That lonely journey down the cobbled street has been worth every step, especially when I learn how much everyone is enjoying my book. 
Just recently, I received a great reaction to my book from a woman who writes many reviews on Amazon. I'd like to share it with you.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Fool in King Lear

Recently read King Lear again and felt for Lear as he tries to understand his suffering. I noticed that the character that gives shape to his struggle is the court jester or fool. You might think he's an insignificant character at first, but his advice lets the audience be aware of the underlying facts. Shakespeare appears to be using the fool to emphasize the importance of identity within a hierarchy. Of course, the King is at the top where he rules over his subjects. The maintenance of this hierarchy is crucial to the social system; if the King topples from his place on top, the people beneath him will suffer. The fool keeps reminding us, through his speeches, that if this natural order is displaced or altered, chaos and madness comes a-calling. Our fool, therefore, is a quick-witted and wise character who clarifies this idea of identity.

When the fool enters the scene, he offers the Earl of Kent (a loyal supporter of the King), his coxcomb, or in modern terms--his cap, which comes with the job of fool: "Let me hire him too. Here's my coxcomb." Why does he do this? The cap designates him as the fool, shows his identity, but he thinks Kent should wear it because he's in a position to be a fool himself, "for we are now in a world where it is folly to be genuinely loyal." As we know, Lear's loyalty to two of his daughters and disloyalty to Cordelia are central to the drama. The fool foreshadows Lear's dilemma when he says, "Nay an thou canst not smile as the wind sits, thou'lt catch cold shortly." If Lear can't please his daughters, they'll be disloyal to him and throw him out in the cold. He's been foolish to hand over his land to his two daughters. They're like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella for heaven's sake. As soon as he gives them his land, he unwittingly relinquishes his identity as King. The fool points out Lear's blunder: "Thou hast pared thy wit o'both sides, and left nothing in the middle." We all know people like this. No matter how much you try to warn them, they keep on walking and step right into it. The fool knows what the daughters are up to: they "tell him the lies he wants to hear." Who's the fool now?

On a grander scale, Lear is Britain. Lear is left without a kingdom; England is now without a King. His land and power have gone, so he's lost his identity. The fool points this out: "Thou art an 0 without a figure." Lear is a big zero, and Britain's identity is threatened by his folly. The fool makes a succinct assessment: "I am a fool; thou are nothing." Since Lear's fate is tied to Britain, we see he has brought this disaster upon himself and on his country through the loss of his head (not literally) when he handed over his "coxcomb" (or crown) to his daughters. Another blow to his identity.

The fool sings and speaks, all the while repeating the word "head," our clue that he's talking about identity. Lear's the head of the hierarchy, but when a King fails to use his head wisely, chaos ensues. The head of anybody is where their identity resides, but it can sometimes be found in his chest.

As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.
When Lear loses his head in wrath, he abandons Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves him. He acts irrationally and fails to use his head. The fool's speeches remind us of this: "I can tell why a snail has a house . . . why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his dauthers, and leave his horns without a case." No brains, no home. "The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, / That it had it head bit off by it young." Lear is like the sparrow who lets the cuckoo lay its eggs in its nest, raises the birds, and then gets its head bitten off for its trouble. Goneril and Regan have figuratively bitten off Lear's head.

The non-legitimate daughters have the power, so the natural order is in trouble. Shakespeare's audience believed, or pretended to believe, that the natural world reflected a hierarchy that mirrored good government and stable monarchy. Lear disrupted this natural hierarchy, so horrendous forces must clash around him. Things are upside down, and the fool expresses this phenomenon eloquently: "Thou bor'st thine ass on thy back over the dirt." The donkey's supposed to carry the King, not the other way round. The corrupt heirs now govern the country: "Nay not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?" The father should be leading his children, not be subject to their commands. The fool explains to Lear the consequences of disrupting the natural order: "Thou mad'st thy daughters thy mother. For when thou gav'st them the rod, and put'st down thine breeches . . . a king should play bo-peep / And go the fools among." Lear will pay for his foolish actions: soon he will go insane and lose his precious Cordelia.

In all tragedies, a moment comes when the poor hero sees his mistake, but it's always too late. Lear's suffering leads him to reflect on his condition: "This tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else / Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!" His children are selfish ingrates, but he prefers not to dwell on this: "O, that way madness lies." He's created chaos so, like in all good theatre, we must experience a storm, and now Lear's "wits begin to unsettle." The fool asks, "whether a madman be a genleman or a

yeoman?" and Lear answers "A king, a king!" When Lear finally sleeps, Kent advises Gloucester, another nobleman loyal to Lear, that the King's "wits are gone." At this point in the play, the fool disappears. The "coxcomb," the identity of the fool has been transferred to Lear. The fool has nothing more to say.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Carter