I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

dinsdag 18 juli 2017

Literary legends: Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

18 July 2017 is a special day for literature aficionados across the globe, for it marks the 200th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most beloved writer of them all: Jane Austen.


It was on this day in 1817, in a modest house in Winchester, that Jane drew her last breath aged 41, but in her four decades she had revolutionised the world of writing forever. Jane not only helped secure the popularity of the novel as an art form, often seen as subservient to poetry at the time she wrote her first work, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811, she also paved the way for new generations of women writers who would follow her.

Women like Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and especially the Brontë sisters. Charlotte, Emily and Anne are in the middle of 200th anniversaries of their own, as we remember the bicentenaries of their births in the years 1816 to 1820. Along with Austen they crafted brilliant works of genius that are the equal of any novels written by men, and in the public’s eye the Brontës and Jane have become inextricably linked.

I once asked one of the hard-working guides at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth what question they are asked more than any other. It was ‘Which of the Brontë sisters wrote Pride and Prejudice?’ followed closely by, ‘Is this where Jane Austen wrote her novels?’

It’s easy to see why the four writers should become mixed in the public’s perception. On a superficial level there are some similarities between Jane and the Brontës: Jane was after all an early nineteenth century writer who never married and lived with her family throughout her life. So far, so similar with Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who, admittedly, did marry aged 38, only to succumb to the effects of excessive morning sickness and die less than a year later). In other ways, however, Jane was very different to the Yorkshire triumvirate.

Jane was writing earlier in the century than the Brontës, and in a century that changed so radically as the decades advanced, this made a huge difference. Jane Austen was very much a regency woman, familiar with the values and traditions of the late eighteenth century, whereas the Brontës grew up at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, and witnessed the huge social impact brought by the industrial revolution in a way that Jane never did. As an example of this, Jane Austen travelled to London from Chawton, in Hampshire, in 1815 by horse drawn carriage. In 1848, Charlotte and Anne Brontë travelled from Keighley to London via train.

The purpose of these two meetings reveals another important difference between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters: Jane was travelling to meet the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was a huge fan of her work; Charlotte and Anne Brontë were travelling to meet the publisher George Smith, where they would finally reveal their true identity away from the masks of Currer and Acton Bell that they had hidden behind.

Jane Austen’s writing made her famous in her lifetime, a success that Anne and Emily would never know or desire. The Brontë sisters needed money in a way that Jane never did, but they eschewed fame and preferred public anonymity, although after the death of her younger sisters Charlotte did, reluctantly, step into the limelight.

Another important distinction between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters was their social position. Whilst the Brontës were respectable, thanks to their father Patrick’s position as a long established priest in the Church of England, they were never rich, and were solidly lower middle class, whereas Jane was from an upper middle class background. Her financial position, and her position in society, became even more secure when her brother Edward was adopted by the very wealthy Thomas Knight. Knight had no children of his own, and in 1783 chose his distant relative the 15 year old Edward Austen, afterwards Edward Austen Knight, to be his legal heir. Edward adopted a number of grand properties, including the beautiful Chawton House. He also obtained a nearby property at Chawton for Jane to live in, and it was there that she worked on some of her greatest masterpieces.
The contrast between Jane’s brother Edward and the Brontës’ brother Branwell could not be greater: Branwell seemed to be a promising talent in his own right, but there would be no wealthy patronage for him, and he died at the age of 31 after a long addiction to drink and opium.

Other than their brilliant writing, there is one striking similarity between Jane Austen and the Brontës: sisterly love. Emily and Anne Brontë in particular were very close, being referred to as being like inseparable twins, despite their age difference. A similar relationship existed between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, two years older than Jane and always by her side throughout her life.
In the 200 years since her death, Jane Austen’s reputation has grown, but just what did Charlotte Brontë think of her? In fact, Charlotte reported that she had never read Jane Austen’s work until she was urged to by the critic G. H. Lewes. She was far from impressed as we can see from her reply to Lewes:

‘Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point... I had not seen Pride & Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers - but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy - no open country - no fresh air - no blue hill - no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’

Charlotte’s judgement should be seen in the light of her irritation that Jane Eyre was being compared to Austen novels. It was a fate that befell Anne Brontë’s first novel too, as we see from the following extract from a review: ‘Agnes Grey is a somewhat coarse imitation of one of Miss Austin’s charming stories.’ It’s a pity, of course, that the reviewer hadn’t found the stories so charming that he’d remembered how to spell Miss Austen’s name.

If we take a more dispassionate look than Charlotte did, we simply have to acknowledge that Jane Austen’s books are works of genius just like those of herself and her sisters. One early twentieth century writer, however, thought it was unfair that Anne Bronte in particular was being overlooked in favour of Jane Austen. In 1924, celebrated Irish author George Moore wrote:

‘If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’

We can equally lament that Jane Austen did not live another ten years. Her novels will always be read and always be loved. While ever this planet of ours continues its restless orbit around the sun, readers will still swoon over Mr Darcy and root for Emma to find her Knightley. Times will change, but the novels of Jane Austen will remain timeless. On this special day, we should all give a silent thanks to Jane Austen for her novels, and her ground-breaking role in the history of literature.

By Nick Holland. Author of 



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Parsonage

Parsonage

Charlotte Bronte

Presently the door opened, and in came a superannuated mastiff, followed by an old gentleman very like Miss Bronte, who shook hands with us, and then went to call his daughter. A long interval, during which we coaxed the old dog, and looked at a picture of Miss Bronte, by Richmond, the solitary ornament of the room, looking strangely out of place on the bare walls, and at the books on the little shelves, most of them evidently the gift of the authors since Miss Bronte's celebrity. Presently she came in, and welcomed us very kindly, and took me upstairs to take off my bonnet, and herself brought me water and towels. The uncarpeted stone stairs and floors, the old drawers propped on wood, were all scrupulously clean and neat. When we went into the parlour again, we began talking very comfortably, when the door opened and Mr. Bronte looked in; seeing his daughter there, I suppose he thought it was all right, and he retreated to his study on the opposite side of the passage; presently emerging again to bring W---- a country newspaper. This was his last appearance till we went. Miss Bronte spoke with the greatest warmth of Miss Martineau, and of the good she had gained from her. Well! we talked about various things; the character of the people, - about her solitude, etc., till she left the room to help about dinner, I suppose, for she did not return for an age. The old dog had vanished; a fat curly-haired dog honoured us with his company for some time, but finally manifested a wish to get out, so we were left alone. At last she returned, followed by the maid and dinner, which made us all more comfortable; and we had some very pleasant conversation, in the midst of which time passed quicker than we supposed, for at last W---- found that it was half-past three, and we had fourteen or fifteen miles before us. So we hurried off, having obtained from her a promise to pay us a visit in the spring... ------------------- "She cannot see well, and does little beside knitting. The way she weakened her eyesight was this: When she was sixteen or seventeen, she wanted much to draw; and she copied nimini-pimini copper-plate engravings out of annuals, ('stippling,' don't the artists call it?) every little point put in, till at the end of six months she had produced an exquisitely faithful copy of the engraving. She wanted to learn to express her ideas by drawing. After she had tried to draw stories, and not succeeded, she took the better mode of writing; but in so small a hand, that it is almost impossible to decipher what she wrote at this time.

I asked her whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in Villette was so exactly like what I had experienced, - vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, etc. She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling to sleep, - wondering what it was like, or how it would be, - till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this one point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened. I cannot account for this psychologically; I only am sure that it was so, because she said it. ----------------------She thought much of her duty, and had loftier and clearer notions of it than most people, and held fast to them with more success. It was done, it seems to me, with much more difficulty than people have of stronger nerves, and better fortunes. All her life was but labour and pain; and she never threw down the burden for the sake of present pleasure. I don't know what use you can make of all I have said. I have written it with the strong desire to obtain appreciation for her. Yet, what does it matter? She herself appealed to the world's judgement for her use of some of the faculties she had, - not the best, - but still the only ones she could turn to strangers' benefit. They heartily, greedily enjoyed the fruits of her labours, and then found out she was much to be blamed for possessing such faculties. Why ask for a judgement on her from such a world?" elizabeth gaskell/charlotte bronte



Poem: No coward soul is mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heavens glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.


O God within my breast.
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life -- that in me has rest,
As I -- Undying Life -- have power in Thee!


Vain are the thousand creeds
That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,


To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast Rock of immortality.


With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.


Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.


There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.


--
Emily Bronte

Family tree

The Bronte Family

Grandparents - paternal
Hugh Brunty was born 1755 and died circa 1808. He married Eleanor McClory, known as Alice in 1776.

Grandparents - maternal
Thomas Branwell (born 1746 died 5th April 1808) was married in 1768 to Anne Carne (baptised 27th April 1744 and died 19th December 1809).

Parents
Father was Patrick Bronte, the eldest of 10 children born to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor (Alice) McClory. He was born 17th March 1777 and died on 7th June 1861. Mother was Maria Branwell, who was born on 15th April 1783 and died on 15th September 1821.

Maria had a sister, Elizabeth who was known as Aunt Branwell. She was born in 1776 and died on 29th October 1842.

Patrick Bronte married Maria Branwell on 29th December 1812.

The Bronte Children
Patrick and Maria Bronte had six children.
The first child was Maria, who was born in 1814 and died on 6th June 1825.
The second daughter, Elizabeth was born on 8th February 1815 and died shortly after Maria on 15th June 1825. Charlotte was the third daughter, born on 21st April 1816.

Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls (born 1818) on 29th June 1854. Charlotte died on 31st March 1855. Arthur lived until 2nd December 1906.

The first and only son born to Patrick and Maria was Patrick Branwell, who was born on 26th June 1817 and died on 24th September 1848.

Emily Jane, the fourth daughter was born on 30th July 1818 and died on 19th December 1848.

The sixth and last child was Anne, born on 17th January 1820 who died on 28th May 1849.

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