Posts Tagged ‘Samantha Ellis’

Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

On further reflection I must include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.


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Trawden Cottages (for source of image see link)

A few weeks ago I was up in Trawden without a thought in my head about the Brontës – well, not until someone in the pastoral meeting I was attending mentioned that we were a mere eight miles from Haworth. We may have been in a different county, but almost within hailing distance none the less.

As I stared out of the big bay window on that bleak Saturday, watching the snow flakes swirling down against the backdrop of the steeply undulating moorland, it became obvious that I was in what most of us have convinced ourselves is authentic Brontëland.

It began to seem very appropriate that, as we had driven the snaking icy roads to get there earlier that day, my friend and I had exchanged stories of the people we had worked with professionally, people wounded by traumas, some of them from childhood, some of them more recent.

bronte-timelineThe Brontë family history is a painful one. They were well acquainted with grief. Even when I seemed to be distancing myself from it by putting it in a table to help me understand better how old the younger sisters were when the sequence of deaths that bedevilled their childhoods began, the pain of it was if anything even more visible. The trauma was not only about death. It was about the separation of the two older sisters from the youngest children, following so close after the mother’s death. It was about the atrocious conditions in the boarding school which ultimately contributed to the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth (see two earlier posts for the traumatic nature of boarding school education, even in the 20th Century). The table I’m including here stops at 1829: that was not the end of all the pain, but that’s something that will have to wait until a later post.

take-courageI’ve referred recently to later triggers that reinforced the hint life gave me in Trawden. One of them was hearing about Samantha Ellis’s book. I’m only half-way through and already I have picked up a number of useful clues about the possible relationship between trauma and creativity.

What I want to focus on briefly here is her account of what happened to Anne Brontë’s greatest achievement after she was dead. According to Ellis, after the second edition, Charlotte vetoed further publication: Ellis argues this was part of her attempt to whitewash Ann’s reputation, which seemed to her to have been tarnished by the book. This gave Thomas Hodgson his chance to steal some profit. He hacked the text down to fit into one volume so he could publish it more cheaply than if he’d stuck with the original three. After Charlotte died her publishers made the mistake of using his text as their source. This is the one that is still alarmingly prevalent. Ellis writes (page 142):

The mutilated editions are still everywhere. My own copy of the novel is a mutilated edition. It takes a while to find one that isn’t. I get slightly obsessive about checking, and find butchered texts in bookshops, in libraries and on friends’ bookshelves, all bought in good faith, because unless you knew they weren’t right, you couldn’t tell.

Her use of the word ‘mutilated’ intrigued me. It is as though this were for her a sort of posthumous traumatic atrocity. Some degree of outrage is, though, understandable, as I discovered soon after reading her words.

To my alarm, I checked out my own copy of the Folio Society Edition. Surely you can trust the Folio Society to get it right? Apparently not. It is a mutilated version. This explained my own difficulty when I recently picked it up to read the novel for the first time. That’s right. I said ‘for the first time.’ I admit it. I was an Anne ignorer as well. Anyway, back to the main point. I was puzzled by the abrupt beginning, the result of Hodgson deleting the real opening from his version. I didn’t even realise at first that it was meant to be a letter, let alone who Gilbert was or why he was writing it.

Fortunately Ellis prescribes a remedy (page 142): ‘There are better versions – the best, I think, is the 1996 one edited by Stevie Davies.’

tenant-of-wildfell-hallIt didn’t take me long to work out via the web that my local bookshop had a copy. I rang them to make sure it was still there: it was and it was the only one they had. I put on my shoes, grabbed my coat and set off on the twenty minute walk to the shop as fast as I could in case someone else might get there first.

Even as I walked I asked myself why was I so fired up about this. Anne has been dead just over a hundred-and fifty years. She’s not going to be upset, surely, if I buy it later, or even if I just read the butchered Folio copy I’ve got on my shelf. Then I remembered how Patrick Brontë had regularly walked ten miles to meet Anne’s mother before they married and ten miles back to his home. I remembered the integrity with which he had fought for justice later in his life, making far greater efforts than a twenty minute walk to do so. The injustice of a mutilated novel may seem small beer, but I realised it mattered to me. To appropriately honour Anne’s memory it was only right that I should rectify this travesty done in the name of easy money.

As I walked home at a slower pace, taking the long route over the modest upward slope of Churchill Gardens, I was glad that I had made the effort. I had checked that the book did indeed contain the missing opening: then I was sure it also had all the other missing details, some of which are crucial to Anne’s depiction of her heroine, Helen. Some kind of justice had been done. I can now read what she really wrote when she created a book that would give women even then the strength to fight against oppression in the home.

As I opened the door to go in, my wife asked where I’d been. She was surprised at my explanation.

‘Why didn’t you ask them to keep it for you? You could’ve saved yourself a walk and picked it up tomorrow when you’re in town anyway.’

I couldn’t find a way to explain it then. I’m not sure whether I fully understand it now. Maybe this is all a sentimental rationalisation of an unfathomable impulse. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be coming back to the Brontës on this blog sometime soon.

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Emily, Anne and Charlotte in To Walk Invisible. Ann is seated in the middle. Photograph: BBC/Michael Prince

I am slowly picking myself up after a busy festive season. At the end of it I found myself wondering what themes were calling me, as I’d rather dropped the ball over the last few weeks. 

I find I am being drawn to the Brontës by a number of hints including Sally Wainwright’s recent excellent documentary drama, To Walk Invisible (it’s available for another 19 days), and this excellent Guardian article of last Friday  by Samantha Ellis, which redresses the balance in terms of Anne.

The Brontës’s combination of trauma and creativity suggests that trauma can elevate a person to a higher level of understanding which is a form of transcendence, even in the absence of transliminality, unlike my rather glib conclusion in an earlier post’s diagram. 

So, I’ve added another substantial clutch of books to my list. Heaven knows when I will be able to read them all, let alone pull what I have learned into a coherent perspective. I guess I’ll not be keeping up my previous pace of posts for a few days or even weeks yet. I hope your patience with me will prove worth it in the end. 

Anyhow, here is a short extract from the Ellis post – how intriguing to have as a surname Emily’s pseudonym! Click the link for the full post.

Seen as less passionate than Emily, less accomplished than Charlotte, Anne is often overlooked. But her governess Agnes Grey is a clear model for Jane Eyre.

Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?

Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.

Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among … rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.

. . . . Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. . . .  instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.

One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.

This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”.

 A new Vintage Classics edition of Agnes Grey is published on 12 January. Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis is published by Chatto & Windus on the same date.

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