Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Bronte's and the psychology of passion

Interest in Jane Austen has revived these days but, although she was a favorite, I had an enduring fascination with the Bronte's.  In my older sister’s bedroom were Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in the woodcut editions.  I was fascinated by these illustrations and, seeing the name Kathy in Wuthering Heights, my nickname, I resolved to read these books as soon as I could.

As a used book dealer, I obtained the editions, and again found Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcuts delirious while they encompassed both the 19th century and modern art.  The books usually sold within months, and then I’d find another.  The Random House editions aren’t terribly collectible, large numbers of them having been published, but they are apparently THE bookshelf editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff
These books made such an impression on me that I didn’t re-read Wuthering Heights as an adult until ten years ago.  At that time, I was stunned at Emily Bronte’s portrayal of domestic violence.  Heathcliffe was brought into a well-to-do family where aggression and disorder prevailed.  When he died after holding up those traditions, I laughed at what I felt was morbid comedy.  Emily Bronte then painted a horizon with words, that of the young couple, Heathcliff’s daughter and her fiancĂ©, the hope of a new future if they could break the pattern.  Although it isn’t depicted in the romantic productions of the book, I felt the ending was a triumph of fiction.

At the time, I lived in a Victorian house cornering a women’s shelter.  Old lady sisters in the nearby gingerbread-shingled house used to tell me about the people on the other side of their fence.  At the end of my yard was a mini-woods, and sometimes I found evidence of night vigils across from the shelter house, cigarette butts and even the remains of a campfire.

I remember taking the woodcut edition of Jane Eyre to an old lady’s house when I was sick and my mother was working.  Off from school that day, I was already enmeshed in the awful Lowood school.  Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester made quite an impression on me when I was young.   Somehow it seemed heroic that she could get along with such a difficult man.  Reading the book again, I can hardly believe I tolerated Charlotte Bronte’s style at so young an age, yet I remembered the story well.  I don’t think I saw a movie of it until the 2006 BBC production, which inspired me to read the novel again.

One of the great things about the 20th century to me is the awareness of domestic distress.  The patterns were mysterious in Jane Eyre, Jane being locked into a room at the beginning and later, falling in love with a man who locked up his wife.  Charlotte and Emily Bronte were first-rate psychologists. 

I read everything I could about the Bronte’s and all of their novels.  Even though I majored in English as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I worked in a bookstore that I learned that the Bronte family was Irish.  While Ireland starved, the Bronte authors died – so that the Lowood school Jane Eyre attended had force.  I read that Emily, while Charlotte was in Europe teaching, regularly fetched her brother from the local pub.  Their brother was wild.  But if he was that dissipated, perhaps a man like Heathcliff helped Emily bring her brother home.  I imagine him tapping at her window. 

Their father was a rare Irishman to be schooled at Oxford.  He brought home clergymen for his daughters to meet but these small and supremely intelligent girls made fun of them. They refused to consider them as future husbands.

If I went for a PhD., I might have delved into all of this further.  Yet I read Jane Eyre correctly, somewhat, as a girl.  Jane did have an unusual relationship with Mr. Rochester.  Despite that, the author put much store in a horrible dream Jane had, the pattern thing about Mr. Rochester’s treatment of women.  Part of the dream came true when Jane eventually found his manor destroyed by fire.  She married him happily, but in the dream, she was wandering with an infant and Mr. Rochester was gone traveling again.  I found their relationship convincing after their reunion yet the last lines are about St. John, the clergyman who proposed to Jane, and they allude to death.  Charlotte, the only Bronte author to marry, was said to have had an affair with a married man when she taught in Belgium.  She married a clergyman a year before she died.

I guess the two woodcut Bronte editions, books I apparently waded through, became iconic to me throughout all my reading.  The author visions of psychological development were sophisticated for their time and, although Charlotte wrote that she wasn’t sure it was right to imagine a man like Heathcliff, she and Emily were forecasting 20th century literature.  Theirs may have been termed Gothic but the subtle interior development made them feel realistic.

Three of my short stories in Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories confront abuse in the marriage or pre-marital relationship.  Attempting to take characters beyond the relationship, the patterns became plot hurdles.

Soon my poem “Bruised exhibit” will be published in Blood Lotus, an online literary journal.  I wrote the poem after seeing a strange sunset.