Description of a letter to Brontë’s friend, Ellen Nussey.
Charlotte Brontë’s letters to her good friend, Ellen Nussey, are revealing of some of the life events that directly influenced the construction of Jane Eyre. Comically similar to the advertisement posted by Jane in Jane Eyre seeking employment, the advertisement Brontë rejected in real life requested a “churchgoing” lady “competent to teach Music, French, and Drawing.” While Brontë rejected the offer, perceiving life as a governess to be a “miserable one,” she had Jane take the job. Brontë may have written of Jane’s decision to become an employed governess to imagine how her (Brontë’s) life would have developed if she had taken the position.
However, Brontë tethers Jane and herself together by describing a quality of a governess as “taking things easily . . . and making oneself comfortable and at home wherever we may chance to be- qualities in which all our family are singularly deficient.” This denial of easy comfort, a recurring restlessness, is a quality that almost defines Jane’s life as she moves frequently from place to place, going through many hardships before finally anchoring down. This similarity implies that Jane and Charlotte are in their essences the same person but in alternate realities where different paths were taken. This is an intriguing literary device that I will surely use in future creative writing.
On our last day of class, after discussing the emergent genre of cell phone novels and reading (and listening to) Teju Cole’s Twitter story, “Hafiz,” the students of English 145 engaged in a collective act of writing. Without knowing what we were working on, each group was asked without prompt to come up with an element of a story: title, character, incident, setting, theme, and genre. We used those coordinates to generate, in ten minutes, the following collectively-authored piece of fiction. None of us is responsible for it (because we all are). You might recognize the final line.
Click here for the word file: under-the-awning
With the recent advent of the cellular novel in Japan we see that the evolution of the novel has come full circle from the period we have been examining, Britain in the 19th century. We have talked a lot about how female authors in the 19th century, such as Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell, revolutionized literary forms by showing the point of view of commonplace female characters. These authors wrote about the traditional paths and events in the lives of 19th century women, which primarily consisted of marriage plots and socially fueled drama. More than 100 years later the cell phone novels written about by Dana Goodyear in her piece “I [heart] novels” have brought back these traditional storylines. Even though in the time that has elapsed since the end of the 19th century we have seen incredible strides towards equality of men and women, the plot lines of these cell phone novels herald a time when marriage was still the primary goal in a woman’s life. Goodyear writes that the novels “revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction.” This regression negates all the positive change and hardship that females have experienced in the past 100 years in order to expand their role outside of the home.
In addition to their conventional plot lines cellular novels also reflect the 19th century power of serialization of stories for readers. Just as Tess of the D’Urbervilles was first published serially, these novels are published online in short bursts with suspenseful breaks to keep the reader’s attention until the next posting.
While it is impossible for the novel form to resist change over time, I believe that this change, though reflecting many of the traditional forms we have spoken of in class, it is in fact an immense downgrade in the literary power of the novel. These types of novels require no complicated thought over plot lines or development of characters because they lack profound development of characters. Everything that made our novels especially interesting, most importantly, the emotional attachment and connection to specific characters is completely ignored in cellular novels; an absence I personally will never be able to overcome.
After reading Teju Cole’s Hafiz, I was struck at how far we have come in our definition of a novel. During this class, we tracked the growth of the novel from its serial beginnings to the full-fledged, bound and printed novelistic form. So, it seems a rough alternative to transition from the likes of Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, who revolutionized the novel with their characters and prose, to a Twitter or cellphone novel. To be sure, the idea itself is interesting, to transmute the novelistic form to the modern technological age, but I’m not sure if its execution is completely successful.
There are certainly limitations in trying to write a story in a series of tweets that are 140 characters or less, or in Teju Cole’s case, a series of retweets – which means the words are not his own, the messages typed by the hands of another. But maybe that’s the intrigue of the form, in the sense that it is a collage, a mashing together, to find a meaning in the words of others. Undoubtedly, Hafiz makes sense, creates a story that leaves the reader thinking. But, it is lacking in the elements that made Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Gaskell’s North and South memorable – character development that allowed the reader to form bonds with the protagonist, a setting the reader could imagine themselves in, a conflict that becomes personal for the reader. Perhaps what I am getting at is that the Twitter novel does not allow a personal connection for the reader that the printed novel does, and maybe that is a result of the medium, or of the form itself. In any case, I did not feel the same way after finishing Hafiz as I did after finishing Jane Eyre – maybe that’s the goal of this type of novel, to subvert expectations and create a new feeling about literature and the way our stories are communicated.
Especially after closely studying the 19th Century novel, cell phone novels, the supposed modern transmutation of the traditional novel, is frankly shocking and disturbing. I get that they could be an outlet for young women leaving seemingly meaningless lives to let out their angst and freely discuss their feelings. I get that the plots are comfortably relatable, representative of reality. I get that it could help women with minimal opportunities to gain purpose, even if they are not looking for public recognition. And these are all good things, but isn’t the novel supposed to challenge society and reality? To take the reader away from their own life and into a more sophisticated and interesting world? Aren’t good novels supposed to be original, aesthetically pleasing and well written? I guess the answers to these questions lie in the fact that these “novels” are designed for and read by a completely different audience than the 19th Century novel.
In some ways, however, cell phone novels are actually similar to traditional novels. Just like 19th Century female authors created pseudonyms like “Currer Bell” and “George Eliot,” these cell phone novelists are creating pseudonyms, like “Mone” and “Purple.” The motive of not wanting to “bring unwanted attention” to her family that Mone states is consistent with 19th century motives. However, the difference is that 19th century female authors were forced to hide, sacrificing their identities so that they could publish works that exposed and challenged societal gender roles. It could be argued that these cell phone novelists are reversing these feminist efforts, writing stories in keeping with the oppression of women, trying as much as possible to conform to society and telling their readers stories that they already know. The sad reality is that these women still feel a need to conform to sexist female ideals, and they are not continuing Charlotte Bronte’s fight against traditional gender role conformity. I believe this easy-to-access genre of literature definitely has potential in our increasingly technological society, but by writing undisruptive plots, cell phone novels are definitely not furthering society in the way that 19th century, traditional novels do.
An early Brontë work- By Charlotte, written for and about sister Anne, featuring their dying mother.
Reading Gaskell, as well as the introduction to Jane Eyre impressed upon me the importance of family as inspiration for Charlotte’s writing. Seeing the exhibit provided primary source evidence for this dedication to family. Charlotte wrote (and illustrated) the book above for her sister when she was in her early teens. The story features Anne going on an adventure, only to return home in the end to be with her dying mother.
Just as Charlotte and her siblings, especially Branwell, wrote the Juvenilia to entertain each other and were inspired by each other, seeing Charlotte’s correspondence made it explicitly clear that Charlotte based Jane Eyre on parts of her own life. In a letter in the exhibit, Charlotte addresses the claim that Helen Burns was too good to be true. She explains in her letter that Helen is based on her dead sister Maria, who died while at school, and who in fact was so saintly that Charlotte omitted certain facts of her goodness in order to keep the story believable. Understanding how much of Jane Eyre is biographical and how Charlotte’s creative impulse was tied to her family was fascinating.
Note: this blog post is longer than 250 words–skip to the second paragraph if desired!
In “I [Love] Novels,” literature professor Satoko Kan states, “as a method, [cell-phone novel writing] leads to the empowerment of girls. But, in terms of content, I find it quite questionable, because it just reinforces norms that are popular in male-dominated culture.” This explanation seems vey reminiscent of Nancy Armstrong’s argument that novels like Jane Eyre uphold ideals of bourgeois individualism that privilege man over woman. Through toeing the line, writing as a woman yet recirculating an oppressive cultural ideology, female writers “became prominent novelists during the nineteenth century…and achieved the status of artists during the modern period” (Armstrong 7). I imagine Armstrong might find the cell-phone “method” itself problematic, too, given the emphasis on anonymity and writing under very fictionalized aliases; that said, it’s difficult to judge given the vast differences between American internet culture and that of Japan–such restricted agency as narrator may not reflect gender alone.
On a somewhat related note, the article quotes a critic of the new genre, who states, “this kind of empathy,” that which is generated by the angsty young woman’s cell-phone novel, “is largely different from the emotive response—the life-changing event—that reading a great novel can bring about. One tells you what you already know. Literature has the power to change the way you think.” Aside from the misconception that one cannot learn from writing that describes a world they “already know,” this claim raises a number of difficult questions: how does one recognize a “great novel” in a culture where attention spans are shorter and we can barely pry our fingers away from laptops and cell-phones? Is the lack of true labor and time spent writing these cell-phone novels the issue, or is the medium (mimicking texts) simply wholly inappropriate? The critic, after attending a panel on the topic, asserts that these “novels” are not literature at all, but “the offspring of an oral tradition”–which certainly applies to all writing of the Western tradition (which finds its roots in sung poetry). Ultimately, I believe creating overt hierarchies and distinctions may only further push the larger, “great” novels away from the average adult public. The overly reductive elevation of one literature over another literature (or writing, if we refuse to call it literature) might make novel-reading, in any form, the opera-going of the 22nd century.
Many of my favorite items from the exhibit were early works by Charlotte and her siblings, but I also found a framed letter addressed to William S. Williams, dated October 28, 1846, particularly compelling.
It’s a little tough to read (and it only shows one page!), so I went to the exhibit’s website for a transcription of the entire letter: http://www.themorgan.org/collection/charlotte-bronte/letters/1
Bronte writes to defend the originality of her own work and confirm the “reality” of Helen Burns as a character–one modeled after her own sister, in fact. Some at Williams’ firm, which published Jane Eyre, seem to have accused Bronte of pulling plot elements from other novels. Additionally, they cast doubt on the reality of Burns, who they apparently deem too good to be true.
Bronte’s response, in colloquial terms, is pretty sassy and fabulous; to the accusation of semi-plagiarism, Bronte writes, “Mr. Thackeray remarks that [Jane Eyre’s plot] is familiar to him; but having read comparatively few novels, I never chanced to meet with it, and I thought it original.” By the letter’s end, Bronte turns to ironic, self-deprecating comments, suggesting her “mere domestic novel will…seem trivial to men of large views and solid attainments.” This statement, which I can only imagine as scathing critique , seems to directly relate to our class’ ongoing discussion of the personal being political, as demonstrated in the work of Nancy Armstrong and Gayatri Spivak. Additionally, her letter truly reinforces the concept of Jane as a largely autobiographical character; it’s not hard to imagine her subtly but powerfully attacking a critic in a similar manner!
The photo below shows a first edition copy of Wuthering Heights and a first edition copy of Jane Eyre. I found this display at the exhibit really cool because on the copy of Wuthering Heights below the title, it says “by the author of Jane Eyre.” As we know today, Emily Brontë actually wrote Wuthering Heights, not Charlotte. Apparently Thomas Newby, who published Emily and Anne’s works in England tried to conflate the three Bells in order to capitalize on Jane Eyre’s success with the public. What surprised me was that literary critics were convinced that the same person wrote all the “Bell” novels. Some even insisted that they were actually written by a man, as was the case with William S. Williams of Smith, Elder & Co. who wrote, “if ‘Jane Eyre’ be the production of a woman- she must be a woman unsexed.” This further displayed to me the difference in time period between now and when these novels were published. Given today’s technology, any person with a smart phone would be able to discern who the author of a specific novel is (and would certainly be expected to if they were a critic), and it wouldn’t be so terribly shocking for that author to be a woman
After finishing Tess of the D’Urbervilles I wrestled with the ending of the novel and the image of Tess it seems to portray. Throughout the novel Tess is painted as a selfless young girl who would do anything for her family. Her mother and father knowingly sending her to the house of Alec D’Urberville, and she suffers through his bewildering harassment, and then at the end of the novel returns to his bed in order to feed and house her remaining family despite Tess trying time and time again to resist him in the latter half of the novel. When Angel comes back and sees Tess in her new finery, we lose Tess’s perspective completely and the rest of the novel is seen through several different points of view, including Angel’s and the innkeeper.’s We have no notion of what Tess is thinking or feeling. It is implied that Tess kills Alec out of shame, guilt, and giving into temptation. However I don’t agree with this reading of the novel. Tess has suffered considerably in her short life, and everything that Tess ever did was for the betterment of her own family. She did what was expected of a woman in her position at her time, and endured only sorrow as a result. The only choice she really was able to make herself was in her marriage to Angel. For Tess, seeing him finally come back to her after she has already sacrificed herself yet again for the good of her family was truly the last straw, and I don’t blame her for her rage. Alec then becomes an easy target, since he was the direct source of all of the sorrow in her life. At this point, it is too little too late to regain her freedom and she is sentenced to death. Instead of having Tess’s death be tragic and sad, it is almost predictable. It becomes the punch line to a cruel joke of the fallen woman story. In this last half of the novel, we lose the personality of Tess and only hear about what happens to her from outsiders looking in. Hardy phases us out, and makes Tess just another sad story instead of a character who’s thoughts and feelings we as readers have come to care about. Her dying is so ridiculously gothic it seems almost comical, and she becomes a bona fide sacrifice on the shrine of all of the fallen women. I believe that the there is room to interpret the ending of the novel as raising the question of whether or not there will always be “Tess’s” of the world and that a woman’s status is dependent on her perceived purity, faithfulness, and loyalty. This can be perceived as incredibly sexist of Hardy, but perhaps he is trying to convey a greater message that as a society we expect women to be not only pure, but good daughters, sisters, and wives. Tess is an example of the consequences of that pressure, and we as a society must look out for our women so that they do not fall victim to a similar way of thinking.