Friday, March 21, 2014

How Charlotte Bronte Ruined My Expecation In Romance

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I love Charlotte Bronte. She's been one of my favorite writers since the age of twelve or thirteen, when I first read Jane Eyre. I love her writing in a strange sort of way - I don't always like how the plots develop, I don't always like her characters, I'm occasionally uncertain if I like how she portrays people. But overall, I love how she puts words together. I love how she writes from the perspective of her characters. I love how she describes emotion and passion and trying to balance between logic and emotional thinking.

In many ways, reading Bronte at a young age shaped how I thought about the world. Of, course, I was also interested in her writing because it aligned in a way that matched aspects of my thinking. So, it's uncertain if Bronte shaped my thinking more or if my thinking matched Bronte's heroines thoughts. Jury's out. Regardless, I'm a fan.

But it's not without its drawbacks.

Namely, Charlotte Bronte's writing is full of a lot of passionate suffering. Everyone suffers while in love and nobody really enjoys it. While over-dramatic high school me enjoyed this (because I found having crushes to be most inconvenient and troublesome, while also being heavenly and hellish), I now find it to be perhaps not the healthiest way to think about love and relationships. Aside from the fact that falling in love with a married man who keeps his distraught, unstable wife in the attic is not exactly a good thing (though, as has been argued, putting poor Bertha in an asylum at that time likely would have been far worse), posing love and logic against one another is the makings of trouble for a reader already captured in a Cartesian, guilt-filled mindset. Jane's angst about falling in love with her employer was probably the last thing my already angst-filled mind needed. But damn was it comforting.

In Jane's longing and romance, I found a character who had a justice complex, a small, quiet soul who had been told not to speak out and found herself at odds with those she was surrounded by. She struggled with her own thoughts and her internal perceptions of herself and was likely the first female character I ever strongly identified with. She also fell in love with someone she believed she could never have. In my state of falling for fictional characters and experiencing naive teenage crushes, I empathized with this an inordinate amount.

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Continuing on into my later years, my I found myself always going back to Jane Eyre as a book of comfort when I felt down. For a few years I read it over Valentine's Day as a pick-me-up to keep from getting down about "Singles Awareness Day," to inspire myself that even things that seemed impossible could happen, and that falling for unobtainable people was a trend that even 19th century women experienced (which for the "I'm the only one who feels this way and knows what I'm going through" mindset I had in my early college years was incredibly beneficial).

The problem now is that every time I reread Jane Eyre or Bronte's other books, I'm confronted by these emotional wallops. Either it's through recalling what it felt like to read these books at a certain point in my life, or it's a recollection of how I felt realizing how convoluted emotions could be or it was through recognizing how I was experiencing - or perceived I was experiencing - such things in my own life. When I read Villette, I struggled through it the second time because the emotional impact was badly timed. Recently, I read The Professor and, having not read Bronte for a while (well, this Bronte sister - I'd recently reread Wuthering Heights, but that's a different story), I'd forgotten just the way in which she'd expressed love and emotion in her characters. Take, for example, this excerpt from Jane Eyre:
...My eyes were drawn involuntarily to his face; I could not keep their lids under control: they would rise, and the irids would fix on him. I looked, and had an acute pleasure in looking - a precious yet poignant pleasure: pure gold, with a steely point of agony: a pleasure like what the thirst-perishing man might feel who knows the well to which he has crept is poisoned, and yet stoops and drinks divine draughts nevertheless (Bronte 163).
Not only is Bronte's writing effective for me, the scenes and events that Bronte incorporates are even more so. I irrationally love the part in Jane Eyre where Mr. Rochester disguises himself as an old woman fortune teller to find out whether or not Jane is in love with him. In The Professor, there is a scene where the main character, William Crimsworth, stumbles across his sweetheart, Frances, in the cemetery. Considering Frances is mourning the loss of her aunt, is in deep need of separation, and has just been sent away from her place of study and employment by a jealous schoolmistress who is also in love with Crimsworth. This scene seems like something out of a daydream, filling in a moment when one needs empathy and love most and having a loved one appear out of thin air. Again, it's hard to say whether I think similarly to Bronte or whether her writing influences the sort of daydreams I have, but when I've had down times, I've imagined scenes very similar to this.

The deep, spiritual bonds that often accompany Bronte's relationships, attractions that are based on some certain mindset or philosophical nature, not on appearances, is also compelling. Add that on to Jane Eyre's longing to be treated like an equal by Mr. Rochester and Bronte's plot lines about overcoming class and societal expectations, and I find her stories absolutely riveting.

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However, they also might be dangerous for me. Considering her novel affected me so deeply at such a young age, I'm concerned that it's built me up for a yearning to have some passionate, deep relationship that must overcome massive hurdles and require cross-dressing to be fulfilled. I definitely desired this when I was younger. But now, if this turned out to be the case, I don't think I'd handle the drama very well (then again, maybe I'd be fine. Either way, wives locked up in the attic are definitely out).  And on the other hand, I wouldn't mind being an absolutely non-dramatic relationship. If I'm happy and my partner is happy, and we have the most boring love story on the planet, that would be totally fine with me. So I've come to this point in finally realizing that high school me had a different mindset and focus on romance than I do now. Would I love being whisked away on a romantic adventure? Absolutely, as long as it doesn't involve utter heartbreak and me almost starving to death on the heaths of England. But I'd be perfectly content with something a hell of a lot more simpler and less... well, Gothic novel-y. The love of my life will likely not show up to comfort me in a cemetery in a time of need. That's okay. I'm not sure how I'd feel about that anyway (it would really depend on the moment of need. And why I'm in a cemetery).

(Also, Google searching images for Gothic Romance gets lots of vampire art. Just an FYI.)

Regardless, I will always love Charlotte Bronte's writing and I will always find a place of relevance for her stories and her views. And most importantly, I will put equality (and men who put aside gender norms to impress their loves) first.

On a side note, I recently discovered that Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South and Cranford, was a friend of Charlotte Bronte's and her biographer. After reading North and South, this makes sense to me - there is something a bit similar in their approach to emotion and characterization. Oh how amazing it would have been to see these two chatting. Anyway, I highly recommend North and South and I'm hoping to read Cranford soon. Because Gaskell is another one of those rare, amazing writers who can back so much emotion into a handful of words.

And on one last random note, I'm writing this post mostly because I'm dressing up as Charlotte Bronte for a party my roommate Sarah and I are hosting called the Dead Writer's Party. A local Irish bar used to team up with the Loft Literary Center and host this around Halloween, but it was cancelled this year, so Sarah and I are throwing our own. Because that's how we roll. I'm trying to get the Bronte bun just right and I'm hoping it's at least close...

Citations from:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Bantam Classics, 1981.

4 comments:

  1. If you're getting your Gaskell fix, I must recommend Wives and Daughters! (Though, be warned: its romance is wildly unrealistic as well.) I either love or leave Gaskell, but I love North and South, Cranford, and Wives and Daughters. Just something else for your reading list . . . :)

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    1. Aw, fantastic! I'll have to get my hands on a copy of that as soon as possible - it's spring, I could do with some wildly unrealistic romance plots. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  2. Google Doodle honoring Charlotte Brontë on her 198th Birthday.

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    1. That's awesome! Thanks for sharing!

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