Leslie Stephen, "Charlotte Bronte"

Just a few choice bits from the latest essay I’ve been editing for my forthcoming anthology, Leslie Stephen’s piece on Charlotte Bronte from the Cornhill Magazine. First, an apt description of the uneasy balance required of either reviewer or critic between sympathy and analysis, charity and judgment:

Undoubtedly it is a very difficult task to be alternately witness and judge; to feel strongly, and yet to analyse coolly; to love every feature in a familiar face, and yet to decide calmly upon its intrinsic ugliness or beauty. To be an adequate critic is almost to be a contradiction in terms; to be susceptible to a force, and yet free from its influence; to be moving with the stream, and yet to be standing on the bank.

Stephen’s own analysis of CB does, I think, display something like the desired balance. Here, for example, he proposes a standard against which to measure her overall achievement:

Miss Brontë, as her warmest admirers would grant, was not and did not in the least affect to be a philosophical thinker. And because a great writer, to whom she has been gratuitously compared, is strong just where she is weak, her friends have an injudicious desire to make out that the matter is of no importance, and that her comparative poverty of thought is no injury to her work. There is no difficulty in following them so far as to admit that her work is none the worse for containing no theological or philosophical disquisitions, or for showing no familiarity with the technicalities of modern science and metaphysics. But the admission by no means follows that her work does not suffer very materially by the comparative narrowness of the circle of ideas in which her mind habitually revolved. Perhaps if she had been familiar with Hegel or Sir W. Hamilton, she would have intruded undigested lumps of metaphysics, and introduced vexatious allusions to the philosophy of identity or to the principle of the excluded middle. But it is possible, also, that her conceptions of life and the world would have been enriched and harmonised, and that, without giving us more scientific dogmas, her characters would have embodied more fully the dominating ideas of the time. There is no province of inquiry–historical, scientific, or philosophical–from which the artist may not derive useful material; the sole question is whether it has been properly assimilated and transformed by the action of the poetic imagination. By attempting to define how far Miss Brontë’s powers were in fact thus bounded, we shall approximately decide her place in the great hierarchy of imaginative thinkers.

I assume, though I stand ready to be corrected, that the “great writer” to whom he refers at the beginning of this passage is George Eliot (if anyone knows of any particularly forceful contemporary comparison of CB and GE, I’d be happy to be pointed in the right direction).[*see update below] Stephen concludes that CB’s place is “a very high one,” but he also has a standard for literary and novelistic greatness that includes linking one’s particular genius to broader philosophical and historical insights, and on his view, CB’s failure to make such a connection keeps her from reaching the very highest eminence. His main example here is his analysis of Paul Emanuel in Villette. Stephen considers M. Paul a great triumph, a wholly compelling and believable character, but he finds his “intense individuality” limits his literary significance:

He is a real human being who gave lectures at a particular date in a pension at Brussels. We are as much convinced of that fact as we are of the reality of Miss Brontë herself; but the fact is also a presumption that he is not one of those great typical, characters, the creation of which is the highest triumph of the dramatist or novelist. There is too much of the temporary and accidental–too little of the permanent and essential.

Seen from an intellectual point of view, placed in his due relation to the great currents of thought and feeling of the time, we should have been made to feel the pathetic and humorous aspects of M. Emanuel’s character, and he might have been equally a living individual and yet a type of some more general idea. The philosopher might ask, for example, what is the exact value of unselfish heroism guided by narrow theories or employed on unworthy tasks; and the philosophic humourist or artist might embody the answer in a portrait of M. Emanuel considered from a cosmic or a cosmopolitan point of view. From the lower standpoint accessible to Miss Brontë he is still most attractive; but we see only his relations to the little scholastic circle, and have no such perception as the greatest writers would give us of his relations to the universe, or, as the next order would give, of his relations to the great world without.

There is much to be said, of course, about the assumption that typicality is the mark of greatness, including about how far this standard is gendered. But not least because it is currently unfashionable to consider whether one kind of thing, one literary approach, is in fact better (higher, more significant, more admirable–choose your terms) than another, it is interesting to see a clear, temperate attempt to make just such an evaluative comparison. And Stephen is eloquent in his appreciation of CB:

We cannot sit at her feet as a great teacher, nor admit that her view of life is satisfactory or even intelligible. But we feel for her as for a fellow-sufferer who has at least felt with extraordinary keenness the sorrows and disappointments which torture most cruelly the most noble virtues, and has clung throughout her troubles to beliefs which must in some form or other be the guiding lights of all worthy actions. She is not in the highest rank amongst those who have fought their way to a clearer atmosphere, and can help us to clearer conceptions; but she is amongst the first of those who have felt the necessity of consolation, and therefore stimulated to more successful efforts.

I share something of Stephen’s prejudice in favour of those who “help us to clearer conceptions” (though fiction is often most celebrated today for its ability to confound and complicate moral and philosophical questions, there does seem some advantage to working through the fog to what Stephen calls “some more comprehensible and harmonious solution”). CB resolves some of her thornier problems by highly artificial means, as Stephen points out: “What would Jane Eyre have done, and what would our sympathies have been, had she found that Mrs. Rochester had not been burnt in the fire at Thornfield? That is rather an awkward question.” Indeed. Overall, he sees her unable to sustain a consistent answer to what I think he rightly identifies as a persistent problem in her major novels (as in so many others from the time): “Where does the unlawful pressure of society upon the individual begin, and what are the demands which it may rightfully make upon our respect? . . . She is between the opposite poles of duty and happiness, and cannot see how to reconcile their claims, or even–for perhaps no one can solve that, or any other great problem exhaustively–how distinctly to state the question at issue.” Notoriously, her more philosophical contemporary would insist on the primacy of duty, a position that has cost her the devotion of many feminist readers today (Lee Edwards, for instance, who in her essay “Women, Energy, and Middlemarch,” famously declared that the novel could no longer be “one of the books of [her] life”).

One more passage, though for now I have no time to add commentary on it:

The specific peculiarity of Miss Brontë seems to be the power of revealing to us the potentiality of intense passions lurking behind the scenery of everyday life. Except in the most melodramatic–which is also the weakest–part of Jane Eyre, we have lives almost as uneventful as those of Miss Austen, and yet charged to the utmost with latent power. A parson at the head of a school-feast somehow shows himself as a “Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood;” a professor lecturing a governess on composition is revealed as a potential Napoleon; a mischievous schoolboy is obviously capable of developing into a Columbus or a Nelson; even the most commonplace natural objects, such as a row of beds in a dormitory, are associated and naturally associated with the most intense emotions. Miss Austen makes you feel that a tea-party in a country parsonage may be as amusing as the most brilliant meeting of cosmopolitan celebrities; and Miss Brontë that it may display characters capable of shaking empires and discovering new worlds. The whole machinery is in a state of the highest electric tension, though there is no display of thunder and lightning to amaze us.

Update: Today as I was editing Walter Bagehot’s 1860 essay on George Eliot, I was reminded that there is a fair amount of comparison of CB and GE there, though not really addressing the specific grounds of philosophical thinking. A brief example:

[In George Eliot’s novels], there is nothing of the Rembrandt-like style of Miss Brontë: the light flows far more equally over her pictures; we find nothing of the irregular emphasis with which Currer Bell’s characters are delineated, or of the strong subjective colouring which tinges all her scenes. George Eliot’s imagination, like Miss Brontë’s, loves to go to the roots of character, and portrays best by broad direct strokes; but there the likeness between them, so far as there is any, ends. The reasons for the deeper method and for the directer style are probably very different in the two cases. Miss Brontë can scarcely be said to have had any large instinctive knowledge of human nature:–her own life and thoughts were exceptional,–cast in a strongly-marked but not very wide mould; her imagination was solitary; her experience was very limited; and her own personality tinged all she wrote. She “made out” the outward life and manner of her dramatis personæ by the sheer force of her own imagination; and as she always imagined the will and the affections as the substance and centre of her characters, those of her delineations which are successful at all are deep, and their manner broad.
George Eliot’s genius is exceedingly different. There is but little of Miss Austen in her, because she has studied in a very different and much simpler social world; but there is in the springs of her genius at least more of Miss Austen than of Miss Brontë. Her genial, broad delineations of human life have more perhaps of the case of Fielding than of Miss Austen, or of any of the manners-painters of the present day. For these imagine life only as it appeals in a certain dress and manner, which are, as we said, a kind of artificial medium for their art,–life as affected by drawing-rooms. George Eliot has little, if any, of their capacity of catching the undertones and allusive complexity of this sort of society. But though she has observed the phases of a more natural and straightforward sphere of life, she draws her external life from observation, instead of imagining it, like Miss Brontë, out of the heart of the characters she wishes to paint.

Bagehot’s is a tremendously interesting essay. It contains, among other choice bits, his [in]famous remark about Maggie’s relationship with Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss being an “enthusiastic homage to physiological law, and seems to us as untrue to nature as it is unpleasant and indelicate”–a remark which is, in context, less prudish and more philosophically significant that it seems in its sound-bite form–but that’s a subject for another post altogether!

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