domenica, febbraio 22, 2009

Of cleverness and romance

Blew through most of Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë this weekend after finding it for 50 centimes whilst hung over, and having Charlotte Brontë on the brain whilst mulling over for the millionth time why she was so down on Jane Austen, and having Elizabeth Gaskell on the brain after last week's Thomas Hardy and wondering what he owed to her in terms of popular acceptance, if not style, vis à vis all that there 'social realism'. Irresistible. It's these stunning, serendipitous shopping conquests that keep me going to the used bookstores instead of messing about with Amazon. It's a delightfully written autobiography, but more on that when my punishing lifestyle (from now on, it may be taken as read that Monday mornings feel absolutely tragic, and weekends feel three hours long) lets me finish the fucker.

And more on the Austen/Brontë split. I had always assumed that the reason Charlotte Brontë found Jane Austen so tedious was that Austen isn't romantic enough, which seems a strange thought now when our screens are perpetually littered with lousy, vaseline-lensed, ladywank fantasy adaptations of Pride and Prejudice et al. But Austen isn't romantic relative to the Brontë sisters, or to Charlotte's big hero Sir Walter Scott; relative to all that, Austen narrates these perfectly believable, self-contained stories wherein the supernatural doesn't intervene and women get by as best they can, and if the lead women always marry men richer than they are at the end it's because Austen chose stories where that makes sense, rather than nudging her characters into acting artificially.

So that's what I thought Charlotte Brontë meant by calling Jane Austen's novels 'more real than true', and why I thought she was being unfair; to me, and to legions of modern fans, I don't doubt, a big part of the charm of Jane Austen's novels is that they're amusing and interesting without seeming artificial in their construction, that once you sink into the world of an Austen novel there are no events or proclamations that seem to interrupt the flow of things making sense.

But now, having gone through most of the autobiography, which is full of Brontë's letters, which are much less wordy and high-falutin' than her books - very engaging, very affectionate, and rather tart - the objection seems a little more clear in a couple of ways.

First, on top of her charms in terms of creating a seamless literary universe, the way Austen puts words together, the sentences she makes - I can't remember who pointed this out to me, but whoever it was was dead right - are very, very nice and characteristic sorts of sentences. This technical skill as a sentence maker extends to how nicely her books are constructed as a whole. So nice, and so consistent, that perhaps writers like Charlotte Brontë, who admired writers like Sir Walter Scott so much, might see them as trite; they use so few words, comparatively, to get an idea across, and the nice symmetrical structure perhaps could seem too facile - perhaps it would all seem flippant rather than substantial. Consider three books I love; first, the first paragraph of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

It goes on to introduce us to our heroine, and her miserable life at her aunt's, and the book goes on for a good long bit before we meet our principals, Rochester not coming in until a third of the way through - a breath of the existence of the uncle and the cousins not until towards the middle and end respectively.

And of Ivanhoe:

In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. The remains of this extensive wood are still to be seen at the noble seats of Wentworth, of Warncliffe Park, and around Rotherham. Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles during the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.

And there follows more historical background, and our introduction to the swineherd Gurth and the jester Wamba; the book runs on for nearly its half until we meet all the main characters.

And of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

By the end of the first chapter, we have some idea of every major character in the book, and they stay with us until the end.

Can you spot the difference?

Now, reading Brontë's letters in Gaskell's book, I see she had very clean powers of construction, rather cleaner than are evident in Jane Eyre (I love Jane Eyre's construction, but I love it like I love a baggy, bulging Hundertwasser building, and not like I love beautiful snowflakes). And if she had chosen to - if that had been her fixed idea of great literature throughout her life - I have no doubt she could have written something as tidy and symmetrical as Pride and Prejudice. But she didn't and it wasn't. So, in that case, what's left to do except hate Jane Austen's books? They're a different sort of beast altogether - a different, sparer philosophy of construction - that must either be deeply admired for its cleverness and simplicity, or dismissed by a Romantic as 'more real than true'. From a Romantic perspective they just look too easy - too effortless - to seem as though they hit on something fundamental about our human nature.

And second: yes, maybe Brontë disliked Austen's books for not being romantic enough, but there's a reason for that I hadn't fully appreciated before, in terms of Romance and conventions. Gaskell shows Brontë to be, politically speaking, religiously speaking, conventional - not a bigot, not close-minded, close emotionally to Dissenters, close physically to Luddites, but herself deeply attached to the continuity of the power structures of her father's church and the English political establishment. I can't but feel that for a kind, gentle, unbigoted person to maintain such close attachment to conventional power structures, a little fantasy is necessary - fantastical, romantic notions of history, serendipity, 'unnatural' villainy, and God's/the supernatural's occasional intervention in the blatant unfairness of human life and relationships under these power structures. Which is fine. I enjoy that sort of fantasy when it's well-written.

But those sorts of measures were things Austen ignored completely. Her endings were happy, happy enough to lend themselves well to endless revolting films execs bust their balls trying to turn into bodice-rippers. But they were happy because her heroes and heroines, sometimes through efforts of incredible but banal communicative strength, managed to make each other understand the depth of their emotions across social pitfalls no less steep for being ridiculous and artificial. They're books about human effort and narrow escapes from human misery due to human social folly; human and folly always being the keyword.

There's no divine intervention; there're no ghosts or madwomen or kings riding in and telling everybody what to do, there are no heartless villains. They're just human books in an elegant, simple, symmetrical format; all deeply conscious that no force except self-knowledge and force of character will make things work out in the end in an unfair and profane world. I imagine they would seem almost profane, in the mercilessness of their observational powers, to a writer whose convictions were romantic and conventional.

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