Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Charlotte Brontë's supposed sense-of-humour-failure.

Stevie Davies' excellent introduction to her selection of the Brontë poems begins with "First, their names have become a kind of sentimental public property, and interest in their nature as opposed to their work takes on the character of an assault"; and she goes on to evoke the crowds tramping through Haworth parsonage. But, she then goes on to demonstrate rather convincingly how commentary on the work benefits from thinking about the nature.

Take, for instance, Charlotte's mislaid sense of humour, the one she had as a child but which goes missing in her novels.

It's an additional burden for people with singularly unhappy lives that they end up being accused of being humourless as well. But we have the materials, Charlotte being a writer and all, to look into this a bit more deeply.

First, let's point out that the transformation - because there certainly is a transformation - is gradual. The Angrian books, and notably late ones like Stancliffe's Hotel, are often pretty funny. The Professor has humour too, especially in the person of the hero's sarcastic friend (I'm sorry, I've mislaid my copy), but now this is pushed to the edges of the novel. "I was glad of it": there's still a pertness in the young Jane Eyre. Compare this with the deep personal misery manifested in her poems around 1845, when things went wrong with M. Heger. By the time of Villette, Charlotte had suffered a trio of bereavements that together had torn out the heart of her home, certainly all its gaiety. Yes, it's the gaiety that goes, not the humour. Stevie Davies shows that this transformation is also the upsurge of a terribly restraining Reason.

But even in Villette she could still portray the lively give-and-take between Lucy and Ginevra (that vitally leavening presence). Lucy Snowe is as cold as her name, in many ways; the book is largely in her control, she possesses the author because in large part she is the author. But she isn't one-dimensional, and moreover she doesn't have absolute control. "Leave sunny imaginations hope" - isn't there, even in those last lines, a certain humour of contrariety, though it is coloured black?

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