Category Archives: Bronte

Bookery: A Quick Skim of Mary Barton (and a touch of Bronte)

Ladies and gentlemen, I have done the impossible: I have read, or rather skimmed, a 500-page-book in two days, but before I get into that, I have completed The Tenent of Wildfell Hall and must say that the conclusion is significantly different from other “Fallen women” novels in that Helen is redeemed into society’s fold. Somehow, I think this has more to do with the fact that the blame was clearly placed on Huntingdon than the fact that she willingly revealed her duality to Gilbert, who unveiled it to society and decided to marry her, thereby becoming the heroic ideal husband and reinforcing the princess-in-the-tower mentality that only men can rescue a girl trapped in a run-down tower (or manor, in this case) who has estranged herself from her husband for the sake of maintaining the morality of her infant son. Okay, the whole “princess-in-the-tower” thing does not involve all of that, but seriously… it kind of reminds me of Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty sans the absolute purity, the harem of tiny men, the glass slipper, and the giant witch/dragon (COOL).

And now, cue rant mode… despite the fact that I have a separate blog for that.

The ending of Mary Barton pissed the living hell out of me, and here is why: the entire novel, like many Victorian novels, involves the precarious morality of the title character who is influenced by her Aunt Esther’s ideas of becoming a lady of society. It is later revealed that Esther was the mistress of an officer, bore a child who fell ill, and, in a failed attempt to save the child’s life, becomes a prostitute. As if all of this were not enough, Esther returns to be assaulted verbally and physically by John Barton (Mary’s father) due to his blame of her for the death of other Mary Barton (John’s wife). She surfaces at several other points, mainly in relation to Mary’s morality and why she has the immoral thought to (God forbid!) raise her position in society (except that the guy she had eyes for was a complete douche who never really wanted to marry her and who thought they “could be happy enough without marriage” (169). Esther returns at several other points in the narrative, first to see Jem and notify him of the danger Mary is in, then to visit Mary herself, but not as a prostitute. No, in order to go before Mary, she must provide a moral facade, and she chooses to be “Mrs. Fergusson” of “Angel Street,” the innocent wife of a mechanic (299).

Now, relying on Jem for help was one thing since Jem had prior to professed his love for Mary, and disguising herself was pretty inventive, too (it also fits in well with my whole duality thing). What I absolutely cannot stand is the way Gaskell builds up the conclusion for Esther’s salvation (Mary and Jem, now married, and Jem, having unveiled Esther’s true profession, resolve to take Esther in and remind her of her morality) only to literally throw the whole thing in the gutter and leave it there to die. After searching for Esther, they find her by chance (three cheers for coincidence!) as she wanders to the place of her better days to die. They take her upstairs, chuck her on the bed, and wait for the inevitable end, and when it comes, I could not BELIEVE that it was not nearly as moving as John Barton’s. I mean, come on… he shot a rich guy! …granted that guy was a total jack-ass and an unidentified threat to his daughter’s morality, but that’s beside the point! To make matters even worse, they bury Esther with John in the same grave and inscribe it not with the names of the deceased but a very fitting Bible verse.

Ultimately, the conclusion says that the good will be rewarded, the bad will be punished, and the fallen woman can never ever be redeemed in the eyes of society even if there are people willing to do it. She can’t even have her own grave that tells of her redeeming points, something like, “Here lies Esther ‘Butterfly’ Barton-Fergusson, Devoted Mother, Mistress, and Wife… Sort of.” (I know that would never happen in the Victorian period… trust me.) It also equates the crimes of murder and prostitution in a sense, but to me, John is elevated above Esther in that he is provided with the forgiveness of the victim’s father in his dying moments and is even held by the mourning father as he passes from one world to the next. Esther cries herself to death, and after the funeral, everyone lives happily ever after… in Canada. The end.

The feminist in me is very frustrated. I’m almost afraid to read “Lizzie Leigh,” but the show (and the thesis) must go on!

~Foreverpaper

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Filed under Books, British, Bronte, Gaskell, Literature, Progress, Thesis

Bookery: Further Progress on Villette

Having gotten to the 253rd page of Villette, I feel an additional progress report is necessary. There is still heavy interplay between the duality of hot (M. Paul) and cold (Lucy Snowe, who at times herself experiences warmth and thereby embodies a quasi-dual self), and the plot, like many Victorian novels, relies heavily on coincidence. I will make it a point not to spoil this particular device, but suffice to say that characters thought absent for many pages may return in a different guise than initially introduced. Rather than making the plot contrived, I feel it only augments my gradually growing appreciation for this work, as does the constant utilization of secrecy by both the narrator and by other characters, which contributes to the overall suspense generated by the novel. Such is the case particularly with Ginevra, whom I suspect of some transgressive behavior and have resolved to keep an eye on as I continue progressing through the novel.

Located between the two extremes is Dr. John, who possesses neither fire nor ice but simply “warmth.” He appears to be more temperate and is constantly cheery. With each passing page, I grow to envy his optimism due to circumstances in my own life that will likely wind up in a rant on my other blog. In the words of Dr. John,

“Happiness is the cure–a cheerful mind the preventative. Cultivate both” (Bronte 250).

In giving Lucy the agency to correct her own health, as indicated by the word “cultivate,” Dr. John in some sense deviates from the traditional Victorian view of women, or my recollection of it, in that he asserts his belief that Lucy can indeed control herself and passions (and she does in most instances). The quote also unveils the book’s psychological nature, as Lucy attains a sort of “brain fever” and constantly provides readers with glimpses of her psychology. Phrenology also functions to enhance this in that it provides an outlet for the speculation of another character’s temperament. Unfortunately, that little relates to the great Victorian Female Dual Self project as it now stands.

It goes without saying that the amount of French passages in the novel is still appalling, but one adjusts to them with the correct amount of patience. Nonetheless, I find myself longing to return to Villette despite the linguistic barriers that exist between us.

~Foreverpaper

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Filed under Books, British, Bronte, Literature, Progress, Thesis, Victorian, Villette

Bookery: Progress on Villette

I am in the middle of reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villete, which thus far centers on the first-person narrator Lucy Snowe and her travels in the fictional metropolis from which the novel gets its title. I just recently finished Shirley, which was very much a slow read for the first 200 pages but which soon picked up and became (in my eyes) a relatively good piece of work.

I am hoping that the same is the case for this novel, as it has yet to pick up and has a vexing amount of French passages that require me to give constant attention to the annotations at the back of the edition. Also mildly irritating is the fact that, thus far, I have seen little of the female dual self as transgression, although I have seen some character inconsistencies that could be considered transgressive, particularly Madame Beck’s androgyny and Lucy’s extreme coldness (which, according to a note in the back of the edition, counters what her first name is supposed to connote). The startling lack of post-its I have used in the first 100 pages leads me to believe that I will likely not use this novel in the great thesis of doom but will instead be nothing more than a pleasure read in the end of things. Nonetheless, I have resolved to enjoy it and all of its Victorian splendor to my utmost and will continue moving towards its conclusion with as much vigor as exam week can spare.

~Foreverpaper

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Filed under Books, British, Bronte, Literature, Thesis, Victorian, Villette