Sunday, October 19, 2014

"I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

A portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850

A couple of weeks ago Filmi Girl wrote a post on the recent Bollywood release Bang Bang in which she describes Hrithik Roshan's character as "the perfect fantasy of the invulnerable hero who’s actually vulnerable, needing to be saved by the heroine." Perhaps this "perfect fantasy" also explains the timeless appeal of Edward Fairfax Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847).

Rochester is a troubled and troubling character. There's no way to talk about why without discussing key plot points, so if you are one of the few people who has never read Jane Eyre (as I was until last month), be forewarned that spoilers follow.

"Happiness is irrevocably denied me." Rochester is physically powerful and emotionally mercurial, a dangerous combination made still more so by his rejection of conventional morality. (He can get away with rejecting it, of course, because he is a wealthy lord.) Jane Eyre describes him as "severe," "moody," "sullen," "grim," "fractious," "morose," "stern," "sardonic," "gloomy," and compares him to a "wild beast." But he also behaves at times with "gentlemanlike affability" and "contentment"; after dinner, and a few glasses of wine, he can even be "genial" and "more cheering than the brightest fire."

Jane is a diminutive and introspective young woman who, at 19, is half Rochester's age. He calls her "little girl" or "Little Jane"; she calls him, only half in jest and even after they have declared their love for one another, "my master," and tells him "I like to serve you, sir, and obey you." [1] (Early in the book she calls herself "habitually obedient." [2])

After they are engaged, they partake in a strange, almost sadomasochistic ritual:
He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as "love" and "darling" on his lips: the best words at my service were "provoking puppet," "malicious elf," "sprite," "changeling," &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. [3]
Charlotte Brontë drew on figures in her own life to people her fiction. The Professor (1857) and Villette (1853) transmuted her unrequited love for a married schoolmaster; Shirley (1849) featured characters so recognizable that the real-life models themselves bragged about their appearance in the book (even though the portraits were unflattering). After having read Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), it's hard to escape the suspicion that Rochester is at least in part a combination of her stern, fierce, forbidding, emotionally volatile father Patrick, and her playful, teasing, if at times annoying, brother Branwell. Also like Branwell, Rochester drinks, at times to excess, is irreligious, and has had affairs (and perhaps an illegitimate child); also like Patrick, Rochester is fiercely jealous, loses his sight, and then has it partially restored by the treatments of "an eminent oculist." [4] It's not for nothing, I suspect, that Jane Eyre is subtitled "An Autobiography," which makes this reader feel queasy about the dynamic of dominance and submission between Rochester and Jane.

The rescue fantasy. Rochester is not only mad, bad, and dangerous to know, he needs rescuing: from a deranged wife, from his emotional and physical wounds, and from himself. Jane, of course, is all too aware of his faults, but believes that he can change:
He was proud, sardonic, harsh to inferiority of every description. In my secret soul I knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity to many others. He was moody, too unaccountably so....But I believed that his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality (I say former, for now he seemed corrected of them) had their source in some cruel cross of fate. I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged. I thought there were excellent materials in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled. [5]
The idea that Jane can save Rochester from himself recurs throughout the novel. The very first time Jane and Rochester meet, he is riding recklessly. He takes a bad spill, sprains his ankle, and to recapture and remount his horse must lean on Jane. Later, it is Jane who rouses a sleeping Rochester from a burning bed; still later, after he has been blinded and maimed, she becomes his "prop and guide." [6]

It is Rochester's vulnerability, as well as his strength, that appeals to Jane. And it is only when he acknowledges that vulnerability that he is finally worthy of becoming her husband. But Rochester's helplessness and dependence come to feel strangely like wish-fulfillment on Jane's part: see, reader, he does need me!

"Such a martyrdom would be monstrous": After Jane discovers the truth about Rochester's wife and flees across the storm-swept moor, she finds refuge with a clergyman, St John Rivers, and his sisters. St John (pronounced "sinjun") decides that it is his mission is to convert Hindus to Christianity, and after he has known Jane for some time he asks her to accompany him to India—as his wife.

Jane is prepared to go with him, but refuses his offer of marriage; instead, she wants them to continue to live together as sister and brother. But St John is afraid of scandal. Or so he claims; but Jane will not agree to a marriage where there is no love or attraction, at least on her side:
'It is what I want,' he said, speaking to himself; 'it is just what I want....we must be married. I repeat it: there is no other way; and undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes.'

'I scorn your idea of love,' I could not help saying, as I rose up and stood before him, leaning my back against the rock. 'I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer: yes, St. John, and I scorn you when you offer it.' [7]
This scene may tie in with another incident from Charlotte's life. In July 1846 she wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey to deny a rumour that she was engaged to the Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been her father's curate for the past year:
A cold faraway sort of civility are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls.  I could by no means think of mentioning such a rumour to him even as a joke. It would make me the laughing-stock of himself and his fellow curates for half a year to come.  They regard me as an old maid, and I regard them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow, and unattractive specimens of the coarser sex. [8]
Jane describes St John as both "cold" and "scrupulously polite." Could St John, often thought to have been based on the missionary Henry Martyn and on Ellen's brother Henry Nussey (who proposed to Charlotte in 1839), have also been modelled in part on Nicholls? And if so, could Nicholls have made an overture to Charlotte in 1846 that she rebuffed, and concealed from her family and acquaintances?

St John is relentless in his pursuit of marriage to Jane, and she almost yields to him. Nicholls, too, was evidently not a man easily discouraged. Whether or not he had developed a romantic interest in Charlotte as early as 1846, it seems that she never treated him with any partiality. Nonetheless, in December 1852 he formally proposed:
He stopped in the passage: he tapped: like lightning it flashed on me what was coming. He entered—he stood before me. What his words were—you can guess; his manner—you can hardly realize—nor can I forget it—Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently yet with difficulty—he made me for the first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response. The spectacle of one ordinarily so statue-like—thus trembling, stirred, and overcome gave me a kind of strange shock. He spoke of sufferings he had borne for months—of sufferings he could endure no longer—and craved leave for some hope. I could only entreat him to leave me then and promise a reply on the morrow.

...When he was gone I immediately went to Papa—and told him what had taken place. Agitation and anger disproportionate to the occasion ensued—...Papa worked himself into a state not to be trifled with—the veins on his temples started up like whip-cord—and his eyes became suddenly blood-shot—I made haste to promise that Mr. Nicholls should on the morrow have a distinct refusal. [9]
Nicholls immediately resigned his curacy. Charlotte wrote to Ellen a few days later that while she was dismayed by her father's furious response and the monetary grounds for his objections to the match, that did not mean that she was looking with any more kindness on Nicholls' offer:
Mr. N. must never expect me to reciprocate the feeling he had expressed...My own objections arise from sense of incongruity and uncongeniality in feelings, tastes—principles. [10]
But something radically changed Charlotte's view of marriage to Nicholls over the next year or so. He continued to write to her, visited the neighborhood of Haworth Parsonage in January 1854, and by April he and Charlotte were engaged. Her announcement of this event to Ellen is tinged with trepidation and sadness:
...all I learnt [about Mr. Nicholls] inclined me to esteem and, if not love—at least affection—Still Papa was very—very hostile—bitterly unjust. I told Mr. Nicholls the great obstacles that lay in his way. He has persevered—The result of this his last visit is—that Papa’s consent is gained—that his respect, I believe is won—for Mr. Nicholls has in all things proved himself disinterested and forbearing. He has shewn too that while his feelings are exquisitely keen—he can freely forgive. Certainly I must respect him—nor can I withold from him more than mere cool respect. In fact, dear Ellen, I am engaged.

...What seemed at one time—impossible—is now arranged—and Papa begins really to take a pleasure in the prospect. For myself—dear Ellen—while thankful to One who seems to have guided me through much difficulty, much and deep distress and perplexity of mind—I am still very calm—very—inexpectant. What I taste of happiness is of the soberest order. I trust to love my husband—I am grateful for his tender love to me—I believe him to be an affectionate—a conscientious—a high-principled man—and if with all this, I should yield to regrets—that fine talents, congenial tastes and thoughts are not added—it seems to me I should be most presumptuous and thankless. Providence offers me this destiny. Doubtless then it is the best for me.

...Good-bye—There is a strange—half-sad feeling in making these announcements—The whole thing is something other than imagination paints it beforehand: cares—fears—come mixed inextricably with hopes. [11]
What could have caused Charlotte to accept Nicholls' offer after she had so strongly emphasized in Jane Eyre the need for husbands and wives to share a passionate attachment? The answer is contained in another letter to Ellen that Charlotte wrote shortly after her engagement:
My hope is that in the end this arrangement will turn out more truly to Papa’s advantage—than any other it was in my power to achieve. Mr. N. only in his last letter—refers touchingly to his earnest desire to prove his gratitude to Papa by offering support and consolation to his declining age. [12]
And she wrote to her publisher George Smith regarding her marriage, "thus Papa secures by the step—a devoted and reliable assistant in his old age." [13]

By this time, Charlotte's siblings were all dead, and she must have been aware of her own uncertain health (in a letter written on her honeymoon she reports that her "cough was become very bad" [14]). "This arrangement"—after their marriage, she and Nicholls would live in the Parsonage—was Charlotte's way of insuring that her father would continue to be supported and cared for by a family member, even in the event of her own death.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote bitterly of marriage without love as a "sacrifice" and "martyrdom":
Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. [15]
While in this passage Jane is referring to St John's plan to marry her without love, reverse the genders and we can see what agreeing to "endure" marriage with Nicholls must have cost Charlotte.

Encountered too late? As I read Jane Eyre, I began to wonder whether I had waited too long to read it for the first time. The opening scenes at the home of the Reeds, where the orphaned Jane is relentlessly bullied by her cousin John and treated cruelly by her aunt, are emotionally wrenching. The chapters set at Lowood School (based on Charlotte's experience at the Cowan Bridge School), where Jane and her schoolfellows are humiliated and starved, and spend their time shivering with cold and sickened by the brutal conditions, are horrifying. And Jane's flight on foot across the moors, in which she is exposed to the storms and cold and nearly dies from lack of food or shelter, is harrowing.

But the core of the novel is the relationship between Jane and Rochester, and the book ends, apparently happily, with their marriage. I found the ending to be problematic, though, and I'm not sure that the author intended it to be so. Over the course of the novel, Rochester has proven that he is domineering, violent, moody, deceptive, and selfish; he views other people as either obstacles to or instruments of his pleasure. Can his cruelty toward his first wife be rationalized so easily (and isn't her self-inflicted death just a bit too convenient)? Has he really been chastened and reformed by his brush with mortality and by Jane's love? And is the greatest fulfillment of the intelligent, capable, and deeply-feeling heroine to be Rochester's nurse for the rest of his life? Reader, "all sorts of doubts and fears are troubling my thoughts." [16]

Charlotte Brontë's greatest novel is not Jane Eyre. The novel that in my view deserves that honor will be the subject of the next post.

Next time: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage."
Last time: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë


1. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 20
2. Jane Eyre, Chapter 4
3. Jane Eyre, Chapter 24
4. Jane Eyre, Chapter 38
5. Jane Eyre, Chapter 15
6. Jane Eyre, Chapter 37
7. Jane Eyre, Chapter 34
8. Clement K. Shorter, Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle, Hodder and Stoughton, 1896, Chapter 17 (see
9. Margaret Smith, ed. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Oxford University Press, 2007, Letter 141. To Ellen Nussey, 15 December 1852, p. 212 (see
10. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 142. To Ellen Nussey, 18 December 1852, p. 213 (see
11. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 153. To Ellen Nussey, 11 April 1854, p. 227-228 (see
12. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 154. To Ellen Nussey, 15 April 1854, p. 230 (see
13. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 155. To George Smith, 25 April 1854, p. 231 (see
14. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 158. To Margaret Wooler, 10 July 1854, p. 234 (see
15. Jane Eyre, Chapter 34
16. Jane Eyre, Chapter 11

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

Elizabeth Gaskell: The Life of Charlotte Bronte

I'm not a systematic reader. Who is, apart from Ph.D. students in English Literature? My reading is instead guided by serendipity: recommendations, reviews, fortuitous finds in bookstores.

One such fortuitous find was Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, discovered by chance in a used bookshop as I was looking for another book entirely. In fact, until I saw it on the shelf I was unaware of its existence. I had long meant to read Mrs. Gaskell: the BBC adaptations of her novels Cranford and Wives and Daughters were among my year-end favorites of 2011, and Cranford is #26 on the Telegraph's list of "100 novels everyone should read." And, shamefully, I had never read any of the Brontës, although Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights make perennial appearances near the top of lists of the best novels (for example, ranking #2 and #3, respectively, on this 2003 list of the 50 Best Books by Women).

On pulling The Life of Charlotte Brontë off the shelf, I noticed a small medallion in the lower right-hand corner of the cover which made this cheap paperback an irresistible purchase:

As I was to learn from Gaskell's biography, the Haworth Parsonage (now the Brontë Parsonage Museum) is the house in Yorkshire where Charlotte Brontë and her younger sisters Emily and Anne spent most of their short lives with their clergyman father Patrick. This book had once been purchased there, and so had an intimate connection with Charlotte's life, although at a distance of 150 years.

Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond, 1851 (detail)

The Life of Charlotte Brontë is compelling but grim reading. Death devastated the Brontë family: a year after they moved to Haworth in 1820 Charlotte's mother Maria died (Charlotte was only 5). A few years later Charlotte, together with her younger sister Anne and her two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth, was sent to the Cowan Bridge boarding school. The Cowan Bridge School was the model for the harrowing Lowood School scenes in Jane Eyre. The regimen was cruel: the students were beaten and ridiculed, given inedible and inadequate food, and spent most of the long, damp winter shivering with cold in unheated rooms. The damp, the cold, and the poor food gave rise to a typhoid outbreak, and exacerbated Maria and Elizabeth's consumption; both died in June 1825 after spending less than a year at Cowan Bridge.

The fragile health of Maria and Elizabeth was shared by all of the Brontë siblings. In one terrible eight-month period between September 1848 and May 1849 Charlotte's alcoholic brother Branwell and her sisters Emily and Anne all died of consumption. Consumption was also the cause of death of Charlotte, who died in March 1855 at age 38. She was six months pregnant, and had been married to her father's curate Arthur Nicholls for just nine months.

Patrick Brontë thus outlived all of his children. In Gaskell's account he is a caring but also stern, commanding, remote, and mercurial father. He strongly discouraged all of his daughters' suitors; Gaskell writes, "He always disapproved of marriages, and constantly talked against them." [1] We can only speculate as to why he was so fiercely opposed to the possible marriages of any of his daughters, but likely reasons include his need for emotional support and for increasing assistance as he grew more infirm with the passing years. That he viewed his daughters as instrumental to his happiness, rather than seeing himself as instrumental to theirs, suggests that Patrick—who was born in the 18th century—was a man firmly of his time, rather than ours.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte, date unknown

Patrick's eyesight began to fail in the 1840s, and by the summer of 1846 (he was in his late 60s) cataracts had rendered him virtually blind. With Charlotte at his side he underwent what in the absence of anesthesia must have been an excruciatingly painful eye operation, and gradually recovered his sight. There is a suggestive parallel between the infirm, blinded Patrick and the maimed, blinded Rochester in the final chapters of Jane Eyre (published in 1847, the year after Patrick's cataract surgery). Rochester, with Jane's aid, also eventually recovers his ability to see.

But while it's fascinating to learn of the biographical events that were transmuted into Charlotte's fiction, the chief interest of Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing. Here is an example from a letter dated May 10, 1836; Charlotte, just turned 20, was a teacher at Roe Head School, where she had been a student a few years before. Writing to Ellen, she says, 
"I won't play the hypocrite; I won't answer your kind, gentle, friendly questions in the way you wish me to. Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me....I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me." [2]
The letters are poignant documents of Charlotte's life and thoughts. And it was in the hope of encountering that same deeply appealing voice that as soon as I finished Gaskell's biography I turned to Charlotte's first published novel, Jane Eyre.

Next time: "I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre


1. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Vol. II, Ch. VII
2. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Vol. I, Ch. VIII

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Leela Naidu as Anuradha

How great a sacrifice should we make for love? The title character in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha (1960) is a woman who was once a famous singer and dancer. But as the film begins, Anuradha (Leela Naidu) has been out of the public's awareness for 10 years. During that time she has been married to a doctor, Nirmal (Balraj Sahni); they have an adorable young daughter, Ranu, who often accompanies him on his rounds:


Nirmal is idealistic and highly dedicated, and he has moved the family to a rural village so that he can provide medical care for its impoverished inhabitants. Of course, this means that he can barely provide for his own family.

Anuradha's days are spent in the domestic drudgery of cooking and cleaning; her nights are spent in the loneliness of waiting for her husband to return from his endless round of patients.

I am left alone all day. Who do I talk to? The walls?

Nirmal has devoted his life to the care of the villagers, but he has neglected the needs of his own wife.

The film is structured as a series of flashbacks of the couple's courtship. We learn that they met through her brother and fell in love as Nirmal treated her for a sprained ankle. Nirmal is attracted by Anuradha's beauty and talent; she is attracted by his kindness, humor, and selfless ideals.

Nirmal is committed to working in the village because his own mother died there for lack of a local doctor. But he recognizes that his work in the countryside will be incompatible with Anuradha's stage and recording career in the great metropolis:

What about your music? Who will hear you?

The love-struck Anuradha dismisses his misgivings:

You. You are my world, you are my music.

Anuradha's father (Hari Shivdasani) has his own plans for her. He has long wished to marry her to his closest friend's son, Deepak (Abhi Bhattacharya), just returned from studying overseas. Of course, Anuradha's father hasn't bothered to consult with her; she learns of it when she overhears him talking to Deepak:

Why ask her? I am her father. I know what is good or bad for her.

Anuradha has to break the news to Deepak that she's in love with someone else. Considering that his engagement has been made and then broken over the space of five minutes, Deepak takes it well. He's clearly a decent guy: he offers to tell Anuradha's father that he is the one rejecting the match, to spare her from her father's anger (she won't let him). But Deepak has a question for her:

But will you be happy with him?

Alas, this is a question whose answer will only become apparent over time. Ten years on, despite her lovely daughter and her caring but preoccupied husband, Anuradha has come to feel trapped in her marriage:


Things are brought to a crisis by the return of two figures from the past. The first is Anuradha's father. At the time of her marriage to Nirmal he disowned his daughter for her disobedience. Now, chastened, he comes to the village to reconcile with the couple and meet the granddaughter he has never seen. But he can't resist asking his own question of Anuradha:

What did you get by marrying Nirmal?

Anuradha replies "Happiness," but without convincing either her father or herself.

The second person to return from the past is Deepak. We see him travelling in a car driven by Seema, a woman who wants to marry him but doesn't understand why he's still carrying a torch for a past love. In fact, she's distracted by arguing about this when a child darts out into the road in front of them. To avoid him Seema swerves the car off the road and into a tree. By filmi coincidence, they happen to have been passing Anuradha's village, and Nirmal is called to treat the injured couple.

Deepak is not seriously hurt, and Nirmal has him carried to his own house for treatment. When Anuradha sees Deepak, a certain tenderness is reawakened:

Anuradha and Deepak

And when Nirmal discovers that Anuradha and Deepak know one another, he insists that Deepak remain in his house as a guest. As a guest, Deepak requests the privilege of hearing Anuradha sing—which begins to reawaken other long-buried feelings in her:

The music is by Ravi Shankar, with lyrics by Shailendra; Leela Naidu's playback singer is Lata Mangeshkar.

Deepak is dismayed to discover Anuradha's neglect of her music, and Nirmal's neglect of her. He urges her to leave Nirmal:

Return back to your father. Go back to music.

Anuradha is torn. She loves her husband, but has obviously suppressed a huge part of herself to become a wife and mother in this remote location. Worst of all, Nirmal seems to take her for granted; she even has to remind him about their wedding anniversary.

Nirmal promises to make up for his forgetfulness by spending their anniversary evening together. But (as we've seen before) his promises are meaningless. Nirmal, responding to one patient after another, doesn't make it home until dawn. For Anuradha, who has waited up all night, it seems to confirm his lack of concern for her:

You couldn't fulfill my desire even for a day?

In her hurt and anger she decides to leave with Deepak. When Nirmal learns of Anuradha's decision, he's stunned. He realizes too late how focussed on his own needs he has been, but seems unable or unwilling to try to convince her to stay. Perhaps it's because he realizes the justice of her accusations:

If you considered us one, you would have understood my loneliness.

All he asks of her is that she wait one day: a big-city doctor, Colonel Trivedi (Nazir Hussein), has been called in by Seema's rich father, and after praising Nirmal's skillful care of Seema he has invited himself over to dinner. Nirmal doesn't want to reveal his family troubles before strangers, and Anuradha agrees to help him by staying until the next morning.

When the guests arrive, Colonel Trivedi recognizes Anuradha and requests a song (tellingly, it is always their guests who ask her to sing, and never her husband). But this time, Nirmal stays and listens to her, as if for the first time. "Why don't the days of the past return?" she sings. "My music lies abandoned without song; my garland of dreams is withering":

Later that night, after the guests leave, Nirmal is called out on yet another emergency case. When he returns, Anuradha is asleep, and Nirmal finally lets his tears fall:

But is Anuradha really asleep?

Anuradha is full of such emotionally subtle moments. The characters (like all of us) are a mixture of selfish and generous impulses. And they find themselves (like all of us) caught in situations that are the products of long-ago choices, and facing uncomfortable questions.

Perhaps it's the movie's literary origins that make it such a rich experience: it's based on a short story by Sachin Bhowmic that was inspired by Flaubert's great novel of marital dissatisfaction, Madame Bovary. Clearly, too, we can also thank director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, whose humanistic vision imbues every major character (and most minor ones) with emotional depth and complexity.

But I couldn't help feeling dissatisfied at the end, perhaps because Anuradha's choices have become so limited. If she leaves Nirmal she regains her musical career—her art—but loses her husband and destroys their family. If she stays with Nirmal she gives up her music forever, and her life with its narrowed horizons will continue much as before. If for women marriage and family demand the sacrifice of their own hopes, ambitions and dreams, is the sacrifice too great?

Anuradha in tears

For another view of Anuradha, please see Dustedoff's excellent review.

Update 10 September 2014: Spoilers follow in the comments, so be forewarned.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Excessive women: The novels of Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald

Part 3: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791)

A flirtatious beauty with an illicit passion for a man educated for the priesthood: it's a description of Elizabeth Inchbald, who (like Eliza Haywood and Charlotte Lennox) spent time on the stage, married an older man while still in her teens to maintain her respectability, and turned to writing out of financial necessity.

Mrs. Inchbald met the handsome, charismatic John Kemble when he joined the acting company that she and her husband belonged to. Kemble, brother of the actress Sarah Siddons, had trained for the priesthood but instead turned to the stage; he went on to become a famous Hamlet and Macbeth. He was 20 years younger than Inchbald's husband. Soon after Inchbald meets him, according to her biographer James Boaden, she "has almost daily differences with Mr. Inchbald; and visits as constantly from Mr. Kemble." [1]

We can further guess at Inchbald's feelings for Kemble because a few weeks after meeting him she began to outline the novel that became the first part of A Simple Story. In it, a flirtatious beauty, Miss Milner, falls in love with her 30-year-old guardian Dorriforth, a Catholic priest.

The parallels between Kemble and Dorriforth are highly suggestive: both are educated at a Jesuit English College in France, both are intended for the priesthood, and both are the objects of forbidden passion. Inchbald's love for Kemble was adulterous, while Miss Milner's for Dorriforth is triply taboo since he is her guardian, a Catholic (she is a Protestant), and a priest.

Miss Milner is described by another character as "a young, idle, indiscreet, giddy girl, with half a dozen lovers in her suite." [2] When the 18-year-old woman goes to live with Dorriforth on the death of her father, her pleasure-loving ways soon put them on a collision course. Dorriforth is a sober and earnest man who values "prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance." [3]

But familiarity breeds attraction: despite their apparently mismatched sensibilities, Miss Milner soon discovers that she has fallen passionately in love with Dorriforth. And one of the barriers to their union is removed when Dorriforth's elder brother Lord Elmwood dies unexpectedly; as the new Lord Elmwood, Dorriforth receives a dispensation from his vows of celibacy so that he can marry. However, another impediment soon arises in the form of a rival, Miss Fenton, whom it becomes clear Lord Elmwood intends to wed as soon as the mourning period for his brother is over.

Miss Milner has a key advantage over her rival, though: proximity. Since she lives with Lord Elmwood, he soon discovers how she feels about him, and comes to realize that he has long felt the same way about her. But this change in their relationship is not a happy one. Once Miss Milner is sure of him, she begins to act in a willful and headstrong way:
...she, who as his ward, had been ever gentle, and (when he strenuously opposed) always obedient; he now found as a mistress, sometimes haughty; and to opposition, always insolent. [4]
An invitation to a masquerade ball brings their quarrels to a head. Miss Milner is eager to attend, but Lord Elmwood forbids it. Miss Milner declares to her companion Miss Woodley her intention to go despite Lord Elmwood's prohibition. Miss Woodley remonstrates with her:
"But you know, my dear, he has desired you not—and you always used to obey his commands."
"As my guardian, I certainly did obey him; and I could obey him as a husband; but as a lover, I will not."
"Yet that is the means, never to have him for a husband." [5]
Be forewarned that there is no way for me to talk about the rest of the novel without revealing spoilers, so don't read on if you don't want to know what happens.

Miss Milner's disobedience causes a breach between them, and Lord Elmwood resolves to travel abroad to forget her. On the day he is to leave, though, and with his carriage at the door, they each realize how reluctant they are to part—and resolve to stay together forever as man and wife. And by happy chance Lord Elmwood's friend (and Miss Milner's former antagonist), the priest Sandford, is there to preside over an impromptu marriage ceremony.
Never was there a more rapid change from despair to happiness—to happiness most supreme—than was that, which Miss Milner, and Lord Elmwood experienced within one single hour. [6]
There is one troubling omen to disturb the felicity of the day, however. During their impromptu marriage ceremony Lord Elmwood realizes that they have no wedding ring; he takes a ring he's wearing and places it on her finger:
[She] felt an excruciating shock; when, looking on the ring Lord Elmwood had put on her finger, in haste, when he married her, she perceived it was a—MOURNING RING." [7]
END. Do not read on—or be forever scarred!

The copy of A Simple Story that I checked out of the library had this foreboding comment written at the end of the final chapter of the first part of the novel, and it took me a day or two before I could make up my mind to continue. The mourning ring and the scrawled warning presaged tragedy, suffering and death. And indeed those occur—on the very next page. But the novel still has two more volumes and almost 150 pages to go, and the aftermath of these events on another generation of characters to portray.

It's not known whether Jane Austen read A Simple Story, although we know that she was familiar with Inchbald's melodrama Lover's Vows (1798). Inchbald's play also features a young woman in love with a priest; a proposed household performance of the play is a key sequence in Mansfield Park (1814). There is a fascinating post on Lover's Vows and its role in Mansfield Park on Austenonly.

There may also be an echo of A Simple Story in another Austen novel: a beautiful and headstrong young heroine who disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure may sound familiar to readers of Emma.

In Miss Milner, Inchbald created a character who seems to be largely a self-portrait: a woman who is boldly willing to profess her desires and who does not always meekly assent to male authority. That Miss Milner gets to marry the object of her forbidden love is perhaps wish-fulfillment; that things do not end well for the couple is perhaps Inchbald's acknowledgment that, as in her own life, events in reality rarely work out as we might hope.

Last time: Charlotte Lennox and The Female Quixote

The time before that: Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess


1. James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald, 1833, v. 1, p. 76.
2. Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story, Vol. I, Ch. II.
3. A Simple Story, Vol. I, Ch. I.
4. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. VII.
5. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. VIII.
6. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. XII.
7. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. XII.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Excessive women: The novels of Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald

Part 2: Charlotte Lennox and The Female Quixote (1752)

Charlotte Lennox as one of "The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain,"
by Richard Samuel, 1779
Charlotte Lennox, like Eliza Haywood and Elizabeth Inchbald, turned to writing out of financial necessity. Like Haywood (and Inchbald, too), Lennox may have married out of necessity: a literary and theatrical career was not considered respectable for an unmarried woman.

Lennox was fortunate to find aristocratic patrons, support among the bluestocking circle, and mentorship from established male writers such as Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson. Nonetheless, the literary life was a precarious one, and Lennox experienced periods of financial distress throughout her life.

The Female Quixote, like many other novels
written by women, was published anonymously.
The Female Quixote is a one-joke novel, but it's a good joke. Like her predecessor Don Quixote, Arabella has read so many French romances that she's come to see herself as one of her fictional heroines: she uses archaic language ("questionless" for doubtless, "history" for story, "haply" for perhaps), makes imperious gestures that mystify those around her, and expects men seeking her love to undergo years of trials to prove their fidelity. Needless to say, her imaginative flights lead to comical misunderstandings with those around her, who don't have quite such active imaginations or fantastical views of everyday life.

Jane Austen read and enjoyed The Female Quixote, writing to her sister Cassandra that "it now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it." [1] Austen seems to have modelled Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, in part on Arabella; both characters have perhaps immersed themselves a bit too deeply in the worlds of their fictional reading.

Here is Arabella in a mutually misconstrued conversation with her flirtatious cousin Charlotte Glanville:
Whence comes it, Cousin, added she, being so young and lovely as you are, that you, questionless, have been engaged in many Adventures, you have never reposed Trust enough in me to favour me with a Recital of them?

Engaged in many Adventures, Madam! returned Miss Glanville, not liking the Phrase: I believe I have been engaged in as few as your Ladyship.

You are too obliging, returned Arabella, who mistook what she said for a Compliment; for since you have more Beauty than I, and have also had more Opportunities of making yourself beloved, questionless you have a greater Number of Admirers.

As for Admirers, said Miss Charlotte bridling, I fansy I have had my Share! Thank God, I never found myself neglected; but, I assure you, Madam, I have had no Adventures, as you call them, with any of them.

No, really! interrupted Arabella, innocently.

No, really, Madam, retorted Miss Glanville; and I am surprised you should think so.

Indeed, my Dear, said Arabella, you are very happy in this respect, and also very singular; for I believe there are few young Ladies in the World, who have any Pretensions to Beauty, that have not given Rise to a great many Adventures; and some of them haply very fatal.

If you knew more of the World, Lady Bella, said Miss Glanville pertly, you would not be so apt to think, that young Ladies engage themselves in troublesome Adventures: Truly the Ladies that are brought up in Town are not so ready to run away with every Man they see.

No, certainly, interrupted Arabella; they do not give their Consent to such Proceedings; but for all that, they are, doubtless, run away with many times; for truly there are some Men, whose Passions are so unbridled, that they will have recourse to the most violent Methods to possess themselves of the Objects they love. Pray do you remember how often Mandana was run away with?

Not I indeed, Madam, replied Miss Glanville; I know nothing about her; but I suppose she is a Jew, by her outlandish Name.

She was no Jew, said Arabella, tho' she favoured that People very much; for she obtained the Liberty of great Numbers of them from Cyrus, who had taken them Captives, and could deny her nothing she asked.

Well, said Miss Glanville; and I suppose she denied him nothing he asked; and so they were even.

Indeed but she did tho', resumed Arabella; for she refused to give him a glorious Scarf which she wore, tho' he begged it on his Knees.

And she was very much in the right, said Miss Glanville; for I see no Reason why a Lover should expect a Gift of any Value from his Mistress.

Doubtless, said Arabella, such a Gift was worth a Million of Services; and, had he obtained it, it would have been a glorious Distinction for him: However, Mandana refused it; and, severely virtuous as you are, I am persuaded you can't help thinking, she was a little too rigorous in denying a Favour to a Lover like him—

Severely virtuous, Lady Bella! said Miss Glanville, reddening with Anger: Pray what do you mean by that? Have you any Reason to imagine, I would grant any Favour to a Lover?

Why, if I did, Cousin, said Arabella, would it derogate so much from your Glory, think you, to bestow a Favour upon a Lover worthy your Esteem, and from whom you had received a thousand Marks of a most pure and faithful Passion, and also a great Number of very singular Services?

I hope, Madam, said Miss Glanville, it will never be my Fate to be so much obliged to any Lover, as to be under a Necessity of granting him Favours in Requital.

I vow, Cousin, interrupted Arabella, you put me in mind of the fair and virtuous Antonia, who was so rigid and austere, that she thought all Expressions of Love were criminal; and was so far from granting any Person Permission to love her, that she thought it a mortal Offence to be adored even in private.

Miss Glanville, who could not imagine Arabella spoke this seriously, but that it was designed to sneer at her great Eagerness to make Conquests, and the Liberties she allowed herself in, which had probably come to her Knowlege, was so extremely vexed at the malicious Jest, as she thought it, that, not being able to revenge herself, she burst into Tears.

Arabella's Good-nature made her be greatly affected at this Sight; and, asking her Pardon for having undesignedly occasioned her so much Uneasiness, begged her to be composed, and tell her in what she had offended her, that she might be able to justify herself in her Apprehensions.

You have made no Scruple to own, Madam, said she, that you think me capable of granting Favours to Lovers, when, Heaven knows, I never granted a Kiss without a great deal of Confusion.

And you had certainly much Reason for Confusion, said Arabella, excessively surprised at such a Confession: I assure you I never injured you so much in my Thoughts, as to suppose you ever granted a Favour of so criminal a Nature.

Look you there now! said Miss Glanville, weeping more violently than before: I knew what all your round-about Speeches would come to: All you have said in Vindication of granting Favours, was only to draw me into a Confession of what I have done: How ungenerous was that!

The Favours I spoke of, Madam, said Arabella, were quite of another Nature, than those it seems you have so liberally granted: Such as giving a Scarf, a Bracelet, or some such Thing, to a Lover, who had haply sighed whole Years in Silence, and did not presume to declare his Passion, till he had lost best Part of his Blood in Defence of the Fair one he loved: It was when you maintained, that Mandana was in the right to refuse her magnificent Scarf to the illustrious Cyrus, that I took upon me to oppose your Rigidness; and so much mistaken was I in your Temper, that I foolishly compared you to the fair and wise Antonia, whose Severity was so remarkable; but really, by what I understand from your own Confession, your Disposition resembles that of the inconsiderate Julia, who would receive a Declaration of Love without Anger from any one; and was not over-shy, any more than yourself, of granting Favours almost as considerable as that you have mentioned.

While Arabella was speaking, Miss Glanville, having dried up her Tears, sat silently swelling with Rage, not knowing whether she should openly avow her Resentment for the injurious Language her Cousin had used to her, by going away immediately, or, by making up the Matter, appear still to be her Friend, that she might have the more Opportunities of revengeing herself... [2]
Arabella's imaginative world puzzles and exasperates the men around her, particularly those who wish to court her: Mr. Hervey, Sir George, and Charlotte's brother Charles. But this suggests that Arabella's fantasy world functions as an escape from male control. It also comes to seem like an unconscious protest against the powerlessness of women: the heroines of romances are imperious queens and princesses, whose "Histories" are filled with "Adventures" very different from the highly circumscribed existence of a young 18th-century woman of rank.

The men in the novel, particularly Arabella's prospective father-in-law and his son Charles, determine to "cure" her of her imaginative flights. The first attempt is made by a woman known only as the Countess, who had "when very young, been deep read in Romances," and who thus understands their appeal to Arabella. [3]  This highly sympathetic character, though, disappears quickly and is replaced by the Doctor, a Samuel Johnson-like figure who tries to argue Arabella out of her identification with the heroines of these "contemptible," "senseless," and "absurd" books. [4]

That Arabella's imaginative rebellion ends with her submission to male authority, although perhaps inevitable, is also disappointing. In the preface she wrote to the novel for its inclusion in her series The British Novelists, Anna Barbauld wrote that Lennox's story was "not very well wound up. The grave moralizing of a clergyman is not the means by which the heroine should have been cured of her reveries." [5] But perhaps there is no way to satisfyingly end a novel that suggests that women, in order to be fit for marriage and domesticity, must be "cured" of their imaginations.

Next time: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791)
Last time: Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess (1719-20)


1. Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others. R.W. Chapman, ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1932, Letter 48, p. 173.
2. Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote, Book II, Chapter IX
3. The Female Quixote, Book VIII, Chapter V
4. The Female Quixote, Book IX, Chapter XI
5. Anna Barbauld, "Mrs. Lennox," in The British Novelists; with an Essay and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, 1810, Vol. XXIV, p. iii. Retrieved from