If Only She’d Been Prettier… Charlotte Brontë & The Male Gaze

the_bronte_sisters_by_patrick_branwell_bronte_restoredI never liked Mr. Rochester. His high-handed behavior and moodiness with Jane Eyre. His sneering treatment of his young ward, Adèle. And his final, obscene pretense that he locked away his mad wife for her sake rather than his own convenience (with all that land and money he couldn’t have had a small cottage built where she could have been kept in relative comfort?). Even when I was much too young to understand how different power dynamics play out in relationships I instinctively knew that Rochester was not for me.

I did like Jane, though. I liked that she was small and plain. And that she was also stubborn and honest and brave, but not a goody-goody. She seemed real to me, particularly when I was younger.  I’d imagine us doing our homework together after school. And the more I learned about Charlotte Brontë the more I assumed she was just like Jane.

In her entertaining, very readable but ultimately frustrating biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart* Claire Harman does not share my opinions. Her sympathies seem to reside with the Rochesters of the world.

There is very little left to be discovered about Charlotte Brontë.  The vicarage, her childhood home (as well as the home of her two equally famous sisters) is now a shrine dedicated to all thing Brontë – something which occurred within years of the writer’s death.  Friends and acquaintances happily sold their letters from Charlotte and their memories of the family. Mary Gaskell, a friend and fellow novelist, was chosen by Charlotte’s father to write his daughter’s biography.  He did this largely in an attempt to combat the unpleasant rumors being spread across London (rumors which, ironically, Gaskell was in  large part responsible for spreading) about Charlotte after her death.  The resulting book was thorough, if not entirely objective and possibly fraught with factual errors. But it laid the foundation for the dozens of biographies and critical studies that have followed.  

What is left, then, for the modern biographer? Other than curating the known facts in the hopes of gleaning some new insight the answer is: very little.  And so that is what Harman does. She presents her interpretation of the facts, but it is an interpretation which relies heavily on the Gaskell narrative. Where Charlotte is portrayed as a tragic figure – the kind of feminine martyr of which the Victorians were so fond.

Unfortunately, Harman doesn’t acknowledge that those same facts could just as easily form an entirely different picture if viewed from a contemporary perspective.

The centerpiece of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is Brontë’s romantic infatuation with her former Belgium teacher and employer, the married Constantin Héger. This is old news to most Brontë scholars. Even Gaskell was aware of it, though she discreetly chose to omit the details from her biography. Charlotte’s letters written to Héger were published in a London newspaper as early as 1912 – having been preserved and passed down by Héger and his wife to their daughter. None of his letters survive. In the end, any romantic feelings appear to have been entirely one-sided and ultimately an embarrassment to all those involved.  By Harman’s own admission this obsession was conducted entirely via post and lasted one year, perhaps two at the most, before Héger firmly put an end to it. 

So it’s hard to understand why, other than the salacious nature of the tidbit, that Harman insists on amplifying the episode’s importance in the writer’s life. It is inarguable that Constantin Héger was the model for the romantic heroes in Brontë’s novels, particularly Mr. Rochester. But it is also a well known fact that Charlotte frequently based her characters on people she knew. Her four novels are filled with portraits of friends and acquaintances, including her talented siblings. Yet they are not given the same prominence as Héger in Harman’s biography.  Neither is the actual inspiration for Jane Eyre, a story Charlotte once heard about a man who locked his wife in the attic, given more than a few sentences.

Instead Harman focuses specifically on those episodes which reflect poorly on her subject.  When she is done with Héger she moves quickly on to Brontë’s publisher, George Smith.  We are told that Charlotte also had a crush on him, – despite his being handsome, several years her junior and clearly (according to Harman) out of Charlotte’s league. This unkindness, this tendency to exaggerate the negative aspects of the novelist’s character as seen through the male gaze, is a weakness of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart that is difficult to dismiss. Take for example the following passage –  

‘George Smith… seemed puzzled and sorry that his admired author was, in effect, vain, that “the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstances that she was not pretty.” One would like to hope this was not true for Charlotte, that the creator of Jane Eyre had more faith in herself, but the more she went into society, the more she was worn down by extreme self- consciousness.’

One would like to hope that the biographer would feel more empathy towards her subject… or at the very least attempt to understand the source of the writer’s (apparently entirely justified based on the above) insecurities. And yet this passage is just one of several which reference Charlotte Brontë’s homeliness. This focus, if nothing else, should call into question the superficiality of Brontë’s London friends – and yet their opinions are reported without judgement or context.

In sharp contrast to Héger and Smith, Harman spends much less space discussing the three marriage proposals Charlotte received (seemingly against all comprehension) and declined. Including one from the man she would eventually consent to marry.

Of her marriage to the Reverend Arthur Nicholls, despite the newlywed couple appearing by all accounts to have been extremely happy and well matched, we are rather preemptively told that it was “not a situation that promised well for her writing” and that “By the end of 1854, Charlotte’s London friendships had all but dried up”as a result of her marriage.  These are rather broad statements to make considering the couple married in June of 1854 and Charlotte would be dead nine short months later (after three months of illness).  To put it in perspective: nine months seems hardly enough time on which to base such dire judgments.

In many ways this is Claire Harman continuing the Brontë legend begun by Mary Gaskell.  That of a love-starved novelist who lived a tragic (even Gothic) existence.  And there is something to this: the Yorkshire moors, the heartbreaking deaths of her mother and five siblings, the strange fantasy worlds the siblings created as children and maintained into early adulthood, the prodigious amount juvenalia which they left behind… all the most dramatic elements of the Brontë mythos, and in Anne, Emily and Charlotte’s novels, had a foundation in the three sisters’  lives.

But a life is many things.

A case can just as easily be made that Charlotte Brontë was remarkably independent, highly educated for her time and strongly opinionated. She keenly followed local politics and current events.  (All this is in a large part thanks to her father, though he also fares poorly in Harman’s and Gaskell’s estimation).  She taught, albeit unhappily, at a girl’s school. She took multiple governess posts though, again, unhappily.  But she also was responsible for organizing her and Emily’s trip to Belgium to further their education. And she would eventually return there, alone, to teach. It was Charlotte who  instigated and organized the publication of her and her sisters’ poetry and novels.  And it was Charlotte who would travel to London with Anne to confront their publisher when she felt they were being dealt with unfairly.

Charlotte would eventually find herself a new publisher, the aforementioned George Smith.  After the success of Jane Eyre she visited London frequently as his guest. London’s literary lights were all fans.

While she seems to never have been comfortable moving in the literary circles of London, in spheres where she was more comfortable Charlotte formed meaningful and enduring friendships – most significantly with two women of equally independent dispositions, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.  And then there was her close relationship to her talented siblings, also given short shrift by Ms. Harman.  These relationships, it should go without saying, were as influential as her crush on Professor Héger… if not more so. And while Harman acknowledges these female friendships, she gives them much less page space in proportion to the men in Charlotte’s life.

As for the novels, themselves, they are only discussed in depth as they function as further evidence of Charlotte’s unrequited love for both Héger and Smith.

Claire Harman’s biggest contribution, and the one for which the book will be remembered in my opinion, is that she manages to shed some light on what is perhaps the one remaining mystery of the Brontë family – the tragic cause of Charlotte Brontë’s death. She makes a strong case for hyperemesis gravidarum, a disease which causes “violent and ceaseless disruption of stomach and sense” in pregnant women. Charlotte wrote in a letter to a friend “my sufferings are very great – my nights indescribable – sickness with scarcely a reprieve – I strain until what I vomit is mixed with blood.” It was long believed that her symptoms were related consumption, the disease that took so many members of her family, but Harman’s theory is more than plausible.

This revelation does not excuse the book’s failings.  Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart makes no effort towards reconciling the writer of Jane Eyre and Villette with the awkward creature Harman is intent on depicting. A woman defined almost entirely by her relationships to men – father, brother, romantic infatuations and husband. Our attentions are constantly directed towards her appearance; her romantic and personal failures (both real and insinuated). All at the expense of the woman… the beloved writer…  and her brilliant, revolutionary mind.

 

Title: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Author:  Claire Harman

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2016)

ISBN: 978 0 307 96208 9

 

*published in England with the more dignified title of Charlotte Brontë: A Life

 

In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth

On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.

One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog. 🙂

Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.

So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews.  Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.

Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers.  9 were men.

Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.

This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer.  Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners  included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).

The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention.  She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment.  So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it?  Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse  than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.

And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.

Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun.  I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.

In the end it’s a numbers game.

A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.

 

The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

Title:  The Case of Lisandra P.

Author:  Hélène Grémillon

Translator:  Alison Anderson

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2016)

ISBN:  978 0 14 312658 4

 

When writing #WITMonth posts, my first instinct is to spotlight only amazing books. And while those books definitely exist, it started to seem unfair to hold a writer to a ridiculously high standard because of her gender. It is perfectly acceptable for women, like men, to write mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels. Novels you take to the beach or read beside the pool not caring if the pages get full of sand or foxed from the water. Novels that are a little far-fetched and require a willingness to buy into coincidence after unlikely coincidence; but  which have you locked to the page – frantic to find out what happens next.

The Case of Lisandra P. is that kind of book.

In 2003 the French military’s role in training Argentine forces thirty plus years prior, in both urban warfare and torture techniques, was revealed. That training was subsequently used by the Argentine government against its own people in what came to be known as the Dirty War. Anywhere between 7,000-30,000 men, women and children disappeared between 1974 and 1983 – no one knows the actual numbers – and devastated families had no choice but to accept never knowing what had happened to a generation of their loved ones.  French writer Hélène Grémillon sets her story in Buenos Aires, 1987. It is against this backdrop of residual paranoia and loss which The Case of Lisandra P. plays out.

When a beautiful young woman is found dead on the sidewalk by a pair of young lovers, six stories below the window of her own apartment, the police are more than happy to implicate the husband. But Dr. Vittorio Puig,  psychoanalyst, maintains he is innocent.  From prison he reaches out to one of his patients and asks for her help in uncovering the truth. Eva Maria, an alcoholic and emotionally fragile woman (who may be a little in love with Puig), hesitantly agrees.

The alcoholic detective, recovering from a tragic past may be as cliché as it gets – but Eva Maria is more than that. She is a mother still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter.  One day Stella left the house and, like so many others during the Dirty War, never came back.  Her body was never found. In the aftermath, Eva Maria’s marriage falls apart and she drinks until she blacks out.  Her remaining son’s attempts to reach out to her, to care for her, are continually rejected. He desperately wants some sign of his mother’s affection, but Eva Maria is buried alive in a very real portrayal of a parent’s inconsolable grief.

…The funeral of a dead woman is one thing, but of a murdered woman, that’s something else entirely. The sorrow of not knowing how she died, this woman they are burying: it impedes mourning, and nothing should ever impede mourning, or there can be no healing. Can anyone here imagine Vittorio pushing his wife out the window? Is anyone here absolutely convinced he did? Eva Maria got there first, and she will be the first to leave. The policeman are waiting. Talking. Laughing. Eva Maria hides behind a tree. She watches as people leave the church. You don’t take photos at funerals. Her camera sounds like the song of a sick bird. She doesn’t want to miss anyone. Eva Maria is beginning to have a taste for suspicion, the stifling sensation that anyone could have killed Stella. She meant to say Lisandra. She’s confusing them. Mixing things up. In her mind now the two dead women are overlapping. The one who makes her suffer so much that she cannot bear to think of her, and the one who did not suffer, who occupies her thoughts for hours on end.

As she becomes more involved the case the boundaries between  Lisandra P.’s murder and Eva Maria’s obsession with her daughter’s disappearance begin to blur. As she listens to tapes of his sessions, at Vittorio’s request, she learns terrible secrets regarding her fellow patients. Things quickly spiral into an ending both shocking and tragic.

Structurally, The Case of Lisandra P. is a hodge-podge that incorporates first person stream of conscious and all three third person narrative perspectives (objective, limited and omniscient) as it jumps from character to character. Even the victim gets her turn to speak. Four pages of sheet music are reproduced between chapters, we read directly from the transcripts of Puig’s therapy sessions, there is the illustration of a sign and of a business card, a list of words Lisandra found in a book takes up three pages. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten. Grémillon has metaphorically dumped a box onto a table and assembled a novel out of the contents. A hot mess is one way to describe it.  But the disorganization also creates the impression that the reader is actively participating in Eva Maria’s investigation.

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel, The Confidant was nominated for the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and won Monaco’s Prince Pierre Literary Prize.  I have to think that it was a very different book than this one.  The Case of Lisandra P. is a perfect poolside thriller. Easily read and just as easily forgotten.

 

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2016 – #WITMonth

WomenInTranslation Logo 2016Women In Translation Month is here again.  This event, in its third year, was started by the blogger Meytal Radzinski.  The idea came out of a number of posts she wrote in which she used The Three Percent website’s yearly translation database to determine the percentage of books in translation written by women which are published each year.  The 2014 and 2015 results were depressing and this year seems to be a continuation of previous years’ trends.

In case you’ve forgotten: the goals for Women In Translation Month are simple –

  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
  3. And if you’re a blogger or reviewer (or both) – BE AWARE!  Make sure you’re reviewing women in translation.  If publishers aren’t sending you the books, then start requesting them. It’s our job to let the readers know what they’re missing.

Want to be a part of the discussion?  –

I’ll be reading and posting about Women In Translation all of August. And while I probably won’t get to them all, here’s a peek at my TBR list –

IMG_20160803_182721

The Reader’s Toolbox

ReadingTackle2
Clockwise from top right corner – a Circa Jotlet, Field Notes Byline Limited Edition, generic 5-1/2″ x 8″ softcover journal, Field Notes Sweet Tooth Limited Edition, Levenger business card magnifier, variety of wood pencils (including highlighter pencils), 2 pencil sharpeners, eraser, 3 x 5 Levenger index cards, pencil case, Book Darts, Gimble (hands free reading tool).

 

When I was in art school I discovered a deep love for the materials out of which art is made: the brushes, the differences in brands of paint pigments, pens and pencils and the cases made to store them.  Hours would go by at Pearl Paint on Canal Street spent looking at different types of paper. This passion for tools has crossed over into my reading life and I’ve accumulated a bunch of little accessories, completely unnecessary, which somehow make reading even more fun. My husband gave me a book bag last Christmas and I’ve taken to carrying it everywhere.  Of course there’s always at least one book (or three) tucked inside, but there are lots of other things too.  Below is a list of my reader/reviewer toolkit –

  • An assortment of notebooks. Of course you probably only need one but, as a friend once said to me, if you’re going in then go in big. I usually have at least two Field Notes notebooks on me at all times.  I like them because 1. – the small, booklet held together by three simple staples and 2. – I’m a bit of a label whore. The Byline Limited Edition is fantastic. It’s a departure from their standard notebook format and was designed with the help of John Dickerson of Face the Nation. I also keep a small Circa Jotlet in the side pocket of my bag. Both it and the Byline are bound at the top, so they flip open and can be held in one hand. It makes it easier to take notes reporter style. I tend to jot down a lot of notes during the day, mostly things I hear or thoughts I might have for a future post. I keep a larger, softcover journal for longer sections of writing, the drafts which will be eventually be incorporated into reviews. All of the notebooks I’m currently using are softcover. I’m less precious about using them and if they get roughed up or filled with scribbles it doesn’t bother me. Whereas there’s something about a hardcover journal that feels like everything recorded in it is for Posterity.
  • Knickknacks
    Clockwise from top left: Book Darts, Gimble (hands-free book opener), KUM Masterpiece Sharpener, M+B Double Hole Brass Sharpener, Staedtler Black Rubber Eraser
    Wood pencils, a handheld eraser & (2) sharpeners. Yes, completely analog. Eventually I hack it out on the Chromebook, but all my initial thoughts and early drafts are put down in longhand using old-school wooden pencils. The benefit of writing by hand is that it forces you to slow down to choose your words and structure your sentences. I also stop more frequently to read over what I’ve written.  To this end I have accumulated a collection of several dozen pencils. Japanese are my favorites. I like softer leads, which generally means shorter point retention, so I’ve also invested in two quality metal hand sharpeners. The KUM Masterpiece Longpoint is a German-made sharpener. It’s a two-blade system, which means you sharpen your pencil in part 1 to extend the lead, and part 2 to shape it into a point that could be used to shank someone. I keep a second, brass sharpener for the fatter, less lethal highlighter pencils that don’t fit into the Masterpiece (no bleeding through the page like markers). Add a colored pencil for editing drafts and at least one rubber eraser and my pencil case is complete. The Erasable Podcast and CW Pencil in NYC have been invaluable resources for putting it together.
  • 3×5 notecards. Ever since reading that Nabokov used index cards to draft his novels I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate them into my writing routine. The best use I’ve found for them is as bookmarks.  I also jot notes on them, usually nothing more exciting than quotes and page numbers. The Levenger cards are nice because of the vertical format, but pricey. Mine were a gift and I probably won’t replace them once they’re gone.
  • A magnifier. I haven’t needed one yet – but it seems like a good thing to have.  Another gift.
  • Magnifier2
    Magnifying Card
    Book Darts.  I am a Book Dart evangelist. These smooth, sexy, pointed metal clips that slide onto the edge of a page are fantastic for marking passages & quotes you want to reference later. IMHO the darts are vastly superior, and more environmentally friendly, than post-it-notes (which fold and become ragged over time). I cannot live without them.
  • Something to keep the pages of my book open. For those times when you need a page open and your hands free, like when you’re typing out a passage from a book.  The Gimble, which is what I use, isn’t aesthetically pleasing but it gets the job done for a fraction of the price of one of those fancy leather book weights. Plus it fits into my pencil case!

That’s it! Well… except for a confession: I’ve written this post for purely selfish reasons. As I was thinking about my own book bag I couldn’t help wondering if I’m the only one.  I am genuinely curious….do YOU have a favorite bookmark, or write on a vintage typewriter (or have a vintage typewriter sound app for your laptop)?  Do you collect fountain pens? write on stacks of yellow legal pads? put notes in the margins of your books? Please share what is or isn’t in your reading toolbox in the comments.