Saturday, 29 March 2008

What to read after a funeral?

This has been a long, long week. A good friend died last Friday (Good Friday), and his funeral was yesterday. And now it's Saturday night, and my husband is away (he's a musician, and has been touring for what feels like forever) and my two teenage sons are out, and I'm eating grapes. Before the grapes, I ate two packets of Maltesers and a Vietnamese takeaway , though not in that order (and I shared the takeaway and the chocolate with my 13 year old son).
Anyway, I feel the need to read, but it's got to be the right thing. Grieving makes me a) hungry; b) sleepless; c) restless; d) in need of a good book.
I can't quite settle to anything (too little sleep, too much anxiety coursing through the veins, along with the sugar) but I've been dipping in and out of The Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte (OUP), meticulously edited by Margaret Smith. And I've just re-read Charlotte's letter to William Smith Williams, who worked for her publisher; it is dated 2nd October 1848, and was therefore written soon after the death of her brother Branwell (he had died on 24th September). I've read this letter several times before, but it struck me again how angry she seems with her brother; her acute sense of disappointment in him:
"It is not permitted us to grieve for him who is gone as others grieve for those they lose; the removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement. Branwell was his Father's and his sisters' pride and hope in boyhood, but since Manhood, the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right path; to know the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career."
Poor Charlotte, though I can't help but feel sorry for Branwell. And no wonder Daphne du Maurier chose to write a biography of Branwell when she was feeling her own, acute sense of failure; and yet also when she was suppressing her rage about her husband's failings, after he had betrayed her by having an affair, then drinking himself to the point of collapse. As for Branwell: well, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol and laudanum, but did he actually have an affair with his employer's wife? That's the story -- the reason given by everyone from Mrs Gaskell onwards as to why Branwell fell apart -- but Du Maurier thought otherwise. She believed it was just another one of his fantasies -- part of the "infernal world" of Angria, the imaginary landscape conjured up by Charlotte and Branwell in childhood, and thereafter, where truth and fiction became indistinguishable. I think that possibly says as much about Du Maurier's own state of mind at the time she was writing her Branwell biography, when her emotional landscape seems to have been as vividly populated by characters from her novels as from her family.
And there's a similar sense of the threading together of a fictional world with the 'real' one in another of Charlotte Bronte's letters, written to Mr Williams the following year, on 1st November 1849, after the death of her sisters, Emily and Anne. Her novel, "Shirley", had just been reviewed in the Daily News, by a critic who was scathing about the depiction of the male characters in the novel ("Not one of its men are genuine. There are no such men") and who then took a swipe at the opening of "Jane Eyre" as 'vulgar' and 'disgusting'. Charlotte wrote in her letter:
"I have just received the 'Daily News'. Let me speak the truth -- when I read it my heart sickened over it. It is not a good review -- it is unutterably false. If 'Shirley' strikes all readers as it has struck that one -- but -- I shall not say what follows.
On the whole I am glad a decidedly bad notice has come first -- a notice whose inexpressible ignorance first stuns and then stirs me. Are there no such men as the Helstones and the Yorkes?
Yes there are.
Is the first chapter disgusting or vulgar?
It is not: it is real.
... Were my Sisters now alive they and I would laugh over this notice -- but they sleep -- they will wake no more for me -- and I am a fool to be so moved by what is not worth a sigh --
Believe me
Yours sincerely
CB"
It's such a sad letter; and her grief and her rage still ring out from the page...

Apologies for the rambling content of tonight's post. All the chocolate in the house is now eaten, so I'm off to make myself a cup of camomile tea.

13 comments:

Clare Dudman said...

That is so sad - I think it's made even more heart-breaking because you can tell what's in her mind without her overtly saying it. I'm finding this fascinating - I didn't realise DAPHNE would also be about the Bronte's too! I've always wondered about Branwell...

Table Talk said...

No apologies needed. Finding your way through such a difficult time is always going to be hard. Thank you for trusting the blogging network enough to share with us and give us the chance to hold out a helping hand. When my mind can't settle to anything, whatever the reason, I very often find myself going back to collections of letters or journals. May Sarton, in particular, has been of tremendous help to me over the years, even though there are aspects of her personality that I find infuriating. Part of what you include here, though reminded me more of some of the entries in Virginia Woolf's journals. She would agonise over her reviews and try to rationalise a bad one in just such a way as Charlotte Bronte. When I first started blogging I made a vow that if I couldn't say something good about a book then I wouldn't write about it at all and I'm sure that in large part that was because of what i learnt through reading Woolf.

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm feeling more myself today. Had the first reasonable night's sleep in a fortnight, so that makes everything else feel more manageable.
And Clare, it's interesting the overlaps between Du Maurier and the Brontes -- the wildness of the Yorkshire moors has its mirroring in her wild Cornwall -- both landscapes as much a reflection of a state of mind, as a physical place.

Justine Picardie said...

Ann, you're so right about Virginia Woolf's journals -- in fact, I was reading them last night, and posted on dovegreyreader with a quote from one (a letter, actually), about her preferring 'outsiders' to 'insiders'.
I completely agree with you about reviewing, by the way. Whenever I've felt agonised over a bad review, I return to Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf -- and several other writers, like Rosamond Lehmann -- who have all written so movingly about the experience of seeing their books kicked to the ground. Not that I'm comparing my own writing to theirs' -- they are obviously far, far better writers than me -- but it helps to know that they suffered, too.

crimeficreader said...

Grief is a many splendoured thing, although we may not know it at the time of our experience. The focus moves from the death of your loved one to the life of your loved one and the memories, which still hurt because of the loss, can also be a joy when remembered.

Clare does not know this, but her recent post on sheds took me back to my childhood and the day I finally asserted myself against a school friend, I thought at the time, to be a bully. She was not really, and by today's standards was definitely not, but it was my "fight back" moment that has lived with me since.

Good luck with the book, Justine. There is nothing like a passion for your subject, is there?

Hopefully posting this, as can be seen from my comment on dovegreyreader...

crimeficreader said...

Ooh, it worked and I'm stunned!

Justine Picardie said...

Yes, it worked! And not only did it work, you gave me much to think about. I love your phrase, "grief is a many splendoured thing". I now realise that if it wasn't for the grief over my sister's death, I might never have started writing books. Certainly, the book I wrote in the wake of her death emerged out of the cracks that grief made in my life.

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

I'm glad to hear you're feeling better today, Justine.

It might be obvious of me to say this, but I don't know what it is about Charlotte's letters that speaks so directly to the reader, even if the reader is not the one intended by her. I wish there were even more of her letters extant.

Elizabeth Gaskell usually fled from the country when her books were published just to avoid reading the reviews. (That's why it had to be initially her husband who dealt with Lady Scott's libel threats when The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published.)

Justine Picardie said...

Cristina - fleeing the country sounds like an excellent idea.
Have just read another heart-rending letter from Charlotte to W.S Williams, on 31st December 1847. He had -- rather unwisely -- just sent her two critical reviews of 'Jane Eyre'. One was in The Spectator, and said the book had 'too much artifice' and its author 'resorts to trick'. The other review called the novel 'pernicious'. Anyway, this is what she wrote in her response:
"You do very rightly and very kindly to tell me the objections made against 'Jane Eyre'; they are more essential than the praises. I feel a sort of heartache when I hear the book called 'godless' and 'pernicious' by good and earnest-minded men -- but I know that heartache will be salutory -- at least I trust so.
What is meant by the charges of 'trickery' and 'artifice' I have yet to comprehend. It was no art in me to write a tale -- it was no trick in Messrs Smith & Elder to publish it. Where do the trickery and artifice lie?"
I find it so moving that though she says, meekly, that it is good for her to be criticised, in the next paragraph, she stands up for herself,with all the passion of Jane Eyre.

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

At least at the beginning she had her sisters to laugh the reviews away (there's a very moving, tender letter where Charlotte describes reading the reviews from the North Atlantic Review (?) to her by then quite ill sisters).

She did, however, make some good points when refuting some critics, such as saying things like, 'To such critics I would say--'To you I am neither Man nor Woman--I come before you as an Author only--it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me--the sole ground on which I accept your judgement'.'(To W. S. Williams, 16 August 1849)

But Charlotte couldn't hide that she was really affected by reviews. Do you remember her furious, passionate 'word to the Quarterly' which she later reworked into a part of Shirley? Or when she totally severed her ties with Harriet Martineau over her review of Villette?

It would have been interesting to have seen how marriage and companionship would have altered that.

Cristina.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for reminding me of those letters, Cristina. She was FURIOUS with Harriet Martineau, wasn't she? What was it that Martineau had said that annoyed her so much?

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

Martineau criticised that Villette seemed full of one thing: passionate love, and criticised, for instance, Lucy's love for M. Paul Emanuel and Dr. John. Also, Martineau seems to have used personal knowledge of Charlotte for her review, which also hurt Charlotte.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks -- and now I must go and re-read the relevant section in Juliet Barker's book.