Saturday, 25 May 2013

Worlds Apart? - A Comparative Study of Jane Austen's 'Emma' and Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'.



History tells us that Emily Bronte was not a fan of Jane Austen, yet the world she created in Wuthering Heights was not so very different from the world of Austen's Emma.

Part of the wonder and attraction of Wuthering Heights is the unmistakable wildness of the landscape. The rhythm of the language and the speed of the narrative seem to echo the non-relenting gusts of the north wind as it rages through the moors. The world Emily Bronte creates is synonymous with the characters who live there, both isolated and insular.
As such, it has many similarities with Hartfield, home of the Woodhouse family, in Jane Austen'sEmma. Although Hartfield is not 'removed from the stir of society', as Wuthering Heights is, it is still some sixteen miles outside London and is quite separate from the 'large populous village' of Highbury, just a lawn and a few shrubs beyond it. The class structure at the time of Austen's novel does not allow the Woodhouses to mix socially with the local people, but forms a rigid barrier between them. This induced isolation compares easily to the geographical distance between Wuthering Heights and the rest of the world. Therefore, on one level, the worlds of Cathy Earnshaw and Emma Woodhouse are quite similar.
Both girls live within small communities, meeting the same people, day in and day out. Emma has a wider choice of acquaintance, but, due to her father's 'habits of gentle selfishness', she rarely encounters people outside 'his own circle'. Cathy, on the other hand, has no such luxury. Her select number of companions dwindle as illness and death steal them from her. It is possible, then, that both girls experience the same sense of isolation and seclusion: one due to geography and the other due to social class.
The insular world's of Wuthering Heights and Hartfiled allows the women little scope to canvass lovers. As a result, the love relationships in both novels tend to be incestuous in nature, with few exceptions. Focusing here on Cathy and Emma, we see how both suffer from 'the boy next door syndrome' and marry the nearest neighbouring bachelor who comes to call. However, our heroines have a particularly close relationship with the men they love. Taking Cathy first, we can see how her relationship with Heathcliff is much more incestuous that her marriage to Edgar. As children they were very close, sharing the same house and crying the same tears at the death of the man who had been a father to them both.
Nelly remembers that they shared a room, and says, 'I ran to the children's room: their door was ajar... The little souls were comforting each other with better thoughts than I could have hit on.' With Hindley away at college, they each clung to the other as the only family they had left in the world. Mr. Earnshaw named Heathcliff after a son who had died and in that way Heathcliff replaced Cathy's dead sibling and became a foster one. It is because of the close, familial relationship between Cathy and Heathclff early on in the novel, that readers are sometimes bemused by the almost incestuous nature of their adult relationship.
Emma's romance with the owner of Donwell Abbey is not so unusual until we consider that he is, in fact, her brother-in-law. Indeed, Emma's sister Isabella had once been 'a favourite of Mr Knightley herself. (having) been first with him for many years past'. But, as we know, Knightley falls for Emma and becomes intimate with the family at Hartfield, visiting in all kinds of weather and taking advantage of an open-invitation just to be close to Emma. His ability to scold and chide her inappropriate behaviour shows us their relationship early on in the text is more like that of big-brother-little sister, than of lovers. Indeed, the eighteen years age difference between them can only have emphasised this point. It is clear that Emma once saw Knightley as a brother, for when she decides to dance with Mr Knightley at the Crown Ball, she says, 'you know we are really not so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper'.
However, it is not really so surprising that both Cathy and Emma pitch their hearts so close to home, considering that Wuthering Heights and Emma were published in the eighteenth century when marriage between close relatives, such as first cousins, was seem as perfectly normal practice. It displays yet another similarity between the two fictional worlds of these novels.
The parallels between Emma and Cathy do not stop there. Consider how both girls are viewed as real beauties, with Cathy described as 'the queen of the countryside, and Emma as having rare beauty in 'face and figure'. Both, in their mid-twenties, are the picture of health and with their enchanting looks no doubt had many admirers. In the novels, we meet some of them. However, the ability of the girls to attract men does not necessarily correspond with their ability to understand men. Indeed, these two heroines show a distinct inability to understand the workings of the male mind.
For example, when Cathy learns of Heathcliff's return, she immediately assumes Edgar will accept him as a friend. She forgets everything that has passed between the two men and crushes their hands together in a forced hand shake. Cathy has no understanding of their feeling at this moment. Edgar hates Heathcliff because he has possession of his wife's heart, while Heatcliff returns the feeling because it is Edgar who possesses his beloved's hand in marriage. The depth of hatred they feel for each other knows no bounds, yet Cathy expects and insists that the rivals become friends.
Emma Woodhouse is just as naive about how men think. She confidently takes it upon herself to find a wife for Mr Elton and delightedly decides upon Harriet as the perfect choice. Mr Knightley tries to warn her against meddling in Elton's affairs, saying that that the clergyman would never marry the illegitimate daughter of nobody knows who. But Emma is decided. She boasts to Knightley, 'I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in'. But Emma could not be more wrong. Elton tells her directly, 'Everybody has their level; but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss'.
Both Cathy and Emma misjudge relationships between the sexes. In Wuthering Heights, Cathy gets completely carried away with sentiment when Heathcliff returns from his time away and it is left to Edgar to warn her to curb her excitement and not to behave in an 'absurd' way in front of the servants. Cathy seems to have no idea of what constitutes proper behaviour between men and women. As a girl, she lavishes Heathcliff with 'girlish caresses', and does not think to alter her behaviour towards him as she gets older.
Emma too has difficulty judging her relationships with men. When Mr Elton pounces on her in the carriage, after the dinner at the Randalls, she can only wonder at his presumption that she feels anything but friendship for him. However, later, after some contemplation, she realises that 'especially of late, (she had) thought his manners to herself unnecessarily gallant ... she had never ... suspected it to mean anything but grateful respect'. Yet, Emma had been warned by Mr John Knightley to regulate her behaviour towards Mr Elton, saying, 'I think your manners to him encouraging'.
How embarrassing it is for Emma to realise that her behaviour had been so ill-construed. While she
was trying to encourage his attentions to Harriet, he was forming an attachment with herself. Conversely, Emma believes that Frank Churchill is in love with her, when he is actually in love with Jane Fairfax She even believes he means to propose to her soon. The trip to Box Hill sees Emma flirting unashamedly with young Churchill. She allows his deceptive displays of flattery, seeing it as a game almost, but when his secret engagement to Jane is revealed, she is mortified, knowing how her behaviour must have hurt Jane, and how her behaviour towards Frank was more intimate than propriety usually allowed. Emma saw love where there was none, and was blind to it when it was offered. Like Cathy, Emma seems to have a distinct ability to misjudge relationships between the sexes and, in turn, be misjudged herself.
Despite their ineptitude at reading people, both girls manage to find a certain degree of happiness in the novels. How Cathy and Emma find love differs greatly and their stories are told in very different ways. Yet, regardless of how Emily Bronte viewed the writings of Jane Austen, there can be no denying that these two contrasting authors had much more in common than one might at first suppose.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Agnes Grey ~ by Anne Brontë


'Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I...will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.'  Thus proclaims the novel's protagonist, Agnes Grey, in the first paragraph of the novel of the same name.

Author Anne Brontë is often over-looked by modern readers, and I must admit to being such a one, until now.
After spending a weekend reading her first novel, I can easily declare that she is a writer equal to, and deserving of, the admiration often only the preserve of her sisters, Emily and Charlotte.

The story recounts the experiences of Agnes Grey, the novel's narrator, who indeed, 'candidly and honestly' relates her experiences as a governess in the North of England.  And here is where Anne Brontë differs from her sisters, in the veracity of her tale.  Not that Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre lack truth or insight, but rather Agnes Grey reads more like a piece of non-fiction than fiction.

Anne Brontë spent five years working as a governess, a fact easily gleaned from the pages of her book.  She presents the reader with tiny details of the daily activities, fears and responsibilities of one who lived among her employers, but not as one of them.  At the outset, Agnes declares that she wants to be a teacher, to influence the minds of her pupils and direct them in the ways of good behaviour.  But she fails to foresee how she will be perceived in the eyes of the families she will administer to.  Repeatedly, she is regarded as little more than a servant, her own needs and desires playing second fiddle to the whims of her selfish charges.  In this way, the novel contains a sense of injustice that is in common in the books written by her sisters.

It is clear that the events that she relates are based on fact: the arguments at the homes of her employers, their treatment of one another and herself too, all sound so real as to be better placed in the genre of autobiography.  There is one scene, in particular, which tells of a disagreement between husband and wife over the quality of the beef supper.  Mr Bloomfield declares that the meat is too tough.  Mrs Bloomfield retorts that the cook is to blame.  He counters that she cannot be much of a wife if she leaves all such domestic matters to the whim of a mere cook!  Despite all his complaints, he still manages to eat a few mouthfuls.
I like to believe that Brontë was inspired to write this scene by the memories of a real event and I take even greater delight in imagining how the man and woman in question, Anne Brontë's former employers, must have been so scandalised and horrified to read of themselves in the novel by their old, hopeless, governess.  Little did they suspect that the world would soon learn of their selfish pettiness.
The first few chapters do not read like a novel at all, but a diary.  It is not until she leaves the Bloomfields and moves to a situation some miles from her home place, that the book takes on the tones of a novel, in the truest sense.  Agnes's mother seeks out a position for her daughter in the upper classes of society, and so our heroine goes to live with the Murray family.  At Horton Lodge, she mixes with the very wealthy and discovers that here too, people think very little of paid subordinates.  She is chaperon and teacher to Miss Rosalie Murray and her sister Matilda, both of whom have little interest in learning.  While one sister prefers the company of grooms and curses like a trooper, the other delights in teasing local, respectable men, with her tantalising beauty and winning ways.  Agnes's plainness and honestly come into even clearer focus when in their company.
In this elegant society, the narrative style is more in keeping with that of Jane Austen than the Brontë sisters, although the hero of the piece is neither a Darcy, nor a Rochester, nor a Heathcliff indeed!  Anne (and Agnes's) choice of hero is small in stature and not at all handsome:
'In stature he was a little, a very little, above the middle size; the outline of his face would be pronounced too square for beauty, but to me it announced decision of character... but from under those dark brows there gleamed an eye of singular power, brown in colour, not large, and somewhat deep–set, but strikingly brilliant, and full of expression...'
Given the same name as a character from two Austen novels, Mr Weston is a respectable curate, and not at all unlike many of Austen's leading men.  There are no brooding, tormented, high-born men riding out of the mist for Anne Brontë.  Her choice of hero is a good, Christian man, who visits the sick, is charitable to the poor and kind to animals.  A character more unlike the Byronic Heathcliff there could not be.  The feelings that that slowly develop between the unassuming Agnes and Mr Weston is every bit as fragile and tender as the primroses that he gives her when out walking.  But is happiness in store for Agnes?  That I cannot tell you.  But I will recount how much Agnes desires it.  She prays:
 'I have lived nearly three-and-twenty years, and I have suffered much, and tasted little pleasure yet; is it likely my life all through will be so clouded?  Is it not possible that God may hear my prayers, disperse these gloomy shadows, and grant me some beams of heaven’s sunshine yet?  Will He entirely deny to me those blessings which are so freely given to others, who neither ask them nor acknowledge them when received?  May I not still hope and trust? '
 What I find so moving about this piece of prose is how it relates to Anne Brontë in real life.  What a tragedy to know that none of life's little pleasures came true for Anne, nor her sister Emily either.  They did not find love, were not married and did not bear children.  Indeed, they never found independence in a home of their own.  One can see from this passage how desperately Anne desired these simple things.
Her interest in the position of women in Victorian society is clear from the plot line of the novel.  It begins with Agnes's mother, Mrs Grey, who turns her back on a privileged life, for the sake of love.  Agnes relates that her mother, 'would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world.'  But the story goes on to relate how the daughters of Mrs Grey were the ones to bear the brunt of such a decision, having little income to live on as they got older.

 Then Brontë considers the plight of the wealthier women in society. Mrs Bloomfield is ignored and disparaged by her husband in turns, for being a bad mother and a woeful housekeeper.  Mrs Murray has little sway over her daughters behaviour, but it is her daughter Rosalee's fate, that Brontë plays particular attention to.  The author notes how Miss Murray's only desire is to be mistress of  Ashby Park, caring little for her husband, Lord Ashby.  Her mercenary feelings on the subject of marriage ultimately come back to haunt her.  She indeed does come to live at the great house, but is imprisoned there by her husband who distrusts her flirtatious temperament and is fearful of scandal.
The irony is that while Agnes is  free to come and go as she pleases, the once beautiful Miss Murray, now the wilting Lady Ashby, is not.  What is Brontë, then, saying about the institution of marriage?   I believe that she means to warn young women about the dangers of giving away their liberty too easily, without first taking stock of the man to who they will be legally and spiritually tethered, all the days of their life.  Indeed, the novel begins with this honest statement about her reasons for writing the book ...
'All true histories contain instruction...I sometimes think it might prove useful to some...'   
Here is the sentiment at the heart of the entire novel:   Brontë is trying to teach, to instruct, and the moral she means to impart is that women do have choices to make, however limited they might be.  Where Austen might say, 'by all means marry for love, but take care that you marry a man of good fortune', Brontë seems to believe that marrying for love is the right thing to do, and that monetary cares will not be so burdensome when shared with those you love.  

Brontë has also much to say about beauty in this text.  She states unequivocally that the doling out of beauty to one person, but not another, is a fact of life, and that there are clear advantages to being so well-favoured.

'If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime...'
And then she makes a moving plea for the case of one not blessed by beauty, using the metaphor of a glow-worm to press her point.  


'As well might the humble glowworm despise that power of giving light without which the roving fly might pass her and repass her a thousand times, and never rest beside her: she might hear her winged darling buzzing over and around her; he vainly seeking her, she longing to be found, but with no power to make her presence known, no voice to call him, no wings to follow his flight;—the fly must seek another mate, the worm must live and die alone.'
This description of a woman passed over because no one noticed how much love she had to give, is all the more poignant because we know that Anne Brontë was just such a woman.  She never got to show the love she had the power to bestow, never got to 'make her presence known'.

This novel is no mere tale of a slighted governess, bitterly revealing the scandals and secrets of past employers.  No.  It is a very thoughtful, thought-provoking book about family, love and the desire to live a full and honest life.  Is not that something we all can relate to?  I urge you to read this wonderful, wonderful book, if for nothing else but to let the words of Anne Brontë not go unnoticed, and to redress the neglect of such a fine writer who has gone uncelebrated for far too long.