Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

How Did Charlotte’s Brontë’s Sisters Influence Jane Eyre?

Book cover of Jane Eyre

The result of a couple of weeks’ worth of work in total, this post is over 4000 words. I have thus formatted it as an essay and for convenience linked to the various sections.

Table Of Contents

Preface
Abbreviations
Introduction
Working Together
Plain Jane
The Other Sisters
Conclusion
Footnotes
Appendix A: Contemporary Reception of Life
Appendix B: Anne’s Own Influences – Agnes’ Horrific First Placement
References

Preface

In planning and writing this piece I chose for the most part to stick to primary and early secondary sources; this naturally afforded the opportunity to study the work of those closest to Charlotte (both in terms of relationships and era) without too much tertiary sources, and made research a lot easier in terms of access. I often made use of the Project Gutenberg versions of texts; where page numbers were not included I referred to digital versions of the originals. Contemporary sources, both first-hand accounts and literary criticism, are vast, and Charlotte’s own comments of her writing abundant; I decided to limit my research to Charlotte and her sisters – when I had the thought to look at their brother, Branwell, I discovered sources that are not considered trustworthy (this is the opinion of a number of other contemporary sources)1, and in terms of the family in general there is a great amount of information extending past the nuclear family that would have made this piece far too long. (William Wright’s 1893 book, The Brontë’s In Ireland, seems to have been well-regarded by his fellow enthusiasts.) This said, whilst I have focused on the sisters and Charlotte’s opinion of herself, I have allowed for slight wandering where I have discovered further interesting information as a result of my research.

Abbreviations

LifeThe Life Of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cowan Bridge – Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, in the village of Cowan Bridge (Charlotte often refers to it by the village’s name)

Introduction

“You think, because I always do as you bid me, I have no judgment of my own: but only try me – that is all I ask – and you shall see what I can do.” (2017, p.9)

This is from chapter one of Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. In chapter twenty-three of Jane Eyre, written after Anne’s book (though ultimately published before), older sister Charlotte included a line that is rather similar, and more well-known:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!” (2007a, pp.305-306)

The two lines are, in terms of phrasing and language, the same. They also share a similar context in terms of self-belief, and of course they are both uttered by characters who are known to be formed from the traits and values of their authors. But the wider contexts are entirely different. Agnes is responding to her family’s teasing that she is too young and dependent and so forth to go to work as a governess. She’s 18; the baby of the family. Jane is in the midst of a passionate argument with Rochester in regards to her belief that he’s about to marry marriage Blanche Ingram. She’s also rebuffing the way he treats her (Jane).

A comparison could be made in regards to the literary treatment, and questions asked about whether the two Brontë sisters felt a lack of self belief in themselves. Then there are the social, gender, contexts of the day to consider. But that’s not what I was thinking of when I found the two lines. Instead I wondered about the bigger picture of the sisters writing and how much they might have influenced each other, particularly, if it could be found, in this case of Agnes and Jane. (Gaskell reported that Charlotte’s character Shirley represented Emily2.) Having struggled and failed to find a publisher for her first manuscript, The Professor, yet succeeding in getting both Anne’s and Emily’s novels accepted as a two volume publication, and knowing that Charlotte read both, how much would Anne and Emily have influenced Charlotte as she tried to write something ‘acceptable’? And, knowing that Jane is in many respects Charlotte herself, how does her line from above relate?

Working Together

The sisters retained the old habit, which was begun in their aunt’s life-time, of putting away their work at nine o’clock, and beginning their study, pacing up and down the sitting room. At this time, they talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it. Charlotte told me, that the remarks made had seldom any effect in inducing her to alter her work… It was on one of these occasions that Charlotte determined to make her heroine plain, small, and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon. (Gaskell, 1857a, pp. 10-11)

In Life, Gaskell sets the scene, inferring that the sisters discussed their writing every evening. It’s interesting to note the words ascribed directly to Charlotte here: ‘remarks’, ‘seldom any effect’, and, particularly, ‘inducing’. It could be that Gaskell herself composed the sentence, and that would possibly be the opinion of others who knew Charlotte, given their reception of Life (see Appendix A), but if we consider the account to be verbatim, then those words are very similar in their approach and mood, and they are pointed. Why ‘remarks’ instead of the softer ‘comments’ or ‘thoughts’? ‘Seldom any effect’ – nowadays this phrasing might be taken as haughty, but if we exclude that idea and consider that that might not be the case here, we still have a phrase with two possible subtexts: firstly, that the ‘remarks’ truly didn’t have an effect, and secondly, that they did and Charlotte wished to say otherwise.

It’s the use of ‘inducing’ that rounds it all off – did Charlotte think her sister’s opinions unworthy or were they being quite forceful in their feedback? Was Charlotte perhaps covering up her positive reception of their feedback? Certainly she edited her sisters’ works3; would they not have been able to do likewise, if not publicly?

There is another, more specific, occasion recounted in Life, the original source cited only in vague terms that might therefore have been lost on us now if it hadn’t been specified by others. Another literary friend of Charlotte’s who, given Gaskell’s description of their article, “a beautiful obituary”, and, helpfully, “most likely learnt from herself [Charlotte] what is there stated” (Gaskell, 1857a, p. 11) was Harriet Martineau, who says the following:

…She [Charlotte] once told her sisters that they were wrong – even morally wrong – in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was: “I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and small as myself, who still shall be as interesting as any of yours.” “Hence ‘Jane Eyre,'” said she in telling the anecdote: ‘but she is not myself, any further than that.’ (Martineau, 1869, p.48)4

Not only does this provide insight into the sisters’ working method, it also provides added context for Gaskell’s anecdote.

Plain Jane

In her 1886 book, Hattie Tyng Griswold seemingly expands on the information in Martinteau’s account:

She was extremely sensitive about her personal appearance, considering herself irredeemably ugly, and always thinking that people must be disgusted with her looks. She purposefully made her heroine in “Jane Eyre” unattractive, as she felt it an injustice that a woman must always be judged by her looks, and she felt that novelists were somewhat to blame in the matter, as they always made their heroines beautiful in person, however unattractive in mind or character (p. 296).

We know Charlotte felt negatively about her looks. On 24th March, 1847, Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey5 and said:

I’ll take care not to tell you next time, when I think I am looking specially old and ugly; as if people could not have that privilege, without being supposed to be at the last gasp! I shall be thirty-one next birthday. My youth is gone like a dream; and very little use have I ever made of it.” (cited in Gaskell, 1857a, pp. 18-19)

She also spoke openly to Gaskell about her looks, to which Gaskell adds for the reader her own commentary, ending with a refutation of the opinion:

Much of this nervous dread of encountering strangers I ascribed to the idea of her personal ugliness, which had been strongly impressed upon her imagination early in life, and which she exaggerated to herself in a remarkable manner. “I notice,” said she, “that after a stranger has once looked at my face, he is careful not to let his eyes wander to that part of the room again!” A more untrue idea never entered into any one’s head. (1857a, p. 290)

Of particular interest here, in regards to the use of a ‘plain’ character, is the note that Charlotte’s thoughts had been provided to her – how, we may not know, but in Gaskell’s words is the suggestion that third parties had vocalised their opinions. Perhaps this was why Charlotte was outspoken about her feelings – she was simply repeating (and, sadly, had taken to heart) what others had told her. (Whilst there’s a chance that it was Charlotte who had made the impression herself, Gaskell’s wording makes this unlikely.)

When we add this to Griswold’s extra commentary, and regard both in the light of that statement from Jane to Rochester, we can see someone who had an idea of herself that she was perhaps used to, but nevertheless railed against. And this in itself provides background for Griswold’s statement about injustice – Jane may be plain but that doesn’t mean she is soulless and heartless.

Lastly on this note is this statement by contemporary author Margaret Oliphant, who reviewed Jane Eyre. Oliphant’s words join Gaskell’s ‘more untrue idea’ and put Jane where Charlotte perhaps wanted her to be, a place vastly different to the one other reviewers had set her:

I am not sure, indeed, that anybody believed Miss Brontë when she said her heroine was plain. It is very clear from the story that Jane was never unnoticed, never failed to please, except among the women, whom it is the instinctive art of the novelist to rouse in arms against the central figure, thus demonstrating the jealousy, spite, and rancour native to their minds in respect to the women who please men (1897, p, 18).

It would be fair to say that Charlotte’s construction of a plain heroine, to show her sisters how interesting one such character could be, succeeded. Oliphant’s positive opinion was but one of many; Charlotte could count Thackeray among her readers, and many reviewers loved it. As we know, it quickly became a sensation and went swiftly to a second edition.

The Other Sisters

If we’re to look at Charlotte’s sisters, we must not forget the eldest. There were originally five Brontë sisters; Maria and Elizabeth died young as a result of illness caught at school. The details were summed up in the third volume of Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature, published in 1903, in the section about Charlotte:

The two eldest daughters were sent, in July 1824, to a school for clergymen’s daughters at Cowan Bridge near Kirby-Lonsdale, and Charlotte and Emily followed in September. A low fever broke out in the school, and Maria and Elizabeth became seriously ill, and were taken home to die. Though Charlotte was but eight years old, the habit of observation had set in, and she attributed the death of her sisters to their cruel treatment in the school, an injury avenged in the opening scenes of Jane Eyre (p. 520).

The ‘low fever’ was likely tuberculosis – the disease came in the aftermath of a typhoid outbreak at the school (Wikipedia, n.d. b)6.

Like the other descriptions of the Brontë’s in this era, we can assume Chambers took as its source Life and/or derivative works made from it. Gaskell herself says in particular that Helen Burns is a transcript of Maria, and that those who had been pupils alongside Charlotte recognised in Charlotte “an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer” (Gaskell, 1857b, p.73). Following this, Gaskell provides an account from one of those pupils of a day during Maria’s illness when the woman in charge – Gaskell calls her by the name given to her in Jane Eyre, Miss Scatcherd – got angry about Maria not getting out of bed, and ‘abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits’ (ibid., pp. 73-74). This information forms part of a vast amount of content provided by Gaskell about Cowan Bridge, comprised of both objective facts and Charlotte’s feelings about her time there.

Helen Burns’ situation is of course dire, a painful disease followed by death that affects Jane a lot. The story is very much the conclusion of an awful time at an awful school, echoing Charlotte’s time and experience, which was perhaps made worse by Charlotte’s young age, the way experiences can be heightened then. Gaskell says, as one of many paragraphs about Cowan Bridge:

Miss Brontë more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood in “Jane Eyre,” if she had thought the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it; she also said that she had not considered it necessary, in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a court of justice, nor to seek out motives, and make allowances for human failings, as she might have done, if dispassionately analysing the conduct of those who had the superintendence of the institution. I believe she herself would have been glad of an opportunity to correct the over-strong impression which was made upon the public mind by her vivid picture, though even she, suffering her whole life long, both in heart and body, from the consequences of what happened there, might have been apt, to the last, to take her deep belief in facts for the facts themselves – her conception of truth for the absolute truth (ibid., pp. 64-65).

For a more modern explanation of the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth we can turn to Margaret Smith, recent editor of Charlotte’s letters, who notes that the sisters ‘began or grew worse’ at Cowan Bridge (Smith, in Bronte, 2007b, p.87n). If the latter – ‘worse’ – then it’s perhaps more reasonable that those at Cowan Bridge might be angry – Helen’s fate sets in stone the earlier experiences of Lowood. But to her publishers, of the scenes at Lowood, Charlotte said:

Perhaps too the first part of ‘Jane Eyre’ may suit the public taste better than you anticipate – for it is true and Truth has a severe charm of its own. Had I told all the truth, I might indeed have made it far more exquisitely painful – but I deemed it advisable to soften and retrench many particulars lest the narrative should rather displease than attract (ibid., p.86).

It is here that Charlotte accepts the suggestion to add ‘an autobiography’ to the title. A few months later, in a letter to the publishers’ literary adviser, William Smith Williams, Charlotte spoke about seeing ‘an elderly clergyman reading it the other day, and had the satisfaction of hearing him exclaim…’ (ibid. pp. 96-97) and she notes the man’s declarations of the school and the teachers, which in her transcription is devoid of specifics. (Charlotte makes use of the common literary device of the day wherein references to specific people and places are excluded, presumably, in this case, to lessen any more complaints should anyone else hear of the inclusion of the school, particularly as the words of the ‘elderly clergyman’ – whom Smith says may be Charlotte’s friend, a reverend who had sent his daughters to the school (ibid. p. 97n) – are strong and damning.)

Conclusion

It is clear that Charlotte’s sisters had a big influence on Jane Eyre. Where Emily and Anne were very well placed to provide advice and inspiration in real time, Maria and Elizabeth’s lives, in terms of Charlotte’s memories and the reflections of others, provided content that Charlotte used as the background to her character. Charlotte’s agreement to use ‘an autobiography’ on the title page, together with her openness about her inspiration – an openness that extends to a fair amount of the characters and themes in general – provides evidence; it also provides us a wonderful, detailed, look into Charlotte’s world, both in terms of her mental processes and how she lived. Through her letters and the accounts of those who knew her we can see the turmoil and battles she went through in order to do justice to the various aspects of her life and family, and the strength she kept hold of when negative reactions to her work rolled in. Jane Eyre is as much about her loyalty to her family and their struggles as it is about her time as a governess, gender, and the unrequited love she felt for her teacher, which she had unsuccessfully wrote about before and would reform in order to create her third publication.

Footnotes

1 Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature (vol 3) offers a brief summary about Branwell and Patrick Brontë: ‘Doubtless the book was unusually outspoken. The obsession of Branwell’s conduct and conversation at the time she [Charlotte] wrote it goes further than anything else to account for this. There is also abundant testimony that her father and one or two men who visited her home talked before her, if not to her, with as little reticence as Rochester talked to Jane Eyre.’ (1903, p. 522). Whilst the accounts Chambers references seem to be legitimate, there is an account of a meeting with the family that also fits the description but is possibly not reliable in Francis Gundy’s book, Pictures Of The Past (an autobiographical work published in 1879).
2 Charlotte had apparently told Gaskell that Shirley was Emily: ‘The character of Shirley herself, is Charlotte’s representation of Emily. I mention this, because all that I, a stranger, have been able to learn about her has not tended to give either me, or my readers, a pleasant impression of her. But we must remember how little we are acquainted with her, compared to that sister, who, out of her more intimate knowledge, says that she “was genuinely good, and truly great,” and who tried to depict her character in Shirley Keeldar, as what Emily Brontë would have been, had she been placed in health and prosperity.’ (1857a, p.116). But Ellen Nussey, who knew Emily as well as anyone outside the family, did not recognise Emily in Shirley (Wikipedia, n.d. c).
3 The second edition of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, published in 1850, was edited by Charlotte.
4 It is likely to have been the author and critic Clement Shorter who added the first written citation of this reference to Martineau; Shorter’s 1900 edition of Life notes Martineau’s article as having appeared in the Daily News (Shorter, 1900, p.324). The editor of the 1996 edition of Life, Angus Easson, cites the exact date: 6th April 1855 (Easson, 1996, p. 529). Martineau’s book, Biographical Sketches, came later, in 1869, and in it the introduction to Charlotte’s reported dialogue was altered. In addition, the article, seemingly in its original form, was reprinted in the Daily Alta California on 30th May 1855. (See the References section for a link: the Daily News article appears to not be online, so, whilst the American reprint is a little difficult to read, it offers a chance to view it.) Interestingly, this reprint cites the London Morning News, suggesting Martineau’s article had been widely syndicated.
5 Life does not say that the letter was to Ellen, however Shorter identifies it as such (1990, p.331). Nussey was Charlotte’s long-term close friend.
6 The Wikipedia article includes further information about the conditions at the school in regards to Charlotte’s own treatment.

Appendix A: Contemporary Reception of Life

Some years after Life was published, a letter from Charlotte’s father, Patrick, to Gaskell, was discovered. In it, he requests his recipient write about his daughter, saying: “You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done. If, therefore, you will be so kind as to publish a long or short account of her life and works, just as you may deem expedient and proper, Mr. Nicholls and I will give you such information as you may require.” (Patrick Branwell to Elizabeth Gaskell, 16th June 1855, cited in Shorter, 1900, pp. xxiii-xxiv). However, the resulting text was not well-received. Shorter says later in his introduction, “Not only the public but the intimate relations and friends appeared to be satisfied” and includes letters from Patrick Brontë to the publisher and to Gaskell (Shorter, 1900, p. xxvii), however as the book became widely known, “Mrs. Gaskell found herself in a veritable ‘hornets’ nest’ – as she expressed it. She visited Italy the moment her task was completed, and during April and May of the year 1857 her publishers had to bear the brunt of a considerable number of lawyers’ letters.” (ibid., p.xxx) One of these letters was in regards to the lady Charlotte’s brother, Branwell, had likely had an affair with. Others were in regards to those who had been negatively described: ‘The published text does not go so far as to blame him [the school master] for the deaths of two Brontë sisters, but even so the Carus Wilson family published a rebuttal with the title “A refutation of the statements in ‘The life of Charlotte Bronte,’ regarding the Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, when at Cowan Bridge”.’ (Wikipedia, n.d. a)

Appendix B: Anne’s Own Influences – Agnes’ Horrific First Placement

Gaskell and Charlotte spoke about the sisters’ writing far beyond methods, editing, and Charlotte’s thoughts as to heroines. In Life, Gaskell writes about a conversation she had with Charlotte in regards to Anne’s first book; this answers a question readers may have as to the reality of the scene in which Agnes swiftly destroys a nest of baby birds in order to prevent the slower, sadistic killing by her young charge:

I was once speaking to her [Charlotte] about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experiences as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature… (Gaskell, 1857b, pp. 189-190)

Following this, Charlotte had recounted a story from her own life wherein a boy had thrown stones at her.

References

Books

Brontë, Anne (2017) Agnes Grey, Vintage Classics, London
Brontë, Charlotte (2007-a) Jane Eyre, Vintage Classics, London
Brontë, Charlotte (2007-b) Selected Letters, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature Vol 3 (3rd ed) (1903), W&R Chambers Ltd, Edinburgh
Easson, Angus (ed.) Explanatory Notes, in Gaskell, Elizabeth, (1996) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857-a) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 2, Smith, Elder & Co., London
Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857-b) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London
Griswold, Hattie Tyng (1902) Home Life Of Great Authors, 7th ed, A C McClurg & Co, Chicago
Martineau, Harriet (1869) Biographical Sketches, author’s edition, Leypoldt & Holt, New York
Oliphant, Margaret, “The Sisters Brontë” in Oliphant et al (1897), Women Novelists Of Queen Victoria’s Reign, Hurst & Blackett, London
Shorter, Clement K (ed.) Gaskell, Elizabeth (1900) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Haworth edition, Harper & Brothers, New York/London

Articles

Daily Alta California (30th May 1855) Death of Currer Bell, Vol. 6, Number 136, front page, accessed 8th February 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) The Life of Charlotte Brontë, accessed 11th February 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-b) Cowan Bridge School, accessed 24th April 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-c) Shirley (novel), accessed 24th April 2019

 
The Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 Shortlist

A photograph of the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 shortlist, listed below

Yesterday I attended the shortlist announcement for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize. It was great to see Annabel of Annabookbel and Clare of A Little Blog Of Books; we had a good natter about our thoughts so far and of course books in general. The setting was wonderful, a room with a view across the City. As the time came for the announcement we gathered towards the microphone.

Introducing the announcement, Andrew Kidd, co-founder, said:

“The 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize judges, themselves all writers of great renown, have tackled their brief – to identify the single best work of literature published in the English language last year – with amazing energy and flair. The eight, brilliant books now in the running for that distinction cut across all borders and genre, and are a testament to how writers are also the most astute and generous of readers.”

This year’s judges are writers Kate Clanchy (chair), Chloe Aridjis, and Owen Sheers. They chose the following eight books from a longlist of 20:

Ashleigh Young: Can You Tolerate This? (Bloomsbury)
Guy Stagg: The Crossway (Picador)
Alice Jolly: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile (Unbound)
Anna Burns: Milkman (Faber & Faber)
Diana Evans: Ordinary People (Chatto & Windus)
Raymond Antrobus: The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins)
Tommy Orange: There There (Harvill Secker)
Carys Davis: West (Granta)

Established in 2013 and sponsored by Rathbone Investment Management, the Prize is open to writers from around the world who write in English. It is open to all types of books – the longlist included a collection of short stories, and the shortlist includes essays (Young), travel writing (Stagg), and poetry (Antrobus). Last year’s winner was Richard Lloyd Parry for Ghosts Of The Tsunami.

The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced on 20th May at the British Library.

 
Nine Years

A screenshot from the Sims 3 of a birthday party

Tomorrow The Worm Hole will be nine years old. It’s been a strange year, a lot of difference, but full of good things. Whilst I haven’t been able to take on many review books due to uncertainty over deadlines (that’s recently started changing again) I’ve been able to spend more time on the books I already own as well as delve into classics in a more intentional manner. The necessity of posting less, due to various life changes but also to a major block (I got through eight years before having one so I guess it’s not so bad), made me think more about the content I did post. My plan for the next year is to find my way back to my schedule.

I thank you all for your support and for sticking with me when I haven’t been able to update.

Stats

Current post count: 1,208
Current review count: 465
Number of posts in the last year: 95
Number of reviews in the last year: 32
Most read post of all time thus far: The Ending Of The Awakening (7,606)
Most read post of the last year: (same as above; 3,671)

 
March 2019 Reading Round Up

March was pretty good: I didn’t finish many books but I’ve been reading a fair amount. I started the month with an easy re-read and that really helped; reading something you already know meaning less things to keep in mind and work out and as speed is something I struggle with it was very beneficial.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

Book cover

D H Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Unhappy with her life and marriage, an upper class Lady begins an affair with the estate gamekeeper as English social structures start to change. As full of sex as commonly believed, but also about the affects of industry; lengthy chapters and philosophising make this difficult but it’s a good read in terms of its place in the literary world.

Book cover

L M Montgomery: The Blue Castle – A woman still living at home, stifled by her dysfunctional, critical, relatives, abandons all to live the way she wants following a sobering diagnosis. Fantastic.

Book cover

Sofie Laguna: The Choke – A young girl from a bad background struggles to live her life despite her inability to understand what’s going on around her. A brilliant look at the cycle of abuse.

This was a high-quality month: The Blue Castle was obviously known, but I was pleasantly surprised just how much I enjoyed them – The Choke presented itself as interesting but is a lot better than it looks, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover had more to recommend it than I’d thought it would. I’d probably say the Montgomery still wins, but that’s partly because I’ve history with it; the Laguna deals with the extreme side of the same ballpark subject, so to speak, and is exceptional in its handling of it.

Quotation Report

Lawrence, on the changing nature of England:

“I consider this is really the heart of England,” said Clifford to Connie, as he sat there in the dim February sunshine.
“Do you?” she said, seating herself in her blue knitted dress, on a stump by the path.
“I do! This is the old England, the heart of it; and I intend to keep it intact.”
“Oh yes!” said Connie. But, as she said it she heard the eleven-o’clock hooters at Stacks Gate colliery. Clifford was too used to the sound to notice.

I’m currently almost half-way through Belinda and recently started The Death Of Baseball; both are over 400 pages so I knew I’d probably not finish them before April (Belinda is tough going) but I plan to chip away at the page count of both over the next couple of weeks.

What’s a recent favourite book of yours?

 
Classics Referencing Other Works (And The Problem With Dated Books)

A painting of Maria Edgeworth

This month has brought with it the constant urge to read the book(s) that inspired the book(s). Last year I read Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote first and foremost because the author was a Charlotte but in the time between deciding I would read it and the moment I started it, I discovered the connection to Jane Austen. If it wasn’t for the fact that the favourite novel of Lennox’s bookish heroine was 13,000 pages long, I would likely have moved on to it. But as it was, and as the other referenced books weren’t so memorable, I began and ended with Lennox’s work.

“I am no novel-reader – I seldom look into novels – Do not imagine that I often read novels – It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.
“And what are you reading, Miss-?”
“Oh! It is only a novel” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 5)

Presently I’m reading Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, mostly due to the above reference to it in Austen’s work; I am effectively now on my second read of a book that Austen was inspired by when writing Northanger Abbey. And through Belinda, as well as, if I recall correctly, the Oxford’s World Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s letters, I’ve been introduced to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield, which was apparently very famous in its day (less so now). I’d like to read that, too.

I have the exact problem I spied when I originally thought of reading books referenced in other books – I don’t know where I should stop. ‘Should’ is not quite right – I can read what I want, of course; it’s getting the right balance between choosing what you reading with a thought to time limits and increasing your literary knowledge in the way you’d like to. I’m personally yet to work out what is right for me; I wonder whether my interest in reading secondary sources will help or hinder. One thing I do know: considering the Goldsmith is a new addition to my list I may well not get to it, but if I do (it is apparently a riot) I’m very much hoping Goldsmith does not reference anyone himself.

Of course all this contextual reading – if at this point it can be called so – has taught me something I wasn’t aware of: the sheer number of past authors who haven’t worried about the longevity of their books. We talk nowadays of authors dating their books, putting in references to current culture that will mean they’ll likely be difficult to understand within a few years, but authors have been doing this since the early days of novels. I wonder if perhaps, with the fewer number of publications and the way it’s likely that authors were far closer to each other for the same reason, the idea of referencing wasn’t something to analyse prior to use. Definitely, if we look at works referenced, there was a strong element of trying to please those they admired (when the references were contemporary) and helping to form in-jokes that readers would understand (when references were a little older). This is where footnotes are of value; I’ve changed my mind on footnotes in books. I saw the value particularly when I checked a second, noted, edition of a book I was reading to find out who a referenced person was and found there was no entry for them.

There is a difference between then and now, however. References to popular books of yore are easy to look up, at least in the age of the Internet, and there were fewer books to start with. Nowadays there are many and the references to culture are more often digital, things that will likely have a short shelf life. The author most referenced in the classics I’m reading is Frances Burney, who was popular for a great many years, so much so that even if her books weren’t read today it’d be easy enough to find out about her. And that she wrote books is an easy concept to understand. I wonder if Twitter, which requires understanding of the Internet, will be as easy to understand in centuries to come.

Social media in books is the likely-to-be-dated-soon element I always note because of Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, which I’ve heard a lot about and would like to read at some point. I know that it deals with familiarity and obsession with famous people, and whilst these themes are longterm, I wonder how understanding and empathy in a reader will change when social media is long gone.

The above said, for all our worries about dating today’s books, it has been going on for centuries. And what we think usual today may not be usual tomorrow; but we think about what is going into a book and how the future may consider it. I think it’s fair to say that authors today know well how future-proof their work will be. Reading older books, one gets the sense that that wasn’t often considered.

What is your opinion on books that include today’s technology?

 

Older Entries