Monthly Archives: March 2013
In many ways, Wide Sargasso Sea and Shame are trying to accomplish the same things. Both are trying to give voice to previously silenced histories, and both narrators are doing so from the point of view of someone other than themselves. (Rushdie as a female narrator… but yes I admit I am assuming Rhys doesn’t have the same experiences of attic life as Bertha …although with my dating history who am I to judge?) Yet both authors try radically different ways of doing this through their writing; whilst one evades and slips, the other foreshadows and provides concrete evidence and justification. One tries to depict the personal through the collective, through multiple memories, whilst the other concentrates on individual interpretations. Which works for you? For me, to take someone else’s trauma, or someone else’s story and try to recreate it is fraught with potential disasters…what if you don’t do it properly? What if you cause more damage by misunderstanding the situation? What if you perpetuate the myths and problems that caused the issues in the first place? And of course there’s the age old charge of daring to turn someone else’s voice into a commercial product to be consumed by the same people who have commoditized and used them in the past….
But then again, can we really say that only certain people have the right to tell certain stories, and what does an “authentic” story even mean? Rushdie shows us that the process of telling stories, of sharing them and them becoming common currency, is a way of bringing people together.
“stories were the glue that held the clan together, binding the generations in webs of whispered secrets…in the sanctification of her tale lay initiation, kinship, blood.”
Perhaps then these books can be viewed, rather than being the definitive alternative voice, as the opening of a conversation, one in which we can all become incorporated. We can critique and adjust them, as we become part of the conversation ourselves. After all, isn’t that the point of what we do every day? There’s no such thing as a one way conversation after all. They always rely on someone writing back.
There’s been something of an uproar recently around one of the authors from the Autumn semester of Studying Literature: Hilary Mantel. No, she hasn’t capped her nearly unprecedented run of prizes and awards by being nominated for the vacant position as Pope. Instead she has become the centre of a tabloid firestorm which led to her being condemned by the Daily Mail and the leaders of both major political parties. It’s a curious story, and one that I think should concern us, as it presents us with some sort of parable about reading itself. An activity which you all carry on every day, but which seems to be oddly absent from a public row about a novelist.
To begin at the beginning, Hilary Mantel published an essay in the London Review of Books, based on a talk she gave to their podcast series. It’s not a magazine of huge circulation, it’s the sort of book-based publication your tutors have a subscription to. It’s like The Guardian but with more literary emphasis and slightly less left-wing politics. (I also recommend it thoroughly: fascinating stuff about the sort of subjects you didn’t know you wanted to know about…) In it she considered the way royal female bodies are the subject of scrutiny and interpretation, how they are recreated by people’s perception of their role.
This would have caused very little stir, perhaps. After all, not everyone scrutinises the LRB each fortnight. But the Daily Mail was incensed by some particular remarks Mantel had made about Kate Windsor, and trumpeted that she (Mantel) had called her (Windsor) a “plastic princess designed for breeding.” We wouldn’t usually link to the Daily Mail at Ask Bunbury, but it’s worth having a look at their piece, if only to see how they framed the issue. Indeed, they “framed” it in more than one sense, since the sidebar of pictures attached to that article might be seen as supporting Mantel’s point about the scrutiny of women’s bodies in public life.
As you will have noticed if you followed that link (and welcome back), the matter didn’t stop there. David Cameron was asked at a press conference what he thought of Mantel’s comments, and he made a public statement saying he thought she was “totally wrong and misguided”, It’s unclear whether Cameron or any of his staff had actually read the essay in question, as he seemed to take at face value the Daily Mail‘s description of it as a “venomous attack”, or The Sun‘s account of it as a “bizarre rant”. The same appears to be the case for Ed Miliband, who issued a statement stressing the great job Kate Windsor does.
Whatever one’s politics, it does seem remarkable that neither statement attempts to understand what Mantel’s piece of writing was actually saying. Either neither leader could spare a researcher or intern for the time required to read the essay, or they thought it would be politically damaging to try to put Mantel’s comments in their context. I’m not sure which possibility should concern us more, but the question of reading – and interpreting – a text is at the heart of this public row.
One (ex)-politicians was keen to assure us that they were familiar with the original context of the comments, however. Louise Mensch tweeted that she had read the whole piece “in five minutes”, causing the columnist Hadley Freeman to point out that it was about 6000 words in length and wondering if this qualified Mensch for the X-Men. Again, an intepretative dilemma: should we see Mench’s tweet as a hyperbole, reflecting her feeling that the essay was easily digestible, or as conclusive proof that she had not in fact bothered to work her way through it? Since Mensch writes novels under her maiden name Louise Bagshaw, she is herself unusually dependent on the time people are willing to take in engaging with an extended text for its own sake, rather than extracting zingy quotations.
So, a curious affair of reading, (deliberate) misreading, not-reading and possibly lying about reading. If nothing else it underlines the way the discussions we have within Studying Literature are part of a wide network of arguments over what texts mean, which can quickly enmesh the most famous people in the country. And it’s up to you to perform your own reading of this contested text: here’s a link to the original essay: “Royal Bodies” by Hilary Mantel
This is the place for you; whether you want to finish that argument you had across the seminar last week, let everyone know what you really thought about that text, or have a flick through the ideas of students and staff, you are very welcome here. We have polls and feedback (check out “and what do you think about that?”) as well as pieces inspired by the seminar texts (“seminar second helpings”) and more open ended discussions (see “lights on literature”). We want your ideas on it all, so leave your comments on anything that takes your fancy (just remember if you wouldn’t say it in a seminar please don’t say it here…)
As Oscar Wilde said “Don’t say you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong”. So get those fingers working and tell us what you think! Why not start by commenting on the “oh yeh I studied that one” post? We want to know your thoughts on your A level texts! And don’t forget to see what we’ve been thinking about Jane Eyre…
Since we’ve all survived it, now we can be honest about it: what did you really think about your A level texts? We want to know which you loved, and which you loathed, and of course why. Comment now to make sure your book gets remembered in the way it most deserves!
I find myself thinking, (and not for the first time,) that I’m incredibly lucky that no-one else can see what’s going on inside my head. Believe me, beneath this relatively calm exterior lies the kind of woman who could easily set fire to an entire house merely as a procrastination exercise… which is why it was so refreshing to hear from other people this week that they empathise with Bertha so utterly (just wait until next week!). But in a sense that’s the point of course; we all have our mad tendencies and thoughts, our moments of uncontrollable passion, so we can understand Bertha’s position, even if we don’t advocate her actions. Although admitting these things to myself as I stomp back to the kettle is quite another thing to admitting them in public. Or worse, writing it all down in a book…
So what do we make of Jane’s depictions of the madness around and within her, and is it voyeurism on our part, or do we recognise ourselves in some of these reflections? It’s not only Bertha who seems to experience madness after all (indeed since we are encouraged to perceive and feel as Jane does, would we also find ourselves going mad in the red room?). Is madness perhaps linked to space then rather than being rooted in certain people, and if so who polices the space, and do they also police the madness?
The other thing that really struck me was the extreme variation in the ways madness is represented. At one end of the scale we have an episode of violence, suicide and fire presented almost as a biblical epic. Contrastingly though for much of the novel Bertha is completely eradicated through silence. She is locked away with no link to the reader whatsoever. So madness is linked to both literal and literary death. But which depiction of madness do you find more problematic? Toni Morrison argues that silence itself can be “an unbearable violence, even in a work full of violence and evasion”. She’s not talking about Jane Eyre, but she has a good point. To me, the greatest fear (and this perhaps reflects some of the discourses we have on mental health today) is the fear of being utterly silenced; of being encouraged never to speak and for the feelings we have to be forever locked away. If we’re saying that we understand Bertha, and actually in many ways see her reactions as being more “normal” than those of the more refined characters around her (Stepford Wives anyone?) maybe we need to give her a voice at any cost. But then again, are we saying that Bertha is in a better position once she can speak? Remember since silence equals violence please tell me what you think!
Posted by Emma Wilde
Whilst we were discussing Jane Eyre in seminar this week, we noticed how the very beginning of Charlotte Brontë’s work sets up a different vision of the world to, say, Jane Austen’s. Take the opening of Sense and Sensibility:
The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased.
The focus is entirely on the social world in which these people live. Despite how carefully it situates them in place, family and social class, we get every little insight into the feelings of people at this stage. That phrase “so respectable a manner as to engage the good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance” fobs off all the value judgements onto what the people around them think. The social is paramount, opinions are arrived at by consensus, and people are located and understood by their relationships to each other. OK, Austen’s exercising her famous irony here, setting up a conventional world against which her characters’ feelings may exert tension. (It’s the same trick she pulls at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, asserting that “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” whilst not ever asserting that it’s true.) But they’ll still have to live out their lives in this world.
Contrast that with the opening of Jane Eyre:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
We’re parachuted into someone’s consciousness, apparently listening to a discussion which has already begun, and privy to personal emotions. Everything we see and hear is coloured by Jane’s powerful consciousness: our experience in this novel is less of events and people in themselves and more of the way they affect her. Indeed we are so firmly inside not only Jane’s point of view, but her psyche, that you can imagine (if you have a twisted sense of humour), Brontë turning round near the end of the novel and crying “JOKE! Actually none of this happened, it’s all Jane’s perfervid fantasies. She’s still stuck at Lowood, nearly unhinged with grief. Sad times for her, but I got a pretty good novel out of it.”
Jane’s relationship with Rochester partakes of the same tone – it’s not social in the way Austen’s love matches are. In fact it comes close to being anti-social. Their bond is intensely personal, inexplicable to others, and seems at one point capable of tearing the fabric of reality in order to get them back together. I’ve just noticed that the passage of Eyre I quoted has a reference to “the raw twilight”. An appropriate echo of Edward and Bella, who I gather are themselves Brontë sister enthusiasts.
In thinking about this comparison, I start to wonder if we read Austen rather too much through Brontë-tinted spectacles. Because the popular image of Mr. Darcy looks an awful lot like Rochester or Heathcliff: all that deliberate rudeness, that borderline hostile staring, those savagely unnecessary sidewhiskers. The advice columnist Captain Awkward has invented a whole new verb to cover Darcyesque behaviour – Firthing – which you’ll notice takes it name from the actor, not the character. Have the screen adaptations of Austen over the last few decades been inflected by assumptions about fictional romance which we got from the Brontës? I wonder whether the greatest contribution Jane Eyre has made to popular culture isn’t the plot (seriously… who can remember it all?) or indeed the dialogue (brownies, witches, it’s hardly heart-thumping stuff) but by setting the emotional terms of engagement. What does everyone else think?
Posted by Dr. Jem Bloomfield