Thursday, 21 April 2016

The secret history of Jane Eyre: Charlotte Brontë's private fantasy stories

I plan to read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as serials this year.

Before Charlotte Brontë unleashed Jane Eyre on the world, she was already – in secret – an accomplished fantasy writer. Her and her writer siblings’ collaborative worlds of Glass Town and Angria are as complex as Game of Thrones: fantastical, magical kingdoms, steeped in violence, politics, lust and betrayal. In private letters, Brontë called it her “world below”, a private escape where she could act out her desires and multiple identities.

Written in dozens of miniature books, these manuscripts – with curious, secretive titles such as A Peep into a Picture Book, The Spell, A Leaf from an Unopened Volume – are not only an astonishing example of craftsmanship, but contain extraordinary, uncensored content. The Brontës’ father had poor eyesight and could not read them, so Charlotte was able to write in confidence. Over the course of 10 years, she created characters and events that became inextricably bound with her own selfhood, some of whom we know and love in her later works.

The fiery, passionate dynamic between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester has captivated readers and writers for nearly two centuries. Rochester’s dark, brooding sexuality matched with Jane’s strong mind and determined nature has crowned them one of the most powerful couples in English literature. But where did they come from? How did Charlotte, then a single woman living in Haworth, imagine such a passionate relationship?

From the age of 10, Brontë devoured accounts of military men, revelled in the sensual, exotic stories of Arabian Nights
The answer can be found almost two decades earlier when, in 1829, a 13-year-old Charlotte began building a wild, exotic kingdom in Two Romantic Tales. Set on the golden shores of West Africa, this volume transports readers through the haunted misty Mountains of the Moon – home of the gods – through to the sweeping, “burning air” of the Sahara desert, where the brutal Ashantee tribesman cry out for war. She creates metropolitan cities, with elegant streets and glittering skylines that “rise, soar … the buildings spring like magic”. She delights in the dense forests that nestle the estates and palaces of gentry and royalty: “Here the tufted olive, the fragrant myrtle, the stately palm-tree … the rich vine and the queenly rose mingled in sweet and odorous shadiness.” It is in one of these secluded palaces that we find an early Rochester: the dangerously dark Duke of Zamorna.
Zamorna grew out of the racy material that Charlotte loved reading: from the age of 10, she devoured accounts of military men, fixating especially on the rivalry between Wellington and Napoleon, the age’s two titans of war. She revelled in the sensual, exotic stories of Arabian Nights; in Walter Scott’s sweeping battle landscapes with their heroic, warrior clansmen; was fascinated by Byron’s scandalous life and works. Like her literary and historical idols, Zamorna is muscular, charismatic and radiating sexual mystique: he’s a prototype Rochester. He is driven by instinct, considers matrimony a loose commitment and struggles with his degenerate lifestyle and inner demons: a devil in need of redemption. Devil-like red is worn by all of Zamorna’s admirers, just as Rochester’s drawing room is draped in crimson, a symbol of his appetite for luxury and decadence.

It was only in 1839, at the very end of her fantasy writing, that Brontë discovered her ideal heroine. In tale after tale, Charlotte filled her kingdom with beautiful wives and mistresses decked in the finest clothes and jewels. Despite the glitz and glamour, however, they all lack any form of autonomy or personality. Even worse, in most cases, Charlotte killed off her leading ladies with a “broken heart” when their husband either neglected or abandoned them. Mary Percy, one of Charlotte’s leading ladies, is left to rot away in a secluded tower when her husband Zamorna spurns her and leaves for war.

However, when Charlotte turned 24, she changed her way of thinking about women: in Henry Hastings, Elizabeth Hastings was born. Elizabeth has a “wan complexion, expressive features and dark hair smoothly combed in two plain folds from her forehead”. She possesses strong morals and refuses to submit to passion without the prospect of marriage. Does this description remind you of “poor obscure plain and little” Jane? A girl who falls in love with a married man and, in order to keep her integrity, fights against her heart and soul to conform to what she feels is right? Elizabeth Hastings is Jane Eyre in a parallel universe.

Both women are of course versions of Charlotte herself, who, according to the memoirs of her friends, thought herself “old and ugly”. Like Jane, Elizabeth is a mirror into Brontë’s soul, who, through her legacy of heroines, unleashed an inspirational new voice for womankind, proposing that women did not need to rely on the whims of men. When Elizabeth rejects her suitor’s offer of becoming his mistress she feels “a secret triumph” that she had been “left entirely to [her] own guidance”. Only a year later, Brontë revealed her thoughts on marriage to her dear friend Ellen Nussey: “I am tolerably well convinced that I shall never marry at all.”

At the end of 1839, Brontë said goodbye to her fantasy world in a manuscript called Farewell to Angria. More and more, she was finding that she preferred to escape to her imagined worlds over remaining in reality – and she feared that she was going mad. So she said goodbye to her characters, scenes and subjects. Brontë imagined her beautiful kingdom, in “every variety of shade and light which morning, noon and evening – the rising, the meridian & the setting sun – can bestow upon them”. She wrote of the pain she felt at wrenching herself from her “friends” and venturing into lands unknown: “I feel almost as if I stood on the threshold of a home and were bidding farewell to its inmates.”

From The Guardian

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