Monday, 29 October 2012

G.K. Chesterton: Charlotte Bronte as a Romantic

The genius of Charlotte Bronte is unique in the only valuable sense in which the word can be applied; the only sense which separates the rarity of some gift in a poet from the rarity of some delusion in an ayslum. However complex or even grotesque an artistic power may be, it must be as these qualities exist in a key, which is one of the most complex and grotesque of human objects, but which has for its object the opening of doors and the entrance into wider things. Charlotte Bronte's art was something more or less than complex; and it was not to be described as grotesque; except rarely - and unintentionally. But it was temperamental and, like all things depending on temperament, unequal; and it was so personal as to be perverse. It is in connection with power of this kind, however creative, that we have to discover and define what distinguished it from the uncreative intensity of the insane. I cannot understand what it was that made the Philistines of a former generation regard Jane Eyre as morally unsound; probably it was its almost exaggerated morality. But if they had regarded it as mentally unsound, I could have understood their prejudice, while perceiving the nature of their error.

Jane Eyre is, among other things, one of the finest detective stories in the world; and for any one artistically attuned to that rather electric atmosphere, the discovery of the mad wife of Rochester is, as that type of sensation should always be, at once startling and suitable. But a stolid reader, trained in a tamer school of fiction, might be excused if he came to the conclusion that the wife was not very much madder than her husband, and that even the governess herself was a little queer. Such a critic, however, would be ill-taught, as people often are in tame schools; for the mildest school is anything but the most moral. The distinction between the liberating violence that belongs to virtue, as distinct from the merely burrowing and self-burying violence that belongs to vice, is something that can only be conveyed by metaphors; such as that I have used about the key. Some may feel disposed to say that the Bronte spirit was not so much a key as a battering ram. She had indeed some command of both instruments, and could use the more domestic one quietly enough at times; but the vital point is that they opened the doors. Or it might be said that Jane Eyre and the mad woman lived in the same dark and rambling house of mystery, but for the maniac all doors opened continually inwards, while for the heroine all doors, one after the other, opened outwards towards the sun.

One of these universal values in the case of Charlotte Bronte is the light she throws on a very fashionable aesthetic fallacy: the over-iterated contrast between realism and romance. They are spoken of as if they were two alternative types of art, and sometimes even as if they were two antagonistic directions of spiritual obligation. But in truth they are things in two different categories; and, like all such things, can exist together, or apart, or in any degree of combination. Romance is a spirit; and as for realism, it is a convention. To say that some literary work is realistic, not romantic, is to be as inconsequent as the man who said to me once, "The Irish are warm-hearted, not logical." He, at any rate, was not logical, or he would have seen that his statement was like saying that somebody was red-haired rather than athletic. There is no reason why a man with strong reasoning power should not have strong affections; and it is my experience, if anything, that the man who can argue clearly in the abstract generally does have a generosity of blood and instincts. But he may not have it, for the things are in different categories. This case of an error about the Irish has some application to the individual case of Charlotte Bronte, who was Irish by blood, and in a sense, all the more Irish for being brought up in Yorkshire. An Irish friend of mine, who suffers the same exile in the same environment, once made to me the suggestive remark that the towering and over-masculine barbarians and lunatics who dominate the Bronte novels, simply represent the impression produced by the rather boastful Yorkshire manners upon the more civilized and sensitive Irish temperament. But the wider application is that romance is an atmosphere, as distinct as a separate dimension, which co-exists with and penetrates the whole work of Charlotte Bronte; and is equally present in all her considerable triumphs of realism, and in her even greater triumphs of unreality.

Realism is a convention, as I have said; it is generally a matter of external artistic form, when it is not a matter of mere fashion or convenience, how far the details of life are given, or how far they are the details of the life we know best. It may be rather more difficult to describe a winged horse than a war horse; but after all it is as easy to count feathers as to count hairs; it is as easy and as dull. The story about a hero in which the hairs of his horse were all numbered would not be a story at all; the line must be drawn a long while before we come to anything like literal reality; and the question of whether we give the horse his wings, or even trouble to mention his colour, is merely a question of the artistic form we have chosen. It is the question between casting a horse in bronze or carving him in marble; not the question of describing a horse for the purposes of a zoologist or for the purposes of a bookie. But the spirit of the work is quite another thing. Works of the wildest fantasticality in form can be filled with a rationalistic and even a sober spirit; as are some works of Lucian, of Swift and of Voltaire. On the other hand, descriptions of the most humdrum environments, told with the most homely intimacy, can be shot through and through with the richest intensity, not only of the spirit of sentiment but of the spirit of adventure.

Few will be impelled to call the household of Mr. Rochester a humdrum environment, but it is none the less true that Charlotte Bronte can fill the quietest rooms and corners with a psychological romance which is rather a matter of temperature than of time or place. After all, the sympathetic treatment of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre is not more intrinsically romantic and even exaggerative than the sympathetic treatment of Mr. Paul Emanuel in Villette; though the first may be superficially a sort of demon and the second more in the nature of an imp. To present Mr. Emanuel sympathetically at all was something of an arduous and chivalric adventure. And Charlotte Bronte was chivalric in this perfectly serious sense; perhaps in too serious a sense, for she paid for the red-hot reality of her romance in a certain insufficiency of humour. She was adventurous, but in an intensely individualistic and therefore an intensely womanly way.

It is the most feminine thing about her that we can think of her as a knight-errant, but hardly as one of an order or round table of knights-errant. Thackeray said that she reminded him of Joan of Arc. But it is one of the fascinating elements in the long romance of Christendom that figures like Joan of Arc have an existence in reality. This vision of the solitary virgin, adventurous and in arms, is very old in European literature and mythology; and the spirit of it went with the little governess along the roads to the dark mansion of madness as if to the castle of an ogre. The same rule had run like a silver thread through the purple tapestries of Ariosto; and we may willingly salute in our great country-woman, especially amid the greatest epic of our country, something of that nobility which is in the very name of Britomart. ...

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