Multivalent and delightfully inspiring, this interdisciplinary collection of essays on the novels of the Brontës ranges from such diverse approaches as opera adaptations of Wuthering Heights (1847) to fashion studies of Villette (1853). Beginning with the visual arts, Christine Alexander, in “Educating ‘The Artist’s Eye’: Charlotte Brontë and the Pictorial Image,” reads Jane Eyre (1847) as a fictional autobiography and establishes the impact of Thomas Benwick’s History of British Birds, especially the vignettes at the end of each section, on the composition of the novel. This chapter is also devoted to the development of Charlotte Brontë as an artist and, by extension, to the women of the period who were taught to copy rather than create original works of art. Richard Dunn also reads Jane Eyre as a fictional autobiography focusing on Charlotte Brontë’s writing as subject to the male influence and criticism in the world around her, in particular to her brother Branwell Brontë who encouraged Charlotte to devote her attention to realistic rather than exotic topics. Juliette Wells treats Jane’s transition from fantasist to realist and juxtaposes events in Charlotte Brontë’s life to those of Jane Eyre.
In “Jane Eyre’s Other: The Emergence of Bertha,” Patsy Stoneman explores the representations of the madwoman in different media—fiction, theater and film. Jean Rhys’s sympathetic representation of Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) has had an enormous impact on film adaptations of the novel: “The immense revision that Jean Rhys’s novel makes to Jane Eyre is first to give a voice to Bertha…and then to show exactly why this voice cannot be heard” (201). Stonemann discusses several film and stage adaptations of the novel which bring Bertha’s victimization to the foreground.
“No Brontë novel,” Sandra Hagan points out, “evinces more interest in the politics of the visual realm than Charlotte Brontë’s Villette…Thus it presents rich possibilities for the study of the interplay between author and illustrator” (170). Here Hagan examines some of the problems involved in commingling the visual arts and the visual politics in Edmund Dulac’s illustrations of Villette, including the disparity between the narrator’s representation of Lucy as a single autonomous woman versus the illustrator’s stereotypical representation of her as a spinster, a “valueless shadow” within the “scopic economy” which Lucy criticizes:
Not only does he interrupt Lucy’s multi-targeted challenge to the ideology that commodifies her and all other women, but he interrupts the trajectory of her narrative as well. By choosing to enter the story at precisely those moments when her single status is most at issue, without attending to the revelatory view of the spinster that those moments permit, he threatens to transform the tale itself.173
Discussing the major illustrations in the novel, Hagan argues that Dulac’s misinterpretations of the text attempt to nullify Brontë’s challenges to gender ideology (173).
Unlike most of the novels of the period devoted to women artists, Antonia Losano claims, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) represents art as “a lucrative occupation rather than a hobby.” By making her heroine a working artist, Anne Brontë articulates her “rigorous theory of mimesis,” expressing a “strong warning against art as self-expression” (46). Helen’s development from an amateur imagist to a professional realist artist “allows her to shed a self-expressive, Romantic model of esthetic production that can render women intensely vulnerable to male scrutiny and analysis” (66). Helen’s mature style, characterized “by freshness of colouring and freedom of handling,” aligns her painting with “the landscape styles of Constable or the drawing masters like Giplin or the early Ruskin” (60). As Losano demonstrates, professionalism allows Helen “to begin short-circuiting the traditional erotic structure of the aesthetic experience: the woman-as-object can now become the woman-as-subject” (66).
Ann Jackson discusses Charlotte Brontë’s ambivalent attitude towards the theater, arguing that despite mixed feelings,the forms and conventions of theater shape and transform characters in the novels, especially in Villette and Jane Eyre. Theater in Villette “brings compression, selectivity, intensity, and decisive movement; the surrounding text provides background, ramification, and perspective” (129). Sara Bernstein approaches Villette from a completely different perspective, that of fashion studies, underscoring the role of fashion in literature: “Fashion and the novel seek to make sense of, and give structure to, the same central narratives: those concerning the relationships between an individual’s mind and body, and between the individual and society. Both forms share the dubious honor of having once been considered frivolous and dangerous for women, on the grounds that their consumption encouraged indulgence and indolence” (151). As Bernstein demonstrates, fashion “is representative of many boundaries: between self and society; body and soul; and past, present and future. Villette too focuses on liminal spaces” (150). In Villette Brontë dramatizes primary conflicts in a consumerist society by creating three spheres: the fashionable world, the anti-fashionable world, and the shadow world (154). Lucy’s unwillingness “to place herself on display, even when avoiding doing so means losing the possibility of love, demonstrates that the challenge of nourishing both body and mind while living in a consumer society is interwoven with the problem of gender” (157).
Music in its various strands and genres is the subject of the remaining chapters. “With the exception of The Professor,” Juliette Wells and Ruth Solie declare in their co-written essay, “all of Brontë’s mature novels involve significant scenes of music-making, many of which are charged with erotic excitement” (102). Here Wells and Solie trace the trend toward using music to cultivate success not only in women but in men as well, and discuss the hierarchical order of different types of music. In Shirley (1849), Charlotte Brontë associates dissenters with the unruly Luddites (121). That music-making does not satisfy Caroline’s thirst, “for an absorbing occupation might seem to suggest a conviction on Brontë’s part that ladylike pursuits alone cannot fully engross someone as restless and discontented as Caroline is with the constructions of a provincial gentlewoman’s life” (113).
Two chapters deal with Wuthering Heights and its associations with music. In “The Hieroglyphics of Catherine: Emily Brontë and the Musical Matrix,” Meg Williams reads Wuthering Heights as “a musical work on the fundamental level of sound sensuousness” (85) and describes motifs such as birth, death, the petted and neglected child, and teething, in terms of musical movements. “The end of one movement—the renunciation of the false romance with Lockwood—introduces the commencement of the next: the struggle out of darkness, death, humiliation, made in concert by the young lovers in a duet that finally enables contraries to be mingled” (95). Yet the connections with music in this chapter do not quite merit the claim that metaphors turn literary into musical discourse. Far more convincing and engaging is Linda Lister’s discussion of “the inherent musicality” of Wuthering Heights and the various musical adaptations including operas, rock musicals and several songs (which can actually be found in YouTube!). Lister, herself the composer of an operatic adaptation of the novel, points out the operatic elements in the novel: “With its elements of lost love, long-suffering emotional characters, and of course a dramatic death scene, Wuthering Heights makes for a suitably lyrical and tragic opera plot, with Cathy a complex and captivating operatic heroine” (214). Lister discusses Bernard Herrmann’s, Carlisle Floyd’s and Bernard Taylor’s operas considering Herrmann’s as the most successful. Interestingly enough, she also discusses Cliff Richard’s rock musical, whose intensity she finds “quite appropriate to the tempestuous romance of Cathy and Heathcliff” (221), along with various songs inspired by the novel:
Like great operatic heroines, both Brontë and her creation Cathy died young and tragically; that they did so in the haunted and romantic setting of the moors only heightens the romanticism and mysticism of their plights. From Hermann’s Cathy of tranquil rapture and Floyd’s agitatedly impassioned Cathy to Kate Bush’s spirited sylph and my own quixotic, Cathy-like vision of Emily the supremely personal and peculiar resonance of Emily Brontë’s writing has found many varied and colorful new expressions.229
She closes the chapter with a discussion of her own operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
To scholars, lovers and students of the Brontës this collection of essays offers a wealth of primary sources and perspectives on the Brontës’ novels, making them even more relevant to twenty first-century students who are often reluctant to delve into the mysteries and wonders of Victorian literature.
Sophia Andres is Professor of English, Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities, and Chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, where she teaches Twentieth-Century British literature, Romantic literature, Victorian literature and art, and classical mythology. Her work has been published in ELH, Journal of Narrative Technique, Journal of Narrative Theory, Victorians Institute Journal, Victorian Newsletter, Clio, Mosaic, George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, and Nineteenth-Century Literature. Greenwood Press and State University of New York Press have also published some of her work. Her book, The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel: Narrative Challenges to Visual Gendered Boundaries (Ohio State University Press, 2005) received the SCMLA book of the year award in 2006. She is now working on a book tentatively entitled, “Poetry in Painting.”