MARY BRUNTON, ANNE BRONTË (AND GREEN-SKINNED JANE)

My colleague Andrew Monnickendam gave a plenary lecture at the last AEDEAN conference on Scottish writer Mary Brunton (1778-1818), one of the authors he deals with in his new book The Novels of Walter Scott and his Literary Relations (Mary Brunton, Susan Ferrier and Christian Johnstone). His presentation of Brunton’s Self-Control (1811) did call my attention, as the heroine Laura paints when in dire poverty to support her father, and her would-be-seducer bears the name of Hargrave. This seemed quite close to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as the heroine Helen Graham, a runaway wife, paints to keep herself and her little son, and is the object of the sexual passion of a man called Hargreave. I did ask Andrew whether there was evidence that Brontë had read Brunton, and it seems she might have. We do know that Austen read Self-Control and called it an “excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.”

I have just finished reading Brunton’s novel and I’m now convinced that Anne Brontë had read. It might even be the case that she decided to experiment with the romantic triangle and fancy the heroine already married to the libertine, meeting only too late the right gentleman. I’ll call this ‘echotextuality’ rather than ‘intertextuality’ as I really have no way to prove my thesis and, anyway, it does not really matter except for my pleasure in finding literary echoes. I agree and disagree with Austen’s sneer, as I have found Brunton more brisk than elegant and her plot, although at points the stuff of silly melodrama, also too close for comfort to the patterns of real misogynistic abuse (Anne’s Tenant is, of course, an early masterpiece in this, with her portrait of domestic horrors).

Brunton’s Scottish directness can be seen in the opening chapters, in which she has young Laura fence off a very direct attempt at seduction by Hargrave. The poor thing spends the following four years defending herself from the same man, no easy task as he is aided by Laura’s own aunt, Lady Pelham, who tortures her mercilessly to see her married to this dashing, handsome heir (what a difference with Helen’s own aunt!). Funnily enough, I was reading one evening in front of the TV and during a pause I chanced upon a Mexican soap opera with practically the same characters, situation and dialogue!

In 19th century novels the line separating seduction from downright rape is quite thin, and Laura is subjected to a second desperate attempt from which only a miracle saves her. My complain, I think, is that she is saved only because she’s the heroine while another poor girl is less lucky –I don’t know if this is what Austen found improbable. One of my male students asked me quite perplexed whether the minute analysis of his feelings that Anne’s hero Gilbert Markham engages in is realistic. I answered yes as I believe this is a post-Romantic novel about individuals who do care, above all, about feeling. Brunton’s novel, however, also touches the improbable when it comes to the many turns and twists given to the feelings that Laura has for Hargrave (for she wants him but is morally repelled by his unruly sexuality), Hargrave for her (a classic case of craving for what he can’t have) and the third member of the triangle, the manly but gentle De Courcy. Brunton’s insistence on reporting rather than using dialogue and the histrionic quality of that dialogue when it materialises have filled me with impatience and hilarity in turns –but I confess I haven’t been able to let go of the book until seeing Laura make the safer choice and the villains get their come-uppance.

I’m writing about Brunton and Brontë at the end of a very busy day that I have spent mainly organising an article on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War SF saga. This is, believe me, quite a good love story about John and Jane, a couple who first meet when he, aged 75, is recycled into a 25-year-old post-human supersoldier. She, a soldier of an even less human, superior breed, has been born fully adult from his dead wife’s DNA. Both are green-skinned as their chlorophyll-rich skin uses sunshine as an alternative source of energy. Inevitably they fall in love and, once they are given new human-looking bodies they start an alternative pacifist life, somewhat complicated by the discovery that Jane still remains super-human.

It’s really crazy to see how women in fiction have changed and, well, I’m sorry to say that despite my sympathies for the suffering Laura and Helen, my heart is with green-skinned Jane. As a working woman with her own independent income I am developing an increasing resistance to 19th century lady heroines rewarded with money and sweet men (and who abandon painting as quickly as they can). Jane, in contrast, is awesome and I mean it in the sense that her tremendous efficiency at work generates awe –both as a ruthless killer and later as a ruthless hero.

It’s funny to think that Jane comes from the same time and place as Laura as, after all, what is Jane if not another version of Frankenstein’s she-monster? In the end, then, I choose Mary Shelley. Sorry Mary, sorry Anne (and sorry Jane… Austen).

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