BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

No, sorry, this is not a post about Robin Thicke’s catchy, appallingly sexist 2013 hit, which, by the way, turned out to be plagiarised (from a Marvin Gaye song). No: today I’m dealing with our difficulties to produce a clearly defined portrait of the writers of the pre-media past. By pre-media I mean the historical period before the invention of the recording (and broadcasting) of sound and of the moving image, even tough the press and photography may have been already available. And I’m using the Brontës as an example.

It has taken me a long twelve-step Google search to finally find out thanks to The Penguin Book of Interviews (edited by Christopher Silvester in 1993), that the first text of this kind to be published (in an American newspaper) dates back to 1859. The person interviewed was Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, and the conversation appeared in the New York Herald. Silvester’s volume includes interviews with writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, just to name a few authors who started writing in the 19th century. As an undergrad, I remember reading with immense pleasure a couple of anthologies gathering together the excellent interviews with writers published by The Paris Review, funded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton.

So here is the first point: before 1859, the tools available to build the portrait of the writer, beyond the texts they chose to publish, are tangential. We have pictorial portraits, photos (from the 1830s onwards), impressions written by others, biographies and, here’s a vexing question, private letters. And the memorabilia. But not their voices in answer to our questions.

In the case of the Brontës, poor things, we have the dismal portrait of the three sisters painted by their adored but untalented brother Branwell. The photo believed to depict Charlotte has been revealed to be of someone else. Charlotte was the subject of a pioneering writer’s biography, written by fellow-author Elizabeth Gaskell. This volume, however, is now regarded as a manipulative instrument to present a more palatable image of the author to Victorian readers (even against Charlotte’s own wishes). And then there is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where you can touch Emily’s bed, among other personal objects.

Obviously, even when portraits of the writer from the past exist, these are confusing objects. The slow speed of pre-20th century cameras required subjects to sit still for a long time, which is why all Victorians look so stern and unsmiling. Victorian photography was a new art and, above all, a new social habit; 150 years before the invention of the selfie, people simply lacked the know-how of self-presentation. See the ridiculous photos of Charles Dickens–a writer very careful of his public image and the first one to market himself as a brand–to understand how far he was from mastering this specific aspect.

In the absence of reliable elements for a clearly focused portrait, then, we use whatever we have at hand, and this is mainly letters, or diaries. Leaving aside the problems attached to the use of private documents which may have nothing to do with the literary craft to study how writers do write, it might well be the case that none have survived. Here’s an example of our difficulties, found in Josephine McDonagh’s 2008 introduction to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): “The absence of an autobiographical record makes it difficult to be sure of Anne’s motivations in writing The Tenant, but episodes of her life have led commentators to suppose that not only were some of the characters and events based on her own acquaintance and experiences, but that the novel itself was conceived as a response to troubling family circumstances” (xvii). This exemplifies the biographical phallacy that still dominates research (surprisingly): if you could map the writer’s life down to the most private detail, you would be able to explain his/her writing.

Interviews with living authors, however, reveal that this is not the case, as they have a mysterious something called ‘imagination’ that seems to lead a life of its own. A typical academic reply to writers’ strenuously denying that the biographical approach is correct is that writers themselves do not understand the process of writing. Or, as my PhD supervisor would remind me: “Writers lie all the time”. If, in short, we could interview Anne or her sisters, I’m sure they would be flabbergasted by the amount of speculation poured onto their lives… but they would not necessarily tell us the truth. What a vicious circle.

Here’s an alternative, coming from the same introduction by McDonagh: “Anne Brontë’s immersion in the print culture of her time, and specially her acquaintance with these more ephemeral forms of magazines and albums, may account for some of the stylistic features of the text” (xxxii). Observe the hesitation implicit in ‘may’ and ‘some’… This is the classic philological approach: if we could have access to the complete list of all a writer has read from infancy, then we would eventually be able to explain how his/her style works.

This stance led, as we know, to two apparently incompatible approaches: the intense Russian formalism later borrowed by American New Criticism (from which our close reading practices derive) and Harold Bloom’s idea of the ‘anxiety of influence’, which still respects the presence of the writer but tries to exclude the gossipy biographical approach and focus on authorship. Julia Kristeva cut an important Gordian knot by proposing that since influence cannot be really proven we should speak of intertextuality. This is both an extremely productive idea and a surrender, for it tells us that writers remain impenetrable fortresses better left alone. Just connect the texts with each other.

Let me recap: despite the immense energy poured by countless researchers, the portrait of the Brontë sisters we have today is a poorly assembled collection of blurred lines. Perhaps this is part of their myth and if we had them on television and on YouTube as much as we wished, they would not be the object of so much veneration. Or would they? I’m thinking of how contemporary writers market themselves and beginning to realize that fans would never tire if J.K. Rowling gave daily speeches and interviews.

In neo-Victorian conference I recently attended, there was someone very earnestly speculating whether Charlotte Brontë was actually pretty or not. A letter by her publisher George Smith was quoted, in which he offered a very unflattering description (later partially corrected by his daughter). We may disagree whether we find Rowling pretty or not, but in the age of the selfie it is absolutely frustrating that we cannot even be sure what Charlotte looked like, much less Emily or Anne. You may be thinking that, despite the countless interviews, press articles, documentaries, photos, etc., we’re not really closer to knowing who Rowling is. Our exploration of her work is not closer, either, to revealing how she managed to imagine the world of Harry Potter. Of course, but at least we can ask her whereas in the case of the writers from the past, unless new evidence appears, we are constantly stuck with the same limited, tangential material.

So what should be, as researchers specializing in Literature, do? I don’t know myself and I am beginning to be increasingly perplexed. It is clear to me that our central mission–the faith we profess as professors–is the survival of the texts from one generation to the next. Also, the correction of false impressions: Wuthering Heights used to be considered trash, and now it’s part of the canon. I am personally doing all I can in my classes to vindicate Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Every teacher of the Brontës fiction knows that biographical gossip helps to fix an idea of who these women were in the students’ minds. Yet, I certainly don’t want to discuss with them in class whether Charlotte was pretty; and the realization that Jane Eyre is the expression of sexual frustration regarding her unrequited passion for a married man has very much damaged my pleasure in this novel. Meaning that the more I know about Charlotte, the less I like Jane Eyre

Perhaps, and here’s the rub, the problem is that as teachers and researchers we are bound to fail: even if the best Brontë researcher devoted all his/her energies for the next fifteen years to Tenant and to Anne, this person would still be far from disclosing the mystery of her literary creativity. It’s back to the blurred lines. I don’t like speaking of ‘mystery’, as this makes literary research sound subjective and romantic in the worst possible way. But scientifically speaking, a mystery is that which cannot be explained with the current tools for research. And the ones we have are extremely limited. Even in the case of contemporary writers for, unless we sit by them as they write, we cannot really get a true insight into how writing works. And I see no author tolerating that kind of academic intrusion, not even for the sake of literary glory. For many, interviews even appear to be something they put up with and not something they truly relish…

Having just re-read Anne’s Tenant, with great pleasure, just after reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, I am wondering whether we should produce more criticism. We often teach texts or write about them taking for granted that they are good and this is why they are canonical. My fellow teachers and I decided, precisely, to include Tenant in our course on Victorian fiction because it has excellent features but also some problems, deeper than the faults to be found in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Rather than teach, then, that Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon is based on her brother Branwell’s, we focus on why the friendship between Gilbert and Lawrence is not convincingly narrated. And the challenge of explaining why King Solomon’s Mines is so inferior to Heart of Darkness and, at the same time, so indispensable to understand Conrad appears to be now very exciting. I’m glad we have chosen to teach Haggard.

So, yes: let’s apply a better focus on the texts, let the authors remain blurred, ghostly presences. And enjoy the mystery.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.