Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The dangers of biographical criticism

The Little Professor enters into a back-and-forth discussion about literary criticism based on biographical details, providing some Brontë examples. Particulary Charlotte Brontë's Mr Brocklehurst as compared with its 'original', William Carus-Wilson:

When we say that Charlotte Bronte based Mr. Brocklehurst on William Carus Wilson, for example, what do we actually mean? Yes, there's a real person named William Carus Wilson, and yes, CB had him in mind when she came up with Brocklehurst. But:
  • We don't know Carus Wilson (unless we're immortal, vampires, or otherwise undead);

  • We don't know what very young CB thought of CW; we only have adult CB's recollections of life at Cowan Bridge, as mediated through Mrs. Gaskell;

  • We do know that CB admitted that Brocklehurst was a deliberately exaggerated, one-sided take on Wilson.
What we don't have, in other words, is the original personal experience (if it were even possible to have such a thing) that would make such biographical knowledge useful. We cannot talk about CB's "revision" of CW's character, since we don't have CB's memories of CW; we cannot interpret Brocklehurst as identical to CW, because such a reading simply goes in a circle. Hence Juliet Barker's warning that "...it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the fictional characters and place are accurate representations of the people at Cowan Bridge and the school itself". CW is not Brocklehurst's referent in any meaningful way. To write about the CW-Brocklehurst connection as though CW explains Brocklehurst mistakes subjective impressions--impressions filtered through a writer's craft, at that--for not just objectivity, but also plausibility or even verifiability. Brocklehurst is Brocklehurst, not CW. As one Victorian critic shrewdly noted apropos of the Brocklehurst/Wilson contretemps, "[i]t is this absolute irresponsibility of the romancer, this privilege of selecting the facts and imputing the motives, which, added to the artistic gift for deepening the shadows and heightening the effect, makes the novel so far-reaching and so irresistible a libel." By using biography to explain character, the critic not only pins down the text's meaning, but also pins it down completely outside the text.
Biography becomes useful, I think, not when it leads to the supposedly "real" meanings of character or events, but when it leads us back to the text through other texts, films, images, and the like. The rhetoric, theology, and genres of The Children's Friend (all of which CB invokes and parodies) open up far more productive questions about Jane Eyre than CW as a person (traduced? accurately portrayed?). Similarly, finding Heathcliff's or Rochester's real-life originals doesn't help the reader, but studying how these characters reinvent both Byron--known to the Brontes only through texts and images--and the Byronic hero does.
BrontëBlog wholeheartedly agrees. A great post.

Bookslut interviews writer Alexander Theroux who slips a Wuthering Heights reference:
I have always been struck by the oft-ignored narrative balance that is present throughout your work. In this case take the obvious, Laura Warholic or the Sexual Intellectual. The story is Eugene’s to write but it is Laura who demands the spotlight. How important is literary balance to you as a writer and can you write effectively without it?
Good question. Really it’s a question of puppetry. One needs two worthy even if unequal adversaries/mates. Heathcliff/Cathy, Humbert/Lo, Valjean/Javert. It needn’t be just dark/light. In Milton’s Comus all actors wanted to play the weirdo, which was the plum role. All that Hegelian stuff applies.
Rainedelight's Weblog interviews romance writer Amber Leigh Williams, another Brontëite:
If you could visit any time and place, where would it be and why?
(...)I’d love to go back to different times to interview my favorite writers and poets—Frost, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Austen, the Brontes, the Brownings, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge… Stop me now. LOL
The Box has some nice pictures (including one of a tempting Yorkshire pudding) of a visit to Haworth. Amazing Readers reviews Jane Eyre in Italian. Pajama Mama also talks about Jane Eyre and specially Helen Burns character Dreams Out The Door briefly comments Wuthering Heights.

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