Monday, October 06, 2008

The Brontës in the world of the arts - A review

Our thanks to Ashgate Publishers for sending us a review copy of this book.

The Brontës in the World of the Arts
Edited by Sandra Hagan, Vancouver Island University, Canada, and Juliette Wells, Manhattanville College, USA
Series : The Nineteenth Century Series

* Imprint: Ashgate
* Illustrations: Includes 21 b&w illustrations and 1 music example
* Published: September 2008
* Format: 234 x 156 mm
* Extent: 270 pages
* Binding: Hardback
* ISBN: 978-0-7546-5752-1
* Price : £55.00 » Online: £49.50
The Brontës in the World of the Arts is a compilation of eleven articles covering widely different approaches to the relationship of different artistic manifestations (particularly music and painting) and the works of the Brontës. Juliette Wells and Sandra Hagan have edited the volume and have also contributed a couple of papers (three if we count the collaboration between Juliette Wells and Ruth A. Solie).

After a very informative, concise, indispensable introduction by the editors, the book can be divided into two parts. A first part with articles which we can define, if we are allowed the colourful simplification, as hardcore scholar, and a second - briefer - part centered around some more, say, peripheral scholarship.

In the first section we find Educating "The Artist's Eye": Charlotte Brontë and the Pictorial Image by Christine Alexander, Out of the Picture?: Branwell Brontë and Jane Eyre by Richard J. Dunn, Anne Brontë's Aesthetics: Painting in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Antonia Losano, "Some of Your Accomplishments Are Not Ordinary": The Limits of Artistry in Jane Eyre by Juliette Wells, The Hieroglyphics of Catherine: Emily Brontë and the Musical Matrix by Meg Harris Williams, Shirley's Window on a Musical Society in Transition by Juliette Wells and Ruth A. Solie, It "Might Give Me with a World of Delight": Charlotte Brontë and the Pleasures of Acting by Anne W. Jackson and "In this Same Gown of Shadow": Functions of Fashion in Villette by Sara T. Bernstein.

It comes as no surprise that one of the more widely referenced books in the majority of these articles is The Art of the Brontës. The book by Christine Alexander & Jane Sellars really made a before and after in the study of the Brontës' artistic endeavours. Christine Alexander's contribution to this new volume continues her exploration of the artistic influences in Charlotte Brontë extending her study to Charlotte's juvenilia and poetry. She introduces some newly discovered artworks by Charlotte Brontë, updating in some way the catalogue of The Art of the Brontës(1). The following article by Robert J. Dunn introduces his views on the persisting influence of Branwell Brontë's artistic ideas in the writings of Charlotte Brontë, particularly in Jane Eyre. Without denying some of Dunn's readings of certain scenes of Jane Eyre we rather think that he largely overestimates Branwell's influence(2). Antonia Losano basically rephrases and adapts her previous research on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall(3) in an article centered on Anne Brontë's views about the professional artist, which, for the younger of the Brontë sisters, should be rather more professional than artistic. Exactly the opposite approach to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre experiences with painting which is explored in Juliette Wells's article. This article also explores the rather thin line between mere female accomplishments and artistic achievements(4).

Meg Harris Williams's article switches the main artistic subject from painting to music with a fascinating, and rather difficult, article which reads Wuthering Heights as, literally, a music score. That way the different situations, motives, exchanges of dialogue are reframed, not translated, into a a musical setting which develops surprisingly naturally(5). Wells and Solie's article looks into the musical world which transpires through Shirley, extracting clues about the uses and presence of music in the social, geographic and gender-oriented society described in Charlotte Brontë's novel. The article seems to be a local (in Shirley) application of a previous general work by Ruth A. Solie(6). Finally, two articles examine Villette under two very different - and occasionally contradictory - views, the theatrical world (in a very wide sense which includes any professional and not professional acting) by Anne W. Jackson and the world of fashion (or antifashion) in Sara T. Bernstein's article.

The second section is made up by An Uneasy Marriage: Edmund Dulac, Lucy Snowe, and the Illustration of Villette by Sandra Hagan, Jane Eyre's Other: The Emergence of Bertha by Patsy Stoneman and Music of the Moors: The Voices of Emily Brontë and Cathy in Opera and Song by Linda Lister.

Sandra Hagan's reviews Edmund Dulac's illustrations for a 1905 edition of Villette. Hagan engages in a discussion about the affinity of Dulac's works with the narrative line of the novel. Patsy Stoneman updates(7) her Brontë Transformations's chapter about Bertha Mason's evolution (or dissemination) through sequels, prequels, theatre, films... Finally, Linda Lister briefly discusses several Wuthering Heights musical settings: from Bernard Herrmann's opera to Kate Bush's song. The discussion does not intend to be complete but it's quite interesting as a still quite unexplored scholar field(8).

The wide scope of the publication is a double-edged sword. On the one side it oxygenates the book providing some contrast between the more hardcore scholar approaches and some more relaxed, not less interesting or serious nonetheless, peripheral articles which allow the different chapters to maintain a dialogue between themselves. But, on the other hand, the cohabitation on the same book of articles that explore the influence of the arts in the Brontës's novels and juvenilia (or the notions about the artistic atmosphere of the Brontës' times which can be extracted from their works) and of other articles which are centered on the Brontës' long shadow in the work of other (later) artists is somehow arbitrary. As a matter of fact, this second half of the book and the recent A Breath of Fresh Eyre constitute probably a more coherent selection of articles about the Brontës' continuing inspiring force behind countless artistic manifestations.

The Brontës in the World of the Arts is, in short, a perfect example of state-of-the-art Brontë scholarship. A collection of articles which probably generates more questions than answers which is not at all a fault but probably its best achievement.

Notes

(1) As the notes of the article say, an updated edition of The Art of the Brontës is planned.
(2) Dunn even attributes to Branwell's enduring influence the fact that Charlotte refused to illustrate her own novel, tracing some far-fetched parallels between Branwell, Thackeray and St. John's character.
(3) Losano, Antonia. “The Professionalization of the Woman Artist in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 58:1 (2003): 1-41
(4) Here a reference to the recently published book by Marianne Thormählen The Brontës and Education could be rather informative. Sadly, it is not included in the bibliography.
(5) Of course, this is not the first time that Emily Brontë's novel inner musicality is discussed. Check, for instance, Robert K. Wallace's
Emily Brontë and Beethoven: Romantic Equilibrium in Fiction and Music (Athens, GA, 1986).
(6) Solie, Ruth A.
Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations (Berkeley, 2004).
(7) But no so much, nor Jane Eyre 2006 nor Wide Sargasso Sea 2006 are mentioned. It is not clear also why the (film) discussion is only centered around Jane Eyre 1944 and Jane Eyre 1970.
(8) We have been advised by composer Terry Fisk that Linda Lister has misinterpreted his setting of the song "How clear she shines".
On the other hand, Stephen Kloys on The Homeground & KBNI Forum says about Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights song discussion:
No major mistakes in the KB essay [apart for the writers claim that the shimmering white dress WH video preceeded the cow paddock romping red dress one]. Unfortunately towards the end of the chapter things gets very confused between the various Cathys and Catherines and Kates and even the Kick Inside song. Hopefully it will all be sorted out in the wash [and the books second edition].
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