Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"I can highly recommend Shirley"

An article in the New Statesman about Vicent Van Gogh's letters:

At times Vincent wrote almost daily, describing his life teaching and preaching in England, and later his work in various unaccommodating lodgings in the Netherlands. The darkness drove him to read and to write, as he could not draw or paint in the long evenings. He wrote about his admiration for George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Margaret Drabble)
has triggered our interest. After a complete search on the Van Gogh Museum website we have found the following mentions:

To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Friday, 5 August 1881
Ik weet niet of gij ooit engelsche boeken leest. Zoo ja dan kan ik U zeer recommandeeren “Shirley” door Currer Bell, schrijfster ook van een ander boek, “Jane Eyre”. Dat is zoo mooi als de schilderijen van Millais of Boughton of Herkomer. Ik vond het te Prinsenhage en las het in drie dagen uit hoewel ’t een vrij volumineus boek is.

I don’t know if you ever read English books. If so, then I can highly recommend Shirley by Currer Bell, the author of another book, Jane Eyre. This is as beautiful as the paintings of Millais or Boughton or Herkomer. I found it at Princenhage and read it in three days, even though it’s quite a thick book.
To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Saturday, 19 November 1881.
Lees in elk geval eens l’amour en la femme en, kunt ge ’t krijgen, My wife & I en Our neighbours van Beecher Stowe. of Jane Eyre en Shirley van Currer Bell. Veel meer en veel duidelijker dingen dan ik kunnen die lui U zeggen.

Read in any case L’amour and La femme and, if you can get hold of it, My wife and I and Our neighbours by Beecher Stowe. Or Jane Eyre and Shirley by Currer Bell. Those people can tell you many more things much more clearly than I can.
To Anthon van Rappard. The Hague, Sunday, 28 May 1882.
Het is wel jammer dat de artisten hier de Engelschen zoo weinig kennen. Mauve b.v. raakte in enthousiasme toen hij van Millais dat landschap Chill October13 zag doch zij gelooven toch niet in de Engelsche kunst en oordeelen er te oppervlakkig over mijns inziens. Mauve zegt telkens “dat is litteraire kunst”, doch denkt er niet bij dat de Engelsche schrijvers als Dickens & Eliot & Currer Bell en van de franschen Balzac b.v. zoo verbazend “plastisch” zijn als ik ’t zoo mag uitdrukken, dat het even puissant is als b.v. een teekening van Herkomer of Fildes of Israels. En Dickens zelf gebruikte soms de uitdrukking, I have sketched.

It’s a pity that the artists here know so little about the English. Mauve, for example, was enthusiastic when he saw that landscape by Millais, Chill October,13 but they don’t believe in English art, and judge it too superficially in my view. Mauve always says, ‘That is literary art’, but doesn’t realize that the English writers like Dickens and Eliot and Currer Bell, and among the French Balzac, are so astonishingly ‘plastic’, if I may put it like that, that it’s as powerful as, say, a drawing by Herkomer or Fildes or Israëls. And Dickens himself sometimes used the expression, I have sketched.
To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 22 October 1882.
En zoo blijven mij ook steeds de figuren ’t zij van de Engelsche teekenaars ’t zij van de Engelsche schrijvers om reden van hun Maandagmorgenachtige nuchterheid en gewilde soberheid en proza en analyse steeds aantrekken als iets dat solide en flink is, waar men een houvast aan heeft in dagen wanneer men zich slap voelt.

And similarly the figures of either the English draughtsmen or the English writers, on account of their Monday morning-like sobriety and deliberate austerity and prose and analysis, continue to attract me as something solid and firm which gives one something to hold onto on days when one is feeling weak.

Note to the letter by the Van Gogh Museum: This plea for firmness and sobriety, and the words ‘Monday morning’ and ‘solid’, especially in this context, make it all the likelier that this is an allusion to the following passage at the beginning of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley: ‘If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.’ Ed. London 1857, p. 1. Van Gogh knew the book; see letters 170, 187. Later he writes ‘prosaic as Monday morning’ (letters 341 and 342).
To Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 9 May 1889.
Enfin ce serait probablement hypocrite de dire ou croire que Paris est mauvais alors qu’on y vit. La première fois que l’on voit Paris il se peut d’ailleurs que tout y semble contre nature, sale et triste.

Anyway, it would probably be hypocritical to say or believe that Paris is bad when one lives there. The first time one sees Paris it may be, besides, that everything there seems against nature, dirty and sad.

Note to the letter by the Van Gogh Museum: After this Van Gogh crossed out an unfinished remark: ‘N’est ce pas Currer Bell?’ (Isn’t it Currer Bell?).
EDIT: Some of Van Gogh's letters would be exhibited in the Royal Academy of Arts (London) from January 23 until April 18 at the exhibition The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.

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