Saturday, November 06, 2010

Letters to Charlotte - A Review

We are very grateful to Pink Press for providing us with a review copy of this book.

Letters to Charlotte: The Letters from Ellen Nussey to Charlotte Brontë
Caeia March
* Paperback: 290 pages
* Publisher: Pink Press; First edition (14 Oct 2010)
* ISBN-10: 1907499431
* ISBN-13: 978-1907499432
Ellen I wish I could live with you always, I begin to cling to you more fondly than ever I did. If we had but a cottage and a competency of our own I do think we might live and love on till Death without being dependent on any third person for happiness. (Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, 26 September 1836)
Certain fragments from Charlotte Brontë's private correspondence have sparkled endless debates, but few - if any - have been as thoroughly discussed and examined as the above(1).

Caeia March has taken this and other similar outpourings(2) to weave a fictional, epistolary tale where Charlotte Brontë and her lifelong friend Ellen Nussey have a lesbian affair, begun shortly after meeting for the first time at school and carried on - on and off - for the rest of their lives. For convenience reasons, Ellen's fictional letters (the real ones are lost) are more open about this than Charlotte's and, also for the sake of convenience, it is Ellen who ends up loving Charlotte one-sidedly to the end of her days.

In her very interesting and generous introduction to Letters to Charlotte Ms March explains to the reader the creative process behind the book. What was initially conceived as a narrative from Ellen's point of view is now an epistolary tale interspersed with fictional journal fragments written by Ellen and which we suppose are fragments from the old concept.

Like so many Brontëites, Caeia March's love story with the Brontës is a very interesting one, full of coincidences and signs. A Brontëite will always be struck by one of the secondary characters in the Brontë story and that, in Caeia March's case, was Ellen Nussey. What where her reactions, her thoughts, her impressions and her interactions when it came to the Brontë family in general and Charlotte in particular?

Caeia March has managed to flesh Ellen out - a fictional Ellen - and to place her on the foreground of the story where in most cases she has been on the background. Relying on Barbara Whitehead's biography of Ellen - Charlotte Brontë and Her Dearest Nell: The Story of a Friendship, Dalesman Publishing, 1993 - for the biographical and family data, Caeia March set out to re-create the lifelong-correspondence and friendship of Ellen Nussey and Charlotte Brontë... with a lesbian touch.

We first meet Ellen as a passionate teenager struck with love at first sight for Charlotte on her first day at Roe Head(3). As a teenager she continues to pour her not just platonic love for Charlotte into her letters and journal entries. This fictional Ellen lets the readers into their secret passion. Caiea March aptly re-creates the lack of subtlety that any other teenager would display but this also works against her. In our opinion, more subtlety and more leaving things open to the reader's imagination would have worked better even if it had meant keeping less in character. The 'cottage' motif and Ellen's insistence on wishing she could marry Charlotte as well as her 'indiscreet' descriptions on paper of their nights together are sometimes more reminiscent of Anne Lister than of the Ellen Nussey we know. Nobody can confirm or deny whether their friendship was ever actually more than that (which obviously works in favour of the love-story theory and which would have benefited from what we said above about leaving more to imagination), but even with her open Moravian religious background, Ellen Nussey is more reminiscent of a 21st-century activist than a middle-class 19th-century lady.

Still, though, it is interesting to see how her passion develops as she grows older, naturally becoming more discreet and subdued, and how she faces Charlotte's love stories, first her one-sided love for M. Heger and most importantly her eventual marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls(4). So in that sense the book is flawlessly written. This fictional Ellen Nussey is given a three-dimensional personality and what we know of the real Ellen is seemingly effortlessly incorporated into her. Besides, Caeia March knows her Brontës very well and so, when the reader is about to voice a 'but', she gets there first. Charlotte famously described Ellen as 'no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She is without romance--if she attempts to read poetry--or poetic prose aloud--I am irritated and deprive her of the book--if she talks of it I stop my ears--but she is good--she is true--she is faithful and I love her' and so, the reader is a bit shocked to read Ellen saying,
I like to recite poetry to my family in private soirées
but then she continues
but no longer attempt so with Charlotte, who considers me un-aware of metre and meaning, which is untrue. Charlotte and her sisters have adopted a superior disdain but I am by now accustomed to such attitudes.
All of which not only does away with any possible shock on the part of the reader but makes him/her rejoice in the new perspective and the richness of the layers at play here. Caeia March makes the reader reconsider how he/she has taken Charlotte's version of things for granted. There are two sides to every coin and Caeia March has managed wonderfully to combine the known facts with the room for speculation and new perspectives. All this done with utter respect for the Brontë family, of whom Caeia March is clearly very fond.

Ellen continues to be the pious, (at least outwardly) conventional, kind, helpful woman we know she was, but Ms March adds a new side to her. It is clear that there are many things we don't know about the actual Ellen and Ms March - whether the reader agrees with them or not - fills the voids quite aptly(5). There emerges an independent, thoughtful, modern, passionate woman who resigns outwardly to the conventions of her time while at the same time she subverts them inwardly (her letters, her journal entries).

Caeia March's language in fleshing Ellen out is beautifully poetic. The descriptions are wonderful and the way Ellen's thoughts are given shape and words is unforgettable. We don't know whether the actual Charlotte Brontë would have recognised her friend's style, but the reader can't help but gawp in awe at things such as this one(6):
I have some shocking news, simultaneously exhilarating. The burning of the J. Horsfall Turner pages has begun. Thoughts, words feelings, all rising in smoke. Through the Air, the Ether. Smoke like angels, ascending. Whilst I witness this activity, all I can think of is, 'The Air, the very Air is filled with her, her words, her joys, her sorrows, her laughter, her voice'. I am listening--I can hear her, her words being read aloud. Smoke, words, flames: Air, Air, Air, Air. Eyre. I see the burning of the attic in Rochester's mansion. Eyre & Air. C.B.'s letters, printed, typeset, floating away in fragments, in little charcoal scraps, upon the air.
With the exception of one noticeably made-up letter all of Charlotte's replies to Ellen's fictional letters are real and it is to Ms March's credit that they can be read along Ellen's, telling about both their lives, their trials and tribulations, all pertaining to the life of middle-class 19th-century women. The main problem with this concept is that nothing much happens really and nothing is really building up, which is fine and to be expected when one is reading actual letters, but which makes the read a bit 'insipid' when reading fictional letters. We know Caeia March couldn't - and surely wouldn't - change the story to make it more thrilling or engaging but for this reason we think perhaps the original concept of the story narrated in the first person by Ellen could have sped things along a bit.

Readers both interested in the Brontë story and the condition of women in 19th-century England would do well to pick up a copy of Letters to Charlotte. The latter will benefit from a pleasant read that takes it all in stride and shows how things were without being at all preachy. And the former will have plenty of food for thought and at the closing of the book will regard Ellen with new eyes. She deserves it.


Notes:
(1) Without being exhaustive, Charlotte Brontë's relation with Ellen Nussey has been explored from a lesbian point of view in Foster, Jeannette, Sex Variant Women in Literature, Vantage Press (1956); Miller, Elaine (Lesbian History Group)  ‘Through all changes and through all chances: The relationship of Ellen Nussey and Charlotte Brontë’, in  Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History 1840-1985, 29-54, Women's Press (1989, repr 1993); Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Troping the body: gender, etiquette, and performance, Southern Illinois University Press (2000); Hilde Schmölzer, Frauenliebe. Berühmte weibliche Liebespaare der Geschichte, Promedia Verlag (2009)
(2) According to Robert and Louise Barnard, Brontë Encyclopedia, Blackwell Publishing p. 242:
Often the letters show a warmth of affection which sounds odd to modern ears, but was probably common enough among young people of the time, denied any easy outlet for strong feelings toward the opposite sex.
(3) Funnily enough, the actual Charlotte Brontë seems to have felt the exact opposite. On January 3, 1850 she admitted to William Smith Williams that, 
When I first saw Ellen I did not care for her--we were schoolfellows--in the course of time we learnt each others [sic] faults and good points--we were contrasts--still we suited--affection was first a germ, then a sapling--then a strong tree.
(4) Other stories touching on love (George Smith, James Taylor) are understandably left aside, as this book's focus is on the relationship between Ellen and Charlotte.
(5) Caeia March has done well to make Ellen perceptive enough to notice something was afoot in the Brontë household while the sisters were writing their novels. Charlotte correcting the proofs of Jane Eyre under Ellen's own roof and Ellen not noticing a thing has always seemed a little far-fetched. However, Ellen is a bit too much on the clairvoyant side, predicting things to come in the Brontë story, seeing things well into the future such a large readership, etc.
(6) Ellen had instructed Joseph Horsfall Turner to print a volume of correspondence from Charlotte to her. But by the time the copies of the volume were printed, Ellen had changed her mind. She then had to buy all the copies from him and burn them.

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1 Comment
Elaine said...
on  

Oh I must get this!

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