Saturday, February 26, 2011

Brief Lives: Charlotte Brontë by Jessica Cox - A review

We are very thankful to Hesperus Press for sending us review copies of these books

Tales of the Islanders
Charlotte Brontë
Hesperus Press
February 25, 2011
ISBN: 9781843912019
Format: Paperback
Brief Lives: Charlotte Brontë
Jessica Cox
Hesperus Press
February 25, 2011
ISBN: 9781843919209
Format: Paperback
The Hesperus collection of Brief Lives, to which Jessica Cox's biography belongs, is described as follows:
Brief Lives offers short, authoritative biographies of the world's best-known literary figures. Both informative and entertaining, each title introduces the modern reader to the early life, writing career and literary legacy of the author.
Jessica Cox's task wasn't an easy one. To non-Brontëites, the lives of the Brontës may seem to boil down to a family living in the middle of nowhere and penning a few books. But those of us who have read a few biographies - particularly if one of those is Juliet Barker's - know that condensing the life of Charlotte Brontë into 112 pages is quite a feat. One of the reasons why many readers of the Brontës' fiction get trapped in their biographies is that their lives were much more interesting than initially thought and also that details do matter in the story.

Jessica Cox's biography, despite its size, addresses readers with at least a basic knowledge of Brontë facts. She doesn't always follow a linear narrative and, knowing well the above-mentioned importance of details, she doesn't hesitate to 'join the dots' when they need to be joined (relating actual events to plot twists in the novels, etc.)(1) rather than when they would follow chronologically speaking. It's this approach that makes it an interesting read for Brontëites with a good knowledge of the Brontës as well. Some of her viewpoints are both refreshing for their newness and also arguable sometimes because of their very freshness(2). For instance, rather than going for the much-emphasised theory of Charlotte's debt to M. Heger for his writing 'workshops', she opts for a much less-travelled road:
[H]er infatuation with Heger exerted a huge influence on her fiction: her portrayal of Rochester's unfortunate marriage to Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, Bertha's subsequent death and Rochester's union with Jane may well have been rooted in her romantic fantasies of Heger and her jealousy of his wife. . .
Despite the short length of the biography, Ms Cox is not oblivious to details. She finds a running theme in the subject of Patrick Brontë's questions to his children while this hid behind a mask and joins this to Charlotte's later efforts to remain unknown to the public. This need for privacy and making her voice heard but herself not seen runs smoothly throughout most of the biography, with the exception of ignoring Emily's firm demand of remaining anonymous.

Much of Ms Cox's opinion of Charlotte seems to be based on Juliet Barker's description of her(3). The matter of sibling rivalry is a little too emphasised(4) - and wholly speculative - for our taste as is the subject of Charlotte's 'ruthless ambition' to become a published author. We don't quite know what new readers will make of this Charlotte Brontë, but for well-read Brontëites this will certainly be food for thought - it will get them to re-examine what they know and think of Charlotte and her motives.

Feminism is also on Jessica Cox's agenda. Sometimes her conclusions on the subject seem a bit forced, such as when she wonders whether,
Charlotte's alliance with her brother was perhaps, even at this young age, in part a strategic move. . .
In spite of that, Ms Cox, as usual, doesn't follow the 'suggested' route and vindicates Charlotte's wedding and marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Jessica Cox's Brief Lives: Charlotte Brontë is often like that: unexpected, refreshing and wholly noncommittal.

Together with their Brief Lives: Charlotte Brontë, Hesperus are also releasing an edition of Charlotte's juvenile Tales of the Islanders (written 1829-1830), based on a 'reworked transcription' according to the Note on the Text and also introduced by Jessica Cox. The edition includes all four volumes of Tales of the Islanders, as well as a few explanatory notes which, overall, focus more on general knowledge than in the actual comings and goings and particular who's-who of the juvenilia.

Both covers deserve special attention as well. Piero Pierini's cover design and illustration of the biography seems vibrant and modern enough to appeal to 21st century readers, much like the contents, actually. While the cover of Tales of the Islanders matches previous Hesperus editions of the juvenilia, such as The Green Dwarf or The Foundling.

In her introduction, Jessica Cox highlights the value of the juvenilia, if not just per se, for the practice it provided for a young Charlotte Brontë and for its sometimes surprising echoes in the more mature works. To this we would add that, regardless of this kind of value, which is obviously highly important, reading the juvenilia is also worth it for their unashamed flippancy and just plain fun.

Notes
(1) Despite of this intelligent approach, Jessica Cox's style is, at times, on the repetitive side, such as when in the introduction she comments time and time again on how Charlotte's literary input is limited and how her literary position even today is surprising because of this. (A connection with which we don't agree at all, by the way. We wonder what Jessica Cox's makes of Emily Brontë's literary position given the fact she published but one novel).
(2) Brontë fans are only too willing to take Charlotte's word for the conditions at Cowan Bridge (or Cowan Gate, as Ms Cox mistakenly calls it a couple of times) and Carus Wilson's part on it, so it's a bit shocking to read her questioning 'the extent to which Carus Wilson can be held directly responsible'.
(3) However, she doesn't agree with Barker's view of Haworth as a not isolated place and rather trusts Charlotte's descriptions of the place, partly, we understand, because that's how Charlotte felt it to be anyway, regardless of the actual facts.
(4) Apart from several comments starting in the juvenilia and reaching into their actual literary careers, Jessica Cox seems too ready to read Charlotte's 'Editor's Preface' to her sisters' works as well as he Biographical Notice of them at face-value and take them for actual criticism of her sisters' works rather than, like most biographers, considering that Charlotte was doing nothing but what Mrs Gaskell would do to her later on, criticising her 'coarse' works in order to be able to highlight their pure, if unpolished, Victorian values.

Categories: , , ,

Comments :

1 Comment
Moira Russell said...
on  

Great review, as always!

Post a Comment