Monday, February 07, 2011

Charlotte Brontë's Atypical Typology. A Review

Our thanks to Peter Lang Publishing for sending a review copy of this book.

Jenkins, Keith A.
Charlotte Brontë's Atypical Typology
Peter Lang Publishers
Series: Studies in Nineteenth-Century British Literature - Volume 9
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4331-0855-6
We own we should be sorry to subject any child of ours to the teaching and insinuations of the mind here pictured; whose religion is without awe, -who despises and sets down every form and distinction she cannot understand,- who rejects all guides but her Bible, and at the same time constantly quotes and plays with its sacred pages, as though they had been given to the world for no better purpose than to point a witticism or furnish an ingenious illustration. (Anne Mozley, from an unsigned review of Villette, Christian Remembrancer, April 1853, n.s. XXV, 401-43, as reproduced in The Brontës. The Critical Heritage. Edited by Miriam Allott, Routledge, 1974)
Keith A. Jenkins's Charlotte Brontë's Atypical Typology main purpose is, precisely, to demonstrate that Charlotte Brontë's use of the Bible was not a mark of witticism or an ingenious way to illustrate an idea or event but a conscious personal appropriation of the Scriptures which was based on a rather nonconformist approach to Classical Typology.

This year, 2011, marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible which was completed in 1611. Accordingly, the Brontë Society Conference (to be held in Homerton College, Cambridge University, 26-28 August 2011) will center on The Brontës and the Bible: Influences both Literary and Religious. We don't know if Keith A. Jenkins (currently President of Houston Graduate School of Theology and Elder of the United Methodist Church) will be among the scholars invited to the upcoming Brontë Society Conference (which includes Marianne Thormählen, Brian Wilks or Tom Winnifrith) but after reading his unscheduled(1) contribution to the celebrations it would certainly be fitting, as his book deserves a place among the very few anthologies devoted exclusively to Charlotte Brontës' fiction from a Bible-studies point of view.

Mr. Jenkins's approach is almost exclusively devoted to the mature fiction of Charlotte Brontë(2) analysed through the direct quotes, allusions or allegories from the Bible(3). His personal agenda is to articulate how Charlotte Brontë's use of Biblical material was a sort of atypical typology but not in a theological (or faith-driven) sense but in a Bloom-like anxiety-of-influence way:
While I have identified what Charlotte Brontë does with biblical material in her novel as typology, it is atypical and differs greatly from the classical form of that hermeneutic system. I no true theological sense does she views Rochester as the antitype of Adam or Samson, nor Paul Emanuel as the antitype of Christ. As much as some readers and critics may wish to, we cannot view the biblical parallels in her fiction as testimony to her faith in the divinely ordained interconnectedness of all creation. Only by creating new ficitional antitypes for biblical characters and scenes in a way that replaces the old with the new, can Brontë adequately differentiate herself from the strong precursor text that looms over her and her culture. As she frees herself from the anxiety of the Bible's influence on her views and her voice, she can, at the same time, minimize the influence of the anxiety that the Bible and its male-dominated tradition of interpretation produce in her.
The questioning of the traditional male-dominated scriptural interpretation is one of the pivots around which Keith A. Jenkins's strategy revolves, through the gender-reversed nature and further gender destabilization of many of the Bible quotes used by Charlotte Brontë. The other two strategies used for the analysis of the whole of the Brontë opus are the undemining of a providential (God-driven) view of history and finally, the translation of the otherwordly into his world (particularly the Garden of Eden imaginery which features prominently in Jane Eyre, for example). Of course, the author knows that an approach which follows such parameterised rules unavoidably incurs in overlappings and ignores other possible alternative partial strategies(4).

Beyond the exegesis of the Brontë opus focused in the emergence of the atypical, unstable, mutant and fluidic typology which Jenkins materialises in this book, what is certainly fascinating is the complex interweaved fabric which Charlotte Brontë is able to create, where her vast knowledge of the Bible and the strength of her narrative feature in a rather unique way(5).

The majority of the current readers of Charlotte Brontë's novels lack the familiarity with the Bible which the contemporary readers of the author had. Books like Charlotte Brontë's Atypical Typology (6) are crucial in order to understand up to which point not only the Bible as a holy book, but as the source of our (and Charlotte's) Western mythology, was influential in her writings. Only with this background one is able to understand reactions like Anne Mozley's review of Villette. And though the background is not essential to celebrate and enjoy the novels of Charlotte Brontë, it is a bonus which opens the door to a much deeper understanding.

Notes

(1) Not only because the book was published at the end of 2010 but because some parts of it (particularly the Jane Eyre chapter) have appeared previously: "Charlotte Brontë’s New Bible” in Approaches to Teaching Brontë’s Jane Eyre, eds. Diane Long Hoeveler and Beth Lau (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993).“From Eden to the New Jerusalem and Back Again: Biblical Resonances in Jane Eyre” in Approaches to Teaching Jane Eyre, ed. John O. Jordan (Santa Cruz, CA: The Dickens Project, 1989).
(2) Dismissing the whole juvenilia quoting Tom Winnifrith's statement on The Brontës and their Background: Romance and Reality, 1988: 
As has been shown there is not a great deal of evidence in the juvenilia about Charlotte's religious views, but what there is suggests orthodox.
is, in our opinion, quite hasty although understandable taking into account the scope of the book. On the other hand, the study concentrates exclusively on fiction with no biographical information to trace meaningful resonances. We wonder what would happen, for instance, with the fiction/reality duet formed by Paul Emanuel / Constantin Heger when confronted to the Christ / Paul type-antitype. We know that this is going far beyond the secularised typological approach of the book but we are intrigued.

(3) In this scheme, all the other secularised or filtered Bible mythology articulated through Milton's Paradise Lost or Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, for instance, is generally not explored. Jenkins's agenda is different from Ian Emberson's in whose Pilgrims of Loneliness tried to approach Jane Eyre and Villette through a basic mythologhy drawn from all those precedents
(4) Although the author explictly advocates against the perils of over-reading some of the examined allusions, at times the problem seems to overtake whole sections of the book. We are thinking particularly of the Passion/Resurrection motif as read in Jane Eyre.
(5) It is fascinating to read in this light Shirley's words (and to imagine Emily Brontë, of course) talking about Eve (later identified as Nature) as the mother of the Titans and daughter of Jehovah, equal to Adam, his son.
(6) Just mentioning some of the more recent the ones:  Thormählen, Marianne. The Brontës and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999;  Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. "Jane Eyre and Christianity." Approaches to Teaching Jane Eyre. Eds. Diane Long Hoeveler and Beth Lau. NY: Modern Language Association, 1993, 62-68; "Charlotte Brontë's religion: faith, feminism, and Jane Eyre", Christianity and Literature, Autumn, 2008 by Emily Griesinger; Maynard, John. "The Brontës and Religion." The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës. Ed. Heather Glen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 192-213 (curiously enough, this one is not included in the bibliography).

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1 Comment
Keith A. Jenkins said...
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Thank you for your comments on my book. Yes, I will be attending and speaking at the 2011 Bronte Society Conference. Hopefully, while there, I can explain more fully why I chose not to treat the juvenilia. And the omission of "The Brontes and Religion" from the bibliography was a regretable oversight on my part.
Keith A. Jenkins

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