Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy - A Review

We are very grateful to Ashgate Publishers for sending us a review copy of this book.

Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy
The Body of Nature
Eithne Henson
Series : The Nineteenth Century Series
Includes 1 b&w illustration
November 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4094-3214-2
The way in which cultural geographers have understood and defined landscape in the last decades has been a subject of considerable critical agitation in recent times. Competing and sometimes opposed approaches have been proposed particularly starting in the last third of the last century. The very nature of landscape studies is interdisciplinary and cultural geographers have both drawn from - and contributed to articulate - landscape readings based on art history, visual theory, anthropology, literary studies, psychoanalysis feminism, post-colonialism, you name it... Most of the times the competing nature of the different approaches is no more than a mirage and the different readings complement or re-explain the same reality from different angles.

Eithne Hensons's Landscape and Gender in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy is a small piece in the gigantic puzzle of landscape studies but particularly relevant, of course, for British nineteenth-century literature scholars and Brontë lovers in general. The author centres her study around the representations of physical and mental landscapes in some selected novels by the three writers (in Charlotte Brontë's case, Jane Eyre and Shirley)(1), with a particular interest in how gender is used to negotiate landscape description and/or in the significance of the concept (and use) of '(N)ature'. The theoretical approaches used by the author are many and varied but can be delimited by aesthetic theory (with particular attention to the aesthetic standards of nineteenth-century Britain), feminist approaches to geography(2) which sometimes connect with Freudian and Lacanian interpretations and how landscapes are used to define Englishness (using several post-colonialist postulates). Although several other important highlights of landscape criticism are mentioned and eventually used (Marxist, post-structuralist, phenomenological...), they are not central to Eithne Henson's approach.

In our opinion, this is a good choice. This is not a reference book but a close look at some authors under a precise scrutiny. Too much dispersion (both in novels analysed or in critical approaches) has been neutralised and this gives Eithne Henson's views appeal and a strong coherence(3).

The book begins with an excellent introduction, where the author explains clearly and with minimal use of jargon and technicalities the scope of her project and centres the question(s) about what landscape is/means/generates. The introduction proceeds with a contextualisation of how the idea of landscape as pleasurable was interpreted in the nineteenth century. From John Burke's sublime landscapes, whose influence is certainly present in John Martin's paintings so praised and admired by the Brontës, to William Gilpin's use of the 'picturesque' in landscape drawings to John Ruskin's gender-oriented categorisation of the sublime as masculine and elevated and the picturesque as feminine and weak(4).

The second chapter is devoted to Charlotte Brontë. Only two novels are addressed as we have said before, although several discussions related to Charlotte's juvenilia and French devoirs are included(5). The discussion on Jane Eyre and Shirley follows closely the different uses of landscape (mental or physical) in the novel: to illustrate or to ironically oppose the plot through painterly compositions (sublime or picturesque), the frequent use of the pathetic fallacy, personifications, biblical allusions (including paradise garden imaginery), symbolic geography and metaphorical landscapes alluding mental states. The range of descriptions is certainly remarkable and the author is well aware of the fact. Both Eliot and Hardy
will develop various of these aspects of landscape writing, [even explore new ones], but neither over such a range.
Both books are extensively discussed and many of the usual suspects of recent criticism reappear addressed in this particular context. Citing just two examples, Rochester's allusions to West Indies landscapes are seen as foreign and thus immoral, as any good post-colonialist would say and the Ferndean Manor final section of Jane Eyre is analysed under a Freudian prism with masculine phallic trees predating the feminine enclosure...

The gender issues are also relevant in the two works analysed here. Not so much in the gendering of the landscape itself (or pictorial representations) but through questions of power and ownership of land. And, particularly,
to the reduction of female characters to 'nature', animal or vegetable.
Besides the chapters on George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, the book ends with a conclusion which aptly rhymes with the introduction, putting together several of the questions explored in depth in the chapters devoted to each writer, but here connecting the views and generating a satisfactory sensation of completitude and coherence.

Perhaps this book will not represent a turning point on landscape studies or in nineteenth-century literary theory but it certainly represents the most complete work to date exploring the use of landscape (with all its implications only previously hinted at) in Charlotte Brontë demonstrating beyond any doubt the great importance of landscape description (in all its forms) in Charlotte Brontë's way of narrating and clearly implicating that any serious critical approach to her work has to take it into account.

(1) In George Eliot's case, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda and in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Woodlanders and Tess of D'Urbervilles.
(2) Which uncover unexpected (for too common) gendrifications of landscape descriptions: girdle, bosom...
(3) Of course, some digressions occur and we find the discussion about Shirley's use of Eve and the Mother of Titans discourse rather disengaged from the rest of the material. Of course, the idea of mother Nature is the one that motivates the author's inclusion but, nevertheless, the discussion seems to go in a different direction than the book's main aim.
(4) And although Charlotte Brontë's own drawings as a teenager clearly follow Gilpin's picturesque formulae even considering that John Martin's influence is also important and that Charlotte read John Ruskin's Modern Painters in 1848, the most interesting discussion on this subject in the present book comes, of course, in George Eliot's chapter. George Eliot, as a matter of fact, reviewed several essays by John Ruskin.
(5) The 1829 story The Search After Happiness or High Life on Verdopolis, among others.

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