Lee Smith and the Bronte Sisters

Article excerpt

Early in her recent book Lee Smith, Dorothy Combs Hill names Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Spencer, Katherine Anne Porter, and Virginia Woolf as among the early inspirations who taught Smith that she "could write out of female experience" (8). My purpose here is to demonstrate that Charlotte and Emily Bronte are also among the most important inspirations for Smith's work. I will begin with some of Smith's more obvious--if less significant--connections with the Brontes and build up to what I believe to be the most important relationship: that between Smith's Oral History (1983) and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847).

The most readily apparent examples of Smith's use of the Brontes are, however, the several references in Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) to Charlotte: Bronte's Jane Eyre. Smith's protagonist letter writer Ivy Rowe, who, like Jane Eyre, is writing a kind of autobiography, reports when in her mid-teens, "I am reading a grate book Jane Eyre" (86); and she draws on this reading for terminology and images that allow her to impose some shape and definition on the powerful emotions she is beginning to experience, emotions that sometimes startle and frighten her.

When Jane Eyre is undergoing her ordeal of deciding whether or not to leave Rochester, she says that "a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning!" (278) Ivy borrows and employs this "fiery hand" image at least a half-dozen times, to describe both the height of feeling she experiences at a religious meeting ("A hand of fire clutched me in the stomach ..., it was the hand of God almighty" [102]) and the physical passion aroused in her by the young man Lonnie Rash ("When he kissed me I felt that firey hand as always" [118]).

In her anxiety and confusion over her feelings for Lonnie, fearing that she may be "going crazy" and in danger of "a complete nervous breakdown like Jane Eyre when she got shut up in the Red Room" (104), Ivy is drawing on another of the powerful scenes in Jane Eyre, a scene in which the child Jane is subjected by her cruel guardian to a frightening and permanently scarring emotional experience. Later Ivy uses Jane's great love for Rochester as a measure of her own love for Lonnie Rash and finds the latter wanting, "not a love to stop the heart" (113).

Smith again draws on Jane Eyre, this time with no indication of the source, in setting up Ivy Rowe's relationship to the Boston missionary Miss Torrington, who, recognizing Ivy's gifts, would take her out of the hills to be educated for a higher calling. There are close parallels here to Jane Eyre's situation with the sternly religious cousin St. John Rivers, who would make a missionary of Jane and even have her enter with him into a loveless marriage, entirely against her own nature and inclinations. Rivers and Miss Torrington are, for example, given quite similar physical descriptions. Both appear cold and hard like a piece of sculpture, he like an antique statue, she like a cameo; he with "marble-seeming features" (323), a "high forehead, colorless as ivory," and "eyes ... large and blue" (303), she with "face ... carved in pure white marble" (1045), "forehead ... wide and white," "big deep eyes ... dark blue" (100).

In addition, St. John Rivers and Miss Torrington alike threaten their charges with the displeasure of God if they do not use their talents as the adviser wishes: Rivers warns Jane that she must turn "to profit the talents which God has committed to your keeping and of which He will surely one day demand a strict account" (344); and Miss Torrington tells Ivy that "it is a sin ... if we do not use our talents that God has given us ... it may be the greatest sin of all" (105). Both Jane and Ivy are also offered a "love" that they consider counterfeit (Jane the marriage of convenience with Rivers and Ivy a lesbian relationship with Miss Torrington); and both finally reject these somewhat dubious apostles of the "higher calling" and return to their earthly lovers, Jane to Rochester and Ivy to Lonnie Rash. …