Lee Smith and the Bronte Sisters

By Campbell, H. H. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Lee Smith and the Bronte Sisters


Campbell, H. H., The Southern Literary Journal


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Lee Smith and the Bronte Sisters
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.