Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Apocalypse When? 'Shirley''s and the Politics of Reading

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Apocalypse When? 'Shirley''s and the Politics of Reading

Article excerpt

Among the essays, or devoirs, that Charlotte Bronte wrote in French for Constantin Heger while she studied with him in Brussels is one entitled "The Fall of the Leaves" (1843). A response to a poem by Charles-Hubert Millevoye, it speculates on the nature of poetic inspiration. Following the tenets of romanticism, Bronte writes, "I believe that all real poetry is only the faithful impression of something which happens or has happened in the soul of the poet"; it is a matter of "genius, co-operating with some sentiment, affection or passion." In the discussion that follows, "genius" becomes paired with "the heart" as the twin springs of the perfect unity that is a poem. But just as she has reached this conclusion--a digression from the work she has set out to analyze--Bronte announces it is "time ... to cease," for she has "sinned" and strayed from the plan she meant to follow.(1)

Heger's marginal comments are punctuated with praise, hinting at the reasons behind the affection that Bronte is widely known to have felt for him. His assessment is not entirely positive, however. First, he brings her essay to a conclusion that explicitly recognizes her need to "return now to [her] subject." Second, he is moved to record an even stronger reaction in a response of his own. The point of his brief essay is that art requires cultivation. "Without study, there is no art ... Genius without study ... without the knowledge of what has already been done, is strength without lever." Accordingly, Heger concludes, "Whether you are a poet or not ... study form."(2)

Thus is the "sinning" Bronte taken to task. The message to her own poetic muse is subtle but clear: art may be inspired by the irrational forces of the soul, but it ultimately must manifest itself within the social world, whose expectations are firmly set. Whenever the artist is tempted to break out into uncharted fields of expression, she should be conscience-bound to pull back. She must return to her subject; she must stay true to form.

The tension between Bronte's essay and Heger's response was to find greater expression within Bronte's subsequent career. Several years later, as she was finishing Shirley (1849)--her one arguably social novel--she edited the text to include a French devoir similar in content to "The Fall of the Leaves," and she placed it similarly within the context of a relationship between a female student and a male teacher. In a key confrontation that takes place long after their student-teacher relationship has ended, Louis Moore recites for Shirley Keeldar an essay she had written for him years earlier. Titled "The First Blue-Stocking," it incorporates a revision of the marriage of "genius" and "the heart," working it into a longer narrative that focuses not on the poetic impulse but on a larger topic: the biblical origin of the family, and particularly woman's part in the story. Young Eva, alone in a world before the Flood, is rescued by "Genius," one of the "sons of God" heralded in Genesis as groomsmen for the "daughters of men." This, "the bridal-hour of Genius and Humanity," marks the beginning of a life's journey that culminates in Genius' gaining for his bride "the crown of Immortality."(3)

Like Heger, Moore had registered some objections to his student's speculative essay. What they are, however, Bronte declines to say. The reader is told only that Moore's "'censor-pencil scored it with condemnatory lines, whose signification [Shirley] strove vainly to fathom'" (p. 554).

Shirley's essay presents an interpretive puzzle to all its readers, some of whom may wish (like Heger) to rewrite it. Certainly, its portrayal of Creation's first marriage, with an emboldened "Eve" neatly sidestepping this "Adam's" rib and taking her place more like an equal beside him, is an unorthodox rejection of the form prescribed by patriarchal Christianity. Louis Moore's unfathomable objections may well have had to do with the fact that this story more closely resembles Cupid and Psyche's story, as one critic has noticed,(4) than it does the scriptural version. …

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