Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Illegible Minds: Charlotte Bronte's Early Writings and the Psychology of Moral Management in Jane Eyre and Villette

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Illegible Minds: Charlotte Bronte's Early Writings and the Psychology of Moral Management in Jane Eyre and Villette

Article excerpt

The work of Charlotte Bronte intersects with two fundamental elements in nineteenth-century psychological thought: the practice of moral management and the pseudo-science of phrenology. Both derive from the larger theory of faculty psychology, and both connect the dangers of imaginative daydreaming and reverie with the threat of insanity. (1) Recent criticism emphasizes the role of phrenology and/or traditional faculty psychology in Bronte's novels and in her philosophy. (2) While the critical alliance of her novels with the tenets of these theories is illuminating, I contend that it is ultimately misleading. These critics tend to sustain the traditional Victorian binaries that put self-control in conflict with imaginative states. (3) Bronte's writings depict her inversion of the theories typically espoused by nineteenth-century psychologists, who instigated a materialist reanimation of Descartes's metaphysics in the form of a binary set up between the waking, rational mind and the imaginatively induced derivatives of sleep, such as somnambulism, trance, and waking dreams. Bronte shows how it is the unrelenting regulation of the imagination through incessant self-control that creates various forms of insanity and becomes ultimately devastating to the self, depicting instead the moral basis of a complex dialectic between self-control and ecstatic self-loss.

The children of the Bronte household, in addition to writing numerous, fantastic stories and poems, were quite familiar with current theoretical discourse. (4) As Sally Shuttleworth successfully shows in her book Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology (1996), this discourse was accessible to them through a variety of mediums. Patrick Bronte, Bronte's father, fastidiously implemented Thomas John Graham's Modern Domestic Medicine (1827) into the daily ritual and fabric of the Haworth household. Shuttleworth describes how Graham's work "held the place of secular Bible" for Bronte's father, and

[v]irtually every page of this work has been annotated by the Reverend
Bronte, offering a moving testimonial to the rigid regimen which
governed the life of the household. Patrick records not only his
family's physical ailments and the remedies employed, but also his
preoccupation with the threat of nervous disease and insanity. (10-11)

In addition to the family's knowledge of the Graham text and their subscription to Blackwood's Magazine, the family also utilized the library holdings of the Keighly Mechanics' Institute, which was "primarily devoted to the natural sciences and philosophy" (Shuttleworth 26). (5) Phrenology manuals and guides for self-improvement lined the library shelves alongside works on electricity as well as the psychological work of the French physician, Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol, who wrote extensively on insanity. According to Shuttleworth, "lectures at the institute seem to have followed [this] common pattern: exhortations to self-development alternated with more practical lectures on magnetism and geology" (26). From the hallowed place of Graham's text in her household to the library's various holdings and lectures, Bronte would undoubtedly have been aware of the growing popularity and implementation of moral management and phrenology as well as many other aspects of faculty psychology, particularly the close correlation between the imagination and insanity. Yet Bronte's intimate familiarity with these psychological topics and theories did not mean that she indiscriminately adopted their premises. Rather Bronte's early writings--her journals, letters, and her unpublished poetry--in conjunction with her novels attest to her struggle with traditional faculty psychology: her critique of phrenology as a device of power and her intense preoccupation with the punitive nature of moral management.

Both phrenology and moral management were bound up with the nineteenth-century theory of faculty psychology. Faculty psychology defined the mind as a site of competing faculties or organs, each of which corresponded to a different mental state. …

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