Criticism Caution for Charlotte

With my 20-20 hindsight, I could have told Charlotte Bronte not to pay any attention to Robert Southey. In connection with our reading of Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey from two of the Bronte sisters, our Classics Book Club librarian Gayle Kennedy also got copies of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James to share with us.

The book is called a novel, but it’s based on extensive research and Charlotte’s own meticulously kept diary. There are only a few places where it appeared obvious to me that the author created fiction to fill in more than scenery and dialogue.  I recommend it to those who love the writings of the Brontes or for those just looking for a good story from their era.

Included in the back matter is an exchange with the poet Robert Southey. Charlotte had sent the revered English poet laureate some poems for critiques. His reply, dated 12 March 1837, gives several pieces of ambivalent advice:
•    Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.
•    Write poetry for its own sake. . .and not with a view to celebrity; the less you aim at that the more likely you will be to deserve and finally to obtain it.

I would say the second advice is sound, but the first raises a question. Aside from a few English literature majors, who knows about Robert Southey? The parody of his poem by Lewis Carroll “You Are Old, Father William” is more famous [and much more fun] than Mr. Southey’s original.

Charlotte appears to take his advice to heart and works up mandatory feelings of guilt. In her response to his letter she begins by admitting she has wasted quires of paper in her useless writing and moves to a new rationalization that the pleasure of writing can be hers, but only after she has finished her real woman’s work. Her answer, dated 16 March 1837, includes:
•    I have endeavored not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I am teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing. . .
Apparently all three sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – followed the advice and wrote in leftover time.

In retrospect almost 200 years later, students still read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; movies abound for both of them – the latest Jane Eyre doing well at its box office release in 2011; and this teacher and her students enjoyed both in their read-aloud time. Even Agnes Grey is still readily available. All three are great books for shared reading and discussion. There is no one alive with any remembrance of how well Charlotte did her “woman’s work.”

There will always be the Southeys, quick to give advice of questionable quality. Borrowing an idea from a favorite principal, I would suggest when one of those advice-givers tries to tell you what to do, you can smile sweetly and say, “You could be right.” Then finish the sentence in your head, “. . . and children may build snow forts in July in South Mississippi.”