Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Fantasy World of the Brontes

I've written about the Brontes before.  Found myself going back to them recently.  Perhaps because John Addington Symonds' obsession with his homosexual fantasies reminded me of the elaborate fantasy world they created as children. Not that their fantasies were explicitly sexual.*  What Symonds' fantasies and the stories of the Bronte children have in common is that they were all about forbidden things; things they couldn't have.

Katherine Frank has written a very interesting, if fragmentary, biography of Emily Bronte which makes some good points about the "plays."  For example, they started off being set in Africa:  a warm, luxurious, fertile country very different from the bleak Yorkshire moors that were all the children had ever known.  And yet, they did know about Africa, and British colonialism, through their precocious and voracious reading of newspapers.  They were proper little imperialists, following in their father's Tory footsteps.  And in their fantasy world they were omnipotent.  Everything that they could not do at home, they did in fantasy.  They could even restore the dead to life.

Many people have recounted the story of how the young Branwell Bronte received a set of toy soldiers from his father, and how the boy and each of his three sisters chose their favorite soldier, named him after some historical figure and began to make up stories about them. Charlotte's soldier was the Duke of Wellington, Emily and Anne chose the Arctic explorers Parry and Ross, and Branwell chose Napoleon.  I have not found anyone who points out that to British people of that era, Napoleon was a very bad guy.  Also, he and Wellington were archenemies. In modern terms, for Charlotte and Branwell to play Napoleon and Wellington would be like playing Superman and Lex Luthor, Xavier and Magneto, George Bush and Osama bin Laden (oops, I digress again.)

Indeed, the four children divided into two teams, with Emily and Anne telling most of their stories together, and Charlotte and Branwell creating their own fictional world.  (As far as I know, only Charlotte's stories have been published.  I believe that none of Emily or Anne's original writing survived; although Emily's later poems about her fictional world of Gondal have been published, the book is hard to find.)  It appears that many of Branwell's characters were rogues and villains.  Charlotte's characters tend to be less actively malicious, but they are rather deceitful.  Perhaps the most notable thing about the stories she wrote down is the strong vein of satire.  She makes fun of her brother's poetical pretensions.  She makes fun of her younger sisters, finding the things they told stories about to be babyish.

Much of her juvenilia took the form of a series of magazines that were published in their imaginary British colony, and the advertisements in these magazines are as carefully drawn as anything else.  One of her heroes publishes a book called "The Elements of Lying."  A rat-trap is sold by one Monsieur "it-can-catch-nothing-for-it's-Broken."  Branwell and Charlotte were also obsessed with poison.  He invented something called "prussian butter,"which was made from prussic acid (now known as cyanide).  "White flour" was a synonym for arsenic.  Therefore, perhaps the scariest of Charlotte's imaginary advertisements is one for white bread and prussian butter, sold by Captain "make-thousands-Not-Eat-any-more-food-for-the-Remainder-of-their-precious-Lives."

It's black humor - tame by today's standards, but in distinct contradiction to the morality of the Victorian era - especially, the morality that was imposed on children.  Many people professed themselves to be shocked by Charlotte's first published novel, Jane Eyre.  If they had read the tales of murder, adultery and drunken debauchery that Charlotte and Branwell concocted while in their teens, they would have been even more shocked.

Indeed, the tragedy of Branwell's life is that he acted out his fantasies of the hard-drinking, misunderstood, black-sheep poet (fantasies strongly influenced by the life of Lord Byron), and they killed him.  The tragedy of Charlotte's life is that she was not allowed to act out any of her fantasies . . . even her fantasy of being a writer was considered unsuitable for women.

At the age of fifteen, Charlotte went to boarding school.  This affected her fictional world in two significant ways.  For the first time, major female characters appear and romance becomes one of the themes.  The other major change was that Charlotte began to feel conflicted about her fantasy world.  She knew that she had to start dealing with the real world, but she didn't want to.  She made two life-long friends at school, but for the most part she didn't like people, and she especially didn't like children, which was unfortunate because the only occupation that was considered suitable for a woman of her social class was that of teacher or governess.  (The treatment of children in her stories would have horrified any potential employers.) 

To her more religious friend, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte wrote a lot about her own "wickedness."  I believe that this can refer only to her fantasy world, to its amorality and general unbecomingness for a young lady.  It was her only solace.  For years it had been her only source of entertainment.  She found it impossible to stop living in that world.  But what did the real world have to offer her?

I don't believe that fantasizing is "wicked."  Is it wicked for a teenage girl to pretend to be an explorer, a Regency rake, a magazine editor?  I don't even believe that it cuts people off from the real world.  The fantasy world of the Bronte children was strongly rooted in actuality:  the Duke of Wellington and his family, British colonies in Africa, Byron and Napoleon are all found there.  Drinking, gambling, adultery and (horrors!) atheism are things that good Christian children are not supposed to know about, but somehow they learned about them and happily told stories about them.  And yet there was a gulf between reality and fantasy that none of them could cross.  The forbidden remained forbidden.

What if it had not been forbidden?  What if there were a way to bring the power and pleasure of the fantasy world into reality?  Hopefully the Brontes would not have become famous poisoners.  But if they had not seen their dreams as wicked, if they all, especially the girls, had had more options . . . perhaps they would have accomplished even more than they did.

Okay, I have one last anecdote about the talent of imagination.  Elizabeth Gaskell, friend and fellow writer, once asked Charlotte if she had ever taken opium, since her description of its effects in her last novel, Villette, was very realistic.
"Charlotte replied no, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything not within her own experience:  she thought intensely about it for many a night before falling asleep, 'till at length . . . she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened.'"
Robert Graves used a similar technique to recreate events for his historical novels (he also presented his visions as historical fact.)  I believe in the power of the subconscious mind to solve problems in the real world. I wonder if Charlotte ever tried to answer any more pressing questions that way.

* At least, not the ones they wrote down.  Charlotte Bronte, writing at the age of 13, distinguished between their secret and non-secret "plays."  "Bed plays means secret plays - they are very nice ones."  Of course, that still doesn't mean they were sexual, and that's not my primary interest.  I digress.

No comments:

Post a Comment