Law and Conversation

November 5, 2010

More context: Charlotte Bronte vs. Robert Southey

Dennis Low, a scholar in the UK who wrote “The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets” (Ashgate, 2006), posted an interesting comment on Tuesday in response to my post that day, in which I (accurately) quoted from a letter that Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843, sent to the 20-year-old Charlotte Bronte after she sent him some of her poetry and asked his advice on whether she had any chance of a literary career.  Dennis followed up with a cordial e-mail to which he generously attached chapter 1 of his book, which contains a more extensive excerpt from Southey’s letter than most biographers of Bronte have provided:

“I, who have made literature my profession, and devoted my life to it, and have never for a moment repented of the deliberate choice, think myself, nevertheless, bound in duty to caution every young man who applies as an aspirant to me for encouragement and advice against taking so perilous a course. You will say that a woman has no need of such a caution; there can be no peril in it for her. In a certain sense this is true; but there is a danger of which I would, with all kindness and all earnestness, warn you. The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”

I haven’t yet finished reading the chapter and don’t have ready access to Dennis’s book.  When I’ve finished the chapter, and when I’ve had some more time to think about his arguments, about Southey’s advice in written and historical context, and about the common tendency  to elevate Charlotte Brontë to icon status (which her contemporary friends and admirers, Ellen Nussey and Elizabeth Gaskell, began), I’ll post some more thoughts.  In the meantime, I’m grateful to Dennis for providing this additional context, as well as for alerting me to his fresh and apparently thoroughly researched perspective on Southey.

Politics and legal proceedings, like academic studies, are also known for placing in sharp relief different points of view on the additional meaning that context can provide to people’s words.   Readers, can you think of some other examples of historical or literary figures whose reputations rest on words extracted from much of their context and interpreted using the standards of different centuries and cultures than those in which they were written?

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September 3, 2010

Jane Eyre and mental illness

Earlier this week I urged readers to read or reread Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  In that post, I referenced two totally delightful articles analyzing the book and Mr. Rochester in particular that I came across while surfing the Bronte Blog

As both articles indicate, Jean Rhys wrote Bertha Rochester’s backstory in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” which won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006 for the year 1966.  Rhys’s sympathetic treatment of the first Mrs. Rochester, whom Bronte portrayed as an inconvenient, crazy hag whose death was a relief for all, highlights how far we’ve come in attitude towards and treatment for the mentally ill since Mr. Rochester locked his wife up in her attic room. 

Present-day advocates for the mentally ill, though, will point out that treatment resources are still woefully inadequate, as I’ve noted in articles such as “Involuntary administration of psychotropic drugs: Does Illinois need new standards?” and “Bill would make involuntary commitment easier” in the January 2003 and August 2007 issues, respectively, of the Illinois Bar Journal.  (In the forthcoming October 2010 issue of the same publication I discuss the recent changes in the standard for involuntary commitment in Illinois’s  Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code and quote University of Chicago clinical professor of law Mark J. Heyrman, whose lucid commentary always gets to the heart of the matter.)  And, of course, mental illness or the hint of it still carries a strong stigma, though, unlike Charlotte Bronte, we no longer generally refer to someone who’s mentally ill as a “lunatic,” a “maniac,” or using the pronoun “it.”  For those who are interested, the website of Mental Health America of Illinois is a good starting point.  

What are your favorite 19th century novels?  How about your favorite novels that deal with mental illness?

August 30, 2010

Read This!

Mondays are Read This! days on which I write about books that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  With so many great books in the world, I can’t imagine ever running out of material!

Today’s recommendation is a classic:  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  I first read it as a 4th grader and loved the passionate story, told so well in a young woman’s voice.  Since then, I’ve reread it many times and branched out to read the rest of the Bronte sisters’ writings.  It’s now been many years since my last rereading of “Jane Eyre,” so I think it’s time to move it up on my list. 

I’m always interested to find out how I feel as an adult about a book that I loved as a child or teenager.  Generally, as in the case of Beverly Cleary’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I find them every bit as good as, if not even better than, I did forty years ago.  I have no doubt that “Jane Eyre” will stand the test of time for me as it has for the rest of the world.

Many well-told stories that are classics, though, including the “Little House” books (which I passionately love), reflect widely held attitudes and prejudices of their times and places that we now rightly find unacceptable.  And, indeed, parents sometimes have problems with their children’s reading books that challenge their ideas of what’s right and proper.  The May 19, 2010 edition of CBC radio’s Q program had an interesting discussion on what to do with children’s books that reflect racism.  But the participants didn’t address the possibility that some books being published today may reflect attitudes that our great-grandchildren will consider unacceptable 100 or more years from now.  They also didn’t seem to recognize that characters in great stories, like real people, are imperfect and multifaceted.  How is it even possible to have a good story–which we all love, from childhood to old age–without different points of view and conflicts?  A great work of literature might even be told from the point of view of a frankly repellent character–and that might be a big part of what makes it great, as Azar Nafisi explains so well in “Reading Lolita In Tehran.”  Indeed, “Jane Eyre” underwent a firestorm of criticism when it was published:  reviewers called Jane herself  “the personification of the unregenerate and undisciplined spirit” and said she had “detestable morality.”  More than 150 years later, we generally love Jane and identify with her passions and morals!  Thinking about whether and why we like or dislike a story’s characters is part of reading critically, a valuable skill that children can begin learning, with the help of parents and good teachers, while still very young.

The Bronte Blog is a comprehensive resource, updated at least daily, for all things Bronte, all the time.  It recently referenced two fun articles on Jane Eyre.  The first, by Edan Lepucki, trashes Mr. Rochester and also swipes at Charlotte and Emily as “deeply weird.”  The latter criticism, IMO, is quite unjustified, so I was delighted to find that the second article agrees with me on that point.  It also rips up the other arguments of the first in a deliciously snarky fashion.

I have some more thoughts on “Jane Eyre” and other literature and the law of that period regarding women and the mentally ill that I’ll be posting later this week.  In the meantime, what books would you like everyone in the world to read?

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