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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