“And you … cannot at all imagine the craving I have for fraternal and sisterly love” (Jane Eyre, ch. 33).
I came across this diary entry recently, quoted below, which I found fascinating as it came on the heels of having reread the lyrical and evocative novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë–this time in the gorgeous audio reading by Thandie Newton. Readers of L.M. Montgomery will not be surprised that scholars have made links back to Charlotte Brontë, particularly between the self-possessed Jane Eyre and Montgomery’s literary heroine, Emily of New Moon–a series she was concluding at about the time of this diary entry (see Elizabeth R. Epperly’s treatment in The Frangrance of Sweet-Grass, for example).
It is not difficult to admire Charlotte Brontë for her literary style, which strikes the mind like woodcut drawings in an old book: gradient-line sketches that have been given a living voice on the printed page. What is intriguing is how Montgomery wants in this passage to make a personal link between herself and her Victorian literary ancestor. In doing so, she makes a fairly strong observation about the lack of humour in Charlotte Brontë’s work, while Montgomery herself was a fluidly comic writer, even in her darker and more elevated works. Montgomery also makes a strange assessment about “creative genius” in Charlotte Brontë, declaring that Brontë’s genius is not “creative.” I think that comment is bound up with Montgomery’s privileged place for realism and her skillful attention to character development. In following C.S. Lewis’ admonition to write atmosphere well, however, and I wonder if Montgomery has miscalculated an element of Charlotte Brontë’s skill. When I read Jane Eyre (and to a lesser degree, The Professor), I am immediately there in the scene.
What I find most poignant about Montgomery’s journal entry, though, is her sense of personal sisterhood with Brontë. Montgomery could probably teach Charlotte Brontë to laugh a little–or at least to dispel (or dis-spell) some of the clerical gloom about the Victorian authoress. If that failed, however, there was another kind of kinship–the “House of Lonely Years” that I tried to capture in my article, “In an Age of Literary Groups, L.M. Montgomery was Alone.” Here is Montgomery’s note in full.
The House of Mirth and the House of Lonely Years: L.M. Montgomery on Charlotte Brontë
Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1925
The Manse, Leaskdale
This evening I have finished reading Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle by Shorter. Hitherto I have thought that the fascination Charlotte Brontë’s life and personality held for me was largely due to the literary charm of Mrs. Gaskell’s biography. But it is just as strong in this book so I have concluded that it is inherent in her.
Charlotte Brontë made only about seven thousand by her books—not a tenth of what one of the flimsy and ephemeral “best sellers” of today would bring in. It seems unfair and unjust.
What I admire most in Charlotte Brontë is her absolute clear-sightedness regarding shams and sentimentalities. Nothing of the sort could impose on her. And she always hewed straight to the line.
I have been asking myself “If I had known Charlotte Brontë in life how would we have reacted upon each other? Would I have liked her? Would she have liked me?” I answer “no.” She was absolutely without a sense of humor. I could never find a kindred spirit in a woman without a sense of humor. And for the same reason she would not have approved of me at all. All the same, had she been compelled to live with me for awhile I could have done her whole heaps of good. A few jokes would have leavened the gloom and tragedy of that Haworth parsonage amazingly. Charlotte would have been thirty percent better for it. But she would have written most scathing things about me to Miss Nussey and Mrs. Gaskell.
In one of her letters she speaks of “the canker of constant solitude.” Ah, truly. If we could have had no soul contact in the House of Mirth we could have come together in the House of Lonely Years.
People of spoken of Charlotte Brontë’s “creative genius.” Charlotte Brontë had no creative genius. Her genius was one of amazing ability to describe and interpret the people and surroundings she knew. All the people in her books who impress us with such a wonderful sense of reality were drawn from life. She herself is “Jane Eyre” and “Lucy Snowe.” Emily was “Shirley.” “Rochester,” whom she did “create” was unnatural and unreal. “Balance Ingram” was unreal. “St. John” was unreal. Most of her men are unreal. She knew nothing of men except her father and brother and the Belgian professor of her intense and unhappy love. “Emmanuel” was drawn from him and therefore is one of the few men, if not the only man, in her books who is “real.”
I’m fascinated by this. It illuminates so much about both women. While I agree that Montgomery has a much more functional sense of humour than Bronte ever displays (I’ve always loved her definition of a sense of humour as “a sense of the rightness of things”), I somehow feel a lot more alive reading about Bronte’s half-archetypal characters than Montgomery’s thoroughly human ones.
I don’t know if there is much doubt that Montgomery is Bronte’s inferior in writing. I would say that where she comes closest–in the Emily of New Moon series–she is also strongest. But there is also a delight in the original Anne #1 that is pair so well with wit, discovery, and atmosphere. A skillful book.
What it does to us as readers … well, that’s a question. I wonder, on sheer impact, if Montgomery has created books that are transformational for more readers–and younger ones, I would bet.
And I look forward to reading Puddleglum’s Progress! I am deluged by work and honestly struggling to keep up. But I love what you are doing, not having dived deep just yet.
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