Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Literature, Poetry, and Books

An Ode to Great Books

bronte.jpgAs my first substantive post on NLT, I feel compelled to address a topic upon which I am decidedly unqualified to speak.  Undaunted, however, I proceed - for the occasion to opine on classical literature arises far too infrequently.  Several posts as of late (1, 2, 3) have commended the works of great authors.  During my recent travels in the Middle East (a spiritual exercise in the cultivation of patience and fortitude), I took advantage of fully-expected itinerary delays to broaden my literary exposure.  I followed Hemmingway with Austin, and Austin with the elder Brontë sister (often in audiobook format, of which I am a converted disciple).  It was as though I were ascending ever higher in the hierarchy of angels in heaven.

Harold Bloom counts Charlotte Brontë among the authors of his Western Canon (though she is excluded from more conservative Great Books lists).  Nonetheless, Jane Eyre vanquished my ridiculous opinion that fiction was of limited utility in the cultivation of a classical liberal education.  Mrs. Brontë reminded me that great thinker - from Homer and Plato to the authors of both the Old and New Testaments - have always used fables, parables and fiction to render profound lessons of virtue and humanity in intelligible doses to the masses. 

And, for those as affected as I by Mrs. Brontë's writings, Christie's in New York will hold an auction this Friday of "a manuscript of her verses estimated at $50,000-$70,000, and her eloquent letter to Henry Nussey, declining his proposal of marriage, estimated at $50,000-$70,000."  From the letter: "I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you -- but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you."  Exquisite.


P.S. The Christie's auction will also feature a letter from George Washington to his nephew Bushrod Washington, in which he privately reveals his reasons for supporting the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, estimated to fetch up to $2,500,000.

Discussions - 22 Comments

If only I had $2.6 million lying around the house!!!

If I were imprisoned in a tower and allowed to read only one author, I would most likely choose Charlotte Bronte. If you're hooked on audio books, I hope you have heard Flo Gibson's readings of Bronte and other classic authors. Having heard her, I cannot listen to other narrators.

Welcome aboard.

Jane Eyre: Favorite. Book. Ever. And I remember making exactly the same progression to Brontë as you describe. (Though I confess to having never been much a fan of Hemingway . . .)

But comparing Brontë to Austen . . . don't you think Austen is superior--if not as an artist or in the greatness of her mind--then, perhaps, with respect to cultivating virtue? Perhaps Brontë sees more deeply into the complexities of human relationships . . . but, then again, maybe not. I wonder if Austen didn't see just as deeply but simply refused to give those complexities as much room to roam ungoverned by reason? Sometimes Brontë reads like a justification for passion ruling reason . . . which, of course, can be very satisfying to us mere mortals. But in the end, I wonder if the better (and, therefore, the truer) lesson isn't learned from Austen who, while recognizing and accommodating passion just enough to keep it from exploding and making a mess of everything, still manages to put it in the service of reason or, if impossible, then to ruthlessly beat it down . . . Brontë's view seems more often to suggest that what the heart really, really wants MUST be in accord with reason . . . and that, insofar as there seems to be a difference, it is most often in a lack of proper understanding by the head of the heart. It is a seductive view . . . and maybe, even, occasionally true. But hard cases make for bad policy, as they say . . .

I am astonished! Although I am a huge fan of both Austin and Charlotte Brontë, (not to mention Ms. Ponzi), and would never attempt to evaluate who is “superior”, I have to disagree with the statement that “Brontë reads like a justification for passion ruling reason.”
From beginning to end, “Jane Eyre” tells the story of a passionate young woman, who learns very early in life (barely 19 years) that Passion and love must be subdued, not just to reason, but also to morality. She then learns that morality and reason without LOVE (not passion) are as equally to be avoided as love without morality. Along the way she learns many valuable lessons, including that most people are a mix of both good and bad in varying quantites, that virtue is its own reward, and finally, that we reap what we sow. It is gripping, suspensful and yet brings a healing cleansing to the mind.
Miss Austin’s work is exquisite, and many of her works follow the same themes, (with less horror and more wit, perhaps) especially “Sense and Sensibility” and a favoirite of mine, “Mansfield Park”, which actually has many silmilarities to “Jane Eyre.”

Exactly the sort of discussion I had hoped to provoke, Mechelle! But consider some of Brontë's other works too . . . the pattern seems to be: heart desires, head (for reasons of propriety) refuses, heart desires harder, head forced to reconsider . . . events transpire . . . moral equation alters to some degree or another (always very convenient) . . . heart gets its desire and head feels justified in accepting that it was probably mistaken . . . at least a bit. Yes, it is LOVE that Brontë describes . . . but it is passion (not in the vulgar sense but just in the sense of wanting apart from reason) that drives a good deal of the action.

Consider this passage from another of her novels, "The Professor":

"There are impulses we can control; but there are others which control us, because they attain us with a tiger-leap, and are our masters ere we have seen them. Perhaps, though, such impulses are seldom altogether bad; perhaps Reason, by a process that is finished ere felt, has ascertained the sanity of the deed Instinct meditates, and feels justified in remaining passive while it is performed."

In many ways this could be true and it certainly sounds good. But don't you see the danger of such an operating principle?

I do not say that Brontë is inferior to Austen . . . (Jane Eyre is my favorite novel, after all and as pure art it is possible--though I'm no judge--that Brontë is superior) but I do suggest that one needs to be careful with Brontë and that it is probably a good idea to read her in conjunction with and, preferably, AFTER Austen. Probably also a good idea to have confronted Aristotle first too . . . to say nothing of the Old and New Testament. Brontë is not immoral, certainly. But I do think her work is meant more for heads and hearts that are mature and can distinguish the finer points of complexity she notes.

Being no expert on any of Ms. Bronte’s works, and even unfamiliar with most of them, I must concede you may be right, and I certainly agree that “her work is meant more for heads and hearts that are mature and can distinguish the finer points of complexity she notes” (although you did ask “don't you think Austen is superior…perhaps, with respect to cultivating virtue?) However, I still disagree about Jane Eyre specifically.

Jane’s heart desires, but her head (for reasons of morality) refuses, she then wisely (if precipitously) removes herself from temptation, with consequences both bad and good. While her heart never stops desiring, she remains firm to her purpose, even when another temptation presents itself which offers no problem of propriety, but would violate her moral conscience. When the moral equation alters, it is neither easy nor convenient (especially for Mr. R, who is the greater “sinner” in the drama) and involves a true change of heart. When Jane’s heart gets its desire, her head is completely convinced that was correct to initially resist, despite the physical and mental suffering that resulted, because not only did her conscience stay clean, but Mr. R’s was also purified in the process.

ou make a careful and a convincing case, Mechelle. But I still have a nagging suspicion that even JE suggests that the heart is at least as good a guide to action as the head, and I still think that it suggests that the heart offers a higher sort of truth than the head alone can admit. Again, maybe that is true. But it is no less dangerous for its truth, for that reason, I think it needs to be carefully presented. I think it is at least arguable that Austen also recognizes the possibility of this truth . . . but I also think that it is the case that Austen presents it more responsibly. Yet Bronte's picture of it is so vivid and engrossing that I suppose it more effectively forces the mind to confront the question. Bronte's words suggest the right answer . . . but the story she creates seems often to pull in a different direction. Who reads JE and does not secretly root, along the way, for Jane sometimes to do the wrong thing? But maybe that is the great art of the thing . . . real dilemmas and real temptations are like that.

As to the dilemma of choosing only Austen or Bronte if banished to a tower . . . I could not do it. I think I would have to defy the rules and take both. But breaking such an arbitrary and heartless rule would be something that both head and heart could join in union and confidence to do!

Who reads JE and does not secretly root, along the way, for Jane sometimes to do the wrong thing?

I, for one. I've read JE at least a dozen times, probably more, and I've never felt any such wish. To feel that way perhaps says more about the reader than about the author.

I don't disagree with you Michelle and I believe you . . . though I do think NOT feeling the tug (a tug clearly felt by Jane and intended to by Bronte to be felt by the reader) says another thing about thatsort of reader . . .

For over a year, I wrote for a blog which received millions of visitors every day and often received thousands of comments on a single post. Never in that time was I so heartened and impressed as I am now, reading the delightfully thoughtful conversation above.

Ladies, I tip my hat.

If I may ask, which blog would that be?

BTW, let me clarify that there are three women currently involved in this discussion, Julie, MIchelle and MEchelle.(just in case anyone is confused)
Julie, while I agree that JE makes the case “that the heart is at least as good a guide to action as the head” it also makes the case finally that neither should be the final arbiter of conduct. That is the job of the conscience, guided, through prayer and meditation on scripture, by God. Neither the mind nor the emotions is a good compass to steer by.
I pulled out my copy of JE last night, and revelled again in the last two chapters, full of both joy and wit, and the deeply moving account of Mr. Rochester’s “salvation”, brought on by humility and repentance and supplication, not to Jane, but to God. It is only after this, that he (and Jane) are restored to each other, and rejoice not only in their union, but also find reason to give thanks even for his injuries.
While I have to admit that I also never "rooted" for Jane to do the wrong thing, I hoped with all my heart that somehow, something would make it right for her to have her heart's desire. (that is, in my opinion, the real "tug" felt by the reader.) Both Jane and Mr. R realize and affirm, at different times, that if Jane were to do the "wrong thing", (become his mistress) it would poison and eventually destroy the relationship and their love.
I, also, could no more choose among my favorite authors to take to that tower than I could fly out of its
window. Life without Austen or Bronte, not to mention C.S. Lewis or Tolkien? Impossible! That would be my definition of hell indeed!

I noticed Mechelle's last in the comments section and have to agree. First, about having an impossible time choosing between favored authors to select a favorite. Second, that as JE is written it is the balance between heart and mind that keeps her on course and makes the author's fairly happy ending not only likely, but one we can feel Jane has earned by her good conduct. That she has guidance from without as well as from within makes her comprehensible to Christians. The last student I had who read Jane Eyre made much of that aspect of the novel, being a young Christian woman, herself. She indentified with Jane and happily grasped the moral intent of Bronte.

I agree with JP that this is a very nice comment thread.

Mechelle (I was pretty sure that there were two different women here): That is very well said. I think, indeed, especially the first part of what you say nails it. Agree with you that this is the lesson of Bronte and it is, also, why I think she is a necessary--corrective is not the right word, exactly, but "addition" doesn't quite capture it either . . . settling for "complement"-- to Austen.

But I think that if you are fully honest, you would have to concede (as I argue above) that the story itself (whatever Bronte's original intentions and whatever her actual words may be) does tug at you in different directions. You are not really rooting for sin . . . and it works out (to your great relief) that you don't really get close enough to have to . . . but what if it didn't work out? The emotions would be in quite a state at that point, no? That's the problem with Bronte--and here, again, "problem" is too strong a word.

In any event, it's one reason why I plan to introduce my daughter to Austen as soon as she is able to read it herself or understand my reading it . . . but I'll think hard before sending her off with Bronte. It's not as straightforward a proposition in any event.

Reminds me of some long ago read (and now nearly forgotten) passages of Rousseau's Emile discussing why even chaste love scenes could be dangerous . . .

That should answer your question.

Justin, you are very kind. And I tip my hat to you for an excellent first post.

Were you able to discern so easily that I was confused by the Mi- and Me- chelle paradox?

I am discovered. I repent. And I chalk it up to simply being so devoted to my own lady that I see none other... or, something like that.

Julie, Mechelle, Michelle and Kate: you are blessed disciples of literature's true virtue, each of you, jointly and severably!

Craig - You are not blessed. Nonetheless, I'll answer you. I wrote for AOL's Political Machine (now Politics Daily). A google search should bring up somethine - oh, wait: There you go.

Kate, Thanks!
Julie, while I agree that JE is best appreciated by a mature reader, perhaps reading like this is what helps bring one to maturity. (especially when discussed with wise parents)
Yes, we readers, like Jane, do experience temptation - to give in, to go along - to do what we want, instead of what we ought. Bronte certainly intends her readers to feel that temptation as vividly as Jane does. But she is also very clear on what the inevitable outcome would be if she did What if Jane had given in to Edward? Misery, corruption and separation would certainly follow. If she had married St. John? Misery, illness and early death equally certain.
However, your point about “what if it didn’t work out?” brings up an interesting question. God does not give us moral laws just to torment or cheat us out of “fun”. His rules are there to show us the way to LIFE. Through her heroic commitment to righteousness (almost to the point of death) Jane finds life not only for herself, but also for Edward, Adele, Diana and Mary Rivers, and on and on. But, what if she had not reunited with Edward? Do we imagine she would have pined away at Moor House, or would she have taken up her life and gone on, using her gifts, talents and fortune to do good for others, and perhaps even found love eventually with a man who could be both her intellectual and moral partner?
Austen understood this principle, demonstrated well in Mansfield Park, where she contrasts the eventual unhappiness of those who follow their passions or prejudices with the eventual happiness of those who follow their consciences, however they might have suffered at the time. And because their joy is built on good principles rather than inflamed passions, it is both satisfying and believable. Great Art.
Therein lies one of the great limitations of art. In literature (incl. drama, etc.), endings are usually based on what the artist wants, rather than what is likely or even possible. Happy endings are abundant, because popular, and consequences of bad choices or character are seldom shown. In our societal obsession to “judge not”, we have perverted the Biblical mandate to mean “discern not,” and “equality of opportunity” has become equality of outcome.”
JP – Thank you. I have enjoyed you first posts also.

On a (mostly) unrelated issue, everytime I try to post a comment, my first try is rejected and I have to re-enter it (all of it) . I am sure I am typing the "characters" correctly. What gives?

Very good points again, Mechelle . . . but a Jane Eyre without a happy ending would be a book no one would want to read. And the trouble for people, when reading a thing like that, is that no one wants their own life to be a book that no one wants to read . . . art imitates life (but as you say, rarely exactly). But people tend to want to make life imitate art rather than to draw the intended lessons from it. I think when it comes to literature, we all need a mature parent . . . but the paradox, as you note, is that in order to become such a mature parent you may need to read it first without guidance.

I know, Mechelle . . . and so do the site administrators. I have the same problem and have had it since we changed the format of the site in August. They're working on it.

One day Ben Kunkel contacted me about that very posting problem after I complained. He did something, I don't know what and I had no problem for the rest of the day. The next day all was back to the unsatisfying normal.

My daughter, with severe dyslexia when very young, listened to Austen (and Bronte and many other authors) on tape or CD from at least the age of ten and loved the stories received by ear. I suggest that is the way to go, especially to counter the allure of the pulpy teen stuff badly written and lexically unchallenging.

Julie, I guess the point I was making is that because of her character and choices, Jane's "ending" could not have been un-happy, even if it was not the specific ending we hoped for in the middle of the story.

Kate, good plan, and you are right, I would much rather give a young girl Austen and Bronte to read than "Twilight" or "Harry Potter"

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