Portraits of the Past: the House of Bertolt Brecht

‘Hungry man; reach for the book: it is a weapon.’ 

They say you never really understand a person until you see where they have lived.

The house of Bertolt Brecht seemed wholly unremarkable from the outside. Tucked away on Chausseestraße in Mitte, a stone’s throw away from the Berliner Ensemble that Brecht and his wife Helene opened in 1949, I almost missed the house as I approached it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German theatre practitioner, playwright and, I recently discovered, a poet. Marxist and mastermind behind the genre of Epic Theatre, Brecht addressed contemporary issues through a didactic form of theatre that employed techniques to distance his audience from emotion and steer them towards analysis of his political messages.

During the period of World War II and the rise of Nazism, Brecht fled first to Scandinavia and later to the United States, returning to East Berlin after the end of the War. He spent the last three years of his life in this house. But this did not appear to be the home of an exile. 

Brecht’s house is arranged exactly as if he still lived. His possessions are minimal, but significant. Everything looks as if it had been placed there intentionally. A living museum.

Brecht and his wife Helene lived here together, albeit in separate apartments. After Brecht’s serial affairs, this is how they agreed to make it work.

The first of Brecht’s rooms acted as a space for reading. Brecht’s bookcase displayed literature on Communism, Fascism, Ancient philosophy, Confucianism, Buddhism, writers from around the world like William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare – a confluence of international influences arranged in the shelves and manifested into the space. On the wall is a portrait of Confucius himself gazing out at Brecht’s reading space – a visual anecdote for how Eastern philosophy often touched his plays with its influence. On a wooden table, a picture of Lenin, the most potent symbol of Brecht’s beliefs, resides.

A selection of three antique masks are displayed proudly on an adjacent wall, vying Confucious with their steely gaze. It’s said that these were some of the few possessions Brecht travelled with while in exile. When fleeing a country, you would suppose that you would travel light with only a few important items. Brecht considered these items essential, for what reason we don’t know. The unsolvable mystery behind the mask.

Brecht’s days were evidently coloured by travel, exile, political activism, but artistic promise, concepts that are vividly mirrored in his apartments. Brecht was a visionary. An individual that trusted art to make society a better place.

In contrast to the intimate domain of his reading room, his second study was a wide open space filled with light. I imagined it strewn with paper; Brecht pacing up and down the wooden floorboards, pipe in hand, gazing out at the magnolia tree. Pictures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels occupy his writing desk, while the back wall is occupied by two biblical figures; their identity obscured by erosion. Every possession seemed to fit into a harmonious collage of influences – ideas and concepts that coloured both his life and work – occupying space in both his mind and his home.

In a corner of the room, a wooden table with various chairs and a sofa made of horse hair stood majestically. Brecht’s guests would be seated on this throne beneath the weighty stare of another, much larger, portrait of Confucious, while he would recline on a rocking chair. In Brechtian theatre, the physical level of an actor on stage could visually determine the status of their character. The poor would be on hands and knees at one with the dirt, while the rich would glide across the stage with importance, chins up, eyes raised. This image of Brecht stooped on a rocking chair before his guests reminded me of this. Brecht honoured his guests, their minds, their skills, and seemingly remained humble in their presence.

Brecht’s sense of minimalism, of only having important objects occupy his space, extends to his bedroom, the smallest of the rooms in his apartments. It looked, to my surprise, like a monk’s cell. A bed, not too comfortable, with three objects placed above its head, and a single Chinese portrait. A doubting man absorbed in thought. I felt like I had discovered a dimension of Brecht I never knew. A man who was almost monastic in discipline and contemplative in mind.

His wife’s bedroom downstairs suggested a contrast between their two personalities. Her life was arranged chaotically around her bed: heavy scripts laden with dust, pin cushions, pictures of her children, wild plants that loomed over the sheets, a television straight in front of the bedstead. Work and rest collided. It had a kind of minimalism, coloured by traces of the actress within her. The windows were framed by gilded wood of gold and green and weighty curtains resembling a proscenium arch stage.

Brecht and Helene’s garden was always green, square and trim, unoccupied by flowers or a vegetable patch, a symbol, perhaps for how everything in their house had to have a use, a sense of importance. Like the lifetime of influences Brecht chose to incorporate into his plays, Brecht and Helene chose their possessions with care, arranging their rooms with images of their life. Two people’s spaces in one home. Two parts of a whole. Two people that could not live together all the time, but made things work based on mutual artistic admiration.

So what brings us to the houses of the dead? Its simple, we seek to understand the context, the history, behind the great minds of literature. We seek to piece together their narratives and understand the influence that life and experience had to bear on the words they wrote.

Brecht’s house, now a ghosted vessel filled with emblems of the past, is a space where his presence is made palpable. I entered this building, sceptical of what a sparse collection of possessions could reveal about his person, and left feeling like I had climbed into his skin.

 

Re-writing the self: Thoughts on memory

‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.

One of my earliest memories is of being lost in a field near my family home in the country. It was Summertime. I remember the heat and the tall grass looming over me. Small as I was I could see very little, only the sky and the heavy overhang from the leaves of the trees that beckoned me into the forest.

I remember being aware that I was lost – that is, I knew I had wandered away from my childminder in a game of hide and seek and that she hadn’t yet found me – but the idea of being missing wasn’t yet a concept for me. I don’t remember feeling distress, only wonder at this new mellifluous world of the neighbouring field that I hadn’t yet trespassed. I remember my name being called, echoes circling around me, but the length of the grass obscured me from sight so that I was unable to be found.

Perhaps it is a condition of early memories to resemble an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality due to the limits of our perception at that time. This memory of mine is always veiled in a kind of golden haze, either obscured by time or romanticised by my mind. I see shapes, I remember colours. Golds and greens and yellows. I remember the cold relief of wading through the stream. I remember the unsteady path: the soil; the roots that clawed at my ankles. I remember the sensation of being lost but not my emotional response to it. I just remember happiness. A child charmed by curiosity.

While the likelihood is that I entered into a panic and ran through the woods in alarm once I realised I had strayed too far, my mind wants to remember the positive perception I had of my surroundings. It wants childlike inquisitiveness to take precedence over feelings of fear.

It wants to reconcile fragments of memory into a coherent, happy narrative. While our logical minds want to preserve integrity to the facts, there is always a part of us that wants to tell a good story.

Virginia Woolf speaks of the associative potency of memory in her autobiographical essay ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ She tells us that one of her earliest memories was looking at the patterns of flowers on her mother’s dress, as she lay in her lap on a train journey to St. Ives. This is how Woolf always remembered her.

In memory, we are all compelled to understand our lives through narrative and symbolism.

Like the flowers on the dress of Woolf’s mother, I relate my memory to a sensorium of warmth and playfulness, represented by my childlike experience of nature. My memory conveniently chooses to omit my alarm of being lost and instead reframes it as a pleasant adventure.

In Orlando, Woolf acknowledges how our subconscious minds play a part in obscuring memory. She writes, ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.’ Memories are set against a backdrop of narrative that we construct for ourselves. When we look back into the past, we view events through a prism. Integrity to facts falters in our intrinsic desire to tell a more desirable story.

Memory is a seamstress. It weaves together representations of the past into a coherent timeline: a kaleidoscope of images, objects, fragments of conversations, emotions.

It is a mediator between past and present. It preserves connectivity between our present and past selves. More importantly, it situates us in time and place. We make sense of ourselves through the narratives we choose to construct.

Ultimately, we are creators; the seamstresses of our own lives. We subconsciously distort memory, re-fashion narratives, re-write the self and consequently inform the present. We grow by seeing our present selves reflected in images of the past.

Memories, while unreliable, allow us to understand ourselves, our current place in the world. They make artists of us all.

Language as Witness: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on his Kenyan heritage

“Thought for despair? No! I am part of a living struggle. And without struggle, there is no movement, there is no life.’

I was reading in the Guardian recently about the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Admittedly, I had never heard of him. Ngũgĩ was imprisoned without trial for a year in 1978, during which time he wrote his memoir, ‘Wrestling with the Devil.’ Quoted in the article is his longstanding belief that, ‘The theme of resistance, and writing in prison, is eternal.’[1]

Ngũgĩ’s initial ‘crime’ was language. He wrote and staged a play, ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ (‘I will Marry When I Want’) in Gikuyu, his mother-tongue, choosing to employ local people with little money or experience as his stars. Scratching his memoir into the folds of prison toilet paper, Ngũgĩ outlines how his oppressors were ‘seeking some kind of confession’ of his guilt against the ruling order; an admission of his political ‘sins’ that were subversively inscribed in his memoir.

In the article, Ngũgĩ is quoted discussing his reasons for writing in Gikuyu and ceasing to write in English – a question often raised about his writing.

What Ngũgĩ describes is an exile from his own language, dating back to when Kenya was taken over by British settlers in the late 19th century, and a desire to reclaim it. He suggests how Africans have, throughout history, been colonised in every sense of the word: in life and in language. Ngũgĩ describes the slave trade, where individuals were forced to surrender their language, even their own individual names, by their white colonisers.

Words inscribe identity. One’s own language is connected to an origin. Relinquish language and we relinquish our sense of self. While Ngũgĩ wears his own language like a badge of honour, he discusses how some Africans view it as a shroud of shame.

It’s clear to me even now that English is a colonising force, with a lot of countries seeking to resist its pervasion into their native language. Even in Europe, I am viewed to many as a coloniser, seeking to pollute language with my English tongue. Whether we like it or not, we still hold the weight of our colonial history in each word that we speak.

Writing in Gikuyu was Ngũgĩ’s statement against enforced colonisation by other languages. Only his mother tongue is apt to bear witness to his persecution.

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Language inescapably ‘bears witness.’ It becomes infused with the authority of history and experience. Terms become loaded with associations, fraught with connections to suffering. It is for this reason that Theodor Adorno (German philosopher and sociologist) said, and I quote in translation, ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’

This is a difficult phrase, even more so in German, even more so taken out of context. But my interpretation of this is that language becomes loaded; impressed upon by people and cultures held at ransom. Adorno thought that language after such periods becomes inadequate to express such horror. To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of ‘monuments’ (in this case, poetry) is to participate in the perpetuation of that ‘barbaric’ culture. But what does this mean for language?

If to write is somehow to participate in barbarism, then is not to write to abstain from guilt?

In another article from The Guardian, Ngugi wa Thiongo’ describes the sight of ‘men, women and children in a convoy of barbed-wired lorries being forcibly relocated from their lands to make room for white settlers. They sang a sorrowful melody, but one that described their love and solidarity in hardship.’[2] He was ten years old.

History lives in language, in song and in melody. Inscribed in the barbed-wire lettering of caged men, women and children and the gates of Auschwitz.

A writer engraves his or her own identity in their words. Choosing to write in Gikuyu was the beginning of Ngũgĩ’s conception of himself as differing from the white writer’s self-image. Embracing his African origin is testimony to how language, used in the right conditions and for the right purpose, can be an assertion of power and agency.

Ngũgĩ writes: ‘I return again and again, in person, and in my writing, for the same reason that I have clung to my Kenyan passport, like a religious relic, that reminds me of the unfulfilled dream the caged men and women once sung about.’[3]

Words can, literally, get lost in translation. I will be reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir, ‘Wrestling with the Devil’. Perhaps not in its authentic language, but with authentic empathy and interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Information and quotation informed by this article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/12/ngugi-wa-thiongo-wrestling-with-the-devil-interview
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/09/exile-kenya-home-moi-dictatorship
[3] Ibid.

 

 

 

 

5 BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ

In no particular order, five books that have had a lasting impact on me.

Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir – Mark Doty

A memoir of complete integrity. The first book to ever make me cry. Heaven’s Coast is a heart-wrenching account of Doty’s partner’s battle with AIDS. From diagnosis to death, Doty describes his lover’s body as its own malevolent landscape – its journey as turbulent as the tide. With a force of descriptive power, Doty tells us about a life of rare communication, beauty and absolute synonymy with another. In reading this, you realise the true sacrifice of love; its unrelenting power to consume and, eventually, heal you.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Set in the 1960s, this novel is an important statement about India’s post-colonial history; its age-old caste-system and its divisive ‘love laws’ that govern ‘who should be loved, and how. And how much.’ The narrators are fraternal twins, entangled and connected body and soul, but divided by familial tension. Roy’s prose is deeply touching, inscrutably honest, but delicate. Too painful in parts to bear. Told through the eyes of childlike curiosity and wonder, Roy creates sensuous, ethereal images that are rooted in the beauty of nature – the ‘small things’ of the world that the adults of the novel have forgotten. Sharply inflected by devastating moments of suffering, this novel inescapably touches you at your very core.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

An odd choice, I hear you say, but this book is remarkable. The book begins: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul’ and is spoken through the voice of Humbert Humbert – a middle-aged professor who becomes sexually involved with his twelve-year old stepdaughter. You may wince, but this novel will play on your sense of morality. While you hate Humbert for his descriptive fantasies of molestation, you may catch yourself sympathising with him. You may condemn the ostensible sexual precociousness of the spoilt Lolita, while recognising fragments of her childlike innocence. This book forces you to leave all thoughts and feelings in balance. I charge you to come up with a conclusive interpretation of this novel. Go on, try it.

Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – my favourite line of this beautiful book infused with the whispers of memory. In a rather unusual literary account of the events of the Holocaust, Michaels uses the experiences of two narrators – Jakob Beer, a Polish Holocaust survivor, and Ben, the son of two Holocaust survivors – to describe how trauma seeps its way through generations, permeating through every crack of the past. Jakob and Ben become submerged in history, unable to move on from the suffering endured by their forefathers. This novel is an enlightening, poetic and heartfelt exploration of themes of trauma, grief and loss, told through the authoritative lens of memory.

Why be happy when you can be normal? – Jeanette Winterson

It is a resounding cliché to refer to this book as unabashedly ‘honest’, but that’s exactly what it is. An honest portrayal of a life spent wondering who you are and where you come from, finding your feet only to find that the ground beneath you has been whisked away, loved and in love but unable to fully cope with it. Winterson does not shy away from any detail of her life, and it is for this reason that I entirely respect her as an author, and as a person. Her prose is hurried and turbulent, written with the urgency of one desperately trying to make her reader understand. She does not call for you to psychoanalyse her, she does this aptly enough herself. If you want your heart wrenched out of your chest, I would seriously give this a read.

 

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Sylvia Plath and the Art of Dying

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‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenberg’s, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

An odd line for the start of a book, I thought, upon reading the opening of The Bell Jar. I had read about Sylvia Plath before: sadist, suicide fanatic, suppressed artist, but never before had I read her novel which, upon further investigation, is undeniably about her life. A life characterised by such a sharp, unsettling sense of self-hatred as to make one quiver while reading. But this is only speculation.

Plath has been psychoanalysed to an inch of her life since her suicide in 1963. Sunday 14th January 2018 marked the 55th anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar and occasioned my desire to add my own share of interpretation. It would be easy for me to mythologise Plath as a suicide fanatic, majestically draped in a robe of madness, but this would serve to trivialise her torturous experiences of clinical depression. What is striking about Plath, however, is the way in which she spoke of death with such an ease of expression. This was a woman who was deeply enraptured by visions of her own destruction that were so intimately crafted and, ultimately, so memorably enacted.

When considering the biographical details of her life, the opening line of The Bell Jar becomes more comprehensible. It was the summer of Plath’s senior year at college, the summer where they ‘electrocuted the Rosenberg’s’, and where Plath received electroconvulsive therapy multiple times before her first medically-documented suicide attempt. Plath, like her protagonist Esther, was in New York interning at Mademoiselle, a job a lot of women would have died for, chasing a rather stilted version of the American dream. Surrounded by conflicting modes of American womanhood – the domestic homemaker of the 1950s, the secretary who was learned in shorthand but ultimately subject to a man’s dictation– Esther, and Plath, began the downward spiral of despondency.

In The Bell Jar, death is a longing, a desire, but also a real, proven, possibility. The novel is sharply inflected by sharp motes of Plath’s own brush with self-destruction. Anne Sexton wrote how she and Plath ‘talked death with burned-up intensity, both of [them] drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb.’[1] This metaphor of electricity is used time and time again. Esther feeds off the adrenalin, the electric feeling of seeing ‘redness flower from her wrists.’ The potent image of red vividly reminding us of its author, Plath – a woman bent on mutilating herself body and soul. The reality of hurting oneself is glamorised. A nightmarish image of sinking further into a blood-stained bath ‘under a surface gaudy as poppies’ is swallowed up, forgotten, as we are lulled asleep along with its victim.

The morbid lucidity of Esther’s moments of pain are shocking to the reader, but all the more pleasurable to their author. Esther plays a game with us, and equally with herself. How much pain can she inflict upon herself, and how much can we hurt as a consequence?

One of Plath’s most momentous attempts at suicide is described in The Bell Jar. Esther heaves her body into a gap in the cellar wall and, after swallowing her mother’s sleeping pills, lies still on the brink of oblivion. She describes how ‘‘The silence drew off, bearing the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep’’. Her fragile body, this vessel of ‘tatty wreckage’, is finally numbed, nearly engulfed and swept away with the tide, but is saved before extinction.

I said earlier that is was easy for one to mythologise Plath because in a way, she wanted us to do that. She said herself that The Bell Jar was a ‘throw[n] together’ series of events from her life that she focused upon ‘fictionalising to add colour.’ You can’t help but think that suicide is an assertion of power and character; the additional ‘colour’, the redness flowing from the wrist, needed to remedy a life lived in torment.

Esther’s fantasies of suicide are tied to famous fictional narratives. Death is a stage, and we the spectators. Madness becomes theatre. In Plath’s poem ‘Edge’, she writes:

‘The woman is perfected. 

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment.’

This is a woman that has been prodded and preened and packaged up in an image of death. At last, perfected. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, a woman who has survived several acts of self-destruction, the cat with nine lives, says that,

‘Dying is like an art.

Like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.’

It is in these poems that I hear echoes of Plath’s own residual thoughts of suicide. It is she that is finally placed in the centre of the amphitheatre, here until the final close of the curtain, where her dead body will be brought onto the stage in full display.

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23 Fitzroy Road. Previously home to W.B. Yeats, Plath moved here with her two children after her split with husband and poet laureate Ted Hughes. It was here that she was discovered after she had taken her own life. 

 

Plath’s final collection of poems are characterised by what her daughter Frieda Hughes described as a ‘distinctive Ariel voice.’ Ariel is where Plath’s inner demons – rage, violence, punishment, fever – are tangibly personified and brought before us as an offering. You feel the energy of a tormented psyche in search of something deeper, darker, to ‘colour’ her life with catastrophe.

The electric imagery, the rage, returns, and then the numbing effect. The speaker of ‘A Birthday Present’ exclaims ‘My god, the clouds are like cotton’, a smothering, white expanse, muffling, nursing a wounded soul with the numbing effect of ‘carbon monoxide.’ But these clouds are in ‘armies’. They too desire to hurt. The speaker cries, ‘I am alive only by accident.’ She does not want to be saved.

In ‘Tulips’, the imagery of white returns with a hallucinatory quality. The speaker contemplates ‘how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.’ She says:

‘’I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted, 

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.’’

The tulips offer an offensive brightness which startle the speaker. She does not want flowers. She desires an existence devoid of self that only the sterility of the hospital can offer. She wants only to be ‘empty’, effaced. Eileen Aird remarks that: ‘The world of Ariel is black and white, one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion.’[2] The redness, the life of the tulips should ‘be behind bars like a dangerous animal’ while she, empty, light as a cloud, can be ‘free’, ‘peaceful.’ It is Plath’s own dead body that is left, wounded, despised, when a whisper of, ‘from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life’, is heard, echoing, reverberating, at the end of the collection. Each word dropped like a stone in the ocean.

As self-confessed, ‘peanut crunching’  voyeurs of Sylvia Plath’s plight, we have cast her opus under the eye of the interpreter more times than one can count. The posthumous unearthing and publishing of her works reveals a woman who seemed reluctant to reveal herself. Self-flagellant, self-sadist, sufferer of torturous thoughts and assaults, she was a woman who, seemingly, did not feel in the world. Subject to continuous psychoanalysis for all who read her works, it’s doubtful that Plath’s mind and body will ever rest in peace.

 

[1] http://www.theparisreview.org/viewinterview.php/prmMID/4073

[2] Eileen Aird, Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.

 

The Bronte Sisters: A Literary Obsession

After finishing my degree in English Literature, I travelled to the Yorkshire dales with my dad to visit the house of the Bronte’s – something I have wanted to do since I was a child. The maze of Haworth’s moors and precarious country pathways seemed to uphold the same shroud of mystery that had always, in my mind, been placed upon the Bronte sisters. Treading amongst the heather that speckles the grassland with majestic purple flowers I imagined the likes of Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre – fierce female characters of the Bronte novels – clambering over the moors in search of their lost loves, and strangely felt at home.

It is true that no body of work has ever inspired me as much as that of the Bronte sisters. Three eighteenth-century women, each with an extraordinary intellect and a deep understanding of human nature; each subjected to the same fetters that all Victorian women were shackled to, managed to create texts that are continuously remembered and reimagined today. Like the ghosts that haunt their novels, they linger in the English imagination.

So who are the Brontes?

Picture a morose widowed father, a tragically inebriated brother, a house overlooking a graveyard and the wild expanse of the Yorkshire moors and you get the setting of the Bronte sisters. Sound like a gothic novel? Now you see where the Bronte’s got their inspiration from.

There were four children: Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell, who all grew up in a house at the foot of the moors. Patrick Bronte – a Cambridge graduate and longstanding Reverend of Howarth Parsonage – bestowed upon his children the gift of an enriching home education. It was here that their genius was kindled. Storytelling became embedded in daily routine. Feeding off each other’s minds, they grew inside their fantasy world and cultivated stories based on their immediate environment: the rugged, tumultuous moors and the domestic routine of the family home. As I trekked through the moorland, I felt the whispers of Cathy and Heathcliff whip round my ears with a bluster of wind. It is in the idyllic, yet treacherous, expanse of the moors that the Bronte’s characters come to life.

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 The Bronte sisters have reached almost mythical status based on an understanding that they wrote such extraordinary books sheltered from the world in the confines of their home. This isn’t exactly true. Emily Bronte was not a lonely spirit shut away under the tyranny of her father, but a woman who actually enjoyed the comforts that cooking over a stove could afford. While her chief protagonist, Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, ran heedlessly to the turbulent terrain of the moors, Emily wished to sit by the fire, composing her stories in time to the click of her knitting needles.

The home was a powerful symbol for Emily and Wuthering Heights attends to its invasion. The female sanctuary becomes impaired by the violence of tyrannous villains and divisive social conventions, even the sublimity of nature when the branches of an oak tree penetrate the haunted chamber of Lockwood. While demonic in aspects of their characters and the treatment of each other, Heathcliff and Cathy possess a love that is otherworldly. Cathy exclaims that ‘he is more myself than I am.’ The lovers become central to each other’s understanding of the point of existence. After Cathy dies, Heathcliff spends every waking moment wishing that he were in the earth with his beloved. It is this extinction through the elemental forces of nature that each character strives for, and eventually achieves.

We may put whatever emphasis we will on the fact that a peaceful coexistence beyond the grave is strikingly implausible for a modern audience, but the fact that Heathcliff and Cathy, ill-fated and fatally flawed, can maintain a love across the boundary of life and death is quite a remarkable concept in my eyes.

Perhaps it’s the lack of real emotion in our society that makes these novels appear, to some, like classic, empty love tales. Those old romantic tremors in our hearts, described so intimately in romantic novels as the pangs of love, are now felt as vibrations of our phones, notifying us of a ‘like’ on an Instagram selfie. Our concept of love has been diluted, reduced to the gratification of an extra ‘super-like’ on Tinder. Emily Bronte would be turning in her grave.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I believe in the heights of human passion.

And this is what the Bronte’s do. They make you believe and experience the full spectrum of human nature. They demand recognition of women’s experience as charged with intense bodily and emotional feeling.

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In Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne recounts the story of Helen who leaves her drunken husband Mr Huntingdon to create a new life for herself and her child. Possibly influenced by her brother who was bent on boozing himself into an early grave, Anne paints a portrait of a Byronic figure of great fascination, but also of vast moral failings. In a rather mocking and derisive tone, Mr Huntingdon says, ‘I have an infernal fire in my veins that all the waters of the ocean cannot quench’ – words that don’t belong in the mouth of such a shallow individual. These words are really for the novel’s heroine, and for Anne herself. Women stifled, but not broken.

In a diary, Anne longed to ‘go out into the world, to act for myself, to exercise my unused faculties, to try my unknown powers.’ The Bronte sisters possessed knowledge of their own strength and capability – a lesson to women everywhere to harness the ‘unquenchable’ fire stoking inside them. Jane Eyre – Charlotte’s novel that tells of a woman who must establish true independence before marrying – ends with the family house set ablaze. The fire decimates, purges, yet creates anew.  It is thus atonement with nature, and with oneself, that is the pinnacle of human achievement in these novels.

The Bronte’s works have always symbolised to me what I believe to be absolutely true and vital in life. The novels deal with the most fundamental, mythical and primal aspects of human nature. It is for this reason that they remain so important not only to myself, but to the canonical history of English Literature.

#gothicnovel #romantic #romanticism #Bronte #literature #eighteenthcentury