The Element of Living Storm: Swinburne and the Brontës

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  Victorian Literature and Culture  (2013), 41 , 463–485. C  Cambridge University Press 2013. 1060-1503/13 $15.00doi:10.1017/S1060150313000053 THE ELEMENT OF LIVING STORM:SWINBURNE AND THE BRONT¨ES  By Lakshmi Krishnan T HAT  A LGERNON  C HARLES  S WINBURNE  loved the Bront¨es is well known, and his interest inthem well documented. His admiration for Charlotte and Emily, in particular, prompted twostudies, a short book and an article, 1 which were instrumental in establishing their criticalreputation as it exists today. “Those great twin sisters in genius,” as he wrote in 1877, helda powerful sway over Swinburne’s imagination (  A Note  188–200). He considered them hisYorkshire kinswomen, bred in the wild borderlands of the North 2 (although Swinburne wasborn in London and spent most of his life in southern England, his family was based inNorthumberland, and he never lost his allegiance to the county, calling himself a “Borderer”to the very end 3 ). He sensed in their work – Emily’s especially – the haunting, poeticinfluence of the moors, a passionate, romantic spirit that saturated his own verse and prose.More, they were his novelistic predecessors, and his essays on them shed considerable lighton his own fictional practice. In framing himself as the Bront¨es’ apologist, Swinburne was“far ahead of his time,” shaping Victorian criticism (Hyder 15–16). His praise of   Wuthering Heights  is considered “by some literary historians to be epochmaking” and altered the wayin which novels were discussed, analysed, and ultimately evaluated (Watson 247). There arealsostrikingfeaturesthatsuggestSwinburne’sownnovel  LesbiaBrandon –initstrans-genreform and unique milieu – was conceived as an exercise in the manner of   Wuthering Heights .Swinburne’s fascination with the Bront¨es greatly pre-dates his critical writing. He couldalmost never review authors about whom he did not hold a strong opinion, a foible thatgives his essays their chequered quality: heights of fervent enthusiasm juxtaposed withshamelessly prejudiced vitriol. Most often, however, he restricted himself to the “noblepleasure of praising” (Hyder 17). We know that “Swinburne formed his most intense literaryattachments while he was young” (Hyder 4) – the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists,Percy Shelley, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Walter Savage Landor, amongst others –and one of those childhood passions was the Bront¨es. This continued at Oxford, where in1857 , “ as an undergraduate member of Balliol’s literary and debating society Old Mortality,Swinburne gave a paper on  Wuthering Heights ” (Rooksby 86). 4 This youthful zeal wouldfind more sophisticated, measured form in his adult critical work. “From the first hour whenas a schoolboy I read ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights,’” he wrote T. Wemyss Reid in463  464 VICTORIAN LITERATURE AND CULTURE 1877, “I have always retained the first intense desire I felt then to know all that I mightor ought to know about the two women who wrote them” (  Letters  4: 881). This “intensedesire”to understand  theBront¨es,theirbackgroundandthepowersthatmouldedtheirprose,would prove important subsequently, as Swinburne’s study of the sisters is more explicitlybiographical than his other criticism.Swinburne is keenly aware of landscape and setting in the Bront¨es’ work, consideringtheir novels as products of a unique place and specific circumstances. This approach isperhaps due to the affinity he felt for his “countrywomen” (  A Note  15–16). The Bront¨es laycloser to him than many of his other subjects. Although their humble upbringing and modestcircumstances differed greatly from his own, patrician background, they shared a bond, thespiritualheritagethathebelievedwasthebirthrightofeveryNortherner.Later,inhisdefenceofCharlotteBront¨e,hewastodisparageGeorgeEliotas(amongotherthings)“thenowmorepopular Warwickshire woman” (  Letters  3: 804). Couching his critique in overtly regionalterms, Swinburne establishes himself alongside the Bront¨es as a Northern voice amidst theclamour and dominance of Southern letters.Swinburne’s regional bias bears further scrutiny, but it is important to realise that hisearlyinterestintheBront¨eswasalmostpurelybiographical.Inaletter,herelatesananecdotefrom his youth: Many years ago I lent a copy of that book [ Wuthering Heights ] to a lady of the class described init – daughter of a Westmoreland “statesman” or small gentleman-farmer living on his own land, –warning her that though I liked it very much I knew that people in general called it “terrible” etc.etc. She returned it to me, after reading it through, with the remark that (so far from the incidentsbeing impossible – as the cockney critics said – and say) she had known wilder instances of lawlessand law-defying passion and tyranny, far more horrible than any cruelty of Heathcliff’s, in her ownimmediate neighbourhood. Swinburne then relates this “wilder instance,” telling the tale of a gentleman-farmer, “whohavingbulliedhiswifetodeathwasleftaloneinthefarmwithabeautifuldaughter,whomheused with horrible brutality.” He concludes that “seeing that Emily Bront¨e was a  tragic poet  ,and reared in the same degree of latitude which bred this humbler version of the ‘Cenci,’ 5 Icannot think that anything in her book is as at all excessive or unjustifiable” (  Letters  4: 881,myemphasis).Heaffirmsthatthe“law-defyingpassionandtyranny”sonegativelyremarkedby Bront¨e’s early critics is not quite so shocking for those raised in wilder, hardier regions.Further, he argues that there is a certain genius, such as that possessed by Emily Bront¨eor Shelley, which can transfigure such tyranny and brutality through “tragic poetry” intosomething lofty and passionate. But Swinburne’s most salient point is not that such “tragicpoets” simply exist, but that, when “reared” in environments providing a certain “degreeof latitude,” the subject matter they choose appears more “excessive” than it truly is. Theinteractionofcircumstanceandanaturallytragicspirityields,especiallyinthecaseofEmilyBront¨e,scenesofmagnetic,startlingpower.Swinburnecharacterisestheeventsof  Wuthering Heights  – which offended milder sensibilities – as quotidian in certain “neighbourhoods.” Itis through Bront¨e’s visionary writing, he argues, that the tale transcends its circumstances,otherwise merely a catalogue of brutal incidents.This suggests a parallel with Swinburne himself. He, too, had come under attack for the“excessive”characteristicsofhisverse,forbeingthe“libidinouslaureateofapackofsatyrs,”  The Element of Living Storm  465 and depicting individuals and behaviours that often repulsed his readers (Morley 145–47).His“Dolores”offendedasmuchasEmily’sHeathclifforAnne’s“coarse”and“brutal”ArthurHuntingdon (“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,”  Spectator   662–63). His critics were unaware, of course, that he was concurrently writing two novels, the second of which still represents hismostincendiaryeffort. 6 Thecharactersof   LesbiaBrandon arewild,passionate,andextreme:violence, incest, and flagellation thread through the novel. Like  Wuthering Heights ,  Lesbia Brandon  is peopled with bizarre, often-brutal individuals who behave in strange, terribleways. Such passionate perversity is central to Swinburne’s aesthetics of cruelty and beauty,pain and desire. For him, the novel transcends all through its innovative, genre-bendingstructure,andlikehispoetry,lyricalpower.Indeflectingcriticismlevelledagainst Wuthering Heights , he indirectly comments on his own detractors and defends his aesthetic. Somethingabout the Bront¨es compelled Swinburne, a connection beyond their common backgroundor regional proximity. Their themes and subjects, conveyed in fresh, untrammelled style,compelled him. With Emily he felt a close literary kinship. He believed her misunderstoodby her early readers. She, too, wrote unflinchingly of the heights and nadirs of humanexperience and possessed the sort of transformative lyrical power that ennobled what manytermed a “dreadful book.” He of course knew and liked her poetry, but affords her the highestpraise when he calls her a poet of the novel. And in averring that “with all its horrors,it is so beautiful!” Swinburne shifts from a youthful fascination with  Wuthering Heights and its gripping “horrors” toward a mature appreciation of its literary merits (  Letters  4:881).Swinburne was not alone in his admiration of the Bront¨es. Many members of hisimmediate circle found their work impressive. The Pre-Raphaelites read  Wuthering Heights with interest, as reflected in D. G. Rossetti’s well-known description: I’ve been greatly interested in  Wuthering Heights , the first novel I’ve read for an age, and the best (asregards power and sound style) for two ages, except  Sidonia . But it is a fiend of a book, an incrediblemonster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from Mrs Browning to Mrs Brownrigg. 7 Theaction is laid in Hell – only it seems places and people have English names there. (D. G. Rossetti toWilliam Allingham, 19 Sept 1854.  Letters  224) Rossetti “responded ardently” to Emily’s “poetic power,” (Allott 33) while acutely awareof its brutality (“a fiend of a book, an incredible monster”), a sensation that critics – evenfriendly ones – could never quite shed. He remarks that the novel is the “first I’ve read for anage”; Rossetti’s evaluative criteria, then, are slightly different from those of other reviewers,who inevitably compare  Wuthering Heights  to other works within the genre. As a novel, Wuthering Heights  faced significant opposition; as a work of elemental power and sound,however, it received high praise. Critics who compared it to the comic realism of Dickensor the later, high realism of Eliot were disappointed, not just by its extreme plot, but alsoits evasive style and odd, framed narrative structure. Those, however, who regarded it asdifferent – a hybrid that might revise genre conventions – exulted in its lyrical intensity. Suchdichotomy is especially significant when we consider that Swinburne referred to his ownnovel,  Lesbia Brandon , as a “hybrid book” (  Letters  1: 106) and a “scheme of mixed verseand prose” (  Letters  1: 174).  466 VICTORIAN LITERATURE AND CULTURE The Bront ¨ es and Mid-Victorian Criticism S WINBURNE ’ S CRITICISM ON THE  B RONT ¨ ES  is especially important in light of its context: thepublication history and reception of the “Brothers Bell.” General opinion was mixed:  Jane Eyre  was almost immediately a success, while  Wuthering Heights  inspired both perturbationand grudging praise.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  was lauded, if not for its artistry, as a solidmoral and didactic tale. Though Victorian critics were often less sanctimonious and morediscerning than is assumed, the Bront¨es’ reception was certainly patchy.  Wuthering Heights ,inparticular,sufferedstrongcensureonthegroundsofimmorality,lackofartistry,andsubjectmatter that was deemed revolting and repellent. This is where Swinburne’s efforts wouldhave greatest force. For Emily and her novel he was a staunch, passionate, and prescientadvocate. Where others were negative, he was not only positive but positively rhapsodic.He praised her novel for its tragic arc, dramatic value (landscape, setting, characters, andlanguage), and poetic power. In comparing Bront¨e to Shakespeare, he initiated a trend in Wuthering Heights  criticism that remains important today. He helped to “contextualize theuneven and often negative reception of   Wuthering Heights ” and the other Bront¨es’ worksby “considering the role of and expectations for the novel in Victorian England” (Bloom143). To better understand these prevailing expectations for the genre and the ways in whichSwinburne revised them, we turn to contemporary reviews. As we will see by their breadthand quantity, theBront¨es ranlittle riskof foundering incritical oblivion without Swinburne’sspirited defence. His work, however, was instrumental in cementing the Bront¨es’ reputationfar into the future and foregrounding Emily as the greatest of them. These essays reshapedlate Victorian theories of prose, influencing critical discourse on the Bront¨es and the noveluntil the present time.The story of how the Bront¨es published their first novels is now a familiar one.Mythologized by Mrs. Gaskell in her  Life of Charlotte Bront ¨ e , 8 anecdotes of their literarystruggles, choice to write under pseudonyms, and ultimate success fill the archives of Bront¨eana. 1846 saw the publication of   Poems by Currer  ,  Ellis ,  and Acton Bell , followed by  Jane Eyre ,  Wuthering Heights , and  Agnes Grey  in 1847.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  emergedin 1848, shortly before Branwell and Emily died. Anne succumbed to tuberculosis in 1849,the same year that Charlotte’s  Shirley  appeared. The 1850 memorial edition of   Wuthering Heights  and  Agnes Grey  contained Charlotte’s famous Preface, which provided hithertounknown information about her two sisters.  Villette  appeared in 1853 and finally, in 1857,Charlotte’s first novel,  The Professor   (initially rejected) was posthumously published. Overthis very brief span of time (Swinburne was nine when  Poems  appeared, and thirteen whenCharlotte’sPrefaceeulogisinghersisterswaspublished),theBront¨esproducedworkthathasevoked a disproportionately high critical response. Considering the sheer quantity of Bront¨ereviews, monographs, and essays, we often forget how little primary material is extant. It is atestament, not only to their provocative writing, but also the compelling nature of the Bront¨emyth. The enigmatic sisters still draw attention, but this is not merely a recent fascination.As Allott indicates, Bront¨e criticism “has grown enormously, but interest in the Bront¨es onthe part of the general reading public was already thriving by the turn of the century” (Allott1). Thus, during Swinburne’s adolescence, heated discussion of the Bront¨es, their lives, andwork was already underway. As an adult, he was able to contribute to still-lively discourses.The biographies that appeared soon after the Bront¨es’ deaths contributed much to thisever-expanding family mythology and sustained public interest. Elizabeth Gaskell’s  Life  is,  The Element of Living Storm  467 of course, the most famous example. It was followed some while later by A. M. Robinson’s  Emily Bront ¨ e  (1883), the first full-length biography of the younger sister. In the meantime,several posthumous articles kindled critical enthusiasm. T. Wemyss Reid’s complimentary Charlotte Bront ¨ e: A Monograph  was published in 1877. Swinburne’s  Note on Charlotte Bront ¨ e  was srcinally planned as a review of it. Shortly thereafter, Leslie Stephen replied toSwinburne’s monograph with one of his own. Finally, Swinburne’s essay on Emily Bront¨e,written in response to Robinson’s biography, was published in the  Athenaeum  in 1883.Even before this surge of posthumous writing, there was a mass of critical work writtenabout the Bront¨es during their lifetimes. As the work that met with the most immediatesuccess, it is fair to begin with  Jane Eyre . In late 1847, the  Athenaeum  praised it for “excitingstrong interest” and serving “the novel-reader who prefers story to philosophy, pedantry, orPuseyite controversy.” At the same time, the novel was criticised for its improbable latterhalf, where the convergence of serendipitous events seems forced, where “obstacles falldown like the battlements of   Castle Melodrame , in the closing scene” ([Chorley], “JaneEyre” 1100–01). The  Spectator  , however, took issue with its central characters: “There isa low tone of behaviour (rather than of morality) in the book; and, what is worse than all,neither the heroine nor hero attracts sympathy. The reader cannot see anything loveable inMr. Rochester, nor why he should be so deeply in love with Jane Eyre.” It did, however,commend its “considerable skill in the plan” and vigorous intensity (“Jane Eyre,”  Spectator  1074–75). G. H. Lewes, in  Fraser’s Magazine , offered almost unmitigated praise. “No suchbookhasgladdenedoureyesinalongwhile,”heeffuses,“Reality–deep,significantreality–is the great characteristic of the book. It is an autobiography, – not, perhaps, in the nakedfactsandcircumstances,butintheactualsufferingandexperience.”Lewesconcludeswithaninjunction to the author, “keep reality distinctly before you, and paint it as accurately as youcan,inventionwillneverequaltheeffectoftruth”(Lewes84–87).GeorgeEliot,however,wasslightlylesscomplimentary.ShewrotetoCharlesBray,“Ihaveread  JaneEyre ,monami,andshallbegladtoknowwhatyouadmireinit . . . Iwishthecharacterswouldtalkalittlelesslikethe heroes and heroines of police reports” (  Letters  1: 268). Thackeray enjoyed it immensely,claiming that “it interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day inreading it at the busiest period” (  Letters  318–19). The  Critic  affirmed that Currer Bell “hasfertileinvention,greatpowerofdescription,andahappyfacultyforconceivingandsketchingcharacter.  JaneEyre isaremarkablenovel”(“JaneEyre”277–78).AlbanyFonblanquecalledit a “very clever book,” a “book of decided power  . . .  it is anything but a fashionable novel.”Later, he judges it lacking as a “history of events,” finding merit in its “analysis of a singlemind,” its “earnest human purpose” ([Fonblanque] 756–57). In contrast, Elizabeth Rigby, of  The Quarterly Review , labelled  Jane Eyre  “pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition,”its eponym “a being totally uncongenial to our feelings from beginning to end.” AlthoughRigby grudgingly admits Jane’s “firmness” and “determination,” “the impression she leaveson our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman – one whom we should not carefor as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desirefor a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess” ([Rigby] 153–85).This quick sketch of reviews highlights several major trends in the nature of Victoriancritical discourse. The responses to  Jane Eyre  were largely positive, tinged with slightreservation. Critics primarily appreciated its impassioned heroine, not because she is asupreme fictional creation, but because of the sympathetic response she evokes. Severalremarked that  Jane Eyre  makes no pretensions of intellectualism; it is not concerned with
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