Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Emily Brontë Her Life and Work by Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford - part II

In his introduction to his part of this book, Derek Stanford says:

Alone, perhaps, of the great English writers, Emily Brontë's fame has survived without the keen preservative of a cool discriminative criticism. Of every other kind of attention her work has received a plenary measure. She has had her biographers and topographers, editors, bibliographers, and general researchers. She has had - less popularly - her psychoanalysts; and, finally, her life and work have been blessed with a great host of professional sympathisers, writing with endless affirmation on her.

As you might conclude from this, Stanford is rather critical of Emily's work. He means that it is not among the 'Brontë-lovers' to question, evaluate or reflect on her work. Her readers form a sort of "club for internal admiration" and therefore anything that comes from her pen is considered the best and no objective criticism is put forward. Furthermore there are not that many critics that have made a thorough literary criticism of her poems, they are mostly included in essays and introductions to Wuthering Heights.



Stanford goes very much into detail of the poems, of which I can not enter here. There is for some poems difficult to know whether they were part of the Gondal saga or individually written. Some of here poems show links to mysticism, to nature and supernatural phenomena. Stanford suggests that most of the Gondal poems are not good enough or does not have the 'glow' that some of her other poems have. Of her major poems he considers only six have a rare quality. They are:

There let thy bleeding branch atone (composed in 1841, when she was twenty-two)
Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee and
Death that struck when I was most confiding (both in 1845, when she was twenty-six)
Julian M. and A.G. Rocheller (later in 1845, when she was twenty-seven)
Often rebuked yet always back returning (date unknown)

The book goes on to analyse each of these poems in great detail. I am not very familiar with Emily's poetry, or with poetry in general. Normally, I read something and I either find it beautiful or I don't entirely understand it, or it does not say anything to me. You, who are more familiar with her poems, should read the criticism to see whether you agree or not. It is very interesting.


Wuthering Heights

Last but not least he comes to Wuthering Heights. Here I thought he must be more positive, but not! It was quite a disappointment since I love the book. However, it is very useful to read criticism which defers from your own view, since it makes you think in other ways. He starts with citing earlier critics of the book and then continues with his own criticism.

One of the controversies which have been aired is what concerns the nature of the plot, the way it is constructed and especially the method of narration. One school is of the opinion that these are inadequate, and the other that the obscurity is due to our lack of attention. In short, as presented by Phyllis Bentley, Wuthering Heights is about two symmetrical families and an intruding stranger. Heathcliff sets for revenge when Cathy marries Linton. After all the inter-marriages Heathcliff's revenge is foiled by Cathy and Hareton, who love each other and redeem each other, and by his own affection for Hareton, his old enemy's son.

Stanford means that this is a good enough summary (minor part mentioned above), but the last words are misleading, since it gives the impression that Cathy and Hareton outwit Heathcliff with their love for each other or that Heathcliff suffers a change of heart. Neither is really true. His attitudes changes, that is true, but not due to some kind of kindness, more like he is not concerned anymore. His focus has shifted from the plane of revenge, and - in doing so - has shifted from this world.

Because of the structure of the families, the people and the events, many critics think that Emily worked it out all in advance. Stanford is of the meaning that a plot is more than mere facts, it is a sequence of incidents described in keeping with probability or in keeping with some unity peculiarly its own. One factor that could heighten or lessen the sense of probability is the chosen method of narration. Phyllis Bentley says that the clear outlines of the story are often confused in the readers' minds the way Emily use the narration. It also helps in highlighting excitement and suspense. The tale is effected by several first person narrations which don't go straight forward in time.



As the characters go here some views: minor characters are mostly presented as one-dimensionally, "in the flat", the major figures are conceived "in the round", and as if engaged in movement. Stanford continues; Emily's principal characters are - for the most part - too complex, too unresolved in purpose or direction, too much caught up in the process of a kind of fierce internal motion, for a surface cipher to stand duty for their make-up. What we think of as typical of these heroines are not the actions they repeat, but the actions they perform once only;...




Catherine is according to Stanford, the greatest character in the book. Heathcliff is a 'tedious stock Byronic figure. Nelly and Joseph are largely functional figures. You have the opposites of 'darkness and lightness' in Heathcliff/Edgar and Hareton/Linton. Catherine represent the principle of excessive self-love. The only way to escape this is to love another. She does not find this in Edgar, so with the violation which she inflicts upon herself her self-love turns into a force of chaos. Heathcliff is a tiresome figure. He is all energy and movement and therefore we tend to believe he is real. Lockwood on the other hand is just a distraction and a reason to tell the story. The idea of Heathcliff differs but many readers and some critics find him a 'magnificent gipsy and like his passion for Catherine, is an immortal and immaterial thing' Stanford does not agree and says that his rude and sometimes very violent actions shows him as a 'ham' barbarian.

But the most eloquent defence of  Wuthering Heights as a novel, constructed on the principle of balance, is that made by Lord David Cecil in this Early Victorian Novelists. Briefly, his thesis is that the setting of Wuthering Heights is "a microcosm of the universal scheme as Emily Brontë conceived it". The Earnshaws represent the principle of storm, the Lintons the principle of calm and peace. These two forces, which taken together explain the nature of the universe, must not be conceived in a moral fashion. 

What fails Emily here, according to Stanford, is her limitation as a portrayer of character. Her range is too narrow; and even when within it, she is, by no means, sure. The children of storm - Heathcliff excepted - she is able to present convincingly. But her children of calm are largely unreal. She cannot comprehend types so different to herself. Her second weakness lies in her failure to envisage characters ethically. She has very little sense of good and evil as formative and determinative factors in the growth of personality. ...

So far Stanford and others. The book takes up so much more on every level and what I mentioned here is only a very small part. Being a fan of Emily's book, I first thought that he is very harsh in his condemnation. However, having read on, I started to imagine the characters as he describes them and it gave me another view of the story and the people inhabiting it. When I read it next time I will have to have Stanford's criticism at hand.

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