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Friday, April 29, 2016

Charlotte Bronte & Darth Vader

Warning: This post contains spoilers on Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. Continue reading at your own risk!

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, Caroline Helstone lays on her deathbed. Although the doctors cannot give a reason why she is dying, Caroline is fading away. So Mrs Pryor, Shirley's friend and former governess, jolts Caroline with emotional shock treatment: she tells her that she is her mother.

For all you Star Wars fans out there, this moment reminds me of Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker: "I am your father."

Like Darth Vader, Mrs Pryor is masking her former identity. Like Darth Vader, she has done terrible things. She abandoned her daughter as a child, and she stayed away, day after day, year after year, until she could assess Caroline's character. Only when she decided that she liked who Caroline was, and that she had turned out all right despite her abandonment, and only when it seemed obvious that Caroline would die if she didn't tell her, did she reveal her former identity, her secret, and her terrible crimes.

Caroline may have turned out all right, but like Luke Skywalker, she was raised by an uncle who treated her callously. No warmth existed between them all. Her only hope for happiness lay in marriage. But when Robert Moore loses interest in her, she loses interest in life. Thus, when she grows sick, she lacks a reason to live, and drifts off toward death.

True, Mrs Pryor didn't kill anyone. True, Mrs Pryor left Caroline in the care of a responsible family member. But does this let her off the hook for her abandoning her child? Caroline grew up with a terrible absence inside her. She lived for two decades feeling alone and unloved. Isn't Mrs Pryor responsible for that? Isn't that, really, a terrible crime?

Most of us will never physically abandon a child. But is it okay to absent yourself from a friend or relative's life because you've got issues? Because you've suffered? Does that let you off the hook for not doing everything you could to make a family member feel important to you? That regardless of what you feel about their character or actions, that he or she really, really matters to you?

Abandonment is easy. Devoting yourself to so-called good works is easy. Making friends with people you readily identify with, and spending all your free time with them, is easy. What's hard is... 

Really, no matter how old we get, we're all still children inside.

"Caroline, you don't know the power of the Dark Side!"

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Horatio Nelson

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, the title character visits her old family schoolroom. There she talks with her nephew, who seems in low spirits. He's a weak boy, who needs physical assistance to get around. Yet he can't help but notice the tall, handsome men who swirl around Shirley, desirous of gaining her attention. He sees before him a life he can never have. He will never be strong. He will never gallop across the fields on a horse. He will never twirl a beautiful young woman across a dance floor. Hence, he believes he cannot hope to marry well, or gain the affections of a woman who desires a strong, virile husband. When he shares his concerns with Shirley, she reveals how differently she sees the world, and how she finds value in others.

"You need not be sorrowful. Have I not often told you who was almost as little, as pale, as suffering as you, and yet potent as a giant and brave as a lion?"

"Admiral Horatio?" 

"Admiral Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Duke of Bronte; great at heart as a Titan; gallant and heroic as all the world and age of chivalry; leader of the might of England; commander of her strength on the deep; hurler of her thunder over the flood." 

"A great man. But I am not warlike, Shirley; and yet my mind is so restless I burn day and night—for what I can hardly tell—to be—to do—to suffer, I think." 

"Harry, it is your mind, which is stronger and older than your frame, that troubles you. It is a captive; it lies in physical bondage. But it will work its own redemption yet. Study carefully not only books but the world. You love nature; love her without fear. Be patient—wait the course of time. You will not be a soldier or a sailor, Henry; but if you live you will be—listen to my prophecy—you will be an author, perhaps a poet."

Shirley may not be a great lover of poetry, but she sees her nephew's strengths, and encourages him to achieve his potential. As England is bogged down in the Napoleonic Wars, she points to one of her country's foremost leader: Horatio Nelson. As she points out, he may not boast the most impressive, desirable figure, but people respect his leadership, and are grateful for how he has protected their country. 

Even today, people still look up to this heroic figure. At least they do in London, when they visit Trafalgar Square.

Out of all the great leaders of England, Charlotte Bronte's character Shirley picks out Horatio Nelson as a role model. 

I wonder what could have piqued her interest in the man?

Dragon Dave

Related Posts from Loving To The Manor Born
A Memorial to Horatio Nelson
Horatio Nelson and the Bronte Sisters

Monday, April 25, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Artistic Suppression

A couple admire the Bronte Parsonage Museum
in Haworth, England

The similarities detailed in the previous post between Charlotte's novel Shirley, and her sister's Anne's novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are as unarguable as they are inescapable. What is less clear is why, a year after Anne's death, Charlotte elected to suppress Anne's second novel. When Charlotte refused to allow the publishers to reprint The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne's second novel fell into obscurity for years. Was Charlotte jealous of her sister's success? Or did she not wish her readers to discover the similarities between the three novels?

Perhaps Charlotte suppressed her sister's second novel because it brought her too much pain. Anne's novels drew largely on her life, and the people close to her. As such, they speak truthfully to the characters, situations, and social issues she described. And by the time the publishers requested the reprint, Charlotte had endured great pain. 

Just like Charlotte's character James Helstone, Anne died too early in life, as did her sister Emily. Their brother Branwell, a young man known for his good looks and character, had also passed away. Unlike her sister's however, Charlotte's brother underwent a disturbing change before his death. While Branwell retained his good looks, addictions to alcohol and opium took their toll on his character. He fathered a child out of wedlock, and it has been alleged that he grew similarly cruel and depraved to Anne's character Arthur Huntington in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Regardless of Charlotte's reasoning, we can all be thankful that her suppression of her sister's second novel failed. Ultimately, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall proved too powerful to be lost or ignored. It survives not only as popular entertainment, but an important historical novel. 

Still, with regard to Anne's novels, I side with Charlotte Bronte. While I liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I enjoyed Agnes Grey more. But then, we all prefer some novels to others, even if they were both written by a favorite author, don't we?

Dragon Dave

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Charlotte Bronte's Bicentennial

The views around Haworth are nothing less than amazing. The views from the nearby hillside trails equally so. And yet, one must pause and wonder how they would have looked two hundred years ago. 

On April 21, 1816, Charlotte Bronte came into this world. She lived here, in the village of Haworth, in the parsonage of the local church, surrounded by townspeople and brick-and-slate houses. Yet, like all her sisters, the nearby fields, hills, and moors--nature in all her untamed glory--infuses her writing. 

I wonder where she is now, and what beauty and glory she is contemplating. I wonder what she would think of modern Haworth. I wonder if she is gazing down upon her beloved hometown today, on the bicentennial of her birth, and if so, what she is thinking. Don't you?

What do you see, when you walk and look and live in your hometown? How do your surroundings inspire you?

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 18, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Alternative History

Following the path down to the lake
outside Haworth, England.

Warning: This post contains spoilers with regard to Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. It also contains spoilers both of her sister Anne's novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Read further at your own risk!

In Shirley, heroine Caroline Helstone falls ill. Mrs Pryor, Shirley's former governess, sits by her bed night and day. When Caroline seems at death's door, Mrs Pryor throws out a bombshell. After her husband's death, she entrusted Caroline to her brother-in-law's care, and assumed the last name Pryor to shield her identity. She is, in reality, Agnes Helstone. She is Caroline's mother!

Mrs Pryor then does a very intriguing thing: she tells Caroline that before married her father, and became Mrs Helstone, her name was Agnes Grey. Just like Anne Bronte's title character in her novel Agnes Grey, she worked as a governess. And just like Helen in Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she married a man who seemed not only handsome but also good. Only after her marriage did she discover that cruelty accompanied that kindness. 

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arthur Huntington's increasing alcoholism leads him to be terribly cruel to his wife. To protect herself, and their son from Arthur's depravity, Helen flees her home. She assumes the name Helen Graham, and takes up residence in Wildfell Hall. 

Unlike in Anne's novel Agnes Grey, Charlotte's character of Agnes Grey (or Mrs Pryor) marries unhappily. Unlike in Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte's character of Agnes Grey never details her husband's depravity. She explains to Caroline, in a few vague phrases, how James Helstone grew terribly cruel to her. While still a handsome man, after their marriage, he revealed himself as a villain. Nevertheless, the way physical beauty united with cruelty and depravity of nature made her fear the person her daughter would develop into. For Caroline was a beautiful baby.

These days, authors feel free to explore all sorts of alternative fictional scenarios. What if someone shot Adolf Hitler in his childhood? What if gunpowder was never invented? Alternative History has grown into a vibrant portion of the Science Fiction & Fantasy genre. Even big name authors, who are generally known for their speculations of the future, have felt its attraction. Eminent Science Fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, in The Years of Rice and Salt, weaved an entire novel around this premise: What if the Black Death wiped out everyone in western Europe? Modern authors even feel free to delve into the past of famous characters, such as those written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, and speculate what might have occurred had Sherlock Holmes traveled to America, or the Bennett sisters received training as zombie hunters.

While nothing is new in storytelling, I have to wonder if what Charlotte Bronte did in Shirley was common or rare in her era. Did her contemporary writers routinely borrow characters from other authors, and place them into their own novels? Or was Charlotte Bronte attempting to do something new in her novel Shirley?

What do you think? Does Charlotte Bronte's character of Agnes Grey constitute plagiarism or an homage? And does her work serve as an important precursor of today's popular sub genre of Alternative History?

Dragon Dave

Friday, April 15, 2016

Periodic Maintenance & A Personal Project

This week, I've started doing a little maintenance work to The Dragon's Cache. This involved updating the Top Ten Posts page to reflect recent surges in popularity. Two new posts climbed onto the list, which meant that two fell off. I'll let you guess at the newcomers. The losers are:

9.   The Windmills of Mojave                              
10. The Conan Chronologies

Fans of Conan the Barbarian, and creator Robert E. Howard, can still access the Conan Chronologies post via the link above, and also from the Howard's Hyborian Heroes page. Fans of Green Energy are out-of-luck, unless they pass around The Windmills of Mojave on Facebook and Twitter, and get their friends enthused about it. But then, out of eleven hundred posts, to have spent a year or two on the Top Ten is a worthy accomplishment. So for now, congratulations and good-bye, Windmills of Mojave.

In the meantime, I've started a personal project I've wanted to carry out for some time. I'm working on my own chronology of Conan The Barbarian stories. In time, this will fuse my love of Conan literature with my collection of Conan comics. Eventually, it may evolve into a blog dedicated solely to Conan. But for now, I'm just building the list a little at a time. You can access it, and check back to see how it develops, on the page My Conan Chronology. As with the other pages, you will find it on the right-hand sidebar, beneath My Post List and my Blog Archive.


Dragon Dave

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Beauty and Virtue

Surrounded by beauty near Haworth, England,
Charlotte Bronte's hometown.

Warning: The following post contains spoilers about Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. Read on at your own risk!

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, heroine Caroline Helstone takes a moonlight walk with her friend Shirley. The next day, Caroline Helstone falls ill. As her condition worsens, Shirley's former governess, Mrs Pryor, insists upon sitting at Caroline's bedside. She remains at her side night and day. 

At one point, it seems as though Caroline can get no worse. Food elicits no interest, and Caroline lacks even the will to live. In desperation, Mrs Pryor decides to share a long-held secret: she is Caroline's mother!

Mrs Pryor explains that she gave up her daughter because her father treated her so dreadfully. While working as a governess, presumably in another rich family's home, before she worked for Shirley's parents, she met James Helstone, an incredibly handsome man who swept her off her feet. Only after she married him, and he began to mistreat her, did she discover his terrible nature. 

After her husband's death, Mrs Pryor decided to entrust her daughter to her brother-in-law's care. Reverend Matthewston Helstone was an upright man of god: he could care for her daughter, and perhaps curb her daughter's evil inclinations. For Caroline was a beautiful baby, and having experienced such cruelty at his father's hands, she cannot help but believe that along with his outward beauty, Caroline has inherited her father's cruelty and evil tendencies.

Like the classic Greeks, who believed virtue the companion of beauty, Mrs Pryor believed that James' outward appearance signified compassion, sensitivity, and a host of other issues. This supposedly link traumatized her greatly. Had Caroline been ugly, Mrs Pryor would have flown to her side. Instead, her uncle sent her an image of young Caroline, and her daughter looked so beautiful that she stayed away.

Finally, Shirley's decision to move to the family estate near Rev Helstone's parsonage gave her a dilemma. Ultimately, because of her love for Shirley, who also has no parents, she agrees to accompany her. She believes that age, and her old maid clothes, give her the ability to pass herself off as an outsider. And in this, she is proven correct. No one notices a similarity with Caroline in her features. Mrs Pryor is merely an old maid, a former governess, strict, silent, and meant to be ignored.

Only after months of observation, and assessing the true state of Caroline's heart, does she come clean with her daughter, beg her to forgive her for her abandonment, and ask if they can have any future relationship together. One wonders if she ever would have, had Caroline not fallen so gravely ill. After all, it cannot be easy to explain why you abandoned an infant.

What do you think? Is there a link between one's inner and outward beauty? Might the reverse be more likely, that those who take such great pains to enhance their appearance do so to hide their degenerate natures? 

Or does any relationship between the two exist?

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 11, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Whitsunday Walks

Enjoying the celebrations in Haworth,
Charlotte Bronte's hometown.

In her novel Shirley, Charlotte Bronte describes a village fete. This celebration, held on the week following Whitsunday, or what we celebrate as Pentecost in the United States, involved the clergy, Sunday School teachers, the children from nearby villages, and a community walk. As one of the Sunday School teachers, Caroline Helstone helps prepare the school rooms for the party. Inside will be seated one hundred-and-forty guests. In this case, these won't be the students, but the teachers, aids, and sponsors of the event. The adults will sit at their tables, enjoy food and drinks, and engage in lively discourse. Over their heads hang cages containing canaries, which will enhance the festivities by singing their delight. The students, drawn from the participating villages, will sit outside to enjoy their refreshments. Then, when the adults are ready, the clergy will begin the community walk.

As he wields the most authority, Caroline's uncle, Reverend Helstone, signals the commencement of the walk. Organized into troops overseen by Sunday School teachers and other adults, twelve hundred children take part in this organized walk. As Charlotte Bronte writes in Shirley:

It was a joyous scene, and a scene to do good. It was a day of happiness for rich and poor--the work, first of God, and then of the clergy. Let England's priests have their due. They are a faulty set in some respects, being only of common flesh and blood like us all; but the land would be badly off without them. Britain would miss her church, if that church fell. God save it! God also reform it!

In an article in the Manchester Evening News written by Yakub Qureshi, Manchester canon Jim Burns states that the churches organized started these fetes and walks to keep the children from indulging in gambling and drinking on their holiday. Interestingly, Burns only describes one type of occupation for the children: working in a mill. In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, Robert Moore, the man Caroline Helstone loves and admires, operates the local textile mill. His investments in automation have put a great many adults out of work. 

Having nearly read halfway through Shirley, I've not yet seen Charlotte Bronte mention that Moore employs children at his mill. But if he did, according to Church of England canon Jim Burns, they would have worked long, hard days, far longer than the average eight hour day most adults work. Thus, on their lone day off, they get a little party, and a walk through the countryside.

Charlotte Bronte grew up in a parsonage. Yet for the most part, the rectors and curates in Shirley come off as self-important figureheads hungry for money and power, who are only to happy to regard women as second class citizens. The fact that her father was a priest didn't blind Charlotte Bronte to her church's faults. But, while highlighting her church's myriad imperfections, she also portrayed the positive role it played in the community. 

As in Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, churches in the English city of Manchester still organize these historic Whitsunday walks to remind residents of their heritage, and the role the church plays in their lives. You can read an article on last year's festivities, and see photographs from the event, by clicking on the link below. The second link offers a great look back at the importance of this historic day for the Manchester community, accompanied by old B&W photographs.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Manchester Evening News: 2015 Whitsunday Walk
Historic Whitsunday Celebrations in Manchester

Friday, April 8, 2016

Charlotte Bronte & Gardening

The garden of the Bronte Museum
Haworth, England

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, the modernization of Robert Moore's textile mill puts many men out of work. One worker, who has a large family to support, eventually turns to gardening. One of the places he works is at the vicarage. There, in Caroline Helstone, he finds someone who guides him into his new trade. Together, the two discuss what types of plants should be planted where and when to create a beautiful garden.

My wife enjoys gardening. So over the years, we've created lots of flower beds. In fact, given California's frequent water shortages, we've given up altogether on having a lawn. While I've helped in the planning and creation of those beds, I've usually left the selection, planting, and maintenance of those beds to her. In the last few years, the demands of work, a succession of neighbors who let their children yell, scream, shriek, and shout when they play, and numerous competing interests, have detracted from my wife's love of gardening. So this year, I've decided to help out a little, a few hours each week, when I can.

I don't enjoy spending hours on my knees or butt. Still, weeding provides a certain amount of satisfaction. When I clear a bed of unwanted plants, I can better appreciate the plants we actually want in the beds. I've also been able to take my animal aggressions on truly tenacious (Or dare I say obnoxious) plants. One of the latter was an asparagus fern. In dealing with the latter, I emulated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by using an axe to dig out a shrub-worthy root system. 

Interesting that I would invoke a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, whom I've never read. But then, he's another author who likes the classics. His most popular creation was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I wonder if he'll ever get around to mashing-up a novel by the Bronte sisters?

Then again, perhaps I shouldn't give him any ideas...

A beautiful flower from the Bronte Museum garden.
(Sorry, I don't know the name of this one).

One day, while cutting all the dead fronds from a Watsonia, I pulled a little too hard, and the bulbs came up in my hand. Thankfully, my wife inspected them that night, and told me that the bulbs naturally die after awhile, and these particular ones had reached their expiration date.

Watsonia? Could that be a sign of my wife's love for Sherlock Holmes stories? I'll have to ask her about that.

Many English people take great pride in their gardens. Then again, so do many Americans. Our gardens may never resemble those in England, as we don't receive similar amounts of rain. Nor do we experience the same temperature range. Still, it'd be nice to create a garden as beautiful as that in the Bronte Museum in Haworth. After all, part of my love of England stems from the island's natural beauty. 

At least it's a challenge, and a way for me to grow.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Charlotte Bronte & the Jew Basket

The sign outside the Bronte museum
in Haworth, England

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, Caroline Helstone receives some female visitors. When it comes time for tea,

Caroline had to usher them upstairs, to help them to unshawl, smooth their hair, and make themselves smart; to reconduct them to the drawing-room, to distribute amongst them books of engravings, or odd things purchased from the Jew-basket. She was obliged to be a purchaser, though she was a slack contributor.

Charlotte Bronte describes this Jew-basket as:

A monster collection of pincushions, needlebooks, cardracks, workbags, articles of infant wear, etc., etc., etc., made by the willing or reluctant hands of the Christian ladies of a parish, and sold perforce to the heathenish gentlemen thereof, at prices unblushingly exorbitant. 

So, the women of the village make craft items, and contribute these to the Jew-basket. The basket then gets handed off to women in the village. Some eagerly await its coming. Others dread its arrival. But when it comes your time to take charge of the Jew-basket, you have only one option: sell, sell, sell!

So, what was the money used for?

The proceeds of such compulsory sales are applied to the conversion of the Jews, the seeking out of the ten missing tribes, or to the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe. 

It's hard to really know how to interpret that last sentence. It would be easy, in today's politically correct society, to cast that sentence in a negative context. But, as a nonJewish, nonEnglish Christian male, the aims of the Jew-basket society seem fairly positive. 

The good women of England wish to help fund a ministry to preach the Gospel to the Jews.

I particularly like the second portion of their stated purpose: "the seeking out of the ten missing tribes." The biblical books of Kings 1 & 2 tell of the split of ancient Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. Unlike the southern kingdom, the northern kingdom was not only conquered, but its inhabitants dispersed. Many were no doubt forced to intermarry with nonJews. Over time, their heritage was lost. So an effort to seek out the descendants of these missing tribes seems a noble goal.

I don't know if there ever was such a Jewish Ministry society in England. Perhaps Charlotte Bronte was merely satirizing a common fundraising practice. But I'd be interested to learn if a group of nineteenth century English Christians actually raised funds for such a purpose, and if they were successful in helping the descendants of the northern kingdom reclaim their Jewish heritage. Wouldn't you?

Dragon Dave 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Charlotte Bronte & The Jews

A short wander outside Haworth

‘You have no binding engagement at home perhaps, Caroline?’ (Robert Moore asks).
‘I never have: some children’s socks, which Mrs Ramsden has ordered, to knit for the Jews’ basket; but they will keep.’
‘Jew’s basket be — sold! Never was utensil better named. Anything more Jewish than it — its contents, and their prices — cannot be conceived."

Curiosity over what Charlotte Bronte was referring to in her novel Shirley led me to a post of The Jewish Quarterly, written by professional author Tamar Yellin. In her article, Ms. Yellin explains that she became aware of the Bronte sisters' fiction at the tender age of ten. During her teens she read very little that was not written by members of this famous, literary family. And yet, she is Jewish, and every time Charlotte, or another family member references the Jews, they do so in a negative context.

So great was her love for the Bronte family's stories that she grew up dreaming of being a Bronte. She wrote fiction inspired by the Brontes. When she reached adulthood, she moved to a small village near Haworth, in an area of England she affectionately labels Bronteland. There she could live out her lifelong dream of wandering through the hills and valleys, and woods and moors, where Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Bronte once strolled.

And yet, every time Charlotte, or one of the sisters wrote something negative about the Jews, it hurt her.

The best stories aren't merely inoffensive pleasure-reading. They're meant to hurt, and bring us pain. Why? Because when we are in pain, that helps us glimpse the truth. Pain helps us see the world, and our place in it, all that more clearly. Pain helps define us, challenges us, and hopefully, makes us better people. 

Many people would have noticed these anti-Jewish remarks, labeled the book offensive, and never picked up another Bronte book. Some might have organized Bronte book-burnings. Others might have become critics, and written scathing reviews of the Bronte sisters' stories and poetry. Tamar Yellin chose to find something meaningful and positive in the Brontes' writings. She chose to look past the little she did not like, and embrace the riches beneath the occasional slur. She channeled the Brontes' work to mold herself into a stronger, better, more fulfilled person.

That's tolerance. That's love. That's...


Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Tamar Yellin in The Jewish Quarterly