Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë: the French, Branwell, and Ruth

A few nights ago I read about Charlotte's depressing second stay in Brussels, and puzzled over this description:
The grandes vacances began soon after the date of this letter, when she was left in the great deserted pensionnat, with only one teacher for a companion. This teacher, a Frenchwoman, had always been uncongenial to her; but, left to each other's sole companionship, Charlotte soon discovered that her associate was more profligate, more steeped in a kind of cold, systematic sensuality, than she had before imagined it possible for a human being to be; and her whole nature revolted from this woman's society.

I just couldn't wrap my mind around how Gaskell was describing this other teacher. "Cold, systematic sensuality" seems such a contradiction in terms. I leapt to the conclusion that Gaskell was employing a euphemism, but after thinking about it a little more I think Charlotte and Gaskell were only guilty of not liking the French. I now imagine this “cold, systematic sensual woman” to be something akin to Madame Hermonville from A&E’s A Year in Provence.

With regards to Gaskell’s treatment of Branwell’s affair with Mrs. Robinson (btw, The Graduate sprung to mind when I read the name of the older woman, so I got to Googling and found this bit: Mrs. Robinson and The Graduate), at first I thought she was surprisingly frank for a Victorian but then I remembered Ruth. Thinking about the story of Ruth made this statement all the more poignant: The case presents the reverse of the usual features; the man became the victim; the man’s life was tailed by guilt; the man’s family were stung by keenest shame.

Gaskell in Ruth and in her account of Branwell chronicled the powerful over the powerless—Branwell may have been the man, but Mrs. Robinson held all the power in this relationship, and she treated Branwell in Gaskell’s story even worse than Bellingham treated Ruth. The difference is that Ruth was ultimately saved—she was taught to be strong and given space in which to redeem herself. Brandon never was. Perhaps a man would not have been given the same second chance that Ruth was given via the birth of her son and the home that the Bensons provided.

In a letter to Miss Wooler, her former teacher and friend, from the time of Branwell’s descent into self-destruction, Charlotte writes:
You ask me if I do not think that men are strange beings? I do, indeed. I have often thought so; and I think, too, that the mode of bringing them up is strange: they are not sufficiently guarded from temptation. Girls are protected as if they were something very frail or silly indeed, while boys are turned loose on the world as if they, of all beings in existence, were the wisest and least liable to be led astray.

I think we all know that boys are not the wisest and least liable to be led astray, and I can’t say that I agree that guarding youth from temptation necessarily teaches them to resist it, but Charlotte might have a point in that girls and boys should both be taught to resist temptation. One sex is not necessarily "weaker" than the other.

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