Illegible minds: Charlotte Bronte's early writings and the psychology of moral management in Jane Eyre and Villette.
The children of the Bronte household, in addition to writing numerous, fantastic stories and poems, were quite familiar with current theoretical discourse. (4) As Sally Shuttleworth successfully shows in her book Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology (1996), this discourse was accessible to them through a variety of mediums. Patrick Bronte, Bronte's father, fastidiously implemented Thomas John Graham's Modern Domestic Medicine (1827) into the daily ritual and fabric of the Haworth household. Shuttleworth describes how Graham's work "held the place of secular Bible" for Bronte's father, and
[v]irtually every page of this work has been annotated by the Reverend Bronte, offering a moving testimonial to the rigid regimen which governed the life of the household. Patrick records not only his family's physical ailments and the remedies employed, but also his preoccupation with the threat of nervous disease and insanity. (10-11)
In addition to the family's knowledge of the Graham text and their subscription to Blackwood's Magazine, the family also utilized the library holdings of the Keighly Mechanics' Institute, which was "primarily devoted to the natural sciences and philosophy" (Shuttleworth 26). (5) Phrenology manuals and guides for self-improvement lined the library shelves alongside works on electricity as well as the psychological work of the French physician, Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol, who wrote extensively on insanity. According to Shuttleworth, "lectures at the institute seem to have followed [this] common pattern: exhortations to self-development alternated with more practical lectures on magnetism and geology" (26). From the hallowed place of Graham's text in her household to the library's various holdings and lectures, Bronte would undoubtedly have been aware of the growing popularity and implementation of moral management and phrenology as well as many other aspects of faculty psychology, particularly the close correlation between the imagination and insanity. Yet Bronte's intimate familiarity with these psychological topics and theories did not mean that she indiscriminately adopted their premises. Rather Bronte's early writings--her journals, letters, and her unpublished poetry--in conjunction with her novels attest to her struggle with traditional faculty psychology: her critique of phrenology as a device of power and her intense preoccupation with the punitive nature of moral management.
Both phrenology and moral management were bound up with the nineteenth-century theory of faculty psychology. Faculty psychology defined the mind as a site of competing faculties or organs, each of which corresponded to a different mental state. Phrenology, prevalent in early to mid-nineteenth-century England, hinged upon the theory of physically legible opposing faculties and was established by the Austrian Franz Joseph Gall in the 1790s. Dividing the skull into various, competing organs meant that the "brains of people with different personalities took on different shapes and sizes because the exercise of particular mental powers altered the physical organ and its form" (Reed 28).
Popularizing phrenology in England during the early 1820s, George Combe combined the increasingly popular tenets of moral management with phrenology, claiming that one could experience moral improvement through the exercise and development of particular faculties. (6) Self-control was, of course, tantamount to the development of one set of faculties over the other. Since phrenology was a "conception of the mind [that] was based, like contemporary models of the economy, on the idea of fiercely competing energies" (Shuttleworth 62), only self-control enabled the exercise of the morally superior faculties over their degenerative opposites, thus the practice of moral management is implicit to all forms of faculty psychology. (7)
Rather than a precise medical procedure, moral management stemmed from a widespread perception that emphasized the morality and rationality inherent within the insane. (8) By the mid-1830s, many psychologists had implemented moral management in their medical practices to treat individuals afflicted with various forms of mental illness. Once used solely in the insane asylum, moral management evolved into a mindset that undergirded much of Victorian life, including individual conduct. We see this in the works of nineteenth-century psychologists such as Robert MacNish, John Abercrombie, James Prichard, and Forbes Winslow, among several others. (9) Moral management depended upon the legibility of the psyche to the self as well as to the medical gaze of the psychologist, transforming the self into a conflicted site of psychologist and patient.
Both phrenology and moral management presented the mindscape as one in which interiority could not be hidden. The decipherability of the inner self through outward physical properties constituted a large part of the appeal of phrenology. The cranial divisions of amativeness or individuality or destructiveness were fully legible to the perceptive and skilled phrenological reader, but more significantly, becoming such a skilled reader was not a difficult achievement. The specialized knowledge and language of phrenology was readily available to the intellectual layman and common reader through publications like Combe's and the many hundreds of phrenological handbooks also published during this time; basically anyone able enough to read could become a competent interpreter of the brain and moral condition of anyone else.
Bronte's work grappled with the theories of phrenology and moral management. In particular, she resisted the aspect of these theories that established a necessary relation between interior visibility or legibility and self-regulation. During the early to mid-nineteenth century, the majority of psychologists commonly associated any state of imaginative withdrawal, such as daydream, reverie, trance, and fiction reading, with a lack of inner regulation and moral weakness, even with immorality, because these states consistently interfered with and obstructed duty and proper conduct. (10) Psychologists accentuated consciousness, will, and self-control as a bulwark against the self-loss intrinsic to these ecstatic states, which occurred as singular, unarticulated mental events, and could not be read in the ways prescribed by the theories of faculty psychology. Physiological psychologists provided descriptions and explanations of the outward manifestations and probable causes of various imaginative states, but they had no access to the particulars. Ecstatic states could have no credibility in a system of decipherable and controllable interiority. But the various stages of Bronte's writing, including her novels, are permeated with a continual fall into such illegible ecstatic states.
For instance, at the age of nineteen, as a teacher at Roe Head, Bronte describes her secret imaginative sojourns as delicious luxuries occurring in solitary shadows far from the gaze and demands of her students and the other teachers: "[t]he Ladies went into the school-room to do their exercises and I crept up in to the bed-room to be alone for the first time that day. Delicious was the sensation I experienced as I laid down on the spare-bed and resigned myself to the Luxury of twilight and Solitude" (qtd. in Barker 236). Bronte was constantly torn between her mundane and hated duties as a teacher and her overwhelming desire to escape into the alternate realities of her fantasies. (11) Her journal from Roe Head describes one of these imaginative reveries:
Never shall I Charlotte Bronte forget what a voice of wild and wailing music now came thrillingly to my mind's almost to my body's ear or how distinctly I saw sitting in the schoolroom at Roe Head the Duke of Zamorna...the moonlight so mild and so exquisitely tranquil sleeping upon that vast and vacant road... I was quite gone I had really utterly forgot where I was and all the gloom and cheerlessness of my situation [and] I felt myself breathing quick and short. (12)
The wild, thrilling nature of Bronte's illusion removes her from the grueling reality of the schoolroom and relocates her in a heightened imaginative state. Despite the ecstatic nature of being "quite gone," Bronte experiences a multi-sensory, multi-layered corporeal vision. The corporeality of the vision exists both on the level of the dream's narrative--the Duke sitting in the schoolroom--and on the level of her bodily experience. What begins as an almost auditory "wild and wailing music" within her mind translates into labored, excited breathing. Her imagination converts the schoolroom into a highly fantastic space in which even the Duke's horse is grazing among the heather growing within it, and the moon is shining on a "vast and vacant road" that extends out of the transformed present into the realm of unknown, phantasmatic space. Bronte's journals and letters attest to how intrinsically these recurring ecstatic states constituted her imaginative life and how inextricably they were bound up with her writing. But Bronte's waking dreams were continually interrupted and obstructed by her students and the fellow teachers at Roe Head. Her visions were contingent upon a doubled withdrawal: her physical withdrawal from others--the vast and vacant road--as well as her mental withdrawal from her tedious, external reality.
Deflating the primacy of phrenology and exposing Bronte's struggle with moral management opens up the uniquely constructed mindscape of Bronte's novels. She not only confronts and undercuts the prevailing psychological hierarchies, but she also reimagines the traditional underpinnings of faculty psychology as she inverts its established trajectory. The illegibility associated with the depiction of ecstatic states in Bronte's novels offers the reader what Bronte herself so ardently desired--delicious "twilight and solitude"--and what the practices of popular psychology prohibited--a potentially limitless imaginative space.
Apparent in her letters as well as in her fictional writings, Bronte not only took up the role of psychologist herself, but she also resisted and revised accepted psychological frameworks. Jane Eyre presents the various conflicts surrounding ecstatic states: the conflict aroused by their illegibility to others, as well as the conflict over their attempted regulation and prevention. The narrative of Villette develops the significance of illegibility, exploring the natural progression of the various psychological implications intimated in Jane Eyre. Villette fully submerges itself into these conflicts and works to resolve them by presenting illegibility as a more fully developed psychological alternative. Both novels together illustrate Bronte's ongoing quest for a psychological paradigm that would incorporate rather than discipline ecstatic states, illustrating how illegibility upholds the necessary intersection of potentiality and actuality instead of being a problematic site of imaginative excess.
"To master oneself with a tyrant's grip": The Heger Letters and Bronte's Poetry
In her letters during 1845, we see Bronte's struggle with the unyielding, untenable binaries put forth by faculty psychology within the context of her need to morally manage her unrequited love. The letters she writes to her previous instructor Monsieur Heger, the master of the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, provide a context that opens up our understanding of the same types of struggles present within her novels. Both Bronte and her sister Emily were students at the Pensionnat Heger from 1842-1844, and Heger was "possibly the greatest single influence on Charlotte, both as a person and as a writer" (Barker 412). But the exact nature of Bronte's relationship with Heger has eluded and fascinated Bronte scholars for more than a century. (13) Heger is one of the few who recognized and cultivated Bronte's intellect. Bronte's high regard for Heger appears to have transformed into "an unhealthy and obsessive dependency on [him] for every expression of approval" (Barker 419). On leaving Brussels, her passionate admiration and dependency seems to transform into an ardent longing and unreturned desire for correspondence. The loss of Heger's presence and his long silences send Bronte hurtling into dark places of passionate mental anguish. Her letters often echo the disciplinary language of moral management, dramatizing the struggle between her passionate, ecstatic, and sometimes morbid imagination and her reason and self-control:
when one wants to master oneself with a tyrant's grip--one's faculties rise in revolt--and one pays for outward calm by an almost unbearable inner struggle. Day and night I find neither rest nor peace--if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me....You will say that I am over-excited--that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur. (Letters I 380)
Bronte attempts to master herself and her desire for Heger with a "tyrant's grip," but she admits that her outward appearance of a calmly managed self only covers over her "unbearable inner struggle." She seems to be aware that the revolt of her faculties against the rule of reason indicates that there is something problematic in the punitive nature of her attempt. As John Maynard writes in Charlotte Bronte and Sexuality, "[w]hen one dominates oneself 'en tyran' the faculties revolt.... The entire process leads, she realizes, to the appearance of derangement or minor insanity" (24).
In laying bare her struggle to Heger's gaze, she anticipates his response; he will respond as a psychologist would respond--that she is over-excited and having black thoughts. As she sees it, making her interiority legible to others, including Heger, invites indifferent and contemptuous diagnoses: "there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it [the letter]--'she is raving'--My sole revenge is to wish these people--a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months--then we should see whether they wouldn't be raving too" (Letters I 381). The issue of her mind's visibility, even to Heger, haunts Bronte, and she finds that the legibility associated with moral management actually promotes a continually divided, dichotomous self, which can never be free from the omnipresent, omniscient medical gaze or the necessity of vigilant, indiscriminate self-regulation. By trying to supplant the tyranny of her desire with the tyranny of reason, Bronte traps herself in an ultimately unproductive conflict in which she has become the "slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one's mind" (Letters I 437). The passage reveals that she has divided herself into the either/or paradigm characteristic of moral management: either she is the slave to her morbid thoughts or she is the tyrant in mastery over her thoughts. Either way she is caught in harsh, oppressive binaries.
Bronte's unpublished poem "Reason," dated around 1845, dramatically performs a similar struggle apparent in her letters to Heger. The poem depicts her attempt to enthrone Reason as the rightful tyrant of her mind and her perverse unwillingness to do so.(14)"Reason" is believed to have been written in response to her conflict and despair over Heger, but, in addition, it illustrates the beginnings of a significant shift in her views concerning the tenets of popular psychology and their reliance upon self-control.
Come Reason--Science--Learning--Thought--To you my heart I dedicate; I have a faithful subject brought: Faithful because most desolate. Fear not a wandering, feeble mind: Stern Sovereign, it is all your own To crush, to cheer, to loose to bind: Unclaimed, unshared, it seeks your throne. ("Reason" 21-28)
Bronte assures her "Stern Sovereign," Reason, that he should not fear her "wandering, feeble mind" because "it is all your own." Despite her declaration that her offering is an unclaimed, unshared, and thus "faithful subject," her admission that she offers "a wandering, feeble mind" immediately undermines it. A wandering mind cannot be a faithful subject--it is insubordinate and certainly not unshared--just as a feeble mind is a weak and sickly, perhaps even offensive sacrificial offering. Defiantly, she views the so-called weakness of her mind as paradoxically a strength. She writes that "the fire" of her "spirit's trampled yearning," "[t]hough smothered, slacked, repelled" burns "stronger, higher" than her obedience to the stern, disapproving god ("Reason" 33-34, 36).
Bronte further undercuts Reason's mastery by ending the poem in uncertainty, invoking an undefined future state instead of a state of submission. She writes, "doubt not I shall be strong tomorrow. / Have I not fled that I may conquer / Crost the dark sea in firmest faith / That I at last might plant my anchor" (41-43). Her imperative "doubt not" achieves the opposite, suggesting doubt, especially in the context of a wandering mind. The "may" and the "might" also undercut any of her claims. Bronte refuses to end the poem with her obedience and chooses the illegibility of an open-ended question instead. This refusal expresses her own doubt about the efficacy of a single master-tyrant, even if that tyrant is reason, and her quest for some other paradigm, a paradigm marked by obscurity, by which to negotiate rather than eradicate "the flame / I still feel inly, deeply burn" ("Reason" 10). Bronte does not depict Reason as firmly enthroned, sitting in judgment over waking dreams and passions, but she envisions instead a dark sea, an illegible, even turbulent, space in which the ebb and flow of thought would be imperceptible to the outside observer. The obscured ending of "Reason" also offers this space to the reader. Bronte leaves the reader in a state of limitless dreaming, fleeing and crossing the black sea along with her into the unknown. This concept of illegibility unravels as it blurs the rigid divisions inherent within traditional moral management, the same divisions that had caused Bronte so much personal inner turmoil and that undergirded phrenology. Illegibility would become the cornerstone for Bronte's psychological theory, developing most obviously within the framework of her novels, opening up for herself as well as for her reader access to the infinite possibility of re-creation in open, undecidable space.
"A trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself": Jane Eyre
Within the first few pages of Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, she unapologetically submerges her reader into various ecstatic states, such as waking dreams, unrestrained passion, and madness. These unruly moments in the novel are often understood as Bronte's own acknowledgment and attempt to control the dangers found in an unregulated and excessive imagination, a struggle intimately familiar to her.(15) I intend to show how Bronte's Jane Eyre illustrates a troubling power dynamic intrinsic to the established principles of moral management and phrenology and the incompatibility of these tenets with states of imaginative illegibility.
As the novel opens, Jane is in the midst of retreating from her obnoxious cousins, the Reeds, into the scarlet confines of a window-seat within which she is "shrined in double retirement" (8). Her "double retirement" is her double-layered invisibility from the Reeds: the red curtained window-seat and within that, the book: Bewick's History of British Birds. Jane's absorbed perusal of Bewick in the window-seat positions her in an obscured, imaginative in-between space that resembles her hidden, physical position between the scarlet curtain and the window. Her mind, like her body, moves between Bewick's dreary, cold landscapes and her own highly intense imaginings. Jane retrospectively explains the activity of her mind: "Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own; shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive" (8). Both the words and the pictures produce singular fancies in Jane's mind. Like the young Bronte dreaming in twilight and solitude, Jane's withdrawal in the window seat resembles the same imaginative practice. While Jane is not "reading" in the traditional sense, her mind is representative of the ecstatic possibilities that Bronte envisions within the act of reading.(16) "Each picture told a story," she says, "mysterious often to my undeveloped mind and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting" (9). Bronte does not give the reader access to Jane's stories, but her use of "mysterious" and "profoundly interesting" arouses the reader's interest just as the "strangely impressive" images arouse Jane's, creating the doubled, simultaneous states of Jane's and the reader's concealed waking dreams. Lost in the stories of her own making and "[w]ith Bewick on my knee, I was then happy...I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon" (9).
John Reed's cruel, malignant interruption and violent punishment sets up and reflects the punitive response ecstatic states often incited in the medical community. When John Reed throws Bewick's Birds at Jane's head, he punishes Jane for her solitary pleasure, transforming Jane's impetus toward absorbed happiness into one of pain and retribution. Psychologists often situated ecstatic states on a continuum with insanity; thus they were in effect throwing Jane's book back at her head--transforming the source of an illegible, ungovernable pleasure into a punishment.
John's attempt to discipline Jane has the opposite effect. Instead of controlling Jane, he turns Jane into the typical patient envisioned by moral managers. His vicious attack incites Jane's mania, showing how Bronte sets up Jane's struggle with John to act out the internal struggle that traditional moral management produces. Translating Jean-Etienne Esquirol's description of the maniac, the psychologist James Cowles Prichard writes:
[E]verything irritates them, distracts them, and excites their aversion. In constant opposition to all that surrounds them, they soon persuade themselves that persons are combined to injure them...the regimen and prohibitions which are called for by their situation, and to which their attendants wish to subject them, appear to them cruel persecutions...the heart of the insane cherishes no feeling but mistrust...he is troubled as soon as anyone approaches him. (282)
Like Esquirol's maniac, Jane finds herself in opposition to the Reed household, particularly John. She distrusts him; he irritates and cruelly persecutes her, exciting her anger, fear, and hatred. And Jane does not disappoint the outside observer: "my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded...I felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering: these sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort. I don't very well know what I did with my hands" (11). Obviously not conscious of her physical violence towards John, Jane is caught up in overwhelming sensations that displace her conscious self. She acts devoid of reason or will, retrospectively saying as much herself: "I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself" (12).
Prichard claims that under such strong excitement, the maniac "during paroxysms of raving madness, require[s] personal coercion and even strict confinement of body and limbs...[this] abstracts them from the morbid impressions and associations which may have excited and fostered their mental disease" (279). Interpreting Jane's response and envisioning her as just such a maniac, the Reed household acts out Prichard's treatment--locking Jane in the red room--but this imprisonment only creates further mania rather than preventing it.
The confinement that the Reeds enact is an externalized, obligatory form of corporeal self-regulation. It is dependent upon the supposed legibility of Jane's mind, and it changes Jane's daydreams in the window-seat into involuntary nightmare and mania: "my heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down--I uttered a wild, involuntary cry" (17). Jane's "wild, involuntary cry" in the red room substantiates the household's already-held belief in her madness, particularly Miss Abbot's and Mrs. Reed's. Miss Abbot has long looked "darkly and doubtfully on my face, as incredulous of my sanity," just as Mrs. Reed "looked on me as a compound of virulent passions, mean spirit, and dangerous duplicity" (12, 18). The typical psychological position, which the Reed household represents, is the overwhelming need for legibility when these states occur. When John Reed finds Jane in the window seat, he interrogates her, demanding to know "[w]hat you [were] doing behind the curtain" (8). The immediate reaction of the household when Jane attacks John is to name her response--"she's like a mad cat"--and to punish it--"take her away to the red room and lock her in there" (11, 12). The unruly appearance of Jane's mental states incites fear, so interpreting her interiority provides a semblance of control and assuages that fear.
That Bronte would associate the diagnosis of madness with the Reeds undermines its reliability for the reader, since the reader, located in tandem with Jane, is already positioned in opposition to them. Jane's own description of these terrifying moments refuses a legible explanation and the suggestion of madness: "I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene" (18). Even retrospectively, Jane rejects any kind of self-diagnosis, preferring to leave the moment in the darkness of illegibility. Her refusal to grant legibility even to the reader--"I don't very well know what I did with my hands," "I suppose I had a species of fit"--parallels Jane's own experience. The reader, like Jane, is left to "suppose" what has happened.
Like the Reeds, Rochester also desires full legibility and control but for different reasons. For Rochester, the legibility of others empowers him to more effectively spin his fantasies, facades, and delusions in order to evade reality and conceal his secret: his mad wife Bertha concealed in the third-floor attic of Thornfield. He readily uses the language of phrenology and moral management as his principal means of interrogation and control. The power and knowledge that underlie both techniques seemingly provide the perfect means for Rochester to achieve his clandestine purposes.
Since a phrenological reading is believed to make the truth of a person's character readily available to the observer/reader, the initial head-reading scene between Jane and Rochester exposes and plays upon this common belief. Rochester expects Jane to be an able phrenological reader just as he assumes her to adopt the popular psychological viewpoint.'(7) But though Jane appears to conduct a phrenological reading of Rochester's head, Jane is more accurately a passive spectator to what Rochester himself induces and insinuates: "Criticize me: does my forehead not please you?" (131). Rochester lifts "up the sable waves of hair which lay horizontally over his brow, and showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs; but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen" (131). In a move that replicates the phrenologist conducting a reading, Rochester lifts up his hair so that Jane, who has only recently met him, can ascertain what lies beneath his hair. Jane, illustrating her awareness, but not necessarily her acceptance, of phrenology, notes that he appears to have a deficiency of benevolence.(18) In answering her subsequent and sardonic question, "whether you are a philanthropist," Jane narrates how Rochester points to "the prominences which are said to indicate" the faculty of conscientiousness, "which fortunately for him, were sufficiently conspicuous" (131). In this scene, Rochester uses phrenology to draw Jane out, but he also uses phrenology to control Jane's interpretation of his character by directing how she should know him. Jane's wry responses indicate her awareness of his schemes and suggest that her judgment of his character will not lie with his cranial composition. Jane mockingly dismisses the phrenological reading, remarking, "Decidedly, he has had too much wine" (132). (19)
The supposed truth-telling ability granted by phrenology provides the perfect guise for Rochester's duplicity, expressed in his gypsy costume and charade later on in the novel. Rochester, garbed as a gypsy, uses his already acquired knowledge of Jane to feign an objective phrenological reading of her skull.(20) Rochester lulls Jane into "a kind of dream. One unexpected sentence came from her [Rochester's] lips after another, till I got involved in a web of mystification; and wondered what unseen spirit had been sitting for weeks by my heart, watching its workings, and taking record of every pulse" (199). The initial part of Rochester's reading originates in his observations and interactions with her over the many weeks she has been his governess. His artifice undercuts the reliability of his reading as unequivocally accurate, or objective, or even as uncontested evidence of Bronte's psychological inclinations. Jane even initially warns the gypsy, "I have no faith" and, "I'm not silly," making Jane's skepticism for the gypsy's "art" immediately apparent (196). Jane also notices the gypsy's "feigned voice" and "her anxiety to conceal her features" (202-03). Jane almost immediately realizes that she is involved in some kind of masquerade, although she is unaware that Rochester hides beneath the costume. Jane's lines "Ah! now you are coming to reality...I shall begin to put some faith in you presently" should then be considered in tandem with Jane's awareness of the gypsy's pretense and her previous mockery (197).
Jane realizes that Rochester has "been trying to draw me out--or in: you have been talking nonsense to make me talk nonsense" (202-03). Shuttleworth notes that in this scene Rochester "enjoys free access to Jane's unprotected interiority" and the "gypsy's ventriloquizing of the 'speech' of Jane's forehead is set in dialogue with her inner self (171). The intention of Rochester's gypsy charade is to use the language of phrenology to discern and make legible Jane's interiority, "to penetrate and control the articulation of her psyche" (Shuttleworth 171). Jane's instinctive awareness of the masquerade and its underlying nonsense does associate the reading, and not simply Rochester's costume, with a charade that they have both performed. As Shuttleworth suggests, it is a charade with the quite serious intent of penetrating and managing Jane's inner self.
We see evidence of Bronte's alternative theory, which echoes the ending of her poem "Reason," in a letter that she writes to her publisher and friend George Smith several days after their joint visit to a phrenologist in 1851. As Mr. and Miss Fraser, the two masqueraded for the doctor as brother and sister, but after Bronte's initial flippant responses to both readings in letters to Smith, she writes a more serious reflection, which seems to stem from Smith's unhappy reaction to his own reading. Although we do not have Smith's correspondence to Bronte, Smith does remark in his memoir that he was not all that happy "with the estimate of his own head" (95).(21) Affirming the limitations of phrenology, she writes to Smith:
Whatever your present self may be--resolve with all your strength of resolution--never to degenerate thence--. Be jealous of a shadow of falling off. Determine rather to look above that standard and strive beyond it...if there were but facilities allowed for cultivation and space given for growth. It seems to me that even should such space and facilities be denied by stringent circumstances and a rigid Fate--still it should do you good fully to know and tenaciously to remember that you have such a capacity. (Letters II 664, emphasis mine)
In this passage, Bronte depicts a theory dependent upon what she calls facilities of growth rather than faculties in conflict. Her words to Smith demonstrate her desire to overturn the customary tenets undergirding phrenology and by extension faculty psychology. These tenets did not in fact possess potential for personal cultivation or growth, since faculty psychology proposes that the self is locked in fiercely competing forces and faculties, which prohibit such expansion. Bronte's awareness of this inherent fundamental contradiction prompts her reformulation of the idea of faculties as a psychological basis. Her use of the word "facilities" suggests an intrinsic freedom, opportunity, and capability for development and change. Her employment of the statement "whatever your present self may be" similarly refuses a fixed interior legibility. Here she is in fact expressing her own psychological terminology. (22) In her exhortation to Smith, Bronte illustrates her formulation of a moral theory that is not contingent upon a stringent mastery or upon a preformulated standard but one that is a striving beyond that standard, enabling the possibility of a transformation of the self. Villette, published two years after this letter, powerfully performs the theory apparent in her letter to Smith. Her reconfiguration allows for a significant re-reading of Lucy Snowe herself, one that frees Lucy from the limiting bonds of psychological maladies and sexual repression and makes the novel's enigmatic conclusion both possible and desirable.
"Let it be theirs": Villette
Villette has often been identified as a novel overtly concerned with the gaze, specularity, and surveillance.(23) The simultaneously spying/prying eyes of Madame Beck, Monsieur Paul, Dr. John, and even, at times, Lucy herself betray the novel's preoccupation with forms and methods of legibility. This legibility often seeks to access the interiority of another for the knowledge as well as the power that access brings. As Dames writes, "the technique of seeing...is a technique that promises mastery, and it promises mastery because it forcefully places limits on the psyche" (82). Yet phrenology is not the seat of this mastery in Villette, since of all Bronte's novels Villette is the least engaged with phrenology. Its minor role juxtaposed to the larger focus on moral management enables Bronte to expose how this kind of mastery and power is central to faculty psychology itself and not simply phrenology. As she combats the limits of legibility, Bronte highlights the psychological import and imaginative necessity of illegibility, which incorporates the free and invisible ebb and flow of conscious and unconscious states.
A ghostly, disturbing figure of a nun begins "haunting" Lucy shortly after her arrival as a teacher at the Rue Fossette. Lucy narrates the story of the nun's horrific death, marked by a tree within the school's garden, which stands above "the bones of a girl whom a monkish conclave of the drear middle ages had here buried alive, for some sin against her vow" (106). Despite its seeming allusion to the attempted murder of a pregnant nun in Matthew Lewis's gothic tale The Monk, in Bronte's text, the exact nature of the sin is much less significant than the fact the nun succumbed to feeling and abandoned her self-control. Her abandonment of self-control is so appalling that the monks have no choice but to entomb her. Paradoxically, the monks' act of burying the nun alive makes outwardly visible her secret sin.
Likewise, Dr. John believes the appearance of the nun to Lucy makes visible Lucy's hidden mental malady. The contemporaneous medical community is largely represented in the person of Dr. John. Shuttleworth writes, "Dr. John directs onto Lucy the gaze of medical authority, calmly confident of his ability to define inner experience from outer signs" (220). Dr. John tells Lucy that he does not look on her as a friend or relation, but "I look on you now from a professional point of view, and I read, perhaps all you would conceal--in your eye, which is curiously vivid and restless; in your cheek, which the blood has forsaken; in your hand, which you cannot steady" (Villette 248). As a true physician of faculty psychology and advocate of moral management, Dr. John assesses her external symptoms, which, in his mind, enable him to penetrate and know "all" that Lucy conceals. Her restless eye, her pale cheek, and her shaking hands lay bare Lucy's interiority, making her, he thinks, entirely legible to his gaze. Yet the progression of the novel and the development of Lucy contest Dr. John's valuation of externality, revealing how Lucy's self remains beyond his scrutinizing eye.
Despite Lucy's belief in a corporeal nun, Dr. John asserts that the repeated appearance of the nun "is all a matter of nerves...a case of spectral illusion: I fear following on and resulting from long-continued mental conflict" (249). According to Dr. John, Lucy's inability to fully manage her inner life has led to the visibility of her melancholy in the spectral illusion of the nun. The remedy is aligned with the tenets of moral management--"Happiness is the cure--a cheerful mind the preventive: cultivate both" (250). Dr. John cannot understand "why, Lucy, can't you look and feel as I do--buoyant, courageous and fit to defy all the nuns and flirts in Christendom?" (250). If Lucy were truly managing her mental states and her desires by cultivating happiness instead of melancholy, as Dr. John is able to do, then no nun would appear to her, and if a nun did appear, Lucy would snap her fingers and defy her.
The ghostly nun stands in stark contrast to the demonic, enigmatic Vashti. As Vashti takes the stage before a teeming, hushed multitude, Lucy is confronted with an inscrutable being, "neither of woman nor of man," in whom role and actress, fantasy and reality, spirit and substance are indistinguishable (257). Whereas the spectral nun supposedly exhibits the visibility of Lucy's melancholic interiority, the physical Vashti exhibits the very essence of impenetrability. During Vashti's performance, Lucy finds herself viscerally enthralled and lost in the mystery of Vashti. This figure provides Lucy an illegible space within which she is able to imagine a being whose regal face is a demonic mask portraying "Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate" (257). What is important is not whether Vashti is such a being but that Vashti enables such imaginative acts on the part of Lucy. Refusing to make a pronouncement on Vashti's character, "Vashti was not good, I was told; and I have said she did not look good" (259), Lucy leaves Vashti as an essentially open space. This openness enables Lucy to be consciously and bodily swept up into the imaginative current Vashti creates: "I had seen acting before, but never anything like this: never anything which astonished Hope and hushed Desire; which outstripped Impulse and paled Conception...[it] disclosed power like a deep, swollen, winter river, thundering in cataract and bearing the soul, like a leaf, on the steep and steely sweep of its descent" (259).
Lucy's opium-induced reverie during the midnight carnival invokes a response quite similar to Lucy's response to Vashti, but in this midnight reverie, Lucy finds herself even more powerfully captivated by the luminous power of Imagination. In the theater, Vashti is the center of Lucy's reverie, and despite Lucy's feelings of imaginative ecstasy, Lucy is not physically as well as mentally transported. The midnight reverie bathes Lucy in an electrifying golden light, through which Lucy "became alive to new thought--to reverie peculiar in coloring" (449). "Imagination was roused from her rest, and she came forth impetuous and venturous," luring Lucy out into "dew, coolness, and glory" (450). Imagination leads Lucy into a Villette of limitless possibility, a blaze of light, color, and life stranger than any dream. Instead of shunning the blazing, exuberant Villette, Lucy intertwines her self with the imaginative possibility of its vast illumination and power; she "mixed with the crowd where it was deepest. To be still was not in my power, nor quietly to observe. I took a revel of the scene; I drank the elastic night-air--the swell of sound, the dubious light, now flashing, now fading. As to Happiness or Hope, they and I had shaken hands...I scorned Despair" (454). In this moment, Lucy is doing exactly what Dr. John has urged her to do, but it is not the morally managed mind that empowers Lucy to scorn despair. Imagination, finally freed from her bonds by the opium, has led Lucy into her limitless, glorious temple.
Thus empowered, Lucy refuses Dr. John's insistent, oppressive eye when she happens upon him during the carnival: "he could not see my face, I held it down; surely, he could not recognize me; I stooped, I turned, I would not be known" (457). Without negating her heightened, ecstatic state, she is able to cloak herself in illegibility as if it were her hat and shawl. Extracting herself from his gaze, refusing his desire for knowledge and mastery, Lucy destabilizes the gaze that would know "all" that she might conceal: "[h]e might think, he might even believe that Lucy was contained within that shawl, and sheltered under that hat; he could never be certain, for he did not see my face" (457-58). In the same spirit, when Lucy destroys the nun costume, she destroys
the visibility of her malady, the physical representation of the specter hiding within her brain. Standing before the nun, Lucy does not scream; she is not overcome. "Late incidents," she states, have tempered her nerves, thus "warm from illuminations, and music, and thronging thousands, thoroughly lashed up by a new scourge, I defied spectra...I tore her up" (470). As Dr. John has advised, Lucy defies the nun, and taking her by the hand, Lucy tears her up. What enables Lucy's dominion over the nun is what previously enabled her triumph over Dr. John himself--the imagination. For Lucy "illuminations, and music, and [the] thronging thousands" of an enchanted Villette enable her to hold "her [the nun] on high--the goblin! I shook her loose--the mystery! And down she fell--down all around me--down in shreds and fragments--and I trode upon her" (470).
In Dr. John's view, in order to discipline unregulated mental states, moral management calls for the deliberate cultivation of happiness, which Dr. John defines as a regulated mental state free from the "wild and intense, dangerous, sudden, and flaming" (259). Lucy recoils at Dr. John's notion of cultivating happiness as if it were "a potato, to be planted in mould and tilled with manure," stating instead that "[h]appiness is a glory shining far down upon us....She is a divine dew" (250). Her description of happiness suggests her previous portrayal of Imagination, the divine angel who "descend[s] with quiet flight...bringing all around her a sphere of air borrowed of eternal summer" (230). This passage also anticipates the midnight carnival when Imagination descends upon Lucy in all her glory, stating "this night I will have my will" (450).
In constituting happiness as the imagination's embrace, Bronte reveals the intrinsic nature of the imagination to her conception of facilities of growth. In Villette Bronte designates facilities of growth as the intersection of potentiality and actuality. The open door leading to the midnight festival and a dynamic Villette entreats Lucy to enter. Lucy moves within a festival thronging with exquisite life and power, and yet for Lucy it is a vast and vacant road, one that finally allows her mentally and physically to expand into unrestricted space. In Lucy's early description of Imagination, Bronte aligns the imagination with this intersection: "A dwelling thou hast, too wide for walls, too high for dome--a temple whose floors are space--rites whose mysteries transpire in presence, to the kindling, the harmony of worlds" (230). The dwelling of the imagination is a temple, but a temple with ceiling, walls, and floors of space. Rather than limiting and disciplining the mind, the cultivation of the imagination allows for the convergence of potentiality and actuality. This convergence can both generate whole worlds and create harmonies between disparate worlds. This romantic imagery enables Bronte to articulate a psychological theory that defied the notion of legibility and devise a conceptual system absent from contemporaneous psychology.
The troubling conclusion of Villette is thoroughly in keeping with Bronte's critique of legibility and her preference for the imaginative convergence prohibited by faculty psychology. In the final pages of the novel, M. Paul is returning by ship to Lucy, and a storm ravages the Atlantic for a week's time:
Oh! a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered--not uttered till, when the hush came, some could not feel it: till when the sun returned, his light was night to some! Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life. (495-96)
In a conclusion hinting both sarcasm and quiet resignation, Lucy enigmatically and yet openly states, "Let it be theirs to conceive." The ambiguities within the statement itself vividly contrast a similar moment in the novel's opening. When narrating her early tragedy, Lucy similarly refuses to divulge details, but she states that she "will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass" (35, emphasis mine). The imperative in "I will permit" occurs in her subsequent command, "[p]icture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft" (35). Her use of sarcasm in these imperative statements highlights the impossibility of this reality, thus emphasizing that an opposing, troubling reality is undoubtedly the true one. Preferring to "[t]rouble no quiet, kind heart," Lucy replaces "I will permit the reader to picture me" with "Let it be theirs to conceive." Instead of filling in the contours of the reader's imaginative vision herself, eliding even the hint of another possibility, Lucy chooses to give the reader imaginative license suggested in both "leave sunny imaginations hope" and "let it be theirs." Even in her statement, "Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life," her repeated use of "let" still hands greater control over to the reader, a control absent in the novel's opening. Though the dreaded, unhappy reality is still present and perhaps the most likely one, Lucy's ending enables the reader to simultaneously entertain two contradictory realities--the reality of M. Paul's death and the reality of his enraptured reunion with Lucy. These two contradictory realities create uncertainty, inducing conjecture and an imaginative participation on the part of the reader--a space opening outward. The conclusion leaves the reader imagining the rapture of M. Paul's rescue and the happily-ever-after he will have with Lucy, while at the same time imagining Lucy's indescribable grief and her life as a teacher, filling a landscape of endless days with untold stories. This conclusion is made possible by Lucy's altered inclination for illegible, imaginative space--for herself as well as for her reader.
Viewing Bronte's novels through this paradigm of illegibility expands the multi-faceted and intricate nature of the psychological complexities found in her thinking. Bronte's calculated use of phrenology and moral management in her novels portrays these theories to be nothing more than empty costumes masquerading as decipherable truth. For Bronte we see that it is the unrelenting grip of cold rationality that transforms the ecstasy of the imagination into the ravings of a maniac.
(1.) Rick Rylance points out that faculty psychology is an inheritance from the eighteenth century's discourse on the soul. He claims that "[b]y the nineteenth century, it had become so central a feature in the conceptual scenery...[that it] is the orthodoxy, the 'common sense', the 'default position', the 'doxa' of the psychology of the age. It is the background that shapes and establishes the foreground when other theories arc under consideration" (27).
(2.) Critics have long associated the work of Charlotte Bronte with psychological theory. Sec Nicholas Dames, Nathan Elliott, and Sally Shuttleworth for current examples of phrenologically-based criticism. Sec John Maynard; Elaine Showalter; and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar for examples of Freudian-influenced psychological criticism. See Debra Gettelman for a discussion of the nineteenth-century implications of daydreaming. Sec the biographical work of Juliette Barker and Winnifrcd Gcrin, as well as the edition of Bronte's letters by Margaret Smith.
(3.) Caldwell also observes how "most critics of Bronte have assumed that, because she used phrenologic jargon, she quite soberly adopted phrenologic belief....But Bronte's personal and novelistic references to phrenology arc frequently jocular, pointing out that the very literalization that offered reassurance was absurdly inflexible" (109).
(4.) Bronte and her brother Branwell wrote stories about the mythic country of Angria, and Emily and Anne collaborated upon tales and poems of the fictional island Gondol.
(5.) For further details, sec Shuttleworth 19-33.
(6.) Combe helped establish the Edinburg Phrenological Society in 1820; he was influenced by Gall's student and follower, Johann Spurzheim, during the 1810s, and became an avid proponent of phrenology.
(7.) The status of phrenology as a legitimate medical practice and its place within the medical establishment was often contested and never wholly accepted by the medical community. For more on the history of phrenology in England, sec Reed; Elliott; Shuttleworth 57-70; Taylor and Shuttleworth 3-48; and Dames 80-102.
(8.) Moral management began with the York Retreat, established in 1792 by William Tuke to treat the insane in a Quaker community. Sec Scull's Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain 1700-1900, 96-103.
(9.) For the principal works of these psychologists see John Abererombie's Intellectual Powers and the Investigation of Truth; Jean Etienne Esquirol's Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity; Robert MacNish's The Philosophy of Sleep; James Prichard's A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind; and Forbes Winslow's On Obscure Diseases of the Brain, and Disorders of the Mind.
(10.) Patrick Bronte and the poet laureate, Robert Southey, to whom Bronte turned for encouragement, appear to have also held this view. Patrick opens his moral story "The Cottage in the Wood" (1816) with the following: "[t]he sensual novelist and his admirer, are beings of depraved appetites and sickly imaginations, who having learnt the art of self-tormenting, are diligently and zealously employed in creating an imaginary world, which they can never inhabit, only to make the real world, with which they must be necessarily conversant, gloomy and insupportable" (qtd. in Barker 243). In a return letter to Bronte, Southey states "there is a danger of which I would with all kindness & all earnestness warn you. The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind, & in proportion as all the 'ordinary uses of the world' seem to you 'flat & unprofitable' you will be unfitted for them" (Letters I 167-68).
(11.) Many of Bronte's fantasies during her time at Roe Head revolve around her desire to compose more of her and Branwell's Angrian narratives.
(12.) This passage comes from the entry, "All this day I have been in a dream," 11 August 1836, MS Bon 98, page 2, Bronte Parsonage Museum, qtd. in Barker 238-39.
(13.) On account of Bronte's estrangement from Madame Heger, there has been some suggestion of an adulterous affair between Bronte and Heger, but Elizabeth Gaskell attributes Bronte's estrangement from Madame Heger to a religious divide between Bronte's Protestantism and Madame Heger's Romanism. Sec Gaskell 194-96.
(14.) Sec Maynard 25. Also sec Gcrin 279-85.
(15.) Sec Dames; sec Gettelman; see Showalter; and see Shuttleworth for Bronte's struggle with the dangers of the imagination.
(16.) Gettelman calls this "punctuated reading," deriving the idea from Roland Barthes, who suggests that distracted reading is in fact a sign of the deepest engagement: "in a word, haven't you ever happened to read while looking up from your book" (qtd. 568).
(17.) Sec Elliott 43-46 for his claim that "Jane's initial phrenological encounter with Rochester is in keeping with the more generalized approach" of phrenology (46), though his does find Villette to show more disdain towards the accuracy of phrenology.
(18.) George Combe published Essays on Phrenology, which later became Systems of Phrenology, in 1819, a year possibly contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. This scene illustrates the popularity of phrenology for the intellectual layperson, which Combe's publication made possible.
(19.) Caldwell writes, "Jane's teasing irony is effective because Rochester's capacity for loving people is infinitely more complicated, unpredictable, alternately stingy and extravagant, than the presence or absence of a smooth, 'suave' sign could possibly communicate" (109).
(20.) The reading in this scene is more accurately a compilation of physiology. Bronte often uses these two interchangeably or in tandem. Physiology emphasizes the features of the face rather than the head.
(21.) In one of her first letters following the visit, Bronte writes: "I wanted a portrait and have now got one very much to 'my' mind. With the exception of that slight mistake between number and Music 'and the small vein of error which flows thence through the character'--it is a sort of miracle--like--like--as the very life itself' (Letters II 657-58). Critics often see the line "it is a sort of miracle--like--like--as the very life itself as proof of her belief in phrenology, missing both her initial mockery of the doctor's errors, which is present in this and other letters, and the ridiculous playfulness that generally marked her correspondence with Smith. See Gerin 473 and Smith's edition of Bronte's letters. Vol. II, xxviii, for a discussion of Bronte's frequently teasing and nonsensical correspondence with Smith.
(22.) As Elaine Showalter claims in The Female Malady (1985), "out of her [Bronte's] own 'buried life' and her own psychosomatic afflictions, she generated a symbolic lexicon that sometimes borrows from earlier conventions but always reinvests these conventions with authenticity, immediacy, and imaginative force" (66).
(23.) For discussions of Foucaultian surveillance, see Joseph Boone; also see D. A. Miller's seminal work The Novel and the Police (1988).
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Boone, Joseph. "Depolicing Villette: Surveillance, Invisibility, and the Female Erotics of the Heretic Narrative." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 26.1 (1992): 20-42.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
--.The Letters of Charlotte Bronte: with a selection of letters by family and friends. Ed. Margaret Smith. 2 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1995-2000.
--."Reason." The Poems of Charlotte Bronte and Patrick Branwell Bronte. Ed. Thomas James Wise. Oxford: Shakespeare Head, 1934. 239-40.
--.Villette. 1853. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Caldwell, Janis. Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
Elliott, Nathan. "Phrenology and the Visual Stereotype in Charlotte Bronte's Villette." Nineteenth Century Studies 22 (2008): 41-55.
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Gettelman, Debra. "'Making Out' Jane Eyre." ELH 74.3 (2007): 557-81.
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Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.
Kromm, Jane. "Visual Culture and Scopic Custom in Jane Eyre and Villette." Victorian Literature and Culture 26.2 (1998): 369-94.
Kucich, John. Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Charles Dickens. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 34-113.
MacNish, Robert. The Philosophy of Sleep. Glasgow: W. R. McPhun, 1830.
Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
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Scull, Andrew. The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain 1700-1900. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005.
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Smith, Elizabeth. George Smith: A Memoir, With Some Pages of Autobiography. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1902.
Taylor, Jenny Bourne, and Sally Shuttleworth, comp. and cd. Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts 1830-1890. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.
Wise, Thomas James. The Brontes: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence. Vol. 3 and 4. Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1980.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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