The Brontës beyond the Victorian Era: Intimacy, Distance, and the Boundaries of Modernism

MLA2017, Session 117

Thursday, 5 January

5:15–6:30 p.m., 105B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Presiding: Shawna Ross, Texas A&M Univ., College Station

  1. “Virginia Woolf’s Brontë Country: Modernist ‘Nature’ and Brontëan Ecologies,” Alicia J. Carroll, Auburn Univ., Auburn

  2. “The Brontës in Interwar Fiction: Bridging the Modernist and the Middlebrow,” Amber Pouliot, Univ. of Evansville

  3. “Making the Moors New: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes,” Amanda Golden, New York Inst. of Tech., Old Westbury


Academic histories of modernism typically rely on a familiar narrative in which modernists heroically reject Victorian aesthetics and morality. Though Marshall Berman’s classic, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, may acknowledge modernism’s nineteenth-century roots, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s foundational Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, for example, develop a language of “cosmic seisology” to dramatize a dramatic break between the two literary periods. Astradur Eysteinsson’s The Concept of Modernism depends on modernists’ resemblances to the postmodernists (rather than to the Victorians), while Rita Felski’s Gender of Modernism focuses on the cultural and historical contexts of modernist feminist writing, and Matei Calinescu’s Five Faces of Modernity pushes Victorian writing into the far distance through its constellation of simultaneously competing visions of modernism and modernity.

Ironically, though, these narratives of distance paradoxically rely on personal and intellectual intimacies that modernists projected onto the Victorians. Modernists from Virginia Woolf to May Sinclair, from D. H. Lawrence to Ted Hughes, from Jean Rhys to Stella Gibbon, produced a surprisingly deep archive of biography, travel writing, literary criticism, and fictional and poetic adaptations that used the Brontës to fashion their own authorial identities. In making pilgrimages, whether literal and literary, to Brontë country, modernists constructed narratives of intention that rendered the Victorians intimately accessible. In repetitively rewriting the Brontës, the avant-garde essentially shifted their affective politics back in time to construct a modernist aesthetic present. Like the theorists of modernism and modernity listed above, the avant-garde emphasized their distance from the Brontës. But in doing so, they never doubted their access to the Brontës—showing how modernist self-presentation depended as much on their intellectual, political, and emotional intimacies with Victorians as on their aesthetic distances.

Now that we have passed the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth in 2016, this projected panel proposes to reexamine these intimacies and distances. We argue that, in the twentieth century, the acts of revisiting, rejecting, and revising the Brontës were crucial for the development of modernism. They visited Haworth and the Parsonage, wrote travel narratives, biography, and fiction based on these journeys; they reread Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre to produce literary criticism that clarified modernist aesthetics by comparing their work to the Brontës’; and in doing both, they redefined the boundaries between modernism and the Victorian period, between material presence and ephemeral nostalgia, highbrow and lowbrow literature, between city and country, and men and women (by examining the familial and sexual politics of gender). This panel thus traces the flowering of early high modernism before World War I, which rejected the Brontës while paradoxically invoking nostalgia for the Brontës and their Yorkshire moors, to the emergence of competing models of authorship of the interwar period (particularly through the “middlebrow” writing that identified with the Brontës), and from there explores the period of late modernism, which thematized, and thereby partially reconciled, these two earlier positions.


Alicia Carroll, “Virginia Woolf’s Brontë Country: Modernist ‘Nature’ and Brontëan Ecologies”

In her early essay “Haworth, November 1904,” Virginia Woolf, the proto-modernist, carefully creates her own modernity through her distance – emotional and physical – from “Brontë country.” “I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys,” she writes. “The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.” Throughout the brief essay, Woolf marks her distance from “Brontë country” through arch comments on its materiality, its intimacy with “undulating,” snowy moors, and the quaintness of its objects. In addition to Charlotte’s tiny shoes, for example, “One other object gives a thrill; the little oak stool which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think what was probably better than her writing.”

From this essay forward, even in her maturity when her appreciation of Emily Brontë was fully developed, Woolf places the Victorian writer’s work at a developmental stage that she has surpassed. She writes much later that for the woman reader “Emily Brontë was the passion of her youth.” Brontë country, then, is a time as well as a place, primitivized, linked with both materiality and “nature,” Emily’s “moorland tramps,” the elements, and the wildflowers the author picked behind the parsonage. By the time she wrote Orlando, Woolf was to represent the entire Victorian period itself as one oppressive organic materiality expressed in a smothering, creeping vine. Her parody of Victorian “natures” follows T.S. Eliot’s shocking opening line of “The Wasteland” and its devastating reversal of the cultural work of “bloom.” In this way, modernists dismantled Victorian ecologies, parodying the period’s representations of “nature,” its gendered language of flowers and corresponding stable gender roles, the idea of the nation as a garden, and the discourses of compulsory reproductivity and a holistic cosmology based in “nature.” This “heroic dismantling” of Victorian ecologies, however, like Woolf’s murder of the Angel of the House, is enacted upon a distinctly Modernist vision of the subject to be destroyed. This paper will explore first how a Modernist “Brontë Country” elides the complexity of Brontëan and Victorian ecologies and second, how such an elision has contributed to the periodization of “nature,” and the removal of the latter construct, until very recently, from critical purview itself.

Amber Pouliot, “The Brontës in Interwar Fiction: Bridging the Modernist and the Middlebrow”

The Brontës were a vital presence in British and American culture throughout the interwar period. Their literature and the story of their lives were repeatedly appropriated, analysed, and reimagined in biography, fiction, film, guidebooks, psychological studies, and literary criticism. Yet, despite their popular appeal, the Brontës, like other eminent Victorians, were regarded with ambivalence and even hostility at this time. Q. D. Leavis dismissed Charlotte’s fiction as mere ‘fable[s] of wish-fulfilment’. Although fascinated with the Brontës, Woolf also viewed Charlotte’s writing as sentimental, autobiographical, and self-limited. In their attempts to assert their own distance from the Victorian past, many of the Brontës’ more highbrow critics characterised the sisters, with the exception of Emily, as conventional Victorian women, and criticised what they viewed as their emotional and autobiographical mode of writing and their myopic view of the world. Less predictably, middlebrow writers, who produced a tremendous body of literature about the Brontës and regarded them as one of the ‘totemic Victorian literary families’ of the period, often shared a similarly fraught relationship with the writers. Moreover, in their considerations of the Brontës’ lives and literature, many middlebrow novelists appropriated and adapted intellectual trends typically associated with highbrow or avant-garde culture. Like their modernist counterparts, they explored the constructedness of the historical record, psychoanalytic principles, and the relationship of modernity to the Victorian past, all in relation to the Brontës. Therefore, this paper poses a challenge to distinctions drawn between the modernist and the middlebrow, demonstrating that, during the interwar period, the Brontës were not simply used to establish modernism but to establish modernism within the middlebrow text.

Amanda Golden, “Making the Moors New: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes”

Readers of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are familiar with their visits to Top Withens and the Brontë Parsonage, not far from Hughes’s family home in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, which inspired Plath’s notes from her visit to the house included in the back of The Unabridged Journals followed by her poems “Two Views of Withins” (1957) and “Wuthering Heights” (1961), her prose piece “A Walk to Withens” (1959), and Hughes’s poem “Wuthering Heights” in Birthday Letters (1998). Golden uses the previously unregarded material history of Hughes’s and Plath’s immersion in Brontë life to show how texts like Plath’s Brontë Country texts redraw modernist boundaries between the material and the ethereal. In Hughes’s library at Emory University, remains what may have been his family’s guide to Bronte Moors & Villages From Thornton to Haworth by Elizabeth Southwart (London: John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd, 1923) with illustrations by T. Mackenzie. The Hughes library copy includes a birthday card between its pages and a note in what appears to be Hughes’s handwriting on the back. This copy also contains the bookplate of George Creswell Turner depicting a mountain peak. Hughes’s library also contains The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë, edited by C. W. Hatfield (New York: Columbia UP, 1967), unreturned to the Devon County Library after being checked out on June 25, 1969. These books help to trace some of the encounters that Plath, and later Hughes, had with the textual world of the Brontës.

The Brontë Parsonage, Plath admits in “A Walk to Withens,” “is hard to leave: it is less a memorial to the Brontës than the home of a tribe of creative young people who are simply not in for tea.” Her sketch makes them appear momentarily Bohemian. She proceeds to itemize their remains: “Here a blue book and a spring of heather on Emily’s horsehair sofa, and wafers of brown and cream-colored sealing wax on her rosewood writing desk.” These objects become secondary to Plath’s impression of the moor in Wuthering Heights.” The poem draws a contrast between the material and the ethereal, where “There is no life higher than the grasstops” and “It is like being mailed into space, / A thin silly message.” This transmission of an impression here is made less consequential. The sheep “stand about in grandmotherly disguise, / All wig curls and yellow teeth.” Plath’s image is absurd and it is realist. Leaving the vicinity and returning to the village, she describes the “valleys” as “black as purses” in which the “house lights / Gleam like small change.” Plath’s slim images are decorative and of less value than the impression of the moor. She prioritizes the experience, the essence that a poem can attempt to evoke, over the material. Her thin purses hold little as the poem attempts to inhabit the imaginative space of the novel. In “A Walk to Withens” Plath remembers “the great, frowning, stalwart mansion I had pictured as a young girl, munching on walnuts and apples beside a birch log figure on a wuthering evening and reading.” Even her nostalgic image here is wedded to a catalogue of items, not unlike the book that she was holding. Plath grapples in this piece and her poem with the inability to recapture or document the essence of memory and nostalgia. She turns to material objects, including books, to attempt this process.

Plath was an observer of the Brontë world and it provided characters, landscapes, and artifacts. When considering Plath’s and Hughes’s time in Brontë Country, Heather Clark sees Plath as an American tourist. Tracy Brain has considered Plath’s underlining and annotations in her copy of Villette to argue that Plath took its characters as a model for her own in The Bell Jar. The character of Heathcliff, to which Hughes is often compared, also takes shape in the Byronic figure of “Daddy.” Between her visits to Brontë Country and her later poems, Plath also read, studied, and taught the sparse, urban landscape of modernist texts, which shaped her sense of what critics she read referred to as “death-in-life.” This concept is present in both nineteenth and twentieth century texts, and is an aspect that Plath’s late work shares with the Brontës. Drawing on the contents of Plath’s own books and teaching notes, this paper will address the ways that she transforms some of the Brontës’ subject matter while also aspiring to emulate more recent writers.