Grey, cold, windy and slushy are the days of this early Thanksgiving week. Only Sarah’s need to exercise could draw me out of the house yesterday, but there were beauties to be found, even in such weather. The box elder is my least favorite tree. Nevertheless, its “keys” looked beautiful yesterday, as did this winter-abandoned wasp nest.
What if someone has not a romantic bone in his body? (Not a problem in our house!) “Nay, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!” That’s how I remember the line from Sense and Sensibility, uttered by the very “sensible,” i.e., as we would say today, sensitive Marianne, sister to the character we would label “sensible,” i.e., the one with both feet on the ground. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë, came to the public in 1853, and Anthony Trollope’s The Golden Lion of Granpère in 1872. All three works and their authors fall within the sprawling literary period known as Romantic, but these writers’ voices do not have the same accents at all. They might almost have sprung up in different countries, though one must have at least a tolerance for romanticism to enjoy any of them.
Austen and Trollope, it is true, both expect their heroines to marry: marriage is the only respectable path for the young female population in their novels. Alongside this similarity, however, enormous differences reign. Marianne is ruled by passion and, proud of her submission to feeling, does everything possible to encourage herself to emotional heights and depths. Perhaps in Marianne the author was gently ridiculing what she saw as Romantic excesses. Elinor has strong feelings, too, but they are deep and steadfast rather than stormy, and her pride is in concealing them from the world’s pitiless gaze. Most of Trollope’s characters are cut from Elinor cloth. The temporarily star-crossed lovers in The Golden Lion of Granpère are no exception, but we know from our first introduction to George and Marie that they are destined for one another. In fact, the only question that carries us through the narrative, the only excuse for the novel, is: how long will Fate toy with this young man and woman before conferring happiness upon them at last? Austen’s Marianne did not have such a pat resolution to her tempestuous love affair. That she will be happy, that she will even live, is far from a foregone conclusion as we read the novel. In fact, it is Trollope alone, the one man in this authorial trio, whose work (one sees the same pattern in the Barchester series) conforms to the happily-ever-after formula. Life is more complicated in the eyes of the women writers.
The characters of The Warden are infinitely dear to me, I must admit, as are all of Austen’s fictional cast, but for complexity of character Charlotte Brontë is unmatched. Even very minor characters, such as the servant Rosine, are individuals rather than types. It is in her work, also, that women are most independent financially and that outcomes of love affairs are most in doubt.
When Lucy Snowe, the protagonist and narrator of Villette, sets out to make her way in the world, she is under no one’s protection and has her living to earn. By turns retiring and expressive, guarded and daring, Lucy’s unique character partakes of both Marianne’s and Elinor’s and adds layers of contradiction to both. There is love interest in her story, but for a long time it is only the love of others that Lucy observes quietly from a distance. Dr. John, when she meets with him again in the town of Villette, seems almost a deus ex machina come to her rescue, but we are right not to forget the child Polly’s devotion to him, and Polly’s reappearance is hardly a surprise. Where Trollope oversimplifies with his endings and Austen with social constraints (almost never does a servant have a name or speak a line), Brontë manipulates her plots with coincidences that strain credulity. (Never mind. We forgive them all.) Gradually the literature professor--ugly, meddling, unbearably dictatorial—supplants the doctor in Lucy’s heart, his own heart revealing generosity and kindliness that lay hidden there along, but the reader is no surer than Lucy herself that love will prosper in Lucy’s life, and we remain in doubt to the last page of the book. Life is uncertain, Brontë keeps reminding us, and human beings can be very changeable.
Do you know your own heart? How, then, can you ever possibly know another’s? Brontë’s characters do come to know one another, but Fate is still more complex, with individual destinies at least as often crossed by accident and turned by the will of others as they manage to go straight to their heart’s own aim.
My own pragmatism is romantic at heart. I do believe in the miracles that can be wrought by kindness, the magic done by love. Here is an important article, telling how the writer dealt personally with what has been a very painful episode in local politics.