Behind Closed Doors

Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855) Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), caa 1834, 90.2 x74.6 cm.

When at the beginning of the past century more occupations were opened to middle class women, marriage ceased to be their only means of emancipation. They become free to choose the man they wanted, free to get a more specific education that could provide them with a career, free to live the life they wanted and be the architects of their fate. The dawn of a new era.

Yet, if we go back to Regency or Victorian times the word emancipation for a woman could only but coincide with one event in the life of a girl: the catching of a husband. On this purpose girls were taught to be “accomplished”, that is the learning of all those talents like singing, drawing, dancing which were useful to be noticed and appreciated in society, but useless outside those circles. Since a woman dreamed to break free from family ties as soon as possible, there was often no time to wait for a Prince Charming to be met in one ball or another, so if a good offer came, well, it couldn’t but be accepted. 27 years old, still unmarried Charlotte Lucas’ s concern to become a “burden for her family“, meant, above all, her fear to be exposed, unprotected, alone without the presence of a man beside her, that is why she promptly grabs what she believes to be her last opportunity to marry, which comes in the shape of Mr Collins. Odious Mr Collins represents her independence and she is happy with it.

Of course, we cannot know what happened behind closed doors once married: were these women satisfied with their new position of mistresses of house? Is that the life they expected? Did they feel really liberated once left their native homes? If we peruse the gallery of female characters drawn by the three Brontë sisters, we may find some interesting answers to our questions. In Wuthering Heights, just to start with, Emily Brontë ‘s heroine, Catherine Earnshaws, marries for money. She accepts the proposal of a very good man, Edgar Linton, the best catch in the neighbourhood, who offers her wealth, station, his heart. Nonetheless the charming lot won’t be enough to secure their happiness. Catherine’s obsessive love for Heathcliff will make her feel entrapped in a match she has learnt to loathe, till torn between duties and unfulilled desires, she dies. Catherine is actuallly overwhelmed by the weight of Victorian code of behaviour and morality. She is not strong enough to ignore what society required and accept the man she loves, Heathcliff, as her companion, because he is too far beneath her station. She cannot be blamed for that.

Helen Huntingdon, Anne Brontë’s protagonist of the “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, marries for love, but once the first intoxication of the mind and senses vanishes, what remains is the naked truth made of abuse and fear. She will suffer abuse and mistreatment from her husband Arthur, a libertine and lover of London social life, but since she cannot accept it and she convinces herself that she can redeem him – huge common mistake – that is why she closes herself in a marriage in which she is first tyrannized and then abandoned and betrayed, even forced to suffer the presence of Arthur’s lovers at home. Only when she realizes that Arthur is turning her son against her by educating him to alcohol and gratuitous violence, she decides to leave the marital home going against all moral and social laws. This is precisely the crucial point of Ann Brontë’s work. She focuses on the problems of the Victorian era: from the custody of children to the theme of divorce. Anne fits perfectly into that group of dissident intellectuals of the Victorian era who rebel against the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the enslavement of bourgeois respectability.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s heroine, marries for love, compassion, as her free choice. It is the most unlikely of the three plots considering the times. Rude, liar, seductive, rich, Mr Rochester offers his love and hand to Jane, a poor governess, omitting to say that he is still married to a woman, Bertha Mason, he keeps secluded in a room. He has got his reasons, of course, she is mad and dangerous. He also claims his right to happiness and in a way, being Jane’s social and economic superior, he thinks he is allowed to behave so. But Jane will accept to marry him only when she feels herself his equal, and of course, after the most important obstacle between them will be removed, that is, his wife, who will die eventually.  Rochester, who will be blinded by the fire, which will destroy his manor house at the end of the novel, becomes weaker while Jane grows in strength and confidence, after having inherited from an uncle, found real connections and even another suitor at hand. She is free to marry a man who loves and  whose faults are no mystery to her, thus contradicting one of Charlotte Lucas’s pearls of wisdom:

“‘ . . . it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’

(Pride and Prejudice)

Jane wanted no surprises. At least no more.

 

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Sex & drugs & rock & roll”  I remember Ian Dury sang some time ago. A mantra which has constituted for more than one generation the antidote to the homologation to middle class morality and values: family, a good job, a responsible life. Dull!! I am sure any of us has enjoyed a more or less long “sex & drugs & rock & roll ” phase in their life, the rebellious phase, when you want to break the world of OLD RULES, advocating one with NO RULES, till without even realizing it, you find yourself banging your head against the wall of NECESSARY RULES (better known as compromises), so the Hegelian phase of growing up comes to an end and you have become an adult, brand new middle class, of course.

This fight against the bourgeois system of values is nothing new and actually dates back to the time when the middle class world definitely imposed itself on the old aristocrat model of society. Profit, utilitarianism, success, respectability united to a massive dose of prudery and hypocrisy became the totems of the age of the triumph of the middle class: the Victorian Age. And you know what kind of lifestyle did the rebels of the time dream of? Sex & drugs an& rock & roll. Nineteenth century style, of course.

These peculiar kinds of rebels were called “dandies”. They were easily recognizable, as they exhibited a unique refinement, which was their way to express their contempt towards the triviality, hypocrisy, materialism, in a word, the ugliness of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Aesthetics was for them a religion and as they believed that the Victorian society was desperately in want of beauty, they defied it trying to make of their lives something different, just as beautiful as a work of art and if a prudish, respectable kind of behaviour was required, well, they chose to devote themselves to the god of pleasure. Dandies never followed fashion, they did not seek for homologation, for sure. They made it. They embodied such models of elegance and sophistication, which were to be seen unattainable by anybody and no amount of money could buy.

Hence, the dandies chose to fight the system creating an antithetical model, thus proving the mediocrity of the Victorian standards of behaviour. Did they succeed? Well, yes, of course, till they banged their heads against the above mentioned wall (sooner or later it happens). However, they were not the only voices against those standards, there were some others, who were called: Bohemians.  They were, as William Makepeace Thackeray said, “ artists or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art” rejecting permanent residence and surviving on little material wealth. They were exactly like the hippies of the end of the nineteenth century. In Paris many of them lived at Montmartre, not far from the “Moulin Rouge”, while in London they could be seen at Chelsea or Soho. They lived solely for art and literature’s sake and their dissolute lives were often characterized by alcohol and drug abuse, as well as open sexual freedom.  The Bohemians, in fact, felt the need to express and assert themselves, being at such a social and economic disadvantage. They aimed at defying the system, flaunting their marginality. They were actually sex and drugs & rock & roll.

Did they succeed? You know the answer. Rebellions bring new lymph to any society but their life is short and their fate is inevitably homologation. Therefore, once the disuptive impetus has gone, what remains is a sort of quietness, better known as adulthood, and in this new land only the memory of a refrain remains: “sex & drugs & rock & roll”.