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The Brontes, and Author Vs. Critic

It is scarcely the province of an author to refute the arguments of his censors and vindicate his own productions, but I may be allowed to make here a few observations with which I would have prefaced the first edition had I foreseen that the necessity of such precautions against the misapprehensions of those who would read it with a prejudiced mind or be content to judge it by a hasty glance.

 

In other words: “If I’d known you critics were going to slamdunk my novel, I would have put in a foreword to make what I was doing crystal clear.”

Whenever the subject of authorial etiquette comes up, there seems to be a general consensus that it’s a bad idea for authors to talk back to reviewers in self-justification. (Others believe the author has a right to hit right back at the nay-sayers, and a third group is pretty much, woo hoo, I’ll bring the popcorn)

There is nothing new about any of this. Authors (and playwrights) talking back— or rather striking back, often in highly entertaining fulminations—was a staple of English newspapers in the eighteenth century. The Victorians were more decorous (though in some cases, not much more.)

It isn’t surprising that while the early Victorians were busy inventing the modern novel, and trying to make it respectable, they were also busy exploring how the author interacts with the public outside of the fictional pages of a book. Letters to various publications, letters between individuals, and memoirs can be revealing, but there is a third form equally so: the author preface to later editions, when presumably the author has been so successful that they can say what they want at last. Their rep is already established, or no one would be printing these fancy “collected words of.”

 The above quote was written by Anne Bronte in 1848, for the second edition of her novel The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall, in which she unflinchingly depicts the unromantic, truly nasty side of living with a violent drunk. There is no Byronic romance here, though the initial impulse might have arisen from her siblings’ shared fascination for the Byronic villainous hero, as we find in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and poor Branwell’s juvenilia.

I wish to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.

 

When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.

 

Anne justifies her choices, and then goes on to talk about the moral duty of fiction, also taking a swipe at the critics who dared to cavil at the excruciating detail of a governess’s life among savages with a pretense of civility, depicted in Agnes Grey. Anne had been writing from personal experience. It showed.

She goes on to defend the separate works of the sisters:

Respecting the author’s identity, I would have it to be distinctly understood that Acton Bell is neither Currer nor Ellis Bell . . .  as to whether the name be real or fictitious, it cannot greatly signify to those who know him only by his works. As little, I should think, can it matter whether the writers so designated is a man or a woman … In my own mind, I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.

She then makes a sly remark that seems to corroborate her being in fact male, but then goes on to firmly state:

 All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.

This, in more decorous form, echoed Aphra Behn’s ferocious preface to the print version of her play The Dutch Lover, written in the 1670s, in which she rails against the hypocritical pontifications that only male writers are allowed to express amorousness in their poetry and plays, and yet women are the targets. Why shouldn’t women get their innings in the fictional battle of the sexes?

When one considers all those lists going around the Internet right now, exhorting people to read female writers, and complains about females being short-sheeted in awards, advances, and publicity, it doesn’t seem we’ve come all that far

 

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