Bronte & Shakespeare – Literary Heroes

This year is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Let’s start with Shakespeare – after all, he’s been getting all the attention lately, right?

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Shakespeare’s writing. It really is something special, and I think I knew this even when I didn’t fully understand everything he was trying to say. I studied Romeo and Juliet in grade 9, but my love affair with Shakespeare really began in senior school, when we had to read Hamlet, and then Much Ado About Nothing. Putting aside the thread of misogyny that runs through his work, there is no denying that this man had so much more control over the English language 400+ years ago than most people have now. Funnily enough, I don’t think I could piece together the right words to describe how I feel about the extent of Shakespeare’s intelligence and wit.

I’ve gotten into heated discussions with friends about the *need*, or lack thereof, for Shakespeare to be taught in schools. Just because the language he used is now considered ‘archaic’ doesn’t discount the majesty and finesse involved in its manipulation. He created stories that everyone could appreciate, and it didn’t matter whether or not you were a peasant or an aristocrat. His work transcends boundaries, bringing together comedy, drama, love stories, and everything in between. And it’s brought us great films like The Lion King and 10 Things I Hate About You. As the Doctor (Ten) says, “Genius. He’s a genius. The genius. The most human human there’s ever been… Always he chooses the best words, New beautiful, brilliant words.”

Bronte and her sisters hold a special place in my heart – I daresay Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have led me to where I am now. These ladies wrote, even when the world seemed to be set against them, and in doing so, they have produced works that continue to be read more than a hundred years on. Honestly, I’d be happy if I turned out to be half the woman Charlotte was.

I first read Jane Eyre when I was 14. I was in all forms of strife – I’d started at a new school, my father had just received a liver transplant, I was having serious issues with my mother, and I felt lost. At the time, I related to Jane on many levels (ironically, I’d end up relating to Antoinette/Bertha in many more ways) – I mean, I didn’t have a really good friend who was better than me in every single way die because of a vicious sickness, but I felt alone even when I was at home with my family, I felt pressured into staying a Christian, and I had all kinds of weird feelings to do with boys (puberty, right?) I remember how I felt when Rochester proposed to Jane, when I found out Rochester was already married to another woman, when Jane was about to go off to India with St John, when she returned to the burned mess that was Thornfield Hall, and finally, when she found Rochester again. Presumably, they live happily ever after-

But I decided to move back in time, to Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. This is the story of Bertha (previously named Antoinette), a girl from Coulibri, Jamaica, who is married off to a young Rochester. He fundamentally misunderstands this seemingly ‘foreign’ landscape, thinking it claustrophobic and dangerously magical. To combat this fear, he changes Antoinette’s name, brings her back to England and locks her in the attic of Thornfield Hall. The novel ends with Antoinette burning down this particular house, paralleling the events that brought down her own home in Coulibri. It was this novel, in conjunction with my introduction to magical realism and the weird and wonderful world of the Gothic, that has brought me to where I am now.

The coursework I’m doing this semester involves a consideration of why we study literature – why literary scholarship is important. The most widely held thought is that literature makes us better people, it allows us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that. There are different impacts on the individual in comparison to the collective – arguably, there may not even be a generalised societal benefit to reading (except maybe cultivating literacy and all that). I’m still trying to wrap my head around generating an explanation that doesn’t sound saccharine, but for me, studying literature in high school gave me an outlet that wasn’t all science and maths. And thank god – because at university, studying literature not only allowed me to enjoy reading even more (yay for intertextuality!), but studying the ‘right’ novels (Behind the Moon, The Crocodile Fury, Five Bells) also allowed me to start to truly figure out who I am and what I want to be.

Yeah, okay, that was pretty sugary. Sorry. But it’s true.

In any case, I’m happy that literature has been in the news lately under a headline that’s not ‘why are we wasting money on people studying useless things like the arts we should be taking that money and giving it to STEM research’. ANYWAY. I’m very glad #Shakespeare400 has been trending on Twitter, and that events have been held around the UK, and indeed, the world, to celebrate this master of words. There have been comments around the fact that it’s also the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, and how commemorations of his contributions to literature have been, to date, relatively muted. But what about Charlotte Bronte? Cervantes is Spanish, and there have been events in Spain to mark this event. Bronte, like Shakespeare, is English, and yet I’ve only really seen a couple of tweets and news articles about her in the past couple of months.

I don’t want to jump the gun and say it’s because she’s a woman and Shakespeare’s a man (oops I just did), but I can’t help but think it’s a contributing factor. Haven’t we moved past a society where men’s writing is considered more seriously than women’s writing, where women like Bronte and Eliot had to publish under male pseudonyms? For me, the answer is unfortunately not. But it doesn’t mean it has to stay this way. Even though the current climate is kinder to female writers (and especially, female writers of colour) than it used to be, I know it’s still going to be an uphill battle.

As Bronte herself has said, “Life is a battle: may we all be enabled to fight it well”.

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