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Conventionality is not morality

By April 22, 2015 4 Comments

I’m writing this on Tuesday, April 21—Charlotte Brontë’s birthday. Next year is her bicentennial, but we might as well celebrate 199, too.

These days Jane Austen seems to be getting most of the popular attention, even if most people at least know of Brontë’s Jane Eyre (which admittedly has its goodly share of cinematic adaptations). Nevertheless, Austen and Brontë get sort of lumped together as “romance novelists” and, as such, as the creative mothers of all the endlessly cheesy tales of courtship that have followed in the last two centuries. Certainly, though both take love as their subject, that characterization is not really fair, especially given the level of critique that both offer of the particular constraints suffered as a result of cultural and economic forces.

And yet, Brontë—born in 1816, the year before Austen died—saw herself as quite different from Austen. Writing to the critic (and George Eliot’s partner) George Henry Lewes, Brontë observes:

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I had read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

For Brontë, Austen essentially lacked passion. And though I think Brontë did not accurately assess the level of Austen’s critique, I can also understand why Brontë—raised on the wildly emotive Romantic literature of Byron and Coleridge—might have undervalued Austen’s more decorous barbs.

More than that, I want to suggest that it might come down to a difference in the sense of being a Christian writer. Although both were daughters of clergymen, only Brontë explicitly saw herself speaking out of a prophetic tradition—with the fiery rhetoric to match.

Brontë’s Jane Eyre was a literary sensation when it was published in 1847, becoming an immediate bestseller. But some critics were quick to point to what they saw as the “pre-eminently anti-Christian” nature of the book: its claim for equality—spiritual, emotional, financial, relational—between men and women, its insistence on God’s call to active vocation for all. And its audacious claim that a “plain Jane” deserves an autobiography. Brontë was stirring up “discontent” and her writings more generally, wrote Matthew Arnold, were full of “hunger, rebellion, and rage.”

Charlotte Brontë was having none of it. In her preface to the 2nd edition of Jane Eyre, she strikes back and characterizes her critics as the “timorous or carping few who doubt the tendency of such books as Jane Eyre, in whose eyes whatever is unusual is wrong; whose ears detect in each protest against bigotry—that parent of crime—an insult to piety, that regent of God on earth.”

Instead, using a powerful voice of the sagest of Victorian sages, she witheringly dismisses these critics and calls them out on what she sees as their hypocrisy, close-mindedness, and ultimately, their lack of true understanding about Christianity teaches.

I would suggest to such doubters certain obvious distinctions; I would remind them of certain simple truths.

Conventionality is not morality.  Self-righteousness is not religion.  To attack the first is not to assail the last.  To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue.  Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.  There is—I repeat it—a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them, finding it convenient to make external show pass for sterling worth—to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines.  It may hate him who dares to scrutinize and expose—to raze the gilding, and show base metal under it—to penetrate the sepulchre and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.

In these forceful words, Brontë unapologetically asserts that critique is an essential duty of the Christian, who like Christ, must expose the “charnel relics” in the whitened “sepulchre.” Furthermore—and if that weren’t enough—she concludes the passage with an implicit comparison between herself and the Old Testament prophet Micaiah—and perhaps more damningly, between Ahab and her Victorian detractors.

Ahab did not like Micaiah, because he never prophesied good concerning him, but evil; probably he liked the sycophant son of Chenaannah better; yet might Ahab have escaped a bloody death, had he but stopped his ears to flattery, and opened them to faithful counsel.

To speak out, even when it is unpopular Charlotte Brontë reminds us, is the duty of the prophet. Brontë’s confident use of the Bible here—figuring herself as both Christ-like and prophet-like—shows us a writer whose used her faith to authorize her speaking against the injustices of her time. That’s an inspiration even two centuries later.

Happy Birthday, Charlotte.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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