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Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Brontës and Language- a brief rant.

I don't usually bother with Brontë references such as this, but I felt comment was necessary in this case, if only to relieve a little frustration. The Editrix at AustenBlog- a lovelyblog for all things Jane Austen- knows my pain well only, unlike herself I do not have anything equivalent to her 'Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness.' Here lies the ever torturing pain: that the Brontës are criticised for writing in 'old English' or at least a more difficult kind of archaic English.

From what appears to be either a tongue in cheek list of satistical favourites or a account executive's list of favourites:

What book should everyone read? "Wuthering Heights" -- just so they understand that the English language is much easier today.

I am very confused by this one. Has she actually read Wuthering Heights? At least with Jane Eyre I might point to words such as 'anathematized' and acknowledge that some readers of today not inclined to get a dictionary might find the book 'difficult' (not that you have to know what 'anathematized' means to get through or enjoy it...), I cannot find an equivalent in Wuthering Heights.

This is by no means the first time I've heard the sentiment expressed but it is usually referring to Jane Eyre. In fact, I came across a certain review on amazon.com for yet another Brontë spin-off novel. This one was, in fact, a retelling of Jane Eyre- not a prequel or sequel. It was Jane Eyre as a science fiction novel, set in outer space. It is called Jenna Starborn and I mean to read it someday, really I do. And I've heard that it is rather good for being Jane Eyre in outer space... I don't remember all of the details at the moment but the basic plot is the same only Jane- I mean Jenna is some sort of reactor technician who goes out on a call to repair one at the complex of some incredibly wealthy person with a very silly name...

Even fans of the author's work say the prose is not very good at least, and that at best it is an entertaining way to pass the time. However, there was a review declaring it is better than Jane Eyre because the language is simpler and easy to understand. It hurt my soul to hear such things... It is also ridiculous because I know people who speak this 'old English' on a regular basis and in casual company. In fact, I have a friend who so admires Samuel Jonson (going back a bit further than the Brontës now...) that he strives to perfect his speech and prose to what he feels is the richest means of expression (I once remarked the use of 'locupletate' in a book I was reading and he replied that it is in Jonson's dictionary- from which he can quote). And I was quoting Jane Eyre in casual company when I was 14.

They should all be reading Chaucer, that's what I say. Or better still, Caedmon. See how they like that. /endbitterness.

12 comments:

mysticgypsy said...

Yeah..I've heard such comments from others too. However, I wonder if what they really mean is that they find Joseph's Yorkshire accent difficult to read and understand and, as a consequence, blame it on the entire book. Besides, most people who claim that WH is too "difficult", really take offence against the themes in the novel: it raises too many questions they would much rather happily not stop to think and answer in the midst of their pathetic ignorant narrow lives.

I agree with you 110%. Besides Chaucer and Caedmon, they should try reading Milton. Now his works demand an understanding of Classics as well as theology and history...
I really think only some interest and effort is required from people to sit and appreciate a work of literature. If they are not disposed to such a task, they should say so instead of laying unfair blame on the work of art itself.

Brontëana said...

I hadn't thought of that. And yet, Yorkshire is hardly a dead language and while it is a somewhat older form of English there was never a time when everyone spoke Yorkshire ;) By the same token, perhaps books written with Canadian dialects are in Old English because standard Canadian English is more akin to the English of the 1700s than anything- let alone some of the older varieties such as those you find on the east coast!

You make an interesting point about themes, although I wouldn't say one has to be ignorant and narrow minded for that to happen. Sometimes a book just doesn't hit you right, and I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps it goes back to 'the culture inside' and as we experience new things we appreciate different things, or old things differently.

I was thinking about this today... There is hardly a book we studied in highschool which was not considered hateful. No one would come out of those classes saying they really loved any of them. Perhaps the environment can affect a reader's appreciation as well?

What you just said about the classics and all makes me smile. There is a group of english students right now who would argue that your statement is a horribly biased one! I agree with you, but there are a lot of students who believe that they don't need to know theology and classics to study literature. It's true, you can but you cannot go very far under a text that way. Why throw away two extremely useful tools? But, they do...

Even at my own university I am always shocked by there not being a Bible in the English department (no dictionary either... That's madness!), and the professors themselves are constantly making false claims about Classical history and literature!

mysticgypsy said...

"And yet, Yorkshire is hardly a dead language "
-I think dialect plays a large role in readers' response to WH. Joseph's is hard to understand..so those who are unwilling to invest time and effort to decipher it are the very ones you find complaining ;)

" I wouldn't say one has to be ignorant and narrow minded for that to happen. Sometimes a book just doesn't hit you right, and I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps it goes back to 'the culture inside' and as we experience new things we appreciate different things, or old things differently. "
-I agree that the "culture inside" does matter.
However, one cannot do justice to the culture inside without sufficient effort. If I really don't like a book, I must be able to give a strong,coherent answer as to why I find it so. Merely saying "It is difficult. I hate it" will not do for it would lack a depth of analysis. If someone ponders about WH and then comes to the conclusion that they absolutely detest it, while telling me exacly why and how (including quoting relevant passages), I'd find such an opinion worthy of acceptance.

"There is hardly a book we studied in highschool which was not considered hateful. No one would come out of those classes saying they really loved any of them. Perhaps the environment can affect a reader's appreciation as well?"
-The environment definitly plays a role. Both Nature and Nurture can be held equally responsible. However, what matters is reasoning and insight, as well as the purpose behind studying. In High School, students are often tempted to read a book just to get good grades, so they don't have the need to delve deeper in order to make a fair judgement on a its merits.

" There is a group of english students right now who would argue that your statement is a horribly biased one! I agree with you, but there are a lot of students who believe that they don't need to know theology and classics to study literature. It's true, you can but you cannot go very far under a text that way. Why throw away two extremely useful tools? But, they do... "
-Exactly! Continuing to learn is the only way we can make progress in anything. I realize that one doean't have to major in Religion in order to do well in English, but one must definitly be open to learning more about the former in order to appreciate the latter.

"Even at my own university I am always shocked by there not being a Bible in the English department (no dictionary either... That's madness!), and the professors themselves are constantly making false claims about Classical history and literature!"
-OMG no Dictionary in the English Department????? That is really odd!!
Although ours is deprived of a Bible (though I'd have to check that for sure), I am glad it is stocked with ancient volumes of the OED LOL!

Brontëana said...

Our English undergrad lounge has only one book. There are three bookshelves stocked with hundreds of copies of one edition of their poetry publication. Only ONE edition. I had to spend some time in there between classes... I do not like to go there ;) I suppose this was what a friend of mine meant when she said that she always keeps a copy of Villette on her 'for emergencies.' ;)

There's a big difference between students who are serious about literature and those who aren't, I've found. My experience has been that most of the students at my university's English program cannot wait to get out and do something else, or as one of them said: "get my degree and teach some kids." They also don't 'understand' anything, really. I don't mean to sound snobbish- they tell me so all of the time. When I tell them which periods I like, they always tell me that they don't 'get' the Victorians, or Medieval writers, or the Elizabethans, etc... In fact, they profess to only 'understand' the moderns. And, it's true... I saw some of my classmates once give a presentation in which they argued that the Medieval saga we were reading reflected Victorian values because it was 'back in the day' and 'back in the day' means anytime which isn't now.

I'm wondering now if the lack of a dictionary is at all related to a horrific trend where I live. When I was in high school I accidentally discovered this program to eradicate all school libraries. I took out a book of Yeats from my school's library. The librarian, in an unguarded moment, remarked that the book hadn't been taken out in years. "This should have been destroyed." WHAT?! She was serious. The school board had decided that the internet will eventually make libraries obsolete and so they thought it a good idea to destroy all books not taken out within a certain time- usually about 2 years? When I asked if I might have the books, she said this wasn't allowed. She was not allowed to give me the books, or to sell them but she offered to throw it into a garbage can for me to 'find' later. Is it any wonder that the Brontës aren't well known here? Books are not respected enough even by the school board!!!!

...I signed out as many books as I could carry and returned them the same day, to 'save' them. I'd hope this was just a matter of cost savings and not an encouragement for us to use the computer lab OED.

mysticgypsy said...

I don't think you sound snobbish at all. Demanding more of education and challenging one's self intellectually is never a bad thing. It is really sad how so many people willingly choose not to do that. They'd much rather take the much easier route without questioning themselves, even if it means they feel aimless and prone to being unhappy in the long run. One of my favorite quotes from JE will ring true to this. Rochester tells Jane, "you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life's stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current." I think those who look down on you for being "snobbish" will reach a point when they'll be forced to rethink the meaning of their lives.

I believe that only when people love what they do (i.e. their work) can they willingly contribute to better their work and themselves. A lot of people are lured by the need to make more money and live lavishly that they can't wait to "leave school and work", whereas they don't really think about why they even want so much money. It is a vicious cycle propelled by factors such as the media and pop culture.

As for English majors, I can sympathize with you. Sometimes I have an aching need to just ask some of those people why they are even English majors in the first place. They take the discipline so lightly it breaks my heart and they take it for granted that they just "write well" without putting their heart and soul into their writing. Grades and pumping up resumes are what seems to matter more. Some people are in a class just because they "have to" since they have "no other choice".


I am sorry to hear that about your library. It is so weird that they wouldn't have the courtesy to lend you the book. It upsets me that the internet is taking over the art of reading books. It seems so....wrong somehow..that I dread to think of the future generations growing up without knowing what it means to even feel a book in their hands. Thankfully I've had relatively good experiences with libraries...they continue to be a source of refuge comfort and inspiration.

Brontëana said...

Re: not having a choice but to be in class, our Medieval lit professor actually asked all 120 of us why we were there and only two said anything about being interested in it. Most said it fit their schedule. That isn't a bad thing in itself, but when only two out of so many are interested it is pretty sad. Also they were all very offended by the professor for pointing out that none of them knew that a sentence must have a subject and a verb.

The flip side is that one of my professors thinks I'm crazy because of my dedication to the Brontës! I suppose we can never please everyone all of the time. ;)

Nothing will ever truly replace books. I read Villette for the first time as an etext, but when my friend found out that I couldn't find a 'real' copy she sent me one... from Iowa!

mysticgypsy said...

aww that's really sweet about your friend sending you a copy all the way from Iowa!!
OMG!! I didn't realize it could be so hard to find a copy of Villette...

Bronteana, do you wonder about what others think of you when you appear crazy about the Brontes? For example, if you are the only one in class who knows more about the Brontes besides the Prof, do you wonder about whether others would sneer at you for your enthusism? Like what if even your friends think you are over-obsessed with them? Does it bother or not bother you at all? If it does, how have you coped with it?

Brontëana said...

I know of two copies of Villette for sale in town. I'm still trying to get a copy of Agnes Grey, but I'm trying not to use amazon because being Canadian makes shipping a real hassle. I waited months for a book to be prepared for shipping!

In fact, I know more about Jane Eyre than anyone I've ever met (while illustrating it I somehow managed to memorise huge swaths of text), including my professor, as much as I respect her. Now, the Brontës as a whole is a different story. ;) It wasn't pleasant to have your professor say such things but I know she didn't mean to discourage me.

As you know, not many people here like the Brontës so mostly I don't even get the chance to talk about them. Aside from my mother, no one in my family knows that I enjoy the Brontës. I know that my friends aren't interested in hearing about them, so I don't go into it much but sometimes I have to share my enthusiasm ;) And of course there's always trying to get them interested somehow... My online friends are more forgiving, and they are obsessed themselves so it works out well for everyone :)

Mags said...

Oh, yeah. Preach it, sister. I witness!

The ignorant are EVERYWHERE.

Alice Oddcabinet said...

Re: Bronteish Language
This, too, hurts my heart. I say, that like your Samuel Johnson friend, we all attempt to cultivate our own speech to sound that way. Since *when* did "EASY" become the bottom line for everything?

Brontëana said...

to Mags,

They should read some of the material we publishing right now. Unimaginative, drab prose and flat characters.

Brontëana said...

to Alice,

I am not sure where the problem began, but it is pretty widespead. In the education system here, teachers do not encourage students in reading and written expression beyond being capable of being reasonably understood. When I went to University I had to learn grammar (what an adverb and adjective were, and everything beyond) from Latin. It was 'easier' not to know the mechanics.