"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, April 28, 2017

Notes Toward a Heroine of Sensibility

"The whole of anything is never told;
you can only take what groups together."

The Notebooks of Henry James

A couple of things happened over the weekend:

First, I had a note from the niece of my dear friend and literary colleague, Celine Carrigan, marking the 20th - year memorial of her passing. Twenty years . . . without Celine . . . it will never seem right.

Second, I had a call from my friend Sandy S - K asking me, on behalf of her studious daughter Rachel, how I used to prepare for my big exams. What came to mind was my typical strategy, suggested by Henry James (above) of taking "what groups together."

In fact, I remember applying that particular strategy when getting ready, with assistance from Celine, for a presentation on "The Heroine of Sensibility" (one of her specialties) -- and I still have those notes! So I pulled them to take a look and see what I had learned and hopefully retained from that study session.

Thus, I begin this post with a shout - out of "Congratulations!" to Rachel on the completion of her M.A. in English / Writing. And I dedicate these musings to the memory of Celine's scholarship and pedagogy. She was a gentlewoman and a scholar, a beloved teacher and a true friend, and a heroine of sensibility in her own right.

~ Heart - shaped ornaments ~ a gift from Celine ~

From the 18th Century through the present day, the heroine of sensibility has animated the British and American novel with spirited introspection and vibrant discourse. Despite lack or loss of legitimate authority in her life, her will is always strong enough to initiate a natural regrouping, restoring order and continuity. She strives for autonomy, self - determination, and a life not entirely bound by acquiescence. Modernist Carolyn Heilbrun suggests a more appropriate designation: "The Woman as Hero."

Such a character believes herself sufficiently in control of the situation at hand; she develops a sense of her own identity as she contemplates and searches for destiny. As with any male hero, the woman as hero struggles with the tension "between her apparent freedom and her actual relegation to a constrained destiny."

All you have to do is google "sensibility," and Jane Austen is all over the place. In chronological order here are a few additional authors and novels that capture the characters and the concepts:

Samuel Richardson / Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740)
My thoughts: Her focus finally shifts from the wickedness around her to a matter of confusion within her soul. She identifies herself as "an enemy she never thought of before." She names her own mind as the power with which she must struggle. Pamela holds out for being treated as a social and economic equal, for unrestricted, unclassed treatment as a human being.

Samuel Richardson / Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1748)
"Steadily she [Clarissa Harlowe] has refused the marriage he offers: she cannot marry without love, cannot love without honour, and cannot honour the man who, by every action, has ruined his (not her own) honour in her eyes" (Elizabeth Bowen, from English Novelists, 1942). Clarissa transcends the limits set by the novel's world.

Henry Fielding / The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, 1749
" 'Love,' says Squire Allworthy, 'however much we may corrupt and pervert its meaning . . . remains a rational passion' " (21).

Charlotte Bronte / Jane Eyre (1847)
"But Jane, like Clarissa Harlowe, still identifies virtue with the power to keep her fate in her own hands" (Elizabeth Bowen, from English Novelists, 1942).

"As Celine Carrigan notes . . . Charlotte Bronte's heroines, unlike their creator are generally 'free from the burden of imposed responsibility' (214, "Versions of the Governess: Narrative Patterns in Ellen Weeton, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Bronte." Diss. U of Notre Dame, 1988). They work to support themselves, but do not have others dependent upon them; rather, they assert her belief that work in itself is respectable and healthy for women" (Christine Doyle in Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte: Transatlantic Translations, 140).

from Jane Eyre, Chapter 2: "How is he my master? Am I a servant?"

" 'Unjust! -- unjust!' said my reason."

Jane resolves to achieve escape from insupportable oppression.

Chapter 10: " . . . my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."

Emily Bronte / Wuthering Heights (1847)
"The love in it is relentless, as pure of hope as it is of fliesh. . . . here is the real English dark tower of passion above rationality. Wuthering Heights bears no definite feminine stamp -- though perhaps only a woman could have liberated her spirit so completely" (Elizabeth Bowen, from English Novelists, 1942).

Henry James / Portrait of a Lady (1881)
My favorite thing about Isabel Archer: when she says, "I feel very old." And Ralph responds, "You'll grow very young again. . . ." (Chapter 54, p 471).

James gives Isabel traits of himself and of his beloved cousin Minny Temple, who died young of tuberculosis and of whom he said: "She would have given anything to live."

Created late in the 19th Century, Isabel is a modern heroine of sensibility: honest, imaginative, innocent, intelligent, philosophical, presumptuous, reflective, soul - searching -- so many admirable traits! Even so, it is a struggle to order her own life and control her own destiny without being "ground in the very mill of the conventional." Thinking over the ways in which fate and friends have let her down, Isabel suspects that "she might have been a woman more blest."

E. M. Forster / Howards End (1910):
Of course, I have invoked Forster many times over on this blog for his iconic phrase "Only connect! (See Mission Statement, Commonplace Book, King & Queen, Handful of Dust, RedBear.)

Taking a closer look at the hero of Howards End: Margaret Schlegel begins the novel with an awareness of herself, her sexuality, and her lack of inheritance; by the end, she inherits from Mrs. Wilcox a sense of England and a sense of reality that allows her to pass the inheritance on.

Helen to Margaret: "But you picked up the pieces, and made us a home. Can't it strike you -- even for a moment -- that your life has been heroic?" (222 - 23).

E. M. Forster / A Passage to India (1924)
My favorite thing about Adela Quested: "She loved plans" (147). She speaks the truth, makes decisions, alienates everyone, shakes the world, and makes a fool of herself in the cause of justice. Unlike other characters in the novel, she is capable of public heroism. She finds her function beyond the range of her womanhood. As a heroine of sensibility, her innate quest is not necessarily bound by a desire for romance and children. [Likewise Miles Franklin's heroine Sybylla Melvyn in her 1901 novel My Brilliant Career. In the movies, both Adela and Sybylla are portrayed brilliantly by Judy Davis.]

Doris Lessing / The Golden Notebook (1962)
Anna thinks,"That will be my epitaph. Here lies Anna Wulf, who was always too intelligent." Anna and her friend Molly are "free women," but their emotional structure is incompatible with the fragmentation of real life: " . . . the point is, that as far as I can see, everything's cracking up" and our strongest emotions are irrelevant to the time we live in. Despite her notebooks, Anna fears that her words "have no connection with anything I feel to be true" and suffers from a lack of conviction and faith in her own significance. As a heroine of sensibility, Anna wonders "What anonymous whole am I part of?" Furthermore, she is willing to pay the price of seeing whole, including anxiety, exhaustion, and responsibility: "The world would never get itself understood, be ordered by words, be 'named,' unless [she] remained a woman who was able to be responsible" (651). [Likewise Margaret Drabble's character Alison in The Ice Age who must endure for the sake of her daughters.]

Though possessed of many gifts and talents, the heroine of sensibility still makes mistakes; in fact her very self - honesty and introspection sometimes lead her into inevitable error. The woman as hero is not always able to please herself, nor does she escape her share of the world's burdens. Yet her path is made more interesting to herself and to the reader because she consults her feelings and acts from the highest dictates of her intelligence.

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, May 14th

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my shorter, almost daily blog posts

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