Dear Author, Dear Professor: Happy Birthday, Charlotte Bronte!
Happy Birthday, Charlotte Bronte!
This post is both a nod to the writer and to those who teach works like hers.
I wonder if you knew, dear author, as you penned your tales of Angria with your siblings, then shifted to more sophisticated works like Jane Eyre and Villette, that your writing would inspire generations of writers, students, and teachers to come? For these purposes I’ll focus on the latter.
What makes a good teacher? For starters, an enthusiasm for the subject, perhaps even a flair for the dramatic--such that the teacher gives voice to title characters as she recounts a scene, or that she drops biographical tidbits with just enough detail to inspire curiosity in her students, who then conduct further research to satiate this curiosity (from time to time, for years to come).
For me, this teacher was Elizabeth Dipple, professor of my Novels of the Bronte Sisters class more than 20 years ago. I considered it a stroke of luck to get a seat in the course for the topic alone; once it began I realized that the draw was in fact Professor Dipple. A Shakespearean at heart (which explains her embodiment of characters), she interspersed her knowledge of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s work with their compelling personal stories of early loss; camaraderie, first at home weaving the dramatic accounts we see in their juvenalia, and later in the literary world where their initial successes came under the Bell (male) pseudonym; and early death, not uncommon for the time but to be sure, devastating that their father should outlive them all.
More important than these rich details was the manner in which we were encouraged to explore them: do the research, find the intersections between cultural context and style, between sub- or counter-narrative and oppression; go down the rabbit hole until you find inspiration for a thesis or a new way of imagining what may seem on the surface like a harmless 19th century trope.
This kind of inspiration led me to spend hours at the library instead of social gatherings (that said, our library played host to a rather lively social scene of its own) and to gape when I encountered other beloved writers’ ruminations on the Brontes (such as Woolf’s, where in The Times Literary Supplement, April 1916, she too ponders what might have been, had Charlotte exceeded her 39 years on earth). “[Bronte] might have become, like some of her famous contemporaries, a figure familiarly met with in London and elsewhere...the writer of many novels, of memoirs possibly, removed from us well within the memory of the middle-aged in all the splendour of established fame.” Woolf and others had already done the work of reimagining, whereas I was just beginning that work.
One cannot talk about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre without talking about Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea. Herein lies my deepest gratitude for the authors of these works and for professors like Elizabeth Dipple: that as a student, I would be inspired after reading and writing about these novels to further explore themes like feminism, postcolonialism, and race--that literature (and good teaching) prompted me to think more critically about what does and does not appear on those respective pages, and why.
Happy Birthday, Ms. Bronte. Thank you, Professor Dipple.
Joy Fisher Williams works in the marketing department at Bedford/St. Martin's/Macmillan Learning. She is currently poring over the pages of Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontes, by Isabel Greenberg.