21 April: A Literary Radical.

Long ago I wished to leave 

"The house where I was born”
Long ago I used to grieve, 

My home seemed so forlorn. 

In other years, its silent rooms 

Were filled with haunting fears; 

Now, their very memory comes 

O'ercharged with tender tears.

From 'Regret' by Charlotte Bronte  (1816-1855)

Round the corner from where I live, there is a small square Georgian house opening right on the pavement and made of warm red brick – unusual in a town of granite and stucco buildings. On the house is a plaque on that commemorates it as the childhood home of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell. They were the daughters of Thomas Branwell, a local merchant and they grew up as a contemporary of Penzance’s most famous son, Sir Humphry Davy. In the tiny professional and merchant class of Penzance at the end of the eighteenth century, the families must have known each other well.

Maria left Cornwall after the death of her parents and found refuge and work with the family of her aunt and uncle in Yorkshire. In due course she married and had her own children; one of them was born today on the 21st April. Maria called her Charlotte. We know her as Charlotte Bronte and after Maria's death, sister Elizabeth moved in to the vicarage at Howarth look after Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell.

Who hasn’t read Charlotte’s most famous book, Jane Eyre - but on the other hand, who has read ‘Villette’ ‘The Professor’ or ‘Shirley’? They are deeply unfashionable these days and a bit heavy going, although I love the semi- autobiographical ‘Villette’. It's the tale of a lonely schoolteacher far away from home in flighty Brussels, who falls in love with a married man. Quel scandale!

Here’s Virginia Woolf on Charlotte;

‘There is… some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things, which makes (her) desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions.’

Inarticulate passion? There’s a good subject for the daughter of a nineteenth century vicar. It’s hard to imagine now that one of the reasons ‘Jane Eyre’ sold so well was that it was considered a ‘bad’ book. Not ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ bad; but risqué, inappropriate and in poor taste. Not the sort of thing any woman should read and not at all the sort of thing an unmarried woman should write. A plain, poor governess has the audacity to fall in love with her rich, handsome employer – that’s against the natural order of things. Said employer keeps a mad wife in the attic and suggests governess become his mistress – what a scandal! Plain heroine ungratefully refuses offer of marriage from saintly missionary type because she doesn’t fancy him – whatever next? 

Like ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ which was published ten years earlier, ‘Jane Eyre’ brought to public attention the plight of children in the harsh boarding schools conveniently situated far away from London in the north of England. Dickens highlighted the private establishments where unwanted children were sent and which were run commercially. Lowood Hall in ‘Jane Eyre’ is a charitable institution run by the clergy. Once you start digging, you realise Charlotte broke all the rules of how a Victorian maiden should think.

‘Jane Eyre’ is not at all the ‘sort of book you’d want your wife or servants to read’ (thank you for that quote Mervyn Griffiths-Jones – look it up, if you don’t know what I’m talking about) and that’s why it sold. So well done, all you Victorian girls who bought it. This is my great grandmother's copy, there's no date but I think it's about 1870.

It’s also worth mentioning that ‘Jane Eyre’ contains one of the most embarrassing faux pas in literary history. Charlotte dedicated it to William Thackeray, the greatest contemporary figure of English letters. What she didn’t know was that Thackeray had an insane wife who had been shut away for years (although in Paris - not in the attic). Oh dear! But in making her blunder, Charlotte highlighted the problem shared by the fictional Mr Rochester and the very real Mr Thackeray; that they were forced into compromising moral choices because the law would not allow them to set their marriage aside to marry again.

Charlotte uses food in Jane Eyre as a symbol for wholesomeness or the lack of it. The food at Lowood is horrible and inadequate; at Thornfield it's rich and luxurious, at the home of the pious Rivers family - it's plain and wholesome. Hannah, the much loved servant makes a gooseberry pie and Jane sits and tops and tails the berries for her. I would have made that, I love gooseberry pie, but we're a bit early.  The book contains a lot of pastry and on one occasion Jane collects cold chicken and tarts from the sumptious party Mr Rochester throws for his rather despised, but fashionable, friends.

Here is Eliza Acton - from 'Modern Cookery for Private Families' published in 1845, two years earlier than Jane Eyre. She talks at length about the different ways fruit pies were glazed both before and after cooking.

Bilberry or Blueberry Pie

Make a fruit pie with shortcrust pastry in the normal way. Whilst it is cooking, sift 4 oz icing sugar into a little beaten white of egg, beating it until smooth. It should be stiff enough to stand up in peaks...Ten minutes before the pie is done, take it out of the oven and let it cool slightly. Reduce the oven heat to 350F ( C) . Cover the top pie crust thickly with the icing spread on roughly with a palette knife. Put the pie back in the oven for 10 minutes for the icing to harden slightly and toast slightly on the top. Serve with cream.

I didn't beat the topping enough, but it was actually very nice, if toothachingly sweet....

Here's my Mum's pastry recipe. I've probably given it before, but it really does work.

2oz of cold butter and 2oz cold lard (or white veg fat) cut into dice sized cubes
4oz self raising flour and 4 oz plain flour
Pinch salt
I egg yolk and 2 egg cups of water

Blitz the fats, salt  and flours together with in a food processor until like fine breadcrumbs.

Put into another bowl and add the egg and one egg cup cold water bring together with your fingers, add the rest of the water if necessary.

 Chill for half an hour before use.

Pastry is not my natural metier, but this works every time.

The room is quiet, thoughts alone 

People its mute tranquillity; 

The yoke put on, the long task done, 

I am, as it is bliss to be, 

Still and untroubled…

From 'The Teacher's Monologue' by Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)

1 comment:

Mary Beth said...

Very insightful back story on Charlotte B. Interesting to learn about why "Jane Eyre" was scandalous in its time. (Brings to mind what I learned about the real Louisa May Alcott- making good money writing steamy stories for the pulp magazines of her day.)

The other surprise to me was to put a meringue like topping over the crust! The pie sounds like a perfect dessert for the St. George's "big chop" dinner :p

Keep 'em coming!