Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion
In ‘Shirley’ (1849), Charlotte Bronte describes a Mr Yorke who is devoid of imagination and empathy. Chapter Four begins: “A Yorkshire gentleman he was, par excellence, in every point.” (1), which in itself perhaps shows a lack of imagination on Bronte’s part in choosing his name!
Apparently Mr Yorke lacks the “organ of Veneration” and can’t look up to anybody, even God. “He believed in God and heaven; but his God and heaven were those of a man in whom awe, imagination, and tenderness lack.” (2). She then goes on to list so many other inadequacies of his personality that one starts to think ‘Why should I care about this character at all?’ There are several pages of Brontë telling us about Mr Yorke rather than showing us what he’s like, acceptable in a novel written in the 1840s but which wouldn’t get past an editor today. But this does allow her to speak about the importance of the imagination as a “gift of the mind” and the error of those who dismiss it:
“…who cares for imagination? Who does not think it a rather dangerous, senseless attribute – akin to weakness – perhaps partaking of frenzy – a disease rather than a gift of the mind?”
It’s very easy for me as a writer at the beginning of the twenty first century to look back to the beginning of the nineteenth and to imagine that it was a period when writers and those living by the products of their imagination were in a privileged position compared to my own time. What would it be like to be an artist or poet in the Romantic era, or a novelist in the glory days of the Brontës, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot?
But this section of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ makes me think that it was just as hard then to be taken seriously if one took the imagination seriously and viewed it as an essential of life. She states that probably all people think the imagination is more of a disadvantage in life or even more like a “disease”, unless you actually possess it. Those who think they have strong imaginations speak very differently about it:
“To hear them speak you would imagine that their hearts would be cold if that elixir did not flow about them; that their eyes would be dim if that flame did not refine their vision; that they would be lonely if this strange companion abandoned them. You would suppose that it imparted some glad hope to spring, some fine charm to summer, some tranquil joy to autumn, some consolation to winter, which you do not feel.” (3)
Here Brontë seems to be claiming some sort of aristocracy of the Imaginative, and is depicting how the claims of the Imaginative can look like a superiority complex to others. She gives Mr Yorke’s view: “An illusion, of course; but the fanatics cling to their dream, and would not give it up for gold.” (4). Mr Yorke, we are told, did not consider a poetic imagination a necessity of life. He could “tolerate” the results of it as works of art in the form of a good picture or music, but could not tolerate all the talk of the struggles of a quiet poet, who “might have lived despised, and died scorned, under the eyes of Hiram Yorke.” (5).
Bronte then gives a fascinating description of the character of the imaginative artist, “the true poet”, who has to somehow survive the fact that “there are many Hiram Yorkes in this world”:
“… it is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, had often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold, careless side to them – he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgement on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than consoled with.”
Perhaps Charlotte realises she is getting a bit carried away here and so comes back with: “These, however, are not Mr Yorke’s reflections; and it is with Mr Yorke we have at present to do.” (6).
But perhaps these words do stand as a rebuke to all those who mainly emphasise the outward “bleakness” of the Brontës’ lives and don’t look further into these glowing recesses of inner creativity and hope. Bronte’s own images for the imagination here – comparing it to an elixir, a flame, a refiner of vision, an imparter of hope and charm, joy and consolation, bliss, a festal brightness and cherishing glow that can make all things bright and genial – these images inspire our imaginations too. And we are convinced by her conviction that true imagination is utterly necessary for tenderness and awe and veneration to exist in us, even for a truer appreciation of God and heaven. Who wouldn’t want more of imagination by her definition, this “strange companion” ?
To enjoy more of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination in the form of her most famous novel ‘Jane Eyre’, you can read my latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ which intertwines a contemporary murder mystery with the experience of a reading group studying her great classic.
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(1) Charlotte Brontë, ‘Shirley’, Penguin Classics edition, London, 1994, p44.
(2) ibid., p45.
(3) ibid., p46.
(5) ibid., p47.