“The Spell is the writer before the writing.” – Nicola Barker in her foreword to Charlotte Brontë’s novella The Spell
If you’ve been keeping up here on the blog, you’ll know that I’m on a roll with my study of Charlotte Brontë’s works and texts inspired by her. I’ve recently reviewed the collection of poetry she published with her sisters Emily and Anne, the new biography of her life by Claire Harman, as well as the first in a collection of stories she wrote in her teenage years, The Secret. I’m not slowing down anytime soon though, and with Charlotte’s 200th birthday less than a week away (WOOO!), I’m still eager to get through the rest of her juvenilia and a very special set of short stories inspired by her most famous novel Jane Eyre before the month of April is through.
With that in mind, I finished a second work in Charlotte’s juvenilia, The Spell, a few days ago, and while I’ve already posted a detailed review of my impressions of the novella (you can read it here), I wanted to delve a bit more closely into the foreword that precedes the text. This foreword was written by Nicola Barker, and I was deeply interested in some of the comments Barker makes about the young Charlotte Brontë and about the act of reading works written by an author before she was famous.
The first quote from Barker’s foreword that was of interest to me is the one cited above. Barker talks a lot about the fact that Charlotte’s early texts were never intended to be published and were conceived long before Charlotte had any realistic plan for becoming a proper writer.
“This is Charlotte Brontë utterly without restraint.”
– Barker’s foreword to The Spell
For this reason, The Spell (and The Secret as well) is unlike any of Charlotte’s published, cultivated classics. What I think Barker means by saying that Charlotte is unrestrained in this text is that the work is less calculated. Charlotte is not writing for general approval, societal esteem or literary success – she is instead writing for her siblings, but more than anything for herself. As someone who has done extensive creative writing since I was in high school, I know for a fact that there is a significant difference between stories a writer creates for themselves and those that a writer intends to share with a broader audience. The stories that a writer assumes no one else will ever see have the liberty to be more experimental, less studied and perfected, more risky and random and fanciful. That is what The Spell is like: it’s a text full of impossible circumstances, muddled narratives, fantastical leaps through time and space, abrupt changes in narrative voice… The list of unusual traits of this small text goes on and on. It is Charlotte Brontë before she ever became Currer Bell, before she ever imagined the story of a plain and obscure governess with a remarkable sense of passion.
But, despite how nonsensical The Spell sometimes is, it is also wonderfully intriguing. Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to follow the threads of a story written for an audience (Charlotte’s brother and sisters) that would know the characters and setting intimately, but, as is expressed in my detailed review of the novella, the story is still fascinating and the fact that it is frustrating only inspires the reader to delve in and unravel its mysteries.
However, having said that, there is something that feels almost treasonous about reading The Spell and Charlotte’s other juvenilia. I truly felt, several times throughout the text, that Charlotte had not intended for me to see it, and it seemed like a kind of betrayal to be reading something so private and personal. Although the story itself doesn’t reveal anything shocking or inappropriate about Charlotte’s character, you can distinctly tell that she is a teenager, that she is growing and learning and feeling a whole bunch of different things. Her depiction of Zamorna is perhaps most notable – I mentioned in my previous review that he is similar to Mr. Rochester in so many ways, and I think that says a lot about Charlotte’s perceptions of men and her ideal male figure. Zamorna and Rochester are Byronic and mysterious and secretive, but oh so intoxicating and overwhelming. But, whereas to read about Rochester seems appropriate because he was carefully crafted by Charlotte as a male character to reveal to and attract the interest of the masses, reading about Zamorna instead feels a little awkward and uncomfortable, as if we are secretly rifling through Charlotte’s diary and gathering information about her crush. Charlotte never had the chance to revisit this text, to choose what the public would and would not see, and so, as someone utterly loyal to her, it seems wrong to “go behind her back” and look at things I’m not supposed to.
It’s impossible to stop once you get started though. A true fan of Charlotte, or any of the Brontës, will know how significant it is to be able to get into the mind of a young Brontë. Living 200 years after Charlotte was born, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what her life must’ve been like, and these texts from her younger years offer a snapshot of how Charlotte spent most of her days. So whether it is a betrayal or not, I believe that the opportunity to read a young Charlotte’s works is too important to pass up.
Girl with a Green Heart