“So, 4 years until Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary”
I was only half-joking as I made this my first tweet on the 8th February, the day after the Dickens bicentenary – as I mentioned in a post on Researcher Life, I’ve realised over the past couple of months that it really is worth looking ahead for any commemorative dates or other celebrations related to your research, and thinking about timing some relevant work accordingly. And thus it was that, fearing Dickens fever would soon die down (even I’m a little Dickens-fatigued), I found myself having a quick look to see which of authors are next up for the big 2-0-0: four years for Charlotte Brontë, a whole seven years until George Eliot, and Gaskell quietly came of bicentenary age in 2010. Which raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will change the way we “do” bicentenaries; will Brontë or Eliot, arguably equally as “great” as Dickens, receive anywhere near the amount of fuss that Dickens’s birthday has created?
Dickens 2012 has, understandably, wearied a lot of Victorian scholars; whilst you could easily think that Dickens was the only man born in 1812, many have been quick to point out that Robert Browning, Edward Lear and the lesser-known Geraldine Jewsbury are also 200 this year. This has prompted some interesting reflections on the literary politics of bicentenaries and even wider questions about genre preferences in our contemporary ideas about the Victorian period: Alison Chapman raised an interesting discussion about poetry vs prose on the Victorian Poetry Network, reminding us that whilst poetry doesn’t hold such a strong place in our idea of the Victorian period today, there was an intrinsic relationship between poetry and prose in the period; she also points out that Dickens should be remembered not just as novelist, but also for his role in the evolving culture of Victorian poetry.
Whilst individual poets are, unfortunately, unlikely to ever get such sustained media attention as novelists (I’d suggest the potential of novels to be adapted for film and tv, and the particular adaptability of Dickens’s writing, goes a long way towards the general preference for novelists in general, and Dickens in particular, today), the upcoming bicentenary of another novelist raises the question of whether Dickens 2012 will prove to be a unique event in celebrating Victorian authors, or if this will instead set a precedence for future commemorations. Charlotte Brontë is especially pertinent to this discussion, as she remains one of the most popular nineteenth-century authors today: Jane Eyre is widely read and regarded as one of the Greats, and only last year yet another film adaptation was made, suggesting its enduring popularity.
But Jane Eyre is Brontë’s only really popular work, and her wonderful Villette and Shirley remain much less widely read despite containing much of what is loved about Jane Eyre: the psychological depths and mysteries of Villette are much darker, whilst Shirley‘s feminist heroines are problematic but the novel much more overtly and bravely probes into “the woman question”. As a result, I suspect that Brontë’s birthday will be a rather quieter affair, with a number of conferences and a small amount of media attention. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing: Dickens’s vast corpus of writing presents a rich opportunity for multiple reflections and responses, and the familiarity of many of his works has provided a springboard for opening up such wide interest in the bicentenary; the opportunity for “celebrating Dickens” is there itself in the sheer variety and volume of his works.
Charlotte Brontë presents us with a rather different legacy, and thus the need for a rather different response; what I hope is that her bicentenary will provide an opportunity to go beyond Jane Eyre and encourage wider recognition and enjoyment of her other works. Dickens 2012 has suggested the potential for not just for celebrating what we already know but discovering the new, forgotten, or neglected works; whilst the model of Dickens 2012 might not be appropriate for other celebrated authors, it has opened up a value in bicentenary (or similar) celebrations. It’ll be worth tracing the on-going impact of the projects and learning from this how other bicentenaries can best be used to encourage new forms of engagement with Victorian literature.
Now, will someone please write a screenplay of Villette…?!