Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë
Photo by Gary Myers, via Find a Grave

I’m currently reading Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan. I am new to the Brontës, having only read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the last three years. Upon reading Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë earlier this year, I became much more interested in the Brontës themselves. I highly recommend BrontëBlog if you want to keep up with Brontë references in both pop culture and academia. I haven’t read any Brontë biographies yet. Syrie James’s novel begins just as Charlotte Brontë has returned from Belgium. All of the surviving Brontës are adults, and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, who died as children, are logically not a part of the story. Jude Morgan begins his novel with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, wife of Patrick Brontë and mother of the six Brontë children. After a flash forward of a few years, Patrick Brontë seizes an opportunity to educate his daughters inexpensively and sends first Maria and Elizabeth, then later Charlotte and finally Emily to the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, some forty miles away from Haworth, the Brontës’ home. Because Morgan chose to begin his story of the Brontës at an earlier time, his novel provides a glimpse not only of the Brontës’ mother, but also Maria and Elizabeth.

My first thought upon reading about Maria’s abiding patience and endurance in the face of outright child abuse at the school was that she sounded just like Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Eager to learn whether or not this was true or conjecture on behalf of Morgan, I searched for references to Maria as the inspiration for Helen, and I discovered some quotes from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Indeed, Charlotte did claim, in the face of criticism that Helen was “too good to be true” (and I admit I felt the same way when I read Jane Eyre), that “she was real enough.  I have exaggerated nothing there.” Mrs. Gaskell described an incident that Morgan works into his narrative in which Maria, not well enough to get up, was urged to stay in bed by the other girls, only to be abused by their teacher, Mrs. Andrews. Maria struggled to dress herself, urged the other girls to have patience, and was subsequently punished for being late (presumably to breakfast or class—Gaskell did not say).

After reading about Maria and learning that her story as presented by Jude Morgan was true, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and rescue her from that awful place and take care of her, which I’m sure her father and siblings wished they could have done. Her story is heartbreaking, moving, and sad. Given Patrick describes talking with eleven-year-old Maria  “on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person,” one cannot help but wonder what books Maria might have written had she lived.

I learned more about Maria Brontë at these websites:

On an unrelated note, I am appreciating Morgan’s writing style a great deal. His use of stylistic fragments and run-ons to evoke events whirling out of control as well as occasional adjectives shifted out of order popped off the page because I have recently been teaching students these techniques using Image Grammar by Harry Noden. Though Noden gives examples from prominent writers in his book, it’s fascinating as a lover of the craft of writing and and avid reader to catch these interesting techniques in action.

Kindle Update

Stratford upon Avon

I am about halfway into my first book on the Kindle. I’m reading James Shapiro’s discussion of the Shakespeare authorship question: Contested Will. I am happy to report that I love reading on the Kindle. The digital e-ink display is easy to read. I quickly lost myself in the book, and I even discovered a couple of advantages of reading on the Kindle as opposed to paper.

  1. When I read lying down, the book is easier to manage, and I don’t have to do that awkward shifting thing you have to do when you change sides of the book.
  2. I am not shuffling through the book as much. I am re-reading a little less. The focus is on the page at hand.
  3. I’m not trying to calculate how much I have until the end constantly. I already know.
  4. I am not flipping to the end to see what Shapiro will discuss next. I imagine the benefits of not flipping to the end will be even greater with fiction as I won’t be as tempted to ruin the ending.

Admittedly, the reason I’m not doing 2 and 4 is that they’re a little harder to do on the Kindle, though not impossible. I like knowing the percent of the book I’ve read, so there is no need to flip to the end, subtract the number of pages I’ve read, and compute the percentage.

One disadvantage is that I do like to read in the tub, and I can’t bring the Kindle into the tub.

I am finding it just as easy to disappear into a book, and so far, no problems losing my place.

As to the book, I have read about the history of the claims of Baconian and Oxfordian camps, both of which I found interesting. I am finding the book to be a fair-minded discussion of alternative theories of authorship. As Rob Hardy, an Amazon reviewer, writes, “Shapiro is never condescending.” Another reviewer notes that “this book is the most sympathetic and serious analysis of [anti-Stratfordian] views they are likely ever to receive from a legitimate scholar who does not agree with them.” Still, Shapiro is correct is that the zeal some have shown for their particular views on the authorship question borders on religion. It’s amazing to me that we live in an age when the simplest explanation is no longer the best—conspiracy and hidden agendas are favored over history. I find it intriguing too that the Oxfordians have been so successful in promoting their candidate that many folks believe that people who believe Shakespeare wrote the plays ascribed to him are the nutters.

I’m looking forward to reading Shapiro’s case for Shakespeare next. Shapiro said many expressed disappointment that he was tackling this issue in a book, but I’m glad he did.

photo credit: jlcwalker

2010 Once Upon a Time Challenge

Once Upon a Time Challenge

2010 Once Upon a Time ChallengeI always love Carl’s challenges, even though I don’t often finish them. I am participating in his Once Upon a Time Challenge; I’m committing only to the Journey, as I am in grad school (huge time-suck), and I’m already participating in other challenges (of course, this one may overlap).

Perhaps it’s cheating, but I plan to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for this challenge. I think I began it maybe four days before the challenge began, but honestly, the dates are so close, and the book is so long, that I feel it should count. In addition, this particular book fits the requirements of the challenge perfectly.

I am more than 20 chapters into the audio book at this point. Simon Prebble is the reader, and he captures the dialogue very well. Listening to him reminds me why I like being read to so much. Clarke’s style reminds me a great deal of Jane Austen’s, and I can think of no higher compliment. Particularly interesting is the way Clarke manages to convince the reader that magic is and has long been completely normal in Britain. It’s not quite alternative history à la Jasper Fforde, but it’s very satisfying, and I have a feeling that once I’ve reached the end of the novel, I will have thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Really Good Day

GateFirst, I received an e-mail from HarperCollins informing me that I won The Map of True Places Sweepstakes. I enter contests like this all the time, but I never have any expectation of winning. My prize is a weekend in Salem, Massachusetts, a place I have always wanted to visit (especially as an English teacher). I am so incredibly excited. I hardly know how it happened. Like I said, I enter these contests whenever one strikes my fancy, but how exciting!

Second, I am slowly catching up with my Instructional Technology coursework. I read and took quizzes on three chapters of Educational Research yesterday. I didn’t too badly on the quizzes either, especially considering the difficulty of the quizzes. Today I wrote a short paper critiquing a journal article for the same course. I am virtually caught up in this course based on the schedule I set for myself. What I would like to do this week is get a little ahead in both this course and Multimedia Authoring so that I can be sure to finish both courses by the end of the semester. Once again, I find myself wishing we didn’t use grades to evaluate. I would much rather receive the feedback and a pass/fail. Grades stress me out. I hate giving them to my students, and as a student I hate worrying about them.

Finally, I noticed a small crack in the back case of my iPhone about half an inch long originating at the center of the docking port. I have scheduled Genius Bar appointments twice, but canceled them so I could continue working or not feel pressed for time completing other activities. Finally, I decided it bothered me enough to bring in and see what would happen. The Genius at the Apple Store examined the phone, determined somehow that I didn’t cause the damage by dropping it (not sure how he figured it out; I didn’t cause the damage that way, but I admit to having dropped it, although not hard—maybe it was the location of the crack), checked on my warranty (glad I got AppleCare), and replaced the phone. I’ve had it since December 2008, so it wasn’t new. It was in good shape, though the corners were chipped (I didn’t used to have a case for it; now I do), and a tiny scratch marred the otherwise perfect screen. I bought some crystal film protectors to prevent damage to the new phone’s screen and immediately put it in the case. I hope I can keep this one in pristine shape with some extra care.

So all in all, a really, really good day. Plus it’s spring break! Bonus!

In book news, I’m still reading The Annotated Pride and Prejudice and keeping up with Crime and Punishment as best as my schedule and interest will allow (I’ll be glad to finish that one and begin Gulliver’s Travels). I am thoroughly enjoying the audio version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I am planning to read about the Once Upon a Time Challenge to see if I can participate.

photo credit: Svenstorm

Reading Updates

I have three books going at the moment. I am listening to The Help whenever I’m in the car, and sometimes I have to sit in the car a little longer so I can finish a particularly good part. I am absolutely loving this book, and I can’t wait to discuss it with my faculty’s book club.

I’m also re-reading Pride and Prejudice. This annotated version is helping me understand nuances I’m not sure I picked up the first time I read it years ago. The only problem I have with the annotations is that they give away much of the plot. I would like to use this edition with students, but some of the annotations should be read as they are reading, and some will give away the plot a great deal, which I think some students may find frustrating.

Finally, I am still working through Crime and Punishment on DailyLit. I am just not enjoying it at all. I found the murder of Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta chilling and compelling to read, but for a few scenes since that time, the book never grabbed me. I am close enough to the end to stick it out, but I’m not inclined to read any more Dostoyevsky. I don’t know whether I should feel stupid that I’m not getting something that so many people in the past have clearly enjoyed and esteemed, or just accepting that it’s OK to feel the way I feel about this book.

Shelfari and Reading Updates

Before I curl up with my books, I wanted to mention two things. First, I joined Shelfari today. I resisted joining another network because I am very happy at Goodreads. I am a member of LibraryThing, but unless you agree to pay for a membership, you are limited to only 200 books, so I am not at all active at LibraryThing. You might not remember this, but back in 2007 a controversy erupted over the fact that Shelfari did not used to allow users to easily uncheck the names of contacts they did not want to invite to use Shelfari. Tim Spalding, CEO of LibraryThing, also caught Shelfari astroturfing. However, I’ve not heard any criticism of Shelfari for two years, now, so I joined up. The interface is beautiful, and the community is more in charge. At Goodreads, you can apply to become a “Librarian” and edit book information, but Shelfari allows all community members to do so, which is both more risky and more open. Goodreads easily allows users to connect their accounts to Twitter, and it also allows me to share blog posts, but that may be because I’m a Goodreads author. As far as I can tell, Shelfari doesn’t allow you to do either of those things. So anyway, I’ve joined up, and we’ll see how it works out. Considering the time investment today, I hope it will be worthwhile. You can see my bookshelf in the sidebar to the right, and feel free to be my friend on Shelfari (and Goodreads, for that matter, but don’t expect too much if you become my friend on LibraryThing).

Second, I have begun two reading challenges: the Bibliophilic Books Challenge and the All About the Brontës Challenge. with my first selection, Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. It should be obvious how the book meets the Brontë challenge, but in case you were wondering how it meets the Bibliophilic Challenge, it is the fictionalized diary of Charlotte Brontë, and at only about 50 pages in, James has already mentioned Rochester and Jane and discussed the juvenile writing of the Brontës, as well as Branwell Brontë’s poetry, so I decided it met the criteria for the challenge.

I’m also in the midst of re-reading the Outlander series. I have not read the last three books, and it has been so long that I think I had better re-read the first four before I try to pick up the most recent books. I am currently working on the second (and my favorite) book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. I am continuing to read Crime and Punishment through DailyLit, and when I have to turn out the lights, I’m reading Mansfield Park on the iPhone with Stanza.

Bookish Updates

The Christmas holidays mean I’ll have some time to read. As I indicated in my previous post, I wasn’t getting into We Have Always Lived in the Castle, so I’ve set it aside. I really have been wanting to reread Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, so I downloaded it to my iPhone using the Kindle app. I have to say, it was like magic. I clicked a button, and when I opened my Kindle app, there the book was. I have used Stanza and Classics on my iPhone, but this is my first Kindle experience, so I’ll let you know how it goes. I understand I can annotate the book using the app.

I also picked up Jasper Fforde’s book The Fourth Bear. I have enjoyed all of his books. This one didn’t grab me yet (I’m two chapters in), but we’ll see. I know some readers don’t enjoy his Nursery Crime books as much as the Thursday Next series, but I really did like The Big Over Easy.

I’m trying to decide what to do about my own book. I want to work on editing and revising over the holiday. I haven’t completed the ending.

Finally, I watched the film based on Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, which I reviewed here. It’s an excellent book, and the film was very good, too, although not as good as the book, which is usually the case.

Struggling with Books

I admit I’m struggling to finish a short book. It isn’t that I don’t like it. I just can’t get into it enough to want to pick it up. Worse, I keep thinking about other books I want to read, and then I tell myself I need to finish that one first. The end result is that I’m doing very little reading.

I think I’m going to set aside We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the time being. It’s too short not to finish at some point, but I’m just not that into it for right now. I’ve read too far to give it up completely.

I am contemplating revisiting Diana Gabaldon’s series. She has just published a new one, An Echo in the Bone. I discovered my new department chair at work is a fan of this series, too. She and I are becoming fast friends. We have so much in common from our interests to our philosophies of education. I am so grateful she has come to work with me. It was funny how we discovered we had the fact that we are Diana Gabaldon fans in common: she started to tell me about the books in order to recommend them. And I had to respond, “Oh, I’ve read them!” I would say any of the older fans of Twilight should check Gabaldon’s books out. You won’t be sorry.

On the other hand, I could also read something I haven’t read. I have two Jasper Fforde books on my shelf. I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll stare at the book shelf for a while until I figure it out. All I know is I’m finished with grad school for the semester, and NaNoWriMo is over (and I won!). My novel is called Quicksand. I actually need to tidy up the ending because I wrote more than 50,000 words, which is the requirement for winning NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t finish my book. I also decided to set it aside and revisit it with fresh eyes when its time to revise. However, it has now been a little over a week since NaNoWriMo ended, and I am finding I miss my characters. Some of them became very real to me, and I enjoyed seeing them every day when I came home.

Once finals begins (or ends), and I have a little more time, I should post some excerpts or podcasts about my book. I am really interested in trying to publish it, but I admit the prospect of trying to find an agent is daunting.

In Progress: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

I am about halfway through The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and what a delightful read it has been so far. Not since I first picked up Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander have I read a book that contains a confluence of so many things that interest me or that I can relate to. First of all, I was taken aback when the protagonist, Connie, referred to her grandmother as “Granna.” That’s what I call my grandmother, and I have always believed I invented it. I had to do a Google search to assure myself that other women have indeed been called Granna. You can learn more about my own Granna at my genealogy blog.

Second, Connie studies Colonial American history, a time period I have always found fascinating. She finds a mysterious key with a piece of parchment tucked inside its pipe or barrel or whatever you want to call the hollow part of an old key. The parchment has the name Deliverance Dane written on it. Connie sets out on a quest to find out more about Deliverance, whom she discovers was part of the Salem Witch Trials furor in 1692. I have been fascinated with this aspect of American history since about fourth grade. I just couldn’t believe that people in my own country, which prides itself now on freedom, had acted in such a bizarre fashion. I still don’t understand it.

Finally, in the last chapter I read, Connie is reading the diary of Prudence Lamson Bartlett. I was struck by how similar the diary entries were to my own great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s own diary—so devoid of comment on emotions (although Stella occasionally discusses being irritated at someone), so repetitive in their description of the seemingly menial tasks of life. But as Connie says, “In some respects, Prudence’s daily work was her inner life” (158). In the last entry that Connie recounts, this is the entire text:

Febr. 24, 1763. Too cauld to write. Mother dies. (163)

I felt tears well into my eyes, despite the seemingly lack of emotion on the part of Prudence. Connie ascribes it to Prudence’s “cold practicality, her obstinate refusal to reveal her feelings, no matter how culturally proscribed” (163). My own Grandma Stella’s diary was so similar in the respects of recounting the weather, the daily work, where she went, what she bought and how much it cost. I could feel her relief when she wrote the following entry for April 4, 1894:

I paid Mrs. Bragg $7.50 for board & am now even. Owe no man anything (i.e. in $ and cts.)

On the day when her own grandmother died, she wrote:


Homer & I went to town early.
Grandma died at 6 P.M.
Mr. Amos came & we came home.
Bought a buggy from John Houston $20.00.
Papa was at Aunt Panthea’s.

It couldn’t be more like Prudence Bartlett’s diary in the way it recounts so much pain alongside the mundane. It’s so spooky that if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Katherine Howe must have cribbed my genealogy blog! If you like, you can read my Grandma Stella’s journal (PDF). I transcribed it from a photocopy of the original.

Staying up at night reading this book under the low light of a book lamp over the last few nights has been a pleasure indeed, and I can hardly wait to see what happens next in Connie’s research.


Yesterday I read the chapter “Character” in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and she used examples from Jane Austen’s novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in order to illustrate characterization both through exposition and dialogue. I found myself agreeing with much of what Prose says in this chapter.  Of Austen’s characterization of Mr. John Dashwood and his wife:

Austen is more likely to create her men and women by telling us what they think, what they have done, and what they plan to do. What matters most is how Mr. Dashwood views his own good deed. In that marvelous barbed sentence in which everthing hinges on one word, then—”He then really though himself equal to it”—Austen hints at how long his generosity will last, how long he will continue to rise above himself. Mr. John Dashwood is thrilled by his charity, which, it should be emphasized, is in fact not magnanimity but fairness. He meditates on his benevolence with such self-regard and self-congratulation, with such acute awareness of how his actions will seem to others, and with so much unacknowledged regret and obsessivenss that we can easily imagine how strongly his resolve will withstand his wife’s suggestion that he may have been a bit hasty. (121-122)

The bit of characterization that Prose quotes from Sense and Sensibility occurs after Mr. John Dashwood has promised his father that he will take care of his stepmother and half sisters.

When he gave his promise to his father, he meditated within himself to increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds a-piece. He then really though himself equal to it. The prospect of four thousand a year, in addition to his present income, besides the remaining half of his own mother’s fortune, warmed his heart, and made him feel capable of generosity.—”Yes, he would give them three thousand pounds: It would be liberal and handsome! It would be enough to make them completely easy. Three thousand pounds! he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience.”—He thought of it all day long, and for many days successively, and he did not repent. (qtd. in Prose 121)

From Pride and Prejudice, Prose quotes an early passage of dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet regarding Mrs. Bennet’s request that Mr. Bennet visit Mr. Bingley in order to introduce the family to the new resident of Netherfield and thereby increase the prospects that one of the five Bennet girls will marry him, at least in Mrs. Bennet’s mind. The characterization Austen accomplishes in this conversation is, in fact, one of the reasons the novel endeared itself to me early on. As Prose says,

The calm forbearance which Mr. Bennet answers his wife’s first question (“he replied that he had not”) provides and immediate and reasonbly accurate idea of his character. Driven to impatience, she says what he was expecting to hear: namely, that a rich young man has moved into the neighborhood. When Mrs. Bennet crows, “What a fine thing for our girls!” we can assume that Mr. Bennet knows the answer before he asks if their new neighbor is married or single. And he’s toying with his wife when he inquires, “How can it affect them?” (qtd. in Prose 127)

Later, Prose comments on the subtle characterization of Elizabeth Bennet, whom we haven’t met in person, through her relationship to each of her parents.

The next paragraph establishes Lizzy’s role in the family; she’s neither so beautiful as Jane nor so pleasant as Lydia, but she is gifted with an intelligence that endears her to her father. Austen invites us to consider a general truth that we may have observed about what sort of girl becomes her father’s favorite in a family of daughters. Elizabeth’s intelligence means more to her father than it does to her mother, who is perhaps more attuned to the fact that intelligence may not be a virtue in a young woman whom one hopes to marry off. (127-128)

Prose makes some excellent points about characterization in the whole chapter, using other examples from novels with which I am not familiar. As I read, I thought about the fact that all of my favorite novels had excellent characters and characterization at their heart. Even more than plot, characterization seems to be what appeals to me as a reader. The books I’ve devoured most quickly and enjoy re-reading universally have good characters—people I would like to know (and people I wouldn’t!). They are people who seem very real to me. The heart of a good novel, to me, is its characters. I have actually enjoyed books that are not written well if the characters are real to me in some way (Twilight series).

Here is my short list of books with excellent characters:

I’m fully aware of the wide range of literary merit displayed in this list, but one thing I think all the books do have in common is that they all have memorable, well-drawn characters.