- Mind and Body in Charlotte Brontë's Fiction
When I first published Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology in 1996, I received what can only be described as a piece of hate mail. The writer informed me that her book group had been studying the Brontë novels and so had decided to read my book. The experience was clearly traumatic, since I apparently ruined Brontë for her and the entire group forever. I was strongly encouraged never to write again, et cetera. In the age of the Internet, we have become used to the vicious tweet or blog post, but at a time when email was only just coming into being, it took determination to find an author's mailing address and pen a letter. I had expected to upset many Brontë readers, but the vehemence of this one startled me. Why had my heavily researched scholarly monograph evoked such a reaction? In these days, when we are encouraged to reach out to the public and to ensure that [End Page 222] our work has "impact," one could perhaps judge my book to have been a success; it certainly had a deep effect on some members of the public, well beyond what might be expected of an academic monograph—just not in a positive way. The response I received is instructive, however; it demonstrates the profound personal and emotional engagement that can underpin reading, and also the power of readerly investment in particular models of interpretation. The two are very closely intertwined; what I had done in challenging the latter was to disturb the former, and therefore the symbiosis between reading and a sense of selfhood. In a way, the backlash I experienced was a demonstration in the current day of the arguments of the book. I had set out to challenge the deeply embedded belief that the Brontës lived and wrote in a social and cultural vacuum; that they were intuitive geniuses who took inspiration from "above" rather than the world of which they were a part. More particularly, I had aimed to show that the models of selfhood in Charlotte Brontë's fiction drew on the social, psychological, and economic constructions of the period.
Although the book was finally published in 1996, it was largely written between 1986 and 1987, during a fellowship at the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University (the delay being due to the labour of reducing the manuscript to a third of its original size and labours of a rather different, maternal, kind). The dates are significant, since the work was written in the context of the rise of feminist theory, Terry Eagleton's materialist Myths of Power (1975) (with its notable lack of attention to gender), and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's electrifying "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" (1985). The chapter in the book on the female bodily economy was first published in Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science (1990), another book very much of its time, which arose from a conference that Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox Keller, and I ran at Cornell. The dominant influence on my own work was no doubt Michel Foucault, his theories of techniques of power and the regulation of the body, and his overarching model of discursive economies. Brontë's vision of "the surveillance of a sleepless eye" (503) in Villette seemed to encapsulate both the struggles for power throughout her fiction and Foucault's model of the internalization of social control, as outlined in Discipline and Punish (1977).
In my earlier work, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (1984), I was able to situate Eliot in the context of the social and scientific thought of the time; given Eliot's relationship with G.H. Lewes and her copious scientific reading, there was no difficulty in establishing such links. Charlotte Brontë, with her fabled isolation, and no apparent interest in science, represented an altogether different challenge. While drawing on Foucault's theories of discourse, I wanted to move beyond ideas of a general textual economy to track precisely how medical and psychological ideas about the female body, for example, or phrenology, might have entered into Brontë's reading...