". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, August 1, 2011

August 1, 1834 -- Jane Austen and Emily Bronte

It was on this day, August 1, in 1834, on which Britain's Parliament abolishes slavery in its colonies.

Once one's eyes have been opened to this condition, this institution, this economic power house of slavery and the slave trade that were so welded into all European and New World transactions and actions for so long, they can never not see them. They so pervaded the world(s) out of which we all come that commentary was't necessary by the contemporaries whose lives were lived in the matrix of slavery and the slave trade. So,we, coming along later, after Abolition and Emancipation -- even during the long days of Jim Crow and the American Civil War II, i.e. the Civil Rights Movement and de-segregation, never noticed what was often right in front of our faces in the art and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.

This is why I so admired Patricia Rozema's 1999 Mansfield Park. Rosema put the sugar barons and what they meant to England of the time into Austen in uch a way that we, of our time, can see it. This infuriated the janeites. Yet, Jane Austen knew these things, though she didn't foreground them any more than she did the Napoleonic wars, but the wars are always part of the condition of the lives the characters in her novels lived.

The Caribbean and the various Caribbean trades are omnipresent in the Brontes' novels. In Jane Eyre, from the Caribbean comes the taint of Rochester's mad wife, from the Caribbean comes the deus ex machina of a fortune.  It is left to Jane by an uncle in the wine trade who supplied Caribbean planters; the legacy frees Jane from poverty and raised her condition to one of more than equality with blinded Rochester, and equality with her now much poorer relatives who had rescued her from the life of a vagrant.

Last night I watched the latest BBC version of Wuthering Heights (2009). As mentioned at other times, Wuthering Heights is the single Bronte novel I do not care for or admire. And the elements I do find interesting about it -- the frame narrative by an outsider, Nelly Dean's embedded narrative, etc. -- these are exactly what film and television re-makes leave out.

I had often pondered, however, what it was that Heathcliffe had done to make himself such a large fortune in the three years he is gone from the neighborhood. Three years is such a short time -- he without any stake, no education, no connections, no skills or abilities but fists, horses, pistols and, seemingly, cards. Of course, I thought, last night. He went down to Bristol or Liverpool from Yorkshire, and shipped off into some kind of work in the slave trade. He'd do very well there with his capacities, and also with his incapacity of conscience or empathy, his inability to feel anything except his obsession for Catherine and for revenge.

Wuthering Heights was condemned as a loathesome book, and the author equally so, particularly when it was revealed Eliot Bell was Emily Bronte. As familiar as the conditions of the Caribbean, the slave trade and slavery were to the readers of the time, this too would be part of the coarseness, criminal knowledge and mad godlessness for which book and author were condemned as unfit for decent society.

Interestingly, we know the Brontes, like Emily Dickinson, did not care for Jane Austen -- no passion, they sneered. We do not know what Austen thought about them, of course. But I suspect she would feel much admiration, while, like me, finding Heathcliff and Cathy howling on the moors, ridiculous. Look what happened to Sense and Sensibility's Marianne when in the throes of passion she ran out in a night's thunderstorm in her thin clothes -- and someone else then had to take care of the mess that she made of herself while she nearly died.

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