Unravelling the Body/Mind Reverberations of Secrets Woven into Charlotte Brontë s Villette - PDF

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/pjes Prague Journal of English Studies Volume 4, No. 1, 2015 ISSN: (print) ISSN: (online) Unravelling the Body/Mind Reverberations of Secrets Woven into Charlotte

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/pjes Prague Journal of English Studies Volume 4, No. 1, 2015 ISSN: (print) ISSN: (online) Unravelling the Body/Mind Reverberations of Secrets Woven into Charlotte Brontë s Villette Francisco José Cortés Vieco The pervasive psychological realism of Charlotte Brontë s Villette (1853) challenges scholarly assumptions based on her biography or her indoctrination to Victorian medical discourses, as it explores dysfunctional body/mind interrelations, particularly those evidencing patriarchal pressures and prejudices against women. Under the guise of her heroine Lucy, the author becomes both the physician and the patient suffering from a female malady of unnamed origin. This article intends to prove that, instead of narratively unravelling her creature s past trauma with healing purposes, the author conceals its nature to protect her intimacy and she focuses on the periphery of her crisis aftermath to demonstrate its severity by means of the psychosomatic disorders that persistently haunt her life: depression, anorexia nervosa and suicidal behavior. Brontë s literary guerrilla of secrecy aims, simultaneously, to veil and unveil the core of Lucy s clinical case with an unequivocal diagnosis: a harmful, mysterious event from her childhood/adolescence, whose reverberations repeatedly erupt during her adulthood and endanger her survival. Unreliable but lucid, this heroine becomes the daguerreotype of her creator to portray life as a sad, exhausting journey, where professional self-realisation not love or marriage turns into the ultimate recovery therapy from past ordeals, never successfully confirmed in the case of Lucy, who epitomises a paradigm of femininity in Victorian England: the impoverished, solitary, middle-class woman. Keywords Body; mind; woman; trauma; sequelae; anorexia; suicide; recovery I tell my secret? No indeed, not I: Perhaps some day, who knows? But not to-day; it froze, and blows, and snows, And you are too curious: fie! You want to hear it? Well: 25 FRANCISCO JOSÉ CORTÉS VIECO Only, my secret s mine, and I won t tell. (Christina Rossetti) Beneath the childlike, naïve puns, this stanza may conceal the unspeakable constituent of the female experience in Victorian literature. Dressed with silence, euphemisms or wit, painful events in women s lives have been traditionally placed outside the universe of acceptable language and its socially-validated reality. However, some 19 th -century novels timidly unravel their anxieties and sorrows, confessed by first-person voices disguised by the symptomatology of psychosomatic disorders, which pervade their narratives. These revelations suggest that mental processes and nervous breakdowns affect the body, whose ailments often lack organic, physical causes. The epistemology of the Cartesian body/mind dualism has insisted upon the primacy of analytic thought over biological phenomena throughout Western history. In transit to its aesthetic subversion in modern times, Victorian Realism is a literary movement, wherein social and public dimensions prevail to the detriment of other spheres. Yet, this genre also reflects a favourable climate to scrutinise the interactions between soma and psyche, emotions and reason, because the long-lasting romance between science and art enables the former to shape the artefacts of the latter. In Idioms of Distress, Lilian Furst reviews the body/mind continuum in the diagnosis and prognosis of illnesses from Hippocrates until the 19 th century. At that particular time, doctors believed that states of mind, conditioned by multifarious physical factors and social determinants, could worsen or ameliorate diseases. Furst also defines such ailments as translations or conversions, which dramatise the displacement of mental distress or conflicts through the human organism (6). Stemming from emotional anguish and resulting in physical maladies, psychosomatic disorders include hypertension, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal disturbances, migraine, tension headaches, sexual dysfunctions and dermatitis (Tofighi 124). Generally speaking, they are considered to be borderline conditions, liminally located between neurosis and psychosis regardless of Freudian postulates 1 (Kradin 46). Athena Vrettos analyses the equivocal condition of neurosis in Victorian medical research and praxis, in terms of its duality between its physical and mental disturbances. It had vague symptoms that did not correspond to organic etiologies, like cancer or tuberculosis (553). Nevertheless, its nervous manifestations did not lead to madness, and the sufferers could continue to function rationally, despite frequent acute episodes where their nerves were most sensitised (Vrettos 553). Once this body/mind 26 UNRAVELLING THE BODY/MIND REVERBERATIONS tandem was institutionalised as pathogenic by the 19 th -century medicine and patriarchal order, contemporary artists were tempted to transcribe physicality into words, or even to palpate illnesses in their works. To intrude on the Victorian literary Establishment, an embryonic subculture of English women writers confronted or, perhaps, contributed to the perpetuation of misogynist gender prejudices which predominated in social and medical discourses. Together, public and clinical worlds inexorably associated mental breakdown to the female body. 19 th -century psychiatry even formulated theories of women s insanity based on the experience of the biological crises of menstruation and life-cycle during which their minds were weakened (Showalter 55 56). To delve into this ideological distortion that intertwines the nervous and reproductive systems, Foucault argues that science has defined sexuality as a domain susceptible to pathologies, calling for normalising intervention (68). Women s bodies were often hysterized and became the target of male physicians efforts, because they were thought to be saturated with sexuality (104). Stigmatised as redundant, odd or superfluous, unmarried middle-class ladies were also considered a social problem in Victorian England 2 (Showalter 61). Deprived of an occupation outside domesticity and coerced to define themselves only through personal relationships, such unwed women were forced to depend on their inner lives and were thought to be more prone to depression and lunacy (Showalter 64). At first sight, Charlotte Brontë s last novel Villette (1853) is her own literary therapy to alleviate the shock of bereavement provoked by the deaths of her sisters: Emily and Anne 3. Readers and critics traditionally unlock the inexpressible mysteries of this fiction with the key of autobiography (Carlisle 263). In any case, this work symbolises her depleted self-confidence as a writer after the collapse of the fertile intellectual haven inhabited by their unique sororal understanding in her native Yorkshire. Furthermore, unrequited love, isolation, poverty, thwarted professional aspirations, infirmity and early death circumscribe Brontë s life experience to that of tragedy. Social constraints or heredity also might have been the precursors of her self-diagnosis of mental morbidity. In fact, Vrettos argues that the author was exposed to the prevailing theories of neurosis through consultations about her own nervous symptoms (560). Possibly to document the metaphor of forlornness for her future novel, Brontë visited prisons and asylums to witness the sequelae of the method solitary confinement, e.g., nightmares, hallucinations and suicide attempts (Showalter 69). Such personal encounters could demonstrate the influence of contemporary science on her writings, as a patriarchal indoctrination that 27 FRANCISCO JOSÉ CORTÉS VIECO turned femininity into a pathology and had a key impact on 19 th -century literature beyond Brontë s example 4. This article intends to illustrate how the author simultaneously transfigures herself into a therapist (as a narrator) and a sufferer (as a heroine) of psychosomatic disorders in Villette. Within this autobiographical context, the novel is not only a tribute to human pain, but its protagonist Lucy Snowe also becomes the psychological daguerreotype of an older, defeated Charlotte Brontë, once the self-portrait of romantic passion and youth in her bestseller Jane Eyre (1847) would have vanished. In a more mature Villette, the novelist already understands life as the exhausting, sad journey for her creature, whose happiness is always postponed to an uncertain future. Anticipating her body/mind disturbances due to buried memories and past ordeals with subsequent eruptive replicas of emotional damage, her mental nebula collides with a harsh reality and unsympathetic people. In fact, her status quo reflects the divorce between middle-class women and the patriarchal pillars of family, religion, society and nation during the 19 th century. I will focus, firstly, on Lucy s determination to veil an innominate trauma. Secondly, I will diagnose proven psychosomatic symptoms of her persistent malaise, including delirium, reclusion, anorexia nervosa, sexual anxiety or suicidal behaviour. And thirdly, I will explore the prognosis of her tentative recovery, tinged with the narrative tranquillity of her retrospective look to the past from an older age. With such purposes, seminal literature on trauma studies and post-traumatic stress disorders are being used to contextualise and analyse Villette. According to this article s approach, physical degradation and nervous collapse are the vital sources of inspiration for Charlotte Brontë s psychological realism in the novel. The author s intended access to the female body/mind, paradoxically, bestows the narrative authority upon the consciousness of her wretched, unreliable heroine, in defiance of sentimental expectations from mainstream criticism and readers, who enhance the author s mournfulness as a sad but logical consequence of the deaths of her beloved sisters. Lucy never unravels the origin or nature of her torturing, unknown ordeal, which occurred prior to the narrative onset. From an old age, she recalls an episode from her adolescence at her godmother s house Mrs. Bretton, which precedes eight years of silence: buried [...] in a long prayer (V 35) 5. From this in medias res prelude, she never refers to her family, home or remembrances from that period. Her existence and identity prior to this painful experience seem to be irrevocably destroyed. Moreover, this unexplored, harrowing event from the past threatens and conditions the whole novel. Because it cannot 28 UNRAVELLING THE BODY/MIND REVERBERATIONS be pronounced nor confronted in Villette, ellipsis becomes its fundamental literary device. Consequently, Brontë encodes her writing in such a way that the reader can only perceive the aftermath of Lucy s drama, plagued with psychosomatic disorders, like nervous deterioration, anorexia nervosa and masked suicide attempts. She uses the trope of paralepsis 6 to deliberately omit the novel s interpretative core. Albeit she is stubbornly reluctant to articulate her personal disaster, such a literary tactic does confirm its occurrence and transcendence in the heroine s life by, simultaneously, undressing and veiling this event in her memoirs. Only thanks to relapsing nightmares of water, a menacing sea-storm of physical danger, does the reader decipher that she survived a metaphorical shipwreck: I must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been wreck [...] I too well remember a time a long time, of cold, of danger, of contention [...] When I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltness of briny waves in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs. I even know there was a storm [...]. For many days and nights neither sun nor stars appeared, we cast with our own hands the tackling out of the ship; a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away [...] The ship was lost, the crew perished. (V 35) Critics traditionally solve this textual enigma by turning to the author s (auto)biography. However, Brontë s constant recall of her past happy-life with her sisters contrasts with Lucy s deliberate recollection of pending oblivion. This possibly evidences an unnamed taboo, like sexual/psychological abuses during her childhood or adolescence. In fact, mental ordeals of that sort can produce repressed memories converted into somatic symptoms (Kradin 39). A haunting remark of the heroine after having been forced to leave her godmother and return home, could detect the fear of meeting again a dysfunctional, negligent family: It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! The amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted (V 35). Even her stay at the Brettons could have been aimed at preserving her from the hostility at the Snowes (Haller 150). Cathy Caruth coins the definition of trauma as the direct, immediate brush with death, or the experience of surviving that near fatal disaster, and yet being forced to relive it repeatedly in dreams and lacerating memories, because both are unbearable: the nature of the event and that of its survival (7). Judith Herman refers to this same concept as the 29 FRANCISCO JOSÉ CORTÉS VIECO affliction of the powerless, being the victim rendered helpless by a strong force (33). The reasons causing this situation are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but because they overwhelm the ordinary adaptations to life and involve threats to bodily integrity (Herman 33). These explanations of trauma help construe Lucy s nightmare of the terrifying immediacy of violence and death: sinking, drowning and yet being eventually rescued. They also suggest her unyielding refusal to understand the event that causes her so much continuing damage. In fact, this sequel insinuates her voluntary amnesia or blunt denial of avowal. In line with this assumption, Janice Carlisle argues that Villette is a carapace of defences against the intolerable pain of memory and the transgression of Victorian autobiographical conventions, when the novelist avoids the emotional cost of retrospection in her heroine s account from older years ( ). Brontë s last novel is the chronicle of Lucy s peripatetic experiences during one year and a half. She selectively erases the narrative clues of a previous dreadful event which, in turn, regresses from her unconsciousness through the psychological beating of grievous flashbacks, self-destruction, isolation, Gothic hallucinations and fasting, without literary adornments. Although she struggles to dodge the lethal psychophysical threat that persecutes her, the novel mirrors its reverberations to build an in-depth picture of female subjectivity. According to Caruth, trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event from an individual s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature the way it was precisely not known in the first instance returns to haunt the survivor later on in nightmares (4). Besides, Vrettos states that the metaphors of tempests and oceans in Villette both express and provoke its heroine s hysteria, merging imaginative and corporeal experiences (564). Thanks to water imagery that invades Lucy s throat and lungs, the wrath of sea also shrouds a sinking boat symbolically herself that surrenders because it is too far away from human coasts. If the reader now discarded the interpretation of the heroine s shipwreck as a failed self-destructive attempt, he/she could surely connect the clinical evidence of her emotional turmoil with her unreliability as the narrator of her own life. However, her distress productively opens wide her mind for literary purposes, not to deliver an irrefutable diagnosis that would jeopardise the author s intended strategy of secrecy, but to detect body/mind symptoms of Lucy s painful, past experience, as well as to make a prognosis of its plausible reverberations: psychosomatic or post-traumatic stress disorders. Psychiatrists like Judith Herman have identified the three main sequelae of trauma: first, 30 UNRAVELLING THE BODY/MIND REVERBERATIONS intrusion or when this harrowing past event is continually recurring in the victim s present and interrupts her normal course of life; second, constriction or when she feels powerless and surrenders to a numbing state or paralysis; and third, hyperarousal or the persistent expectation of danger (35). The latter s alertness, marked by panic or rapid heartbeat, is explained by the alreadymentioned dreams of physical threat, but this is not the only affliction found in the heroine s clinical case. Brontë portrays Lucy as a twenty-three-year-old woman, already called a spinster. She belongs to the middle-class, but she is a poor, solitary vagabond, without beauty, family or connections, a present home or a past. The chapter of her life as the lady companion of an invalid elderly woman, whose fiancé died before their wedding years before, becomes an oracle for her. It foreshadows that, in the future, she will embrace the same stigmatised caste of the old maids, to be later confirmed by the novel s denouement. Lucy wanders in a state of hibernation, where only the comatose sensations of inactivity are pleasurable to her: My homeless, anchorless, unsupported mind had again leisure for a brief repose [...] no further action will be required of me (V 51). Her musings connect her psychological distress with her physical atrophy, which would demonstrate the psychosomatic disorder of constriction. In fact, Brontë s psychology of the body does not alleviate her heroine s emotional damage, but it rather anticipates that her soma symptomatically articulates the suffering of her psyche, when linguistic explanations fail to exteriorise her mental confusion. After the rich woman whom Lucy looks after dies, her professional situation quickly deteriorates. She becomes a destitute wanderer, a foreigner in her own body and country. Without physical forces, but having nothing to lose with this decision, she initiates a secular pilgrimage when she abandons England to go to work to Villette 7. However, she keeps her despondency as her only but ferocious partner during the voyage: the secret but ceaseless consciousness of anxiety lying in wait on enjoyment, like a tiger crouched in a jungle (V 61). Lucy s somatic reaction underneath this feline metaphor is the corporeal threat, namely the disorder of hyperarousal, that provokes her adrenalin rush and unpleasant excitation. In turn, it neutralises the resistance of her immune system against a psychological defeat. In spite of this, she keeps her mental faculties lucid, when she sensibly acknowledges that she must find strength to endure misfortune, because her current circumstances of economic dependence and homelessness force her to find an employment: I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death (V 229). Albeit this textual glimpse of rational thought, 31 FRANCISCO JOSÉ CORTÉS VIECO her mental equilibrium is endangered by the reckless attitude of not being afraid of death: I was inured to suffering: death itself had not [...] those terrors for me which it has for the softy reared (V 50). In fact, this excerpt proves intrusion, or the most dangerous stress disorder, because of the negative impact of the past trauma on the safe course of her life and on her debilitated sense of self-preservation. While Lucy is journeying to her new destination, she confesses: my fondness of a sea-voyage had yet to undergo the test of the experience (V 53). This seemingly irrelevant declaration undermines the hypothesis that the shipwreck from her nightmares truly occurred at a younger age. Therefore, it should be rather understood as a metaphor of trauma, according to Caruth s symbolic definition. Upon her arrival in Villette, the heroine is equally aimless and hopeless. Her dilemma between fighting for life or surren
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