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brontë studies, Vol. 36 No. 2, April 2011, 141–51

‘The track of reverie’: Vision and Pathology in Shirley and Villette

Natalie Mera Ford

Reverie for Charlotte Brontë was a loaded, ambiguous term. Invoking a Romantic sense of liberated imagination but also Victorian medico-cultural suspicion of unrestrained daydreaming, Charlotte uses the configuration of intense inwardness at key moments in her fiction. This essay explores how ‘reverie’ marks both the sensibility and potential pathology of female characters in Shirley and Villette . Charlotte Brontë’s portrayals of profound reverie, it argues, reflect mid-nineteenth-century preoccupation with the rewards and risks of unguided trancelike states. Providing further evidence of Charlotte’s engagement with contemporary psychology, her ambivalent handling of reverie additionally suggests transitional generic tensions between romance and realism.

keywords Charlotte Brontë, daydream, psychology, Romantic, Shirley , trance, Victorian, Villette

Charlotte Brontë was one of several early Victorian fiction writers who presented an array of introspective states bordering on the pathological. While Dickens explored the continuum of sleep, trance and waking in, for example, Oliver Twist and Dombey and Son, Charlotte Brontë set out a range of mental states reflecting subtle gradations of imaginative vision and illusory fantasy. Such uncontrolled inwardness, which seems alternatively inspired and delusional, appears at significant points in Charlotte Brontë’s works under the name ‘reverie’. Her sisters also used this term on occasion in their writing, as in Emily Brontë’s poem ‘A Day-Dream’ (1846), where the speaker’s melancholic moor ‘reverie’ leads to a ‘noonday dream’ of consoling spirits. 1 How- ever, Charlotte Brontë went beyond occasional usage to invest ‘reverie’ repeatedly with ambivalent and gendered force in her fiction. As I aim to show in this essay, even momentary reverie experienced by female characters in Charlotte Brontë’s novels carries a potent, often perilous, psychological charge. Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853) offer provocative instances of intense reverie that suggest that the notion veered between positive and negative interpretations, while retaining a distinct aesthetic quality, for their author. In these two narratives, Charlotte Brontë simultaneously invokes a Romantic trope of visionary reverie and communicates a suspicion of


unregulated mental states that accorded with the prevailing concerns of mid- nineteenth-century British society, above all its rising medical class. ‘Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie?’ 2 So the narrator ironically asks the reader in the opening to Shirley, where a triumvirate of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century novelistic conventions are both acknowledged and rejected. As reverie is ostensibly expelled from the industrial novel, it is associated with what were then frequently considered hackneyed modes of writing; indeed, reverie is treated as a stock element of romance. Leading into her one Condition-of-England work, Charlotte Brontë employs a mocking tone here to deride facile overuse of sentiment, poetry and reverie in contemporary literature. This movement away from melodrama in Shirley was partly due to the influence of George Henry Lewes, who in Fraser’s Magazine had charged Jane Eyre (1847) with melodramatic distortion, after express- ing similar criticism in correspondence with ‘Currer Bell’. 3 Although Charlotte Brontë’s replies to Lewes articulate what an early twentieth-century critic called a Shelleyan defence of the poetic imagination, espousing Romantic views of the creative mind, Charlotte Brontë heeded Lewes’s advice and positioned Shirley in the genre of artistic realism. 4 Notably, having disputed ‘sentiment’ and ‘poetry’ with Lewes, 5 Charlotte Brontë aligned ‘reverie’ with the aesthetic notions that she valued but claims to restrain in her novel about political, economic and social conflicts surrounding the 1811–12 Luddite revolts. Her inclusion of the term was, unintentionally, apposite:

Lewes later discussed ‘reverie’ as a dreamlike mental state in The Physiology of Common Life (1859–60), and, as Betty Kushen has observed, reverie figures as an important psychic mode in his own, rather melodramatic, fiction. 6 The initial rebuff to reverie in Shirley occurs in a passage that challenges early Victorian assumptions about a typical romance:

If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto. (S, p. 7)

‘Sentiment, and poetry, and reverie’ along with ‘passion, and stimulus, and melo- drama’ are cast out of Charlotte Brontë’s text in the effort to establish the guise of literary realism. 7 Rhetorically linked, these aspects of popular writing are divided into two questions to distinguish the less from the more extreme, with reverie in the former group. Its placement as the third and last quality, however, implies that reverie can shift dangerously up the scale from ‘poetry’ towards ‘passion’. As I will shortly illustrate, to accord reverie such intermediary status is typical of the period’s psychological discourse as well as imaginative literature. Theorists of the mind like Henry Holland, alongside fiction writers like Edward Bulwer Lytton, treat reverie as a transitional form of interiority bridging daydreams and disease. 8 Similarly, in Shirley the profound state of reverie hovers semiotically as a potential minor threat to morality and reason. Echoing Lewes’s critique, Charlotte Brontë unfavourably contrasts romantic elements of fiction with the ‘real, cool, and solid’ story that Shirley supposedly offers. By comparing the ‘unromantic’ novel to the mundane working



week, Charlotte Brontë’s text reinforces the sense that evocative, sentimental modalities like reverie represent a problematic realm of fanciful excess — related to what Sally Shuttleworth calls ‘mists of feeling’ (Shuttleworth, p. 189), which the narrator avows will not feature in the Yorkshire mill tale. Nevertheless, reverie reappears. In the chapter ‘Old Maids’, as local tensions esca- late due to economic repercussions of the Napoleonic war, the community’s strain is mirrored by an intensifying private strain in the life of Caroline Helstone, whose emotional disappointment in her cousin Robert Moore precipitates a psychological and physical decline that results in life-threatening illness. Charlotte Brontë describes the young woman’s morose mental state at an early stage of her decline, when she struggles to absorb thwarted romantic hopes and become a useful spinster. This portrayal of Caroline’s waning spirits draws attention to an unhealthy impact of unrelieved introspection on body and mind. We see Caroline sitting with work by the window, ‘paler and quieter’ than before, as her normally unobservant uncle notes, a perpetual ‘shadowy thoughtfulness’ cast over her face (S, p. 190). Having been forbid- den contact with her ‘Jacobinical’ cousins, having fruitlessly ‘meditated’ and ‘mused’ on Moore’s detachment (S, pp. 190–91), Caroline stops trying to react rationally. One of many oppressively quiet Sunday evenings alone in her room sets the scene for a psychological crisis: ‘Closeted there, silent and solitary, what could she do but think?’ Caroline ‘noiselessly pace[s] to and fro’, reflecting in a ‘mutely excited’ state, unable to focus on theological reading as her mind races, ‘teeming, wandering’ (S, p. 192). That the book strikes her as ‘incomprehensible’ throws doubt on theology as a viable source of spiritual direction in the nineteenth century; the rector and curate down- stairs seem equally remote. Although Caroline provides the servants with similar ‘fit’ Sunday reading, her own gesture at religious meditation fails. Instead, her restive imagination fills with ‘pictures’ of Moore and past moments they shared (S, p. 192). The agitated portrayal of Caroline in fragmented reminiscence recalls nineteenth- century accounts of the onset of hysteria, a gendered term then used for a wide range of conditions. 9 Charlotte Brontë’s chapter title itself hints at hysteria. In an era when nervous ailments were principally linked to the female sex, the phrase ‘Old Maids’ evokes a longstanding sociocultural belief respecting the proclivity of unmarried — that is, virginal or celibate — women to fall prey to diseases of implicit sexual repres- sion. In her feminist reading of Victorian spinsters as subversively powerful, Nina Auerbach does not fully address this past view of non-reproductive ‘old maids’ as physiologically, and socially, ‘unnatural’. 10 Yet the association of single women with nervous illness found fresh corroboration in contemporary medical texts, including the Revd Mr Patrick Brontë’s household guide, Thomas Graham’s Modern Domestic Medicine (1826). Graham therein denotes hysteria as an affliction common to young women, related to menstruation, and exacerbated by ‘a sedentary life, grief, anxiety of mind’. 11 Thus Charlotte Brontë, who has been shown to have followed and engaged nineteenth-century medical theories, Graham’s in particular, here aligns her character’s disturbed mind to the breeding ground of hysteria. 12 In addition, I would suggest, Charlotte Brontë hints at the advance of another mid-century construct of derangement. The Sunday scene resembles a case of the ‘wandering’ version of reverie as an attention disorder that Scottish physician Robert MacNish analyses in The Philosophy of Sleep (1830), 13 a favourite treatise of Patrick Brontë that his


daughter consequently may have read. Sally Shuttleworth has endorsed this familiarity in her argument that Charlotte Brontë’s writings reflect a fixation with the regulation of energies and resources in the period’s economic, physiological and psychological discourses. Shuttleworth cites MacNish — along with John Abercrombie, James Cowles Prichard and others — as a mental theorist whose work was known to the Brontë family. 14 The influence of early to mid-nineteenth-century psychology on Charlotte Brontë, I am proposing, appears to have extended to its conceptions of pathological reverie. Medical and cultural suspicion of interiority in general acted to offset Charlotte Brontë’s heavily Romantic literary background, with its promotion of generative inwardness. Numerous texts document a nosological currency given to extreme reverie by the physicians mentioned above and the developing psychiatric profession at large. In A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind (1835), for example, Prichard equates ‘ecstatic reverie’ with delusive trance. 15 Charlotte Brontë hence seems to draw on contemporary pathological vocabulary and ideology in conveying Caroline Helstone’s disturbed mental state. Like an inversion of Rousseau’s or Wordsworth’s meditative rural ambles, the young woman’s pacing is confined to a small room. Her equally cramped psychological circumstances, embodied by her harried walking back and forth and subsequent collapse, contrast with the pleasurable mental expansion symbolized by Romantic roaming and repos- ing in nature. Gender figures in the distinct portrayals: indoor female introspection here seems a sick descendant of outdoor male contemplative modes. Caroline’s fit of pacing operates as a metaphor for her psychic distress. In this context, ‘teeming, wandering’ echoes clinical reports of one form of uncontrolled reverie. The same trope figures earlier in Jane Eyre and in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847):

pacing, ‘reverie’ and pathology are conjoined negatively by Rochester to dismiss the suspicion of a morbid aspect in Jane’s ‘gently musing’ walk; and by Nelly to demonstrate Heathcliff’s morbid destabilization before his death. 16 Charlotte Brontë’s awareness of contemporary alienist discourse adds weight to the second kind of parapathological reverie that figures in Shirley’s melancholic Sunday scene. Unable to sustain her idealized memories, Caroline sinks into dejection as the ‘pictures’ and her cousin’s resuscitated look, touch and kiss dissolve:

She returned from an enchanted region to the real world: for Nunnely wood in June, she saw her narrow chamber; for the songs of birds in alleys, she heard the rain on her case- ment; for the sigh of the south wind, came the sob of the mournful east; and for Moore’s manly companionship, she had the thin illusion of her own dim shadow on the wall. Turning from the pale phantom which reflected herself in its outline, and her reverie in the drooped attitude of its dim head and colourless tresses, she sat down — inaction would suit the frame of mind into which she was now declining — (S, p. 193)

Charlotte Brontë stresses the disparities between Caroline’s imagined and actual circumstances, which culminate in the eerie replacement of her beloved with her spectral double: ‘the thin illusion of her own dim shadow on the wall’. The next line drives the ghostly image home, moving from the silhouette of ‘the pale phantom’ and ‘her reverie’ to Caroline, psychologically ‘declining’. In decided contrast to Shirley’s introduction, reverie here corresponds to a sombre, fixed mood marked by sorrowful



listlessness. In the sketch of morbid female reverie, the ‘drooped’ stance, ‘dim head’ and ‘colourless tresses’ reveal the extent to which Caroline’s health and beauty

have diminished, adumbrating her severe physical and psychological deterioration. Charlotte Brontë presents the vignette of reverie with little sentimental or poetic gloss; the passage’s tone evades melodrama despite relying on the language of sensibility. Charlotte Brontë partly achieves this balance by having Caroline herself recognize the deceptive nature of memory and imagination. The highly sensitive character dutifully,

if mournfully, allows fantasy to be supplanted by the dull admission of ‘unromantic’

reality. The effect of the scene, with its Keatsian themes and language, 17 is both strengthened and limited by being enclosed in the realist social discourse of the novel. Caroline’s imprisoning room is overdetermined, and not Gothic. Charlotte Brontë’s two uses of the term ‘reverie’ in Shirley therefore play up con-

flicting senses of the word. At first associated with sentimental fiction and poetic expression, reverie later shifts to function within the lexicon of psychological distur- bance, denoting an unstable state akin to the preliminary stages of nervous illness. As Janet Oppenheim has clarified, ‘nervousness’ was a diagnosis that nineteenth-century physicians loosely applied to various mental and physiological conditions, from despondency to a headache to incapacitating, long-term psychic and bodily collapse. 18 Caroline Helstone’s breakdown eventually spans the gamut. Charlotte Brontë obliquely alludes to hereditary theories of mental debility through this elastic notion of nerves. While Caroline is the character most insistently deemed ‘nervous’ through- out the novel, several references underline Mrs Pryor’s nervous temperament, hence linking mother and daughter before their kinship is revealed. 19 Tellingly, as the quoted passage reveals, Caroline’s psychosomatic illness and temporary insanity are presaged and precipitated by her episode of disturbed reverie. Reverie could thus be enlisted into Shuttleworth’s thesis as an encapsulation of Caroline’s nervous energies unhealthily ‘turned inwards against herself’ (Shuttleworth, p. 186). The scene supports my claim that, in a parallel to writers like Dickens, Bulwer Lytton and George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with early Victorian psychology acquainted her with scientific concern about unchecked forms of interiority, including profound reverie. Certainly, the portrayal of intense ‘reverie’ in Shirley and, as we shall see, Villette registers a latent pathology in the state. At the same time, an aesthetic notion of reverie is preserved. If the opening to Shirley ironizes reverie’s Romantic literary connotations of a finely wrought sensibility, it is to discredit the shallow manipulation of such subjective modes — not to deny their currency. Villette displays similar ambivalence towards reverie in relation to the novel’s central theme of alienated selfhood, which Charlotte Brontë constructs as a particu- larly female problem of passion and restraint. Her protagonist Lucy Snowe presents

a constant challenge to Victorian attempts to distinguish sound from unsound mental

states; Lucy’s experiences of reverie are correspondingly difficult to decode. The pro- liferation of alienist terms in this narrative has been identified and explored in recent criticism. 20 My aim here is to add ‘reverie’ to the list of pathological vocabulary employed by Charlotte Brontë and to unpack visionary reverie’s role in a text that, as Sally Shuttleworth has stressed, combines Gothic elements with medico-cultural discourse on moral management (Shuttleworth, p. 221). It could justifiably be argued that Charlotte Brontë uses the term with less scientific exactitude than, for example,


‘monomania’. Nonetheless, the imprecision and contradictions surrounding ‘reverie’ in Villette mirror the common ambiguity of the notion’s characterization in contem- porary nosologies. Charlotte Brontë’s novel, like medical accounts, reflects a conjunc- tion and collision of currencies for profound reverie: its creative sense as generating inspiration and visions intersects with its psychological sense as suspect unrestrained inwardness. Overall, reverie’s indeterminacy recalls the way that the binaries Victo- rians proposed for the mind were often blurred, indicating, as Jenny Bourne Taylor has emphasized, ‘how very fragile, how tenuous, the boundaries of a coherent subjectivity really were’. 21 Unsurprisingly, Lucy Snowe is the subject of the three instances of ‘reverie’ in Villette. Although its resonance changes with each context, the term consistently connotes strong psychological expansion. The narrative portrays such experience as pleasurable as well as dangerous; Lucy predictably responds to yet also resists reverie’s sway. Villette therefore dramatizes reverie as a spontaneous force of intensi- fied psychic life, whether this force is heightened, deepened, sharpened or distorted. While invoking Romantic moulds, Charlotte Brontë expresses the preoccupations of her post-Romantic moment by gesturing to wary views of solitary, inward states through Lucy Snowe’s mixed reactions to reverie. The plurality of her response, within and across the scenes, attests to the paradoxical meanings ascribed to reverie in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. The solitude that marks these instances works to differentiate independently arising forms of semi-consciousness from those induced by human agents. Mesmerism and the hazards of usurped volition do not figure in Charlotte Brontë’s representations of reverie as they do elsewhere — pivotally, for example, in Bulwer Lytton’s A Strange Story (1862). 22 In Villette, as in Shirley, the greatest opponent to self-control lies within. Both novels cast reverie as a mode of mental liberty requiring the internalized surveillance that Foucault saw promulgated by nineteenth-century discourses. 23 By giving free rein to desire and fantasy, reverie threatens to override the psyche’s supposedly necessary restraints, and so must be curbed. The troubled issue of self-control in Villette may reflect personal crisis (Charlotte Brontë’s despondency and illness after her siblings’ deaths are often considered to have informed her last work, with its recurrent themes of despair and self-alienation), 24 yet the focus on mental self-discipline notably highlights predominant societal trends. However, reverie in Villette initially promises freedom from routine runnels of thought through transformative psychological expansion. Preserving Romantic notions of the mind, Charlotte Brontë affirms the imagination’s numinous potential, although the mixture of fancy and reality remains unclear in Lucy’s first reverie crossing the sea and final reverie on Villette’s festival night. Concerning the former scene, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have drawn attention to the way in which Charlotte Brontë ‘mythologize[s] this voyage out through the unconscious toward selfhood’. In keeping with their study on the status of nineteenth-century women, the feminist critics stress the independence that Lucy enjoys on deck as opposed to her doubles, fellow female passengers embroiled in dilemmas of courtship and matrimony. Yet the heroine’s ‘moment of triumph’, they add, is typically short-lived: nausea sends her below deck to join the rest. 25 Despite supporting Gilbert and Gubar’s reading of the voyage as a symbolic launch of Lucy’s quest for identity (in a book that ends with



talk of shipwreck), I would suggest that more than seasickness cuts short her so-called triumphant moment. In fact, Lucy spends the entire afternoon alone on deck, relishing the seascape in a Wordsworthian ‘tranquil, and even happy mood’ before the narrative shifts from appreciation of nature to supranatural perception: ‘In my reverie, methought I saw the continent of Europe, like a wide dream-land far away’. Elaborating on her vague vision in aesthetic terms, Lucy conveys an idyllic picture, ‘soft with tints of enchantment’ and framed by ‘an arch of hope’. 26 ‘Cancel the whole of that, if you please, reader — or rather let it stand, and draw thence a moral — an alternative, text-hand copy — “Day-dreams are delusions of the demon”’ (V, p. 57). So Charlotte Brontë has Lucy jerk herself and the reader out of reverie, which has already been implied to be illusion with the gentler ‘methought’. This vehement narrative break, reinforced by the jolting maxim, suggests a psychological as well as textual fracturing. Lucy’s ‘triumph’ is not only curtailed but is self-reflexively repelled as spurious and immoral. If the passage portrays a subversive overthrow of social restriction by the creative mind, it nonetheless brings Lucy’s narrative back in line with Victorian strictures in a curiously violent, disjointed manner. A pleasurable, liberating state of reverie here leads to deceptive daydreams, begetting a conflict between Lucy’s imagination and reason that portends more severe contests to come. Her psychomachia has an early toll: ‘Becoming excessively sick, I faltered down into the cabin’ (V, p. 57). Like Thomas De Quincey, whose writing the Brontë sisters admired, Charlotte Brontë implies that the unguided power of reverie can simultane- ously be cut off by and give rise to crisis. At the same time, again like De Quincey, Charlotte Brontë deflects direct censure from ‘reverie’. 27 The term remains aligned with Lucy’s serene visionary state on deck, even as its product, the illusive daydream, is demonized. ‘Reverie’ appears much later in Villette to describe a different form of vivid, uncontrolled interiority, but the episode similarly insinuates a precarious, albeit thrilling, mental state. Frequently considered to show the influence of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 28 the scene in question depicts an opiate’s stimulating effects on Lucy. She exults: ‘I became alive to new thought — to reverie peculiar in colouring. A gathering call ran among the faculties, their bugles sang, their trumpets rang an untimely summons. Imagination was roused from her rest, and she came forth impetuous and venturous’ (V, p. 449, italics added). The protagonist’s definition of her opium-induced ‘new thought’ as ‘reverie’ confirms that De Quincey is a source here: initiating shared themes between the Confessions and this passage in Villette, the word alone invokes his famous work. While Lucy recognizes the material cause of her excited senses, after the ‘peculiar’ reverie kindles her mind she freely personifies and genders the drug’s effect as ‘Imagination’, admiringly relating how her goddess-like or witch-like guide commands, lures and conjures up visions. The metaphor enables Lucy rhetorically to assume a passive role even as she steals into town to wander, disguised, through an unrestricted, carnivalesque midnight realm. The arresting scene has elicited a range of interpretations, but its importance for this essay lies in its opening premise. Opium expands Lucy’s perception in a fascinating, strange way that can be seen to confuse her grasp of reality at a critical point in the plot, when despair over Monsieur Paul’s departure leaves her ‘frightfully white in the face, and insanely restless in the foot’ (V, p. 449). Her night roaming in


the surreal depths of the mind offers another peripatetic symbol of reverie’s ambiguous character, in this instance associated with psychological irritation and hallucination as much as imagination’s unleashed force. The opiate pre-empts any resistance Lucy might have mounted against her uncon- trolled mental state. Furthermore, she escapes responsibility for ingesting the drug thanks to the agency of the foiled Madame Beck. However, earlier in Villette, a naturally arising reverie likewise distances Lucy from directed consciousness and culpability for her actions, or inaction. The abdication of moral management with its dictum of self-control seems part and parcel of reverie’s dreamy, visionary effect; which triggers significant tension in the narrative. In our final example, Charlotte Brontë portrays reverie on the day of the fête as an alluring semi-conscious condition that ultimately seems as morally and psychologically unsafe on land as at sea, and during the day as at night. Though not as dramatically rendered as the other instances of deep reverie we have looked at, Lucy’s schoolroom reverie similarly points up the risk of lapsed self-command, but only after establishing a sensuous Romantic sense of retreat:

.] I sat down to read. The glass door of this ‘classe’,

or school-room, opened into the large berceau; acacia-boughs caressed its panes, as they stretched across to meet a rose-bush blooming by the opposite lintel: in this rose- bush, bees murmured busy and happy. I commenced reading. Just as the stilly hum, the embowering shade, the warm, lonely calm of my retreat were beginning to steal meaning

from the page, vision from my eyes, and to lure me along the track of reverie, down into

Withdrawing to the first classe,

some deep dell of dream-land — just then, the sharpest ring of the street-door bell snatched me back to consciousness. (V, p. 132)


As in the portrayal of Oliver Twist in a twilight trance at the Maylie’s country home, reverie in the schoolroom description above converts a scene of reading into a scene of trancelike non-reading. 29 The book becomes a secondary prop, its intellectual stimulus replaced in this case by the soothing sounds and motions of a tranquil sum- mer day. Lucy’s situation at once resembles and contrasts with Caroline Helstone’s departure from meditative reading into vision and memory, shut indoors on a gloomy wintry night. In the passage from Villette, indoor space instead appreciably merges with outer: the open glass door permits summer to enter the classroom, with an acacia and rosebush aesthetically framing the threshold in graceful, animated fashion (‘caressed its panes’, ‘blooming by the opposite lintel’). The murmur of bees and, as Tim Dolin has pointed out, the particular phrase ‘the stilly hum’ together recall the ‘stilly murmur’ of Coleridge’s ‘The Eolian Harp’ (1796), 30 although Coleridge refers to the murmur of the sea. This poetic echo underscores the way that Charlotte Brontë has Lucy Snowe present her deepening state of reverie in a resonant literary register, seemingly in order to appeal to the Romantic motif of the individual of sensibility’s private communion with the natural world. Nevertheless, the text goes on to suggest a loss of comprehension, sight and lucid reality rather than the expected Romantic gain of insight into a transcendent plane of ‘natural supernaturalism’. 31 Lucy describes her situation in positive, indeed Romantic, terms, but ‘steal’ and ‘lure’ suggest an underlying anxiety that the lulling conditions may be deceptively benign. Meaning, vision and, arguably, even reason



start to dissolve as the slippery ‘track of reverie’ leads Lucy towards ‘some deep dell of dream-land’. Linking this trancelike subjective state back to her vision at sea, ‘dream-land’ comes to stand for the forbidden psychic ground of Lucy’s unexplored fantasies. The alliterative ‘d’s sound the note of enchantment in the schoolroom scene, yet the phonetic sequence recalls that earlier, harsh indictment: ‘Day-dreams are delusions of the demon’. Syntax in the schoolroom passage further reflects the building pressure on, and subsequent relief and recovery of, the protagonist’s rational mind. ‘Just as’ the language and beguiling influences near a crescendo, ‘just then’, the sharp bell rescues Lucy’s drifting attention and reason. Notably, it is M. Paul who charges in to ‘snatch’ Lucy back to the stage of life (the play), saving her from solipsistic withdrawal into its shadowy wings, or the liminal sites of undirected consciousness. The psychological danger that Charlotte Brontë posed in relation to intense rev- erie therefore accords with her period’s medical and social concerns about unchecked introspection. Through her representations of Caroline Helstone and Lucy Snowe in reverie, Charlotte Brontë raised topical questions about the precarious balance of mental faculties — especially for women — in unstructured, profoundly inward states. Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with contemporary psychological discourse, examined by Sally Shuttleworth, Helen Small and Elaine Showalter, among others, 32 thus extends to her ambivalent treatment of ‘reverie’ — a creative subjective mode that the novelist romanticizes and yet pathologizes, much in the style of early Victorian theorists of the mind and fellow fiction writers engaging the discourse of mid-nineteenth-century psychology. In Charlotte Brontë’s poetry, the term occurs twice in more straightforward Romantic, sentimental key, linked to moonlight scenes of blissful gazing upon nature and lonely, dreamlike memory. 33 These uses of ‘reverie’ conform to a lighter, generic usage as nostalgic musings that proliferated in popular verse throughout the Victorian period. In marked contrast, Charlotte Brontë complicated intense ‘reverie’ in her fictional narratives by pushing analogous forms of interiority like daydream and vision to extremes that reflected topical preoc- cupations with mental, and moral, decline. Charlotte Brontë dramatically focused the contested issue of introspection by assigning reverie to her most self-reflective, psychologically vulnerable and ‘nervous’ female characters. The fact that frivolous but hardy Ginevra Fanshawe, for instance, undergoes no destabilizing reveries rein- forces the enduring nineteenth-century belief in the centrality of temperament, on top of gender, to the aetiology of disease. Moreover, Shirley Keeldar’s occasional indolent, pleasurable outdoor trances — significantly not termed ‘reverie’ — offer a healthy contrast to Caroline’s disturbed, obsessive states. 34 Literary and scientific views of reverie converge in Shirley and Villette, yet the Romantic ideal of generative interiority ultimately gives way under the pressure of Victorian scrutiny. The narrative tension in Charlotte Brontë’s reverie scenes can be seen to stem from the ‘compromise’ Mary Jacobus has identified in Villette between Romantic and Victorian literary genres and ideology; the invocation and repression of reverie forms part of the ‘ruptured and ambiguous discourse’ that gives the novel its affective power. 35 While Jacobus’s feminist psychoanalytic reading places empha- sis on more Gothic emblems of otherness haunting Villette (namely, the nun), the critic also notes that ‘delusion and dream’ equally subvert Victorian realism. 36 As I have argued, reverie — itself a Romantic convention — significantly functions in


Charlotte Brontë’s fiction as a gateway state for such disruptive Romantic conven- tions of the nonrational mind. The ‘divorce of the Romantic imagination from its revolutionary impulse’, Jacobus asserts, challenged ‘Victorian Romantics’ like Charlotte Brontë: without social purpose, imaginative vision could only ‘threaten madness’ or reduce into ‘self-destructive solipsism’. 37 Although this leaves aside Romantic associations of creative subjectivity with transcendent experience, it underscores mid-nineteenth-century Britain’s concern about the risks of excessive introspection, a circumspect view corroborated and reinforced by the consolidating, increasingly authoritative, psychiatric profession. Charlotte Brontë turned, Janus-like, between these two ideological views. Her ambivalent treatment of reverie in her fiction additionally appears to signal the generic crisis that Jacobus points towards between romance and realism, where ostensibly poetic notions like reverie carry doubtful charge. Reflecting such signifi- cant, changing nineteenth-century cultural, medical and literary attitudes, Charlotte Brontë by and large exposes the latent pathology of vision in the narratives of Shirley and Villette. As this essay has set out to show, Charlotte Brontë in these works repeatedly depicts ‘dream-land’ as an unstable if compelling psychic terrain, one that is best for her highly sensitive female protagonists to avoid, despite its enduring allure.


1 Emily Brontë, ‘A Day-Dream’, in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, by [Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë] (London: Aylott and Jones, 1846), lines 24 and 69.

2 Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, ed. by Herbert Rosengar- ten and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

1979), p. 7; hereafter S. All citations are from this edition and page numbers are given parenthetically

in the text.

3 George Henry Lewes, ‘Recent Novels: French and English’, Fraser’s Magazine, 36 (1847), 686–95.

4 Franklin Gary, ‘Charlotte Brontë and George Henry Lewes’, PMLA, 51.2 (1936), 518–42 (pp. 529–30,


5 The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Margaret Smith, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995–2004),

II (2000), 13–14.

6 Betty Kushen, ‘“Dreams”, “Reveries”, and the Continuity of Consciousness in Three Nineteenth- Century Novelists’, Journal of Evolutionary Psy- chology, 15 (1994), 112–28 (pp. 114–17). For Lewes on reverie, see George Henry Lewes, The Physiology of Common Life, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1859–60), II (1860), 366–68, 370.

7 Realist ‘decorum’, however, is continuously violated in the opening chapter of Shirley. Sally Shuttle- worth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Litera- ture and Culture, 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer- sity Press, 1996), pp. 188–89; hereafter Shuttleworth.

All citations are from this edition and page numbers are given parenthetically in the text.

8 See Terry Castle, The Female Thermometer:

Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 163–65; and Natalie Mera Ford, ‘The Interpretation of Daydreams: Reverie as Site of Conflict in Early Victorian Psychology’, in Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature, ed. by Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn (Basing- stoke: Palgrave, 2010).

9 Ilza Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Chicago: Phoenix-University of Chicago Press, 1965; repr. 1970), pp. 127, 201, 209–10.

10 Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 109–12. Auerbach acknowledges that Charlotte Brontë conveys a less heroic version of spinsterhood in her fiction than in letters praising friend Mary Taylor (p. 112), but does not discuss historical pathological theories informing the stereotype.

11 Thomas J. Graham, Modern Domestic Medicine, 2nd edn (London: Milner, [1827]), p. 155.

12 Graham’s influence on Charlotte Brontë emerges in the name of Villette’s physician: Dr John Graham Bretton. Janis McLarren Caldwell, Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain: From Mary Shelley to George Eliot, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, 46 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 98.



13 Robert MacNish, The Philosophy of Sleep, rev. edn (Hartford: Andrus, [1834]), p. 45.

14 Copies of Abercrombie’s Inquiries and MacNish’s The Philosophy of Sleep were held at the Keighley Mechanics Institute library, and Patrick Brontë quoted MacNish’s work in his medical annotations. See Shuttleworth, p. 282, n. 2.

15 J. C. Prichard, A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind (London: Sherwood, 1835), p. 458.

16 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. by Margaret Smith, introd. and rev. notes by Sally Shuttleworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 313; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. by Christopher Heywood (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002), pp. 425–26.

17 ‘Enchanted’, ‘chamber’, ‘casement’ and ‘phantom’ all echo ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ (1820).

18 Janet Oppenheim, ‘Shattered Nerves’: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 5, 9, 235.

19 See Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, chs 7, 11, 12, 13, 16, 21, 23.

20 See Shuttleworth, pp. 220–21. On nineteenth- century theories of the mind reflected in Jane Eyre, see Helen Small, Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800–1865 (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 155–56, 168–69.

21 Jenny Bourne Taylor, In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 46.

22 See [Edward Bulwer] Lytton, A Strange Story, Kneb- worth edn (London: Routledge, 1897), pp. 215–17.

23 For a summary and modification of Foucault’s seminal interpretation of the moral management discourse, see Taylor, p. 30.

24 Gaskell’s biography sets the ground for this view. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Alan Shelston (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), chs 5, 6, 8.

25 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Mad- woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the

Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 406–07.

26 Charlotte Brontë, Villette, ed. by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten, introd. and notes by Tim Dolin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 56–57; hereafter V. All citations are from this edition and page numbers are given parenthetically in the text.

27 See Natalie Ford, ‘Beyond Opium: De Quincey’s Range of Reveries’, The Cambridge Quarterly, 36.3 (2007), 229–49.

28 See, for instance, Lisa Surridge, ‘Representing the

“Latent Vashti”: Theatricality in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette’, The Victorian Newsletter, 87 (Spring 1995), 4–14 (rpr. in The Brontë Sisters: Critical Assessments, ed. by Eleanor McNees, 4 vols (Mount- field: Helm, 1996), III, 838–58 (pp. 850–51 and p. 858, n. 26)).

29 Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. by Kathleen Tillotson, introd. and notes by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), p. 281. For a discussion of Victorian medical views of reverie in its lighter sense as daydream and contemporary reading prac- tices, see Debra Lynn Gettelman, Reverie, Reading, and the Victorian Novel (doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 2005; publ. by ProQuest, 2006).

30 See Tim Dolin’s annotation in Villette, p. 509, n.


31 M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York:

Norton, 1971), pp. 65–66.

32 See Shuttleworth’s monograph, especially p. 12; Small, pp. 155–56, 168–69; and Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1980 (London: Virago, 1987), pp. 66–71.

33 See Charlotte Brontë, ‘Mementos’ and ‘Evening Solace’, in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

34 See, for example, Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, p. 361.

35 Mary Jacobus, Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 55.

36 Jacobus, p. 41.

37 Jacobus, p. 58.

Notes on contributor

Natalie Mera Ford holds a PhD in English from the University of York, England, where she was an Overseas Research Scholar. Articles based on her thesis on the fate of reverie in nineteenth-century scientific and literary discourses have appeared in The Cambridge Quarterly and Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2010). Ford has taught literature and composition at the University of York and Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, and currently teaches academic writing at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France. Research interests include Romantic and Victorian psychology, the history of subjectivity and gender studies. Correspondence to: Natalie Mera Ford. Email: nfordz@hotmail.com

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Copyright of Bronte Studies is the property of Maney Publishing and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.