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Monday, April 18, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Alternative History

Following the path down to the lake
outside Haworth, England.

Warning: This post contains spoilers with regard to Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. It also contains spoilers both of her sister Anne's novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Read further at your own risk!

In Shirley, heroine Caroline Helstone falls ill. Mrs Pryor, Shirley's former governess, sits by her bed night and day. When Caroline seems at death's door, Mrs Pryor throws out a bombshell. After her husband's death, she entrusted Caroline to her brother-in-law's care, and assumed the last name Pryor to shield her identity. She is, in reality, Agnes Helstone. She is Caroline's mother!

Mrs Pryor then does a very intriguing thing: she tells Caroline that before married her father, and became Mrs Helstone, her name was Agnes Grey. Just like Anne Bronte's title character in her novel Agnes Grey, she worked as a governess. And just like Helen in Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she married a man who seemed not only handsome but also good. Only after her marriage did she discover that cruelty accompanied that kindness. 

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arthur Huntington's increasing alcoholism leads him to be terribly cruel to his wife. To protect herself, and their son from Arthur's depravity, Helen flees her home. She assumes the name Helen Graham, and takes up residence in Wildfell Hall. 

Unlike in Anne's novel Agnes Grey, Charlotte's character of Agnes Grey (or Mrs Pryor) marries unhappily. Unlike in Anne's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte's character of Agnes Grey never details her husband's depravity. She explains to Caroline, in a few vague phrases, how James Helstone grew terribly cruel to her. While still a handsome man, after their marriage, he revealed himself as a villain. Nevertheless, the way physical beauty united with cruelty and depravity of nature made her fear the person her daughter would develop into. For Caroline was a beautiful baby.

These days, authors feel free to explore all sorts of alternative fictional scenarios. What if someone shot Adolf Hitler in his childhood? What if gunpowder was never invented? Alternative History has grown into a vibrant portion of the Science Fiction & Fantasy genre. Even big name authors, who are generally known for their speculations of the future, have felt its attraction. Eminent Science Fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, in The Years of Rice and Salt, weaved an entire novel around this premise: What if the Black Death wiped out everyone in western Europe? Modern authors even feel free to delve into the past of famous characters, such as those written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, and speculate what might have occurred had Sherlock Holmes traveled to America, or the Bennett sisters received training as zombie hunters.

While nothing is new in storytelling, I have to wonder if what Charlotte Bronte did in Shirley was common or rare in her era. Did her contemporary writers routinely borrow characters from other authors, and place them into their own novels? Or was Charlotte Bronte attempting to do something new in her novel Shirley?

What do you think? Does Charlotte Bronte's character of Agnes Grey constitute plagiarism or an homage? And does her work serve as an important precursor of today's popular sub genre of Alternative History?

Dragon Dave

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