Monday, December 7, 2009

THE BRONTE SISTERS AND US

Reading through the education pack for Polly Teale's remarkable play, Bronte, which explores the inner lives and conflicts of these three tragic figures, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, I came across this passage:

Today it is difficult for us to imagine a world where women were not allowed to enter a library, where women had to publish under men's names, where women had no part in public life. And yet 150 years is not so long ago. Their struggles are not so distant. We are fascinated by the Brontes because they broke the mould (against all odds). They broke it and yet they were made by it. They were every inch the product of their time, even in their attempts to free themselves. Jane Eyre is believed to be the second-most read book in the English language (after the Bible). Wuthering Heights remains one of the great literary creations of all time and is still a bestseller. So why, 150 years later, are we still drawn to these stories, these characters?


150 years from now (less, let us hope) the human community will look back on our times and be appalled that certain civil governments denied the basic human right to two human beings of the same sex to form a legal bond together in order to provide structure and support for their deeply human wish to live their lives together in peace and harmony. This deprivation, in hindsight, will look as shocking and absurd as denying women the simple right of entering a library. Our human fellows will also be appalled at the terrible costs, the tragic lives lost, the equally tragic lives lived in deprivation and suffering, and wonder at the human race's continued capacity for bigotry, ignorance and hate. The Bronte's in their tragic isolation, deprived of the ordinary normal joys of human love because of the Victorian restrictions on womanhood, are forerunners of our own struggles for gay equality and simple justice. Each of the sisters dealt with her isolation in her own unique way. Emily became a recluse, living in communion with nature, and "withdrew from society spending much of her time alone on the moors...untouched by social restraints or expectations." Charlotte longed for fame and recognition. Anne became a social activist and used her writings "to expose injustice and bring about reform." Charlotte's outrage at her brother's degenerate behavior "was in part a way of dealing with her own bitter frustrations. Lonely and unloved, she was forced to look on as her brother satisfied his appetites."


How unbearably sad, yet through their rich inner lives, the mystery of their deprivation was transformed into overpowering forms of art that illuminated the follies and injustices, the blindness and stupidity,  of the oppressive structures of culture and religion that so painfully circumscribed their lives. How much of our future liberation as  Catholic gay and lesbian persons rest upon the shoulders of writers and activists today who are transforming our own deprivation into art - but at what human costs. The 'inner joy' of uniting with the Crucified in his prophetic, marginal status can sometimes be only a dimly felt presence in the soul, while fires and storms rage overhead. Sometimes the gift of being both Catholic and gay can be a heavy burden to bear, moving us to cry out, "How long, O Lord, how long?" Or like St. Teresa of Avila, we may express our deprivation in more witty terms by exclaiming, "Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few." In the end, however, truth and justice will prevail because of the heroic 'redemptive sacrifice' of so many gay and lesbian witnesses today, becoming through their suffering and purification (to paraphrase an old Tibetan Buddhist saying) 'centers of boundless compassion flooding itself upon the world."

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