[This review first appeared in Victorian Studies 56 (2013): 155-57.]
Keith A. Jenkins opens his masterful study of Charlotte Brontë with my warning that modern readers know so little of the Bible and the ways Victorians read it that they often misunderstand much in Victorian literature. Thirty years later, I have some good news and a lot more bad: important books by Mary Wilson Carpenter, Janet L. Larson, Linda H. Peterson, Jenkins himself, and a few others represent the good. The bad appears in the fact that the vast majority of our graduate and undergraduate students do not know anything about Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, the Gospels, or Pauline epistles— much less typology, prophecy, and apocalyptics. The Victorian authors whose books they read would consider them illiterates.
Typology (or typological symbolism) is a Christian form of scriptural interpretation that claims to discover divinely intended anticipations of Christ and his dispensation in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testament. Thus, Samson, who sacrificed his life for God’s people, partially anticipates Christ, who repeats the action, endowing it with a deeper, more complete, more spiritual significance. Similarly, the scapegoat and the animals sacrificed in the temple at Jerusalem, both of which atoned for man’s sins, and Aaron, God’s priest, are types. Unlike most pre-Victorian writers who used typology in specifically religious works, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Brontë and others apply it to secular texts.
According to Jenkins’s strong feminist interpretation, Brontë uses such imagery and allusions as her “chief weapon in the battle she wages against the societal constraints placed on women. She infuses her novels with biblical types, while at the same time dissociating herself from the patriarchal mindset implicit in classical typology.” Jenkins provides examples of her “three basic strategies,” which involve destabilizing gender, undermining providential views of history, and translating “the otherworldly into this world”—that is, discussing things in the fictional world in terms of heaven, Eden, or some imagined realm (16).
Many of Brontë’s allusions that employ biblical typology are of the sort that George Monteiro and Linda H. Peterson taught us to recognize in the poems of Robert Browning. Browning used types to solve what Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) identified as the fundamental problem of first-person narrative—that is, readers’ inability to evaluate the speaker’s veracity. Browning solved this problem by having speakers misapply and mangle commonplace biblical texts: for example, in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” (1845) the speaker demands a tomb constructed with materials described in Leviticus as required for God’s temple. Christians took them to be types of heaven; the bishop treats them as means of earthly immortality.
Jenkins shows the ways in which Brontë makes similar use of types. Take, for example, his skillful explanation of a brief allusion in Villette (1853) to the lament David sang after he learned of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan: “When narrating her first encounter with Madame Beck and detailing the scrutiny she underwent, Lucy uses what appears to be only an offhanded expression to confess that she was crying. Many readers may simply skip over the words ‘tell it not in Gath,’ assuming them to be a private oddity of Lucy’s speech” (124). Lucy’s odd phrase comes from 2 Samuel 1 where David proclaims that the Philistines have slain Israel’s glory: “how are the mighty fallen! Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice” (qtd. in Jenkins 124). Jenkins explains that when Lucy uses these words, she makes clear that she views the townspeople as the Philistines and her female students “as the daughters of the Philistines, whose taunts of triumph she fears. In the face of such an enemy, Lucy cannot afford to reveal any weakness by crying” (124). Jenkins then proposes a second interpretation: Gath was the city from which Goliath came, and with the allusion Lucy places herself in the role of David as Brontë plays with gender reversal.
Jenkins follows the same method in explaining a “bold piece of atypical typology” (66). When Miss Scatcherd makes Helen Burns wear a sign with the word “Slattern” in Jane Eyre (1847), Jane says the teacher “bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s . . . forehead” (qtd. in Jenkins 64), thereby creating “an uneasy parallel between these two utterly different identity-bestowing labels, the single word ‘Slattern’ and the Jewish recitation of faith in the one true God” (66–67). This shocking allusion, Jenkins points out, seems blasphemous “until we recall that nothing she says or does implies any parallel with the biblical text.” One could decide that Brontë wants us to understand that Jane believes the unjust teacher imposes a false identity and false nature on the innocent, if often slovenly, Helen, almost as if she were turning her into a religious Jew in a place and time that scorned Jews. Alternatively, one could decide that either Jane or Brontë made an extravagant, awkward, and confusing analogy. According to Jenkins, Brontë not only alludes to an important passage in the Bible, but also “challenges it through her bold simile” (67).
This claim brings us to a crux that lies at the heart of interpreting any text. When reading the Bible or texts in the literary canon, we have learned that when we don’t understand a literal statement, that lack of comprehension is a signal to interpret, to make the text make sense. Interpretation resolves our intellectual discomfort, our cognitive dissonance, but requires that we accept that the text in question, Bible or Brontë, is always right and that the reader is always wrong when something seems opaque or incoherent. The problem, we tell our students, lies with them as readers: perhaps they don’t understand the context, the proper denotation or connotation of a word when used in some different time or place, or perhaps they mistake the generic signals the text offers. Such an approach, so useful as a pedagogic methodology, keeps us from perceiving a text’s shortcomings. I bring up this issue because Jenkins, a passionate advocate for Brontë, almost always assumes that what might appear to be incoherence is in fact intentional subversion. He does, however, also often allow for different interpretations, and his interpretations accumulate a great deal of credibility: one generally wants to follow his lead.
This slim volume begins by summarizing relevant scholarship; proceeds to chapters on The Professor (1857), Jane Eyre, Shirley (1849), and Villette explaining the ways in which each novel uses typology differently; and concludes with a chapter entitled “Bricolage Brontë Style.” A fifth of the book is devoted to endnotes, bibliography, index, and a valuable index of biblical references; many of the notes are very, very long. Jenkins begins each examination of a particular allusion by pointing to a passage in one of Brontë’s novels, and he next generously cites and quotes previous critics, and either extends their readings or offers a new one. Throughout he demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the novels, the criticism each has received, the author’s life, and the Bible and its traditional exegeses.
Jenkins, Keith A. Charlotte Brontë’s Atypical Typology. New York: Peter Lang, 2010, $86.95. pp. 214.
Last modified 3 July 2014