This passage has been excerpted by Philip V. Allingham from Carol Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism & Narrative Doubt. London and Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. ISBN 0-813 9-2217-8, which is reviewed elsewhere in the Victorian Web [GPL]
[One of the most fascinating discussions of suspense in the various narrative texts that Levine utilizes in her argument concerns the question in many mid-century readers' minds about the gender of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. According to Levine, the apparent reasoning regarding the authorship of Jane Eyre was that] Women are not capable of such intellectual, rational, powerful, and moral work -- which means that no woman "could have" written the novel.
Charlotte Brontë wrote that this particular review, with its dismissals of feminine skill and its affirmations of masculine morality, gave her "much pleasure." Perhaps, now, her pleasure begins to make sense. Like Rochester's, her veiled identity prompts her audience to divulge their innermost feelings, and being more skillful than her hero, Brontë's authorial strategy overwhelmingly succeeds. Her veiling provokes the literary world to reveal its complacent blunders and rigid misconceptions, and yields Brontë the opportunity, eventually, to put them all to shame. Emerging as a powerful critic of contemporary assumptions about men's and women's writing, Charlotte Brontë uses the techniques of suspenseful equivocation to make a significant political point.
At this juncture, we may return to the mysteries of Jane Eyre. It is here that we find our proof that Brontë was adept at the stratagems of suspense, and we might ask, in turn, whether her plotting in the public sphere throws light on the operations of her narrative. That is, if the veils of suspense serve a radical political purpose among the Victorian literati, might we say the same for the plotted mysteries of Jane Eyre?
If critics have been quick to condemn suspenseful narrative as complacently conservative -- bemoaning its despotic withholding of the facts, its manipulation of readerly desire, its smug conclusions -- Charlotte Brontë's uses of suspense, like Ruskin's, hint at a more unsettling possibility. After all, it is in the space between veiling and unveiling that we reveal ourselves. Mysteries offer us the opportunity for speculation, and in speculating, we necessarily overstep the bounds of the evidence, imposing our own preconceptions and desires on the world that we encounter. The mysteries that are so plentiful in the nineteenth-century novel, then, allow us to know our own impulses, our own longings, our own prejudices. And when the world checks or contradicts those presumptions, we may be compelled to give them up. Or so Brontë suggested to her critics.
But there is an important difference here between mystery and suspense. Brontë's complacent reviewers, when faced with a myste that something was being withheld from them but assumed that they knew the hidden truth. Blithely, they thought they could outsmart the world -- and so leapt to their own favorite conclusions. By contrast, suspense demands a different and quite specific experience of the unknown; it is that mystery within a narrative context that cues a perception of the reader's own ignorance. Rather than encouraging us to jump to ture conclusions, suspenseful withholdings only work when d cessfully stir up the anxiety that the world may not actually bear hypotheses. Even when the solution to the mystery ultimately! tiates our hopes and predilections, for there to have been suspen us to have remained absorbed, apprehensive, doubtful during the narrative -- we must have been willing to entertain a range of credible resolutions. Thus suspenseful narrative does not so much reinforce a dominant value-system as it teaches us to hesitate in our convictions, to ar most urgent movements of desire and belief. Critics have claimed that suspense operates in the service of its conclusions, but we might as well that novelistic endings prove to us that we should always in suspense.
Not surprisingly, the text of Jane Eyre offers us a usefully illustrative example. After a series of seductive checks and equivocations, Rochester goes to visit the beautiful Blanche Ingram. As Jane waits, suspended, for his return, she seeks to convince herself that she has been wrong about his interest in her: desiring but not knowing, she resolves to put her faith in conventional wisdom, which tells her that "a dependent and a novice" could never be loved by "a gentleman of family a man of the world" (201); "It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her" (201). The examples of what Roland Barthes calls the "implicit proverbs" of cultural code -- "written in that obligative mode by which the diSl states a general will, the law of a society . . . a maxim, a postulate." Like the insistence that respectable women cannot write with the vigor and charm of the male pen, the notion that a superior can never intend to marry a dependent is sweeping enough to include the world of the reader as well as the world of the text, purporting to swallow up all particular cases. And this idea is certainly the prevailing orthodoxy, as Jane here makes clear. [pp. 73-75]
- A review of Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense
- John Ruskin's Realism and its effect on his readers
- Walter Pater's Rebuttal of Ruskin
Last modified September 21, 2004