KR OnlineNonfiction

The Pupil

Writes indifferently. Ciphers a little, works neatly. Knows nothing of grammar, geography, history or accomplishments. Altogether clever of her age, but knows nothing systematically.
     –Cowen Bridge School on Charlotte Brontë, age eight

Works a little. Reads very prettily.
     –Cowen Bridge School on Emily Brontë, age six

Preface
My students resent their writing assignments, but what else can I do? To show our thinking, we have to write, I tell them. Consider the writing assignment as a splinter of glass from a great, shattered mirror. Our splinters, I’ll admit, may be filament-thin and by turns ridiculous, but a break occasions them. It’s the tool we get, I say, for being clumsy. So what if you cut your palm? Write with blood, then. And write more. Scarred tissue makes for good paper and paper a good tourniquet if applied with persistence (to an open wound).

 

Le Corps
Charlotte Brontë—last surviving sibling of six—takes a coach from Yorkshire to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. She wants to see the huge diamond from India, a tempest predictor, and a toilet you pay a penny for. She attends, incidentally, with Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope. By now, she’s a famous author.

Charlotte puts her hand on Brewster’s arm, and he guides her down proliferating corridors. It’s likely her state of mind and the company she’s keeping, but she begins to imagine her sister Emily’s “kindling, liquid” eye is peering down at her as if through an eyepiece, and that Emily’s hand is turning the whole scene: an Indian woman in Nivi drape, the Greek slave (a provocative statue), a loom, a saddle, a kiln.

Back in her rented flat, Charlotte writes home to her father, “. . . grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things.” For her, the world relies on a kind of mirror system by which people, places, objects are reflected in multiplicity. Turn the cylinder and wonder at the color, the array, how the mess is given order and shape, a final point at which all meanings meet.

Charlotte is good at seeing the configuration of things, though she’s never been particularly good at seeing. When she dies at thirty-eight, she’s buried without her spectacles and pregnant. Before she dies, she writes a novel everyone loves called Jane Eyre, wherein Jane returns to the burnt-out shell of Thornfield Hall in order to marry a man blinded by the fire his imprisoned first wife set. In other words, she’s always been this way, I mean, the wife, the fire, the blindness, etc.

In Brussels at twenty-five, spectacles perched on her nose, Charlotte writes an essay about muddling through the corporeal to reach the spirit, when “the dead will rise incorruptible” and never die again. She calls her devoir “The Caterpillar.”

She’s a smart, eager young woman. Professor Heger peppers her papers with comments: “Say more here,” or “What do you mean by this?” and in her revisions she does her best. She’s yielding, he thinks, and makes pretty connections. In fact, he’d say Charlotte is a sort of kaleidoscope, all effort into pattern, pattern into congruence, congruence siphoned toward a final point that, sadly, never quite hits the mark. She’s young yet, he thinks. Well, not really, but—in her school-girl French—Charlotte goes kaleidoscopic with childlike exuberance:

. . . the greatest work of all, the Universe, which in its entirety and in its thousand details is the production of a single agent, shows throughout a resemblance, a harmony so perfect that the lowest things often serve to remind us of the loftiest.

Even when Charlotte reaches her lowest point in 1855, she’s calm, thinking lofty thoughts about larger patterns. After all, death happened to all her siblings; why shouldn’t it happen to her? She’s thirty-eight, a newly wed, pregnant and vomitous in an England that feels like two lifetimes away from Angria—the world she invented in girlhood—and one lifetime from Brussels where she wrote an essay for Constantin Heger about the sacrifice-by-fire of an Indian wife who lays down with her dead husband on the funeral pyre. Charlotte’s narrator calls the scene “heart-rending,” and she’d say it of herself now, but quietly, humbly. There are degrees by which one can immolate herself, but make no mistake: immolation will come. The trick is to see all the beauty before—how everything fits together, makes diamonds, rubies, sapphires out of air, flower, water; just look through the eyepiece and turn the cylinder.

Charlotte could never see particularly well, having been myopic since she was small, but myopia doesn’t only mean “near-sighted;” it can also mean “short-sighted”—in the ethical sense. For Charlotte, there is a conflagration, a death, and a blinding in nearly everything she says, at first moralizing whose fire is “savage” and whose is “civilized,” but, Heger might argue, she needs to write her way toward the point, then go further, go inside it, pass through it, to see the ambivalence on the other side. But he can’t teach her that; she’s got to see it herself, and in 1842—despite her age—she’s just an overgrown l’efant terrible, another fawning pupil.

Charlotte’s sister Emily, on the other hand, is an absolute terror—forget l’enfant; she’s part-animal, knotty in the head, over-scrupulous in the heart. Of her, Heger requests a mock letter in French between one family member and another. He doesn’t mean to cause Emily distress, but, mon Dieu, she writes, “Dear Mama . . . They say that my health is frail, and they have made me keep to my room and give up my studies and my companions. It is perhaps for this reason that I am so sad.”

Heger knows full well Emily’s mother is dead; he only meant for her to exercise a sweet, familial correspondence, to try on the tender rhetoric of two intimates (two inmates, she’d say), but she creates for herself an alternate universe: her mother is still at home, alive, and she’s trapped in a schoolgirl’s body.

Emily makes his job more difficult, also a joy. For her, writing is like flipping a phrasal thaumatrope, that prophetical children’s toy. Say you had a caterpillar on one side of a disc, a butterfly on the other. Twirl the string threaded through as fast as you can and see how one becomes the other—see how they are absolutely the same, regardless. This isn’t plot trajectory or even her sister’s pleasing pattern-making, but an argument made with persistence of vision—a weird sort of faith by which I mean, a trompe l’oeil, the brain’s steady-cam technology. Show several images in quick succession, the space between them vanishes, and then, voila!

If there is movement, no matter how microscopic, Emily will find it. She keeps a caged merlin she calls Nero—found as a felled nestling out on the moor—for just this purpose, and Nero keeps his yellow eye on the door.

But while she’s in Brussels, Nero is lost. “With the geese, [he] was given away, and is doubtless dead, for when I came back…I inquired on all hands and could hear nothing of him.” Everyone in town avoids her gaze, keeping to themselves any knowledge of Nero’s fate. She’s a supernatural creature, that girl, got no business being a parson’s child, and writes such terrible things, her sooty-winged bird probably dropped its soul down into her while its body lies out there—somewhere—moldering in mud.

In her own essay on the assigned topic of transformation she titled “The Butterfly,” Emily says,

And when you see the magnificent result of that which seems so base to you now, how you will scorn your blind presumption, in accusing Omniscience for not having made nature perish in her infancy.

Accusations and scorn, blindness and Omniscience: Emily indicts herself for having been a child with opinions. And maybe children’s toys are just training ground for adult theology. The thaumatrope and kaleidoscope share the same object: visual manipulation. One relies on mirrors, the other on a kind of pictorial gag—what scientists call “persistence of vision”—a visual pun.

They persist, these two child-women. There’s something brisk and brusque about them, so it comes as a shock when Charlotte professes her love to Heger. Heger’s wife does her best to discourage the poor girl by making excuses to wrench her away from his office door (“Charlotte, can you help me with this thing—”), but he can’t help himself; he’s a natural influencer. And she has a sad, red tinge around her eyes, weak as they are, partway hidden behind her little, metal-framed glasses, that fascinates him and oh! she just wants to learn and to please with her discursive belle lettres, and that’s perfectly fine, but under her pliant exterior is an iron mind, forged when her mother died, when her oldest sister died, then her next-oldest sister, until she was left, suddenly the oldest sister—never having banked on being one. The air around her is mighty fraught, and he finds it touching that she must, must, must keep writing, or rot.

So, Charlotte writes. She writes and she writes. She writes, “That which was sister to the worm is now companion to the flowers and birds.” Ah! From sister to companion—the first relationship established at birth, the second by choice, and like an obedient pupil, she cuts out the pupa entirely. No, it’s there (“. . . it begins to spin; it hangs from a branch; it forms its cocoon; it envelops itself. This is its coffin; now it is dead.”), only she gives it no cohort, no camaraderie as it passes from one state to the next. What happens should happen, she believes, away from prying eyes, in secret.

Because change is ugly. In the little room of her womb she feels the baby turn; she wants to puke it up—all of it, the whole entire world—and start again. This time, she’d let the fantasy go earlier, let her serious books spring—not from a long period of transformation—but like a flame from the godhead. Oh, poor chrysalis with no one to love it, thick eyeglasses, a dowdy expression, wan skin, a bad complexion. It hangs back in the classroom after the lecture’s done. The professor is gathering up his papers—his dried leaves, his garden detritus—and it can barely speak—no, can’t speak at all—muted as it is by its own becoming. (Do you love me? Can you love me?) He replies to the dead air, “Come on now, Charlotte. It’s time to go.”

Emily, on the other hand, will one day write a scene in which a man digs up his dead lover and climbs into the grave with her. It’ll be hard to tell what she means by this except to ask, Who makes friends in Purgatory? Who keeps the pupa company while she’s in flux? Nobody. Except, maybe, a fellow animal, a mute and wild thing. Emily prefers them to people. And while Charlotte keeps a lapdog, Emily favors big, menacing hounds like Keeper. After all, if you scare people away, they won’t see the asterisks, addendums, parentheses, equivocations behind that huge mouthful of teeth. “All appeared happy, but for me, it was only an appearance,” she says. Nature is a trompe l’oeil, though saying so will mean she’s cynical and cruel. That’s not it exactly; she just knows the hopes a mind must jump through, and she’s tired of hope.

At twenty-three, Emily is already so tired. On one side of the disc you have the caterpillar, see, and on the other side, a butterfly. Spin it fast enough, one becomes the other, but it’s in the nanosecond whirr when both images are blurred by movement that the metamorphosis happens, and the mind must breach that gap in logic with faith. The insect? It exists on an alternate plane. It believes in nothing but itself, and itself is everything. I want to be that bug, Emily thinks, but because I’m so small, so fragile, I must rely on erratic flight, poison, and Keeper (who’s loyal to only me) for survival. I must stick to my proverbial bed, but I’ll send my spirit out. I’ll break the quarantine, walk among other children who are happy only in looks, while I’m happy in tears, in dirt, in decay—a richer happiness, a happiness that grows—but grows what, I couldn’t say.

Oh, but you can, Emily. It grows the essay. It grows this essay. “I should say Ellis will not be seen in his full strength till he is seen as an essayist,” Charlotte says, referring to her sister by her male pseudonym. The essay itself has been in existence only since the late sixteenth century and Emily, because she’s a migrating butterfly, likely sees its birth when Montaigne first addresses his reader as Reader, when he first brings his own life and ideas to bear, though it’s her sister Charlotte who, in Jane Eyre, insists, “Reader, I married him,” while Emily, of course, marries no one at all. Like her imperious merlin she glowers, keeps to herself. She doesn’t want to be here.

But here she is: to please Charlotte, to learn French so they might start their own school and teach Yorkshire’s children cette belle langue. She misses Yorkshire terribly; it’s terrible how the weather turns there, like a thaumatrope on a string, storm on one side, clear on the other. If you turn the sky fast enough, you get sun/rain // sun/rain // rain/sun // rain/sun which means: rainbow, fox wedding, God wept. And for Christ’s sake, all these Papists! She won’t preclude her native English by giving in wholly to French syntax; instead, she strong-arms French into blunt English, winning the Hundred Years’ War all over again. That’s our Emily. And except for injury to her high-strung imagination, the work is fine, though she chafes at argument. She feels—all over—like a pulled hamstring, limping along till the pain fades, then starts to run,

(Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction. Every being must be the tireless instrument of death to other or itself must cease to live, yet nonetheless we celebrate the day of our birth, and we praise God for having entered such a world . . .)

and once she finds her cadence, leaves the world altogether.

She made up her own world once and called it Gondal; she goes there when she can. Charlotte has one, too, with their brother Branwell, called Angria, but for the love of maturity (and Professor Heger), she’s now in the hot center of its disinheritance. Branwell, however, still lives there and is currently looking—in point of fact—for permanent residence. Emily’s reluctant to let Gondal go, but she will, and she does when she has to. She has a clear-eyed view. But what does it mean to be clear-eyed, anyway?

If violence is relegated to fiction, there’s no need to suffer daily, but Emily lets violence in, allows it leave to cloud even the smallest, most prosaic interaction, until it’s hard to see anything but shit (merde) and terrible (also terrible, just pronounced differently). She misses Yorkshire terribly, that shitty, beautiful place where she sees most clearly violence everywhere, as in “flies playing above the brook” only to be devoured by the fish below, fish only to be devoured by man, and man only created to devour his brother. She sees a caterpillar in the flower, made to destroy the flower so the insect can feed and grow. It’s “inexplicable,” she tells us, but then tries to explain: it’s a butterfly, she says, “with large wings of lustrous gold and purple” gliding into view.

And then—oh then—Emily spins the disc, and we see an inexplicable mix of cloud and sun so,

every suffering of our unhappy nature is only a seed of that divine harvest which will be gathered when, Sin having spent its last drop of venom, Death having launched its final shaft, both will perish on the pyre of a universe in flames and leave their ancient victims to eternal empire of happiness and glory.

Against her will—like the queen in her Gondorian castle—Emily grinds out, through gritted teeth, the words, “happiness” and “glory” when only a few sentences earlier, she “throw[s] the flower to earth” and nearly crushes the caterpillar under her heel. Still, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and all is forgiven. Why, asks Professor Heger? Theology becomes the deus ex machina—a plot twist that makes our eyes roll: Couldn’t the writer do better than this? If the caterpillar isn’t forgiven, then at least its purpose has an explanation; Emily must have religion, so make it a terrible one, full of terror, hot with words like “venom,” “pyre,” “victim,” “empire,” and when “happiness” arrives at the end of the sentence, make it cruel, neither easy nor peaceable, full of anger. Maybe Emily isn’t relenting after all; she’s taken control of the knife’s handle. Jesu, Heger thinks, having reached the essay’s end, what the hell kind of woman is this? The world will love her.

Already Emily has begun to change him. He can feel it. The ghosts of the comments he might make on her essays scratch at the floor. Dogs’ claws, he thinks. A rat in the wall. He walks out in the garden to steady himself. Pity the poor caterpillar. She knows not what she does. She simply goes about her schooling, dill, parsley, bee balm, her books. She eats them up then hangs herself, turning her body to liquid: the emulsification of her guts: by two truths: out of which imaginal cells: from these are made: wings, antennae, legs: a new food: purely nectar: no need to read: answers are already—

The professor carries in a black, swallowtail caterpillar stuck to a sprig of dill. He sticks it in a container for the children to observe. It eats and eats and shits and shits. A caterpillar is basically blind, but once it transforms into a butterfly, it will see things we can’t see; even its wings are more spectacular to its eye.

After some time, her imaginal cells do their work. A black swallowtail slips her chrysalis, and the professor has the children remove the window’s screen. She sails out. The next day I see her again, skimming the garden, disappearing over the fence, reappearing moments later. She’s letting me remember her, I think.

Who am I?

Ask instead something like,

Does the butterfly remember her life as a caterpillar?
Does a butterfly feel pain?
What does a butterfly think when it sees a caterpillar?
Do butterflies think?

Some butterflies drink tears. If one sister knows this, the other doesn’t say.

 

Epilogue
In a letter I write to my mother when I’m eight, I tell her, “I love my new glasses! All the better to see you with!” My parents are always traveling and I’m mostly left at home, but my mother and I talk from time to time on the phone. I hate those calls. I hate being reminded that I’m here and she’s away, so I grow silent or I cry, which makes her cry.

The letter is a school assignment—an epistolary one. I’m fulfilling a duty, a devoir my teacher prescribed to me, and I take my medicine gladly, writing to my mother about what I can see now that I couldn’t see before having, it turns out, myopia no one thought to look for. “All the better to see you,” I say.

I like to write. I’ve written some stories, but the letter to my mother is my first essay. It’s an essay in the sense that I’m asking my persistence of vision to link a series of disparate items: my mother, me, the distance between us, and it does, if imperfectly. And it is also fiction in the sense that I appear happy when I know, in reality, I am not. And it is also true in the sense that I couldn’t see, and now I can.

I put on my glasses. All the better to see you with. I can see fossilized shellfish, the warp of fabricated wool, the texture of my skin, tiny individual hairs in a chevron pattern, the gas station sign (how much per gallon), a color wheel from a distance as colliding hawk and squirrel, a slop bucket, an unmucked stall, blood in my underwear, the list of credits, both opening and closing.

I see movement. I see my mother coming closer. It appears to my eye as if I’m moving toward her and she toward me.

So I write more essays, and even more, and when I’m twelve or thirteen, my teacher praises me in front of class. Kids lodge spitballs in my hair at mass.

And when I’m forty, I’m in York at a little hotel just a block from where W. H. Auden was born, eating my English breakfast, when an older woman sitting alone turns toward me to make conversation.

“On holiday?”

“Yes,” I say, “just came from Haworth.”

“How funny you’d go all the way out there?”

“I love the Brontës.”

“Ah, yes. It must’ve been hard for them, poor things, as isolated as they were. They weren’t upper class, but they couldn’t fraternize with the mill workers either.

Wuthering Heights was my favorite when I was a girl and now it’s Jane Eyre. Cathy Earnshaw is a spoiled brat, isn’t she? But Jane has a quiet strength. And she finds someone who sees her. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? To be seen for who we really are?”