Charlotte Bronte's Oeuvre as Fantasy Fiction
Fantasy as Subversive Desire
Charlotte Bronte began writing seriously when she was fourteen years old, creating a large prose cycle known as the Angrian and Glass Town sagas by the age of twenty-four. That fiction, interspersed with poetry and drama, features imitations of the major genres of the era: historical romance, silver fork novels, gothic, melodrama, and journalistic political and social commentaries. (1) But at the core of these early works, as well as her later, mature novels, is a type of fantasy writing: for all of these works attempt to accomplish the cultural and personal work that lies at the heart of fantasy. As Laplanche and Pontalis note, fantasy writing most frequently emerges out of an author's meditation on her own personal narrative of psychic and emotional survival (18-27). As such, fantasy writing, like juvenilia, tends to comment on its own moment of production, and it does not present the sort of historical specificity associated with realistic novels. But it is the tension between the personal and the historical that is so intriguing and powerful in the works of Charlotte Bronte: and it is that tension, as well as the techniques and characteristics of fantasy writing, that this essay will explore.
As Rosemary Jackson observes, fantasy writing is best characterized as a "literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss" (3). As a literary genre, fantasy operates in two ways: either telling of its desires or expelling those desires when they threaten the social order or the community of reader and writer. Finally, as Jackson notes, some fantasy writing employs both of these agendas simultaneously, for in the act of expressing desire it also abjects or expels it:The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made "absent."... Since this excursion into disorder can only begin from a base within the dominant cultural order, literary fantasy is a telling index of the limits of that order. Its introduction of the "unreal" is set against the category of the "real"--a category which the fantastic interrogates by its difference. (4)
Employing the "unreal" as set against the "real," fantasy writing is also by its very nature a form of literary subversion, a way of challenging the perceived realities of the political and social order of the author. But this authorial challenge is predicated on what Jackson sees as a "lack resulting from cultural constraints"; in other words, the author's claim that something is impossible to describe really means that such a thing is forbidden or taboo to either the author or her readers (3). As Brian Atteberry writes of Jackson, "the function of fantasy is to express desire in a subversive guise" (21); further, Carl Plasa notes that much of Bronte's juvenilia depicts an attraction to the forbidden or taboo. Her early stories are suffused with an obsession with exoticism, miscegenation, and "interracial desire and rebellious hybridity that are raised by Bronte's text[s] only...