CEDAW, Literature, The Bronte Sisters, violence against women

Musing on The Brontë Sisters

We cannot talk of Victorian literature without mentioning the Brontë Dynasty; Sisters The Bronte SistersCharlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. In my moments of wool-gathering recently, I reminisced on their contributions to literature, I thought about how these clergyman’s daughters expressed outstanding understanding of society, the passion and insight they give about the realities of their time. Then in my usual frame of reference, I also considered choosing who among them wrote best for social change.
The themes of the Victorian Era novels which to me focused often on romantic love, makes it easy to dismiss some of them as being irrelevant to the present day development discourse, but I think that perspective is not totally right. The Brontë sisters did write about romantic love, but they also wrote about other things. The eldest of the Brontë’s Charlotte did impress me with her Novel Jane Eyre which I have read with pleasure over and over again, offering time to watch and critique the different movies it inspired. More so, Emily Brontë with her only novel Wuthering Heights made my jaws drop; the multi-layered novel that revolves around the wounded soul Heathcliff who is for some a Byronic hero thrilled me with the circles of life and how sometimes it takes a generation dying off before healing happens.


The Brontë sisters wrote about marriage in very romantic ways that continues to appeal to many, we saw male characters of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Heathcliff in Wuthering Height express their love through arrogance, dominance and manipulation, seducing their women and even most of us readers. But all the love in the writing of the two elder sisters did not seduce me; it was Anne Brontë; the less known one, that seduced me.
These sisters who wrote these classics under male Pseudonyms (a reflection of the existing Patriarchal system of their time where women were not encouraged to write), may have tried to keep their feminism off the page, but Audacious Anne couldn’t conform.
anne brontePublished in 1847 Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, dared to present a story of an empowered woman Helen Graham who risked it all and walks out of an abusive marriage with her son. Her rebellion against the social norms of that era was revolutionary. Domestic Violence though existing over different era, must have been romanticised at the time, with women not having property rights, income and being complete dependants of their fathers and husbands, it would have taken a lot of guts for a young single mother of a son to pull it off, and Anne Brontë’s character did it confidently to save her son from the corruption of his father.
With the character of Gilbert Markham the hero in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall who will help a victim of violence escape and take no advantage of her vulnerability, Anne shows aversion for violent men. She does not romanticise violence or view badly behaved men with rose tinted glasses as was the practice of writers in her time. Through Gilbert, she projects the model man who will bear no animosity with a woman who says NO even when he is her benefactor. Through Frederick Lawrence she modelled that men who love and care for their immediate and extended families where no lesser men.
It’s not that the act of a woman leaving her husband was new in the novel of that era, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s wife Isabella also ran away from her husband and this would have me think of Emily Brontë trying to throw a feminist punch, but being that it was not the central conflict in her book, Isabella‘s act held little water. With a matchless audacity, Anne Bronte centralised this in the character of Helen Graham. Not bowing to the prevailing sentiment of her time, she brings to the fore details of how a husband’s alcoholism destroys a home and how the only way to fight and survive his addictions might be to leave.The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
For ages, we have asked the question, why do women stay with abusive partners? In projecting issues of powerlessness and the importance of agency and space for any woman, Anne helps us understand why women stay; she exposes the stigma and discrimination suffered by divorcees and single mothers and their lack of social protection. Addressing this relative poverty and lack of financial freedom women suffered, Virginia Woolf a modernist feminist writer would proudly wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
I am thrilled for Anne Brontë because her medieval novel is still relevant in modern times. The challenges of single mothers; their shaming, their discomfited lives of raising a child without a father, the constant judgement of their parental abilities and disdain for maternal authority is still very much alive in our time. This concept of a child being tied to a mother’s apron was introduced by her with an equally matching interpretation:

‘Mrs. Graham had brought her child with her, and on my mother’s expressing surprise that he could walk so far, she replied — ’It is a long walk for him; but I must have either taken him with me, or relinquished the visit altogether; for I never leave him alone; and I think, Mrs. Markham, I must beg you to make my excuses to the Millwards and Mrs. Wilson, when you see them, as I fear I cannot do myself the pleasure of calling upon them till my little Arthur is able to accompany me.’
‘But you have a servant,’ said Rose; ‘could you not leave him with her?’
‘She has her own occupations to attend to; and besides, she is too old to run after a child, and he is too mercurial to be tied to an elderly woman.’
‘But you left him to come to church.’
‘Yes, once; but I would not have left him for any other purpose; and I think, in future, I must contrive to bring him with me, or stay at home.’
‘Is he so mischievous?’ asked my mother, considerably shocked.
‘No,’ replied the lady, sadly smiling, as she stroked the wavy locks of her son, who was seated on a low stool at her feet; ‘but he is my only treasure, and I am his only friend: so we don’t like to be separated.’
‘But, my dear, I call that doting,’ said my plain-spoken parent. ‘You should try to suppress such foolish fondness, as well to save your son from ruin as yourself from ridicule.’
‘Ruin! Mrs. Markham!’
‘Yes; it is spoiling the child. Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron-string; he should learn to be ashamed of it.’
‘Mrs. Markham, I beg you will not say such things, in his presence, at least. I trust my son will never be ashamed to love his mother!’ said Mrs. Graham, with a serious energy that startled the company.

In a quiet way, Anne Brontë slipped in an unruly novel to harass the social conventions of the English Upper class society of her time. By challenging the laws of marriage, child custody, and the right of a divorced woman to love again, I think her work contributed instrumentally to making a case and preparing the path for present day consideration of women’s experience in global laws such as The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other complimentary legal framework at national and state levels.
Being the lesser known of the one, Anne Brontë’s novel written with radical vigour may have been suppressed but not silenced; it will always be on my shelf.
 
Written By~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Literature

…A Colossus of Victorian Lagos

Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter; Until Africans and other indigenous people tell their stories, the tale of the colonisation will always glorify the Colonist.
Reclaiming Africa’s right to tell her story, the story on The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies begins at that period when colonists still constituted economic administration of Africa, and relied on their indigenous resources. In that era, books about Africa blinkered with Negrophobia, approving the doctrines of biological inferiority of the African race.  Stories of these periods are often framed to be that Europe Developed Africa and not that Europe was developed by Africa. This might be seen as the nub of the white saviour complex which continues to colour every development effort by Africans. Validating it, is the narrative of Joseph Comrade whose book Heart of Darkness projected Africans darkly and Europeans as the light bearer of the dark continent.
Through this time, one silent narrative which hasn’t been expounded much on Africa’s development is how Africans of that time helped to develop Africa; establishing trade ventures, building structures and institutions that have larger impact on citizens much more than any skewed colonial intervention did.  In this, the contribution of notable Africans whose effort has continued to sustain the Africa of today is swept beneath.
JPL DAVIES (2).JPG
The Author Professor Adeyemo Elebute revisits Africa’s History in the Victorian Era to dig up a Colossus of Victorian Lagos who sadly has been long forgotten. By writing about The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies, he altered history and gave a hero, his true place. So many narratives of social history in that era shares that great things can’t come out of Africa, but they were wrong; James Pinson Labulo Davies was great.

JPL Davies
A carte-de-visite portrait photograph of James Pinson Labulo Davies (b. 1929), taken by Camille Silvy in 1862. http://tiny.cc/s0r3ky

His magical lifetime as an Entrepreneur, philanthropist, Naval Officer… whose memory was almost buried in the rubble of history has suddenly gained a new life through this book. J.P.L Davies was renowned for his contributions in the modernisation of Lagos; West Africa’s sea side city. Highlighted herein was his resistance to cessations; in support of Oba Dosumu, he played a significant role in the Lagos Treaty of Cession ensuring that the development of Africa’s largest city was done with more diplomacy. He pioneered cocoa export which eventually spread prosperity across the South-western Nigeria and sustained their free education policy for a long time. His contributions to building a significant town library is noted, His founding role in the first secondary school in Nigeria; CMS grammar school Lagos, has gone a long way in advancing education, instrumental in producing members of present day’s Nigerian Think-Tanks. Simply put, all of his innovations have continued to yield immeasurable fruits in Africa’s development.
Filled with so much authentic details, this book presents a Cosmopolitan African man whose ancestral roots lay in the interior Yoruba land, with a history that challenges the imperialist image of Africans. In focusing on the women in J.P.L David’s life, the author pulls out an interesting character who is relatively unknown in today’s world but who should be known for the insight she gives to Queen Victoria herself. Sarah Forbes Bonetta a West African of Royal blood was of Yoruba descent, orphaned and a captive of the dreadful slave hunt. In a twist of fate, she became a Goddaughter to Queen Victoria.

She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites’ as captured by Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy who in that time convinced King Ghezo of Dahomey to offer her to the Queen.

With permission from the Queen Victoria in 1862, she entered into a marriage with J.P.L. Davies in a one-of-a kind royal ceremony in Brighton; their daughter Victoria Davies (named after Queen Victoria) also enjoyed a close relationship with the Queen. It will be noted in other publications that teachers and children were given a one day holiday by the queen when her black godchild Victoria Davis passed her music examination.
Published in 2014, this book presents again some hidden history of Africa’s development and put Africans on the Victorian Era map, not just as biologically and mentally inferior people, but as major actors in their own development. By presenting dignified Africans, historically significant figures who had travelled widely with varying experiences, engaging in significant dialogue between Europe and Africa consequential on Africa’s development, it raises questions on the morality of many imperialist writer’s imaginations of Africa.
Reading it now makes me regret not reviewing it alongside the Heart of Darkness where Africans were completely depersonalised. It is interesting that J.P.L Davies lived through a period known as the Victorian Era (1837-1901), which also covers the writing and publication of Joseph Conrad’s fiction novella the Heart of Darkness. But it is sad that Joseph Comrade could only observe Africans whom he generously described as Natives, Negroes, Savages, Blackman. The life of J.P.L. Davies clearly invalidates Conrad’s theory of Africans; it is indeed an Antithesis of the Heart of Darkness.

Anthropology

Baba of Karo

Baba of Karo as she is known, tells stories that holds the secrets of the history and existing social systems in Hausa Land in Northern Nigeria that I never knew.  Compared to the realities of the present day Hausa’s which I am familiar with, things have definitely changed.IMG_2594
Baba with her story-telling skills and remarkable memory takes us through her life’s path within her community, sharing event of the past decades as she sincerely remembers it. In a time when women when Women’s voices from her region was rarely heard or captured in any book, Baba’s voice gives some illuminating view into the realities women lived and with what lens they viewed the world around them with.
Her chronicle of events through her childhood, her four marriages, a life time of bareness and old age begins prior to the era of British control of the Nigerian territory, down to 1950 when she recorded the narratives with the author Mary Smith.  Contextualising that era, Baba shared stories of domestic war, slave trade, and slave raiders, overwhelming culture of polygamy, and also the trend of marriages. She had no problem with expressing her opinion on tribalism, sharing her dislikes for other tribes like the Fulani.
Her identity as a Muslim Hausa woman was presented in ways I envied as she negotiated objectively with the concept of freedom through all her marriages. The degree of autonomy she expressed through roles that today could have been considered constraining, was admirable and a rarity with women of like identity in today’s world. Baba never had a child, but it didn’t stop her from answering mother to children her extended family willingly gave up to her. Baba, like many women of her time had serial divorces but there was no stigma or labelling to their status. At the death of her husband Hasan, she experienced widowhood but this too led to no social rejection.
In Baba’s time, it appeared to be a world full of marriages, I considered titling the book ‘ A book of Marriages’. Polygamy thrived even more as women had the agency to end their marriage. In expressing this, Baba tells of her marriages and the reason she went into them. She married her cousin and first husband Duma to please her father:
‘There was also Malam Maigari who wished to marry me, I promised him I would come to him later…Duma came to visit me, I accepted his money because father wanted me to do so. But because I didn’t really love him, I left him after a few years…Duma was tall and handsome and sensible, we lived together in peace with no quarrelling.’
After her Iddah (a 90 day period of celibacy observed by divorcees), she fulfilled her promise and married Malam Maigari, 15years after, she divorced him amicably and married Malam Hasan the farmer and prison keeper. After Hasan’s death, she had a marriage of shoes (where the wife lives apart from husband ) with Ibrahim. Compared to her sister-in-law Hasana who married 11 men, one of whom she married four times, Baba had an average record for the time; just four. The high incidence of divorce highlighted what I could term the instability of the Hausa marriages or in another perspective, the agency of women to end what doesn’t fit their life.
Using relevant indexes, Baba of Karo’s story, set at the inception of what we may call development in Northern Nigeria, raises questions on what social progress could mean in a society. Circa 1950 Hausa land, Hausa people unlike now, seemed more progressive, meeting the needs of its people, women enjoyed more freedom, enabling them to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, thus being able to reach their full potentials. In those times, Karuwai, Prostitution was legal; it was also illegal to owe prostitutes. Yandaudas the homosexuals were recognised in the larger society without being stigmatised, teenage pregnancy was a rarity, adoption of children was without stigma, divorce was acceptable even on a serial level and domestic violence existed at an insignificant level. There was no Sharia law and yet the people were law abiding with only few criminals in jail. Poverty was not a severe issue as people sharing food and things was part of the existing giving culture. Set aside the high level of infant mortality that had existed at the time as captured by Baba of Karo, I am still wondering through this book if development had indeed brought much good or taken away the good in Hausa Land? The wealth of cultural resources and social mechanisms which I have come to know of through this book, are definitely missing in the modern day Hausa land.
Most striking in all Baba‘s narratives where some ideologies underpinning many challenges of development which we battle with today. Baba serving as a midwife, like some modern day adherent shared societal beliefs and misconceptions of her time regarding, circumcision, medicine and breastfeeding; all of which did not emerge from any form of empirical test.
‘Sometimes, if it is a girl child, the father refuses to allow the clitoris to be cut. But the mother will never refuse to have this done, she wants her daughter to grow big and strong. If you do not clip the clitoris, you will see the girl getting ill, she gets thin until she dies. If she starts to become like that, and the clitoris is clipped, and medicine put on, then she recovers.’
‘When a child is seven days old, we rub the soles of his feet with his mother’s milk to kill the flesh there, then even in the dry season he won’t feel the heat of the path. If the mother’s milk gets onto the child’s genital, it will kill them too…she should always cover other breast with her cloth so that the milk shall not fall on the child’s genitals… if the child is a boy he won’t be able to do anything with a women; if a girl, there will be no entrance, it will be blocked up or her genitals will die.’
‘A mother should not go to her husband while she has a child she is suckling. If she does, the child will get thin, he dries up, he won’t get strong, he won’t get healthy. If she goes after two years, it is nothing. It is not sleeping with her husband that spoils her milk, it is the pregnancy that does that…If he insists, she should wear the Kolanut charm…there is medicine to make the pregnancy ‘go to sleep’, but that is not a good thing.’
Putting this book in any single class or genre of conventional literature or academic writing remains a challenge. The author Mary Smith blends history, ethnography with elements of autobiography embellished with songs to give readers an enduring book highlighting political issues of race, culture, slavery, marriage constructs, adoption, widowhood and gender among others.
Mary Smith’s anthropological record of the Hausa people captured through oral accounts given by Baba, carries a sense of compelling authenticity. Nonetheless, there is still the danger of a single story to consider.
 
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye