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

…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.

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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.

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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.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings…

The caged bird sang about a little black girl’s pathway to a life of impact. Maya was a speechless child filled with a guilt that was not hers, with a shoulder too young to carry the weight of difference that insidious racism injects. Observing the cotton-pickers as they journey to and from work in the fields from Momma’s store was like the epoch of her creative life.  Brother Bailey stuck to her despite her battered sense of self; it was as though he knew what the world will miss if Maya never found the courage to speak, to dance and write in words that will glitter forever.ap711103017-1f1bdb174098b60ab478ba17a5eb9b2f45183f3f-s6-c30

Maya shared the story of a fragile world that groomed her into strength. Stories of constantly changing homes harbouring memories of violence between the lovely bones, nights in the junkyards, life as the female car conductor and a teen mother, all of this made the caged bird sing.

Thinking through the title of this book always made me understand the beauty of FREEDOM. Everything can never be taken from us. Freedom is when birds sing even in a cage; they do not have to fly to believe they are free.

Travelling through the pages of this book as a young girl and reflecting on the life of the author Maya Angelou, I grew. I understand that if you follow your anger, it will show you your fight. If you let pain do its work, your spirit will grow.

Dear Maya, you were a Spiritual Giant; the world got better because you came, you danced, you spoke, you wrote and you lived. Today we mourn you like widows of a worthy man. May death be to you as beautiful as life was, sleep sweet my woman with the scattered brain.

 

 

 

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Things Fall Apart: Modeling Masculinity

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1231947178e6SVpwFiction writer Paulo Coelho once twitted a question asking ‘What do you consider a ‘real man’ though?’ It evoked many responses. Thinking through, it occurred to me that a real man might be someone who can provide for his family or maybe someone who can impregnate a woman or be sexually in charge like Baroka the chieftain of Ilujinle (in ‘the lion and the jewel’). Then I thought I might want to see a real man as one who has a good head on his shoulder. What makes for a good head and how the shoulder carries that head is yet to be ascertained. I have thought through many men I know to find a ‘model man’ that has stood the test of time but my search suffers a dearth. Indeed all things fall apart, that precisely is the fate of life.

Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe’s magnus opus became my focus for its conceptualization of what many of us understand as a ‘man’ through the character of Okonkwo. In my memories, Okonkwo is one man that equalled so many. He graced our reading tables through novels and our television sets in the 1980’s.

okonkwoUnlike Unoka his father, Okonkwo was the heroic wrestler, a stoic clan leader, economically mobile through resolute hard work, tirelessly toiling the earth, sexually in charge enabling him to take over Ekwefi who was another man’s wife. He is the funder and defender of his household, father to male and female children, owner of lands, and the companion of more than one woman. Though showing flashes of affection, he didn’t subscribe to showing mild emotions even after a machismo slashing of his son’s (Ikemefuna) head. If it was not a show of extremely aggressive emotions like beating his wife and children, fighting for his culture amongst others, then it was too womanly for him to identify with.                                                                                                  The brutally fearless  Okonkwo in different ways had a presumption of what a man should do, have, and be like. It is seen in his assumptions that his son Nwoye is (feminine just like Unoka) having the predilection of a woman.  Ironically, his daughter Ezinma in her sickly body had ‘the right spirit’ of a man.

Chinua-Achebe-71 In Okonkwo’s ideologies, there were indeed men trapped in women’s bodies and women trapped in men’s bodies. His ideologies extended to religious issues where part of his anger with the Christian God is because it was feminine; men are living fire, women are the impotent ashes so are the Gods alike. He hated everything feminine, including living with his mother’s people on exile in Mbanta after committing a female crime in Umuofia. He hated Egonwa for being feminine and discouraging a war against the white

Set in the land of Umuofia where they had male and female crimes, the character of Okonwo in Chinua Achebe’s ‘things fall apart’ is an exciting model of masculinity in the world of literary fiction. The character of Okonkwo is well put together in an admirable way encapsulating the resilience of the Igbo man (if not Igbo people). Though years have passed, yet Okonkwo is an idol to many, sculpting many expressions of a ‘man’ in our society today.

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More than before in development, interest on the constructions of masculinity has risen. Institutions are trying to decipher precisely how roles and identities collide to produce what different societies call a ‘man’ and the expectations thereof. This is traceable to many gender influenced crimes that accrues into the abuse of human rights in recent times. At the centre of such is gender based violence manifesting its self recently in the violent rape of women in different parts of the world. The gang rape of Jyoti Singh by five men struck a cord with the media amongst other and galvanized huge rage in the international community requesting that the anti-rape laws be revised. This raised questions and actions as it is seen to emanate from a lack of respect for the women by men.

Looking at the character of Okonkwo and considering his many protege in the light of international development concerns, some pertinent questions come to mind. Given the time and the number of years that Okonkwo has lived amongst us, has masculinities been redefined or its still primitive covered by modern clothing? How is the adoption of major traits in this model fracturing the human right of individuals in our society? What are the possible pathways it presents and how sustainable is it? Will the dance of time predict new models of masculinities for future generation or will they remain Okonkwo’s protege?

17097444-exhausted-african-man-sitting-in-chair-over-white-backgroundIt is my theory that maybe following Okonkwo’s model of masculinity may give insight into why men have shorter life expectancy than women. I also agree that the strength of Okonkwo’s model of a man is fragile, being built more on roles rather than identities. This way, many external factors can impact negatively and rupture its cells.  The struggle with the Gods over ownership of Ezinma (the only one with the right spirit of a man amongst his children), connotes the struggles of defining masculinity. This might be suggestive of the fact that the masculinity Okonkwo sought may be phantom and may only be found in dead men or the unborn children.I may get it wrong, I am however open to learning…

-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Fiction and Development

 -Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Remember reading about  Erin Gruwell and the 150 students who used writing to change their life in ‘The Freedom Writer’s Diary’, it demonstrates the power of writing as a tool for social change. Similarly, I could understand why writers are often the enemies of tyrant governments around the world. The unrest created by their work is a proof that the act of  writing can be an emancipatory force for change. Like painters, writers weave words together to create colours, lines and stories that are undoing silences in many societies.

All I learnt about the Nigerian Civil came from stories, novels, poems, dramas amongst others. ‘The Casualties’ by John Clark2Pepper Clark brought the realization that I too was a casualty of a war that hit the dust long before my birth. My knowledge on different cultural practices have been highly influenced by writing of people from different landscapes. Most of these works have been fictional, making secret the names of people and places they wrote about but yet one can understand their message, as though belonging with them.That is the strength of literary fiction in passing knowledge.

In the wake of many development issues which has become a global challenge, I have begun to ponder on the power  different works of fiction have in dispersing knowledge on international development issues. How have they presented the alterations in social structures in our society in the past and present?  How are they forecasting the changes in nature, in the future of our social institutions, and life in general?

The need to explore these questions further gave birth to a column on Compass Newspaper (a Nigerian national newspaper) of which this blog springboards. In the first edition, we considered how “Fiction writer Peter Abraham envisioned a new country, through his work ‘Tell Freedom’

6568430-MHe landscaped an egalitarian society that will break out of a womb infested with racism.  His work gave insight into the social structure at the time of writing, depicting strongly in his narratives what it was like to be caught in the skin shades of white, black and in between”.

 The works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o  was mentioned exploring  the impacts of an imperialist type of governance in his historical fiction ‘Weep not Child’. It has been stated that Mau Mau uprising arguably set the stage for the Independence of Kenya. ngugi1The intricacies that played out and the different masks the organisation had worn over the years in the anti-colonist turmoil were represented in the intrigues of ‘Weep not Child’. Capturing the hopes of a character Ngotho, he characterizes the saviour of the Kenyan people as the son of their soil and no longer the British Colonist. In this way, one will arguably say that ‘weep not child’ held within a prophecy of the future governance of Kenya. The emergence of Jomo Kenyatta as the first president of the Kenyan republic is arguably a testimony to this.”

Not forgetting to mention Chinua Achebe’s ‘Man of the People’, it represents a post colonial Africa and principally Nigeria, where corruption and conflict of interest had become the order of the day amongst leaders. Most striking of this work of fiction is its climax in a coup d’état which arguably gave it relevance as a prophetic piece predicting the near future of many African countries. Shortly after the publication of this piece in 1966, Nigeria survived series of violent transitions very similar to the one that our dear Chinua Achebe had written about.

Away from the African landscape, consideration is given to the renowned work of George Orwell in Animal Farm. Animal farm was an anti-soviet work of fiction personifying different leaders of the Soviet Union revolution at that time through animal characters like ‘Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball and others.

animal-farmThe deliberate use of  pigs to characterize the ruling class is indeed offensive to the dictatorial government of the Soviet Union in that era. In retrospect, the use of animal characters by George Orwell at that time goes to tell of poor human right practices restricting freedom of speech as is today against the International human rights law. This in all speaks of the impacts of totalitarian indoctrinations as even educated people are unable to express their true opinions in this landscape and others where democracies are weak.

These examples show that fictional works are not just a figment of a writer’s imagination created to amuse and entertain readers. Literary fictions have catalysed changes in development and are continuously acting indirectly as custodians of history. A line up of different historical period in the life of a society captured through their fictional works can contribute hugely in deciphering a pattern in their development or under-development, it will also portray their responses to social challenges at different times.

International development issues are seen from multidisciplinary binoculars as they cover huge areas like governance, environment, human right, poverty, amongst others. All of this have been presented in different platforms, most especially in academic and policy papers.  Perhaps for its lack of quantitative data, literary fiction remains questionable as an authoritative source of knowledge in the field of development.

However, I imagine that how  literary fiction has contributed in giving context to social concepts, explaining patterns of qualitative changes in different social frameworks, can be explored using relevant works of fiction. In subsequent posts and editions of the fiction and development column, I intend to make inferences on modern day development issues, linking them to the themes, characters, scenes amongst other things in existing works of literature. I hope this helps the understanding of how fiction writers are using characters and themes to identify, critic, advocate and also compare local, national and global issues that are significant to international development.

Suggestions are highly welcomed!