Sunday, 8 July 2018

Madamoiselle Rachel and Charlotte Bronte

Even in the in years in between The Brontes and The Brontes, when I was trying to escape or otherwise ignore them, I still couldn’t.  It was impossible to tell whether their messages would find me, or I’d find them.

During 2002-03 I was living in York, within easy walking distance of the town centre and my feet would keep leading me back to the art gallery (below).

It was there I developed a love of the paintings of Canaletto and Bellotto and I’d spend many a lunch hour or portion of my weekend staring at the canals of Venice.  

But these beautiful paintings were really a foil for the one I desired to see most.  Inevitably, on every visit, I’d be drawn back to the saddest looking portrait of a French actress by the name of Mademoiselle Rachel, or simply ‘Rachel’ (pronounced with a “sh”).  Her real name was Elisabeth Felix and her acting was said to be so spectacular she dominated the European stage during the mid-19th century.

The painting of her by William Etty, 1841 (pictured above) still hangs in York’s art gallery.  Her eyes made me want to cry for her, with her and because of her.  I would read the little plaque alongside it revealing that Charlotte Bronte had seen Rachel perform on stage.  Charlotte’s words on Rachel’s performance were:

“terrible as if the earth had cracked deep at your feet and revealed a glimpse of hell.”

I would stare long and hard at the portrait of this woman whose name I bore and wondered at the intersection between Charlotte and herself although at the time I never looked her up, nor Charlotte’s letters.

Is it strange to say I felt comfortable and reassured by the depth of emotion conveyed both in the artists portrayal of the actress’ sad expressive face and in Charlotte’s words?

Is it sad that I would stare at her portrait and feel comfortable with her tear-stained cheeks and those dark pools for eyes?  Hadn’t I myself felt that I’d had glimpsed hell during the previous two years whilst I mad a half-baked attempt at recovering from rape and depression?

At this time, I hadn’t yet read Charlotte’s letters about her trip to London when she’d seen Rachel perform.  I didn’t know then that Charlotte’s time in London hadn’t been an entirely enjoyable experience but that in the numerous letters she sent to various connections afterwards, she always mentioned her delight at having seen Rachel perform.  Charlotte had been captivated - the impression Rachel had made on Charlotte was a deep one.

In Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte’s letter of 6th November 1851 is quoted, proving that the impression Rachel had made on Charlotte had “stood the test of time” as it was written a good few months after she witnessed the performance in London.  Charlotte's letter read:

“Rachel’s acting transfixed me with wonder, enchained me with interest, and thrilled me with horror.  The tremendous force with which she expresses the very worst passions in their strongest essence forms an exhibition as exciting as the bull fights of Spain and the old gladiatorial combats of old Rome….   It is not human nature that she shows you; it is something wilder and worse; the feelings and fury of a fiend.  The great gift of genius she undoubtedly has; but I fear, she rather abuses it than turns it to good account.”

If you were still left in any doubt as to the impression this actress made on Charlotte Bronte, then it was only recently during my reading of Villette, Charlotte’s final novel, that I was reminded of Rachel once more.  The character of Vashti, who appears in chapter 23, was written by Charlotte as a memorial to Mademoiselle Rachel.

“For awhile - a long while - I thought it was only a woman, though a unique woman, who moved in might and grace before this multitude. Behold! I found upon her something neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil."

"Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate she stood.” (Villette, published 1853).

It's strange how I recall in 2002 feeling some familiar comfort in sharing my first name with one who had stirred the passionate heart of Charlotte Bronte.

Those who know me will be aware that when mortals have failed me in the past few years, it’s Anne Bronte to whom I turn, the consummate instructor in every way.  I find her words to possess a genuine truth that stands the test of time and informs still.  Yet this time, I turn to Charlotte for my lesson: in speaking of Rachel’s genius Charlotte said:

“She rather abuses it than turns it to good account.”

Whilst I'd never claim genius in myself, with what little power I do possess in speaking out about the dark and deep forces present in our world, I intend to “turn it to good account” and speak out for the purposes of educating and enlightening others.

It’s my greatest wish that others will know themselves as fully as possible and remain open to understanding and working towards a world that attempts to eradicate dark forces, beginning with the truthful understanding of the self (shadow behaviours), a commitment to grow out of it, evolve and change, and to emanate enlightenment out of that growth.

Understanding and awareness of ourselves and of the patterns of dark traits are our first steps in being present for one another and learning to heal those aspects of ourselves that need it, before moving onto creating a world where truth and light expand for the good of all.

I’ll end this piece by saying to the person who criticised me for displaying my own name on my own blog, you can forget it!  Your bitterness is your own response and only speaks of you.

Finally, thank you to my parents, who upon their first sight of me as a newborn, promptly changed the name they were going to give me (Charlotte) to the one that I’m now proud to display at the top of this blog, Rachel.  I’ll take the dark pools of my eyes and turn them to good account.