Because Charlotte Brontë plays a large role in the dissertation I'm writing, in May, I went to visit the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, England. I'd been hearing about this place for years: the gloom, the lonely moors, the graveyard that surrounds the house, saturating the ground with diseased leakage which, rumor has it, killed off the Brontë siblings one by one. And I'd heard specifically that up in Charlotte Brontë's bedroom was a dress on display. One of Charlotte's dresses. And I'd heard that the dress was really really small. Which hadn't struck me as a big deal. Nineteenth-century people were tiny, compared to us. Thanks to malnutrition, the average woman stood less than five feet. So I'm walking around the house, and finally make it up to Charlotte's room. And I'm feeling great about being here. It is perfect weather (horrible), and I've already seen the couch where Emily died, and the kitchen where Anne learned German, and so I walk into the bedroom, and there's the dress that Charlotte Brontë used to wear. And it's white and it's delicate and it's small. All is just as it should be, but my first thought, which occurs suddenly and spontaneously as I stand in front of the dress, is "I could take her." What the hell? She's dead. What am I thinking? I'm not a violent person. I've never "taken" anyone before. I pushed Kelly Robbins down a hill in the 4th grade, but that hardly counts. Why do I want to pommel the stuffing out of a dead nineteenth-century novelist?
And then it comes back to me. One of those, wadda you call them, repressed memories. Of being in junior high school, and visiting the house of Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts, where there's also a dress, also small, also white. (Why are these women writers memorialized by their dresses, which are always placed on these handless, headless mannequins, these headless ghosts of women writers haunting their bedrooms as if they had nothing better to do than stand motionless after getting dressed.) So I'm standing in Emily Dickinson's bedroom with my sister, and my father, and my mother, who is writing a dissertation on Dickinson, and we're all standing behind the velvet barrier looking at this tiny tiny dress (did this woman have shoulder blades?) and suddenly Mom is off, over the barrier, and Dickinson's dress is down, and my mother is crowing in victory, but only for a second, because then the guards are upon her, and we're being dragged out and thrown in the Amherst gutter.
And I think, if the author is dead, as Foucault says, it's a damned shame, because I'd love to wrestle her to the ground.
And I think that in the Freud Museum, or the Dickens Museum, or the Marx Museum, all you see are the heads, the great bearded heads of these men whose ideas and words were so important that huge statues of just their heads are erected all over the world. Can you imagine visiting Freud's house, and only seeing a pair of trousers and a morning jacket modeled on a headless, handless mannequin? What would Freud say about that?
And I think, maybe there's a dress company out there that deals with all of the societies that grow up around famous dead women writers, and all they make are small white dresses.
And I think the dress company only sends the white dresses out after a contract has been signed in which the societies promise never never to model the dresses on anyone or anything with a head or hands.
And I think that maybe the one exception is the exhibit at the George Sands House. Maybe up in her bedroom is a headless, handless mannequin, dressed in a diminutive white tuxedo.
And I think, if I ever become a famous woman writer, they're going to have a bloody hard time finding any tiny white dress that I ever wore, aside from my christening gown.
And I think, how can a white dress be at all appropriate for any art form which has as its primary tools black ink and drippy quill pens?
And I think, if you're around someone so small, it's inevitable that you would want to, you know, flex your muscles a bit.
And I think, yeah, I could take her. Or leave her. What does it matter to me?
And then I think, Charlotte Brontë wrote Villette, one of the best novels ever written, and I'll never come close to her. Or is it Charlotte Brontë wrote Villette, one of the best novels ever written, and I'll never get close to her?
And I think, Is this instinct to TAKE Charlotte Brontë just a way of grappling with her, getting intimate with her, headless though she might be in her mannequin state? Throwing myself onto her, just like throwing myself into my work? When you know all the known details about someone's life, and when you've read every shred of their writing that still exists in the world, what is there left to do other than to try to feel their very frame, to take your relationship with them one step further, to get physical? All right. So maybe I'm emotionally stunted, like high school kids who smack each other on the backs of each others' heads to show affection. Maybe this is the same thing. I want to fight Brontë because how else am I going to get any closer to her. I'll tear up her dress to show how much I care. I'll take her.
And I think, it will be the female academics on one side of the hall, and the women writers in white on the other, and we'll either have it out in a messy brawl, or we'll ask each other to dance. I dwell in possibility, after all. Me and my mom will take all comers, and give them a waltzing like they've never had before.
"Grappling with Charlotte Brontë" debuted September 20, 1996.
Performed at Best of No Shame Theatre on December 13, 1996.
Performed at 17th Anniversary Retro-Shame in the Truck on October 3, 2003 by Carolyn Jacobson