MAY SARTON//JANE EYRE: WRITING PHOTOGRAPHS

11/2014

 

     In May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude and the narrator Jane’s recollections in Jane Eyre, the writers inherently frame and filter reality by way of creating a cohesive and manageable narrative from a lifetime of experiences, or simply by the action of presenting the world through their own eyes. This technique is not only present in Journal of a Solitude and Jane Eyre, or even just in literature; it is an inherent framing and cropping of reality that happens any time a writer, or photographer, attempts to relate a reality to an audience that has not experienced the subject firsthand. Sarton’s diary-style entries are closer than Eyre’s to what photography attempts to do because she does not try to form a cohesive narrative, but instead relates all of her thoughts and observations. Eyre’s writing could be considered closer to paintings, pre-20th century pictorialist or romantic photographers, or any medium that creates a more contrived picture of reality. Photographic theorists Roland Barthes and Hollis Frampton discuss this obfuscation of information through framing and relate its two-dimensional, de-contextualized capture of a subject to death. Through Jane’s highly subjective portraits and Sarton’s would-be explicit diary entries filtered through a depressive mind, we receive contrived narratives with inherent holes of information that are not failures, but spaces that the reader can fill with their own context in order to better empathize with and learn from the text, making the texts more successful in the end.

     Portraits traditionally serve to capture one’s likeness— both one’s physical attributes, and one’s personality— into a single image. Especially in Jane Eyre’s time, these works— and the direction of art in general— were greatly influenced by the development of photography and the photograph’s ability to capture exactly what was presented to it; photographs had the reputation of the most truthful representation possible. As technology developed through the 20th century, it became easier to carry a camera with oneself constantly, expanding the photographic field to include less-contrived documentation of daily life. This historical development in photography follows the development in literature that occurred between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude—Journal of a Solitude is just that, a journal, not explicitly presenting a narrative, instead presenting one person’s reality with little rhetorical fluff as realism photographers did in the early 20th century. The inherent trustworthiness of the photograph has been greatly tarnished and even reversed, however, since doctoring methods have recently become so accessible and imperceptible. To a contemporary reader a photo-realistic rendering of a person would be understood to carry just as many manipulations by the artist as a less skillful drawing, or a precise photograph. What features have been blurred, or sharpened? What lies just outside the frame of the picture? As every drawing or photograph is inevitably framed through the filter of the artist, so are the implications that Jane self-reports through her portraits and Sarton filters through a depressed and lonely lens.

     Throughout Jane Eyre, the narrator Jane makes several portraits that function consciously to develop or display her feelings about herself or others— but as all pictorial representations do, these personality vignettes leave out much of the broader picture that Jane does not include in her autobiography but that are still apparent, especially to a contemporary reader freer of the social expectations in Jane’s time. Through studies of her motives, the materials she uses, and our own observations of Jane’s relationships and character, these incongruences and evidence of self-edit or omission can be teased from of her drawings.

     Jane’s first portrait drawings that we are invited to witness in process are the rather masochistic comparison drawings of herself and Blanche Ingram, whom Jane draws entirely from her own imagination as informed by Ms. Fairfax’s highly subjective and admiring descriptions. There are several points of self-report in this passage that the reader must take with a grain of salt. For example, Jane reports to the reader that “Reason” told her she had “rejected the real, and rapidly devoured the ideal” by imagining that Rochester was falling for her upon learning he would marry Miss Ingram; she would have the reader (and herself) believe that these entirely biased self-portraits were assignments given by “Reason.” However we see she is extremely distraught; she thinks herself a “blind puppy” and “poor stupid dupe” (Bronte 16.190). These are serious accusations for Jane, who values her wit and insight most. The language she uses in this self-deprecating tirade serve to forcefully lower her opinion of herself, harshly chastising her rather legitimate suspicions that Rochester had feelings for her. Also, at this point in the novel, Jane has never met nor seen Miss Ingram, yet in preparation for the meeting she harshly compares herself to the lady specifically to ensure that she should never feel comparable or equal to Miss Ingram.

     For Miss Ingram’s portrait, again, drawn entirely from Jane’s own mind, she selects “smooth ivory,” her “freshest, finest, clearest tints,” and her “most delicate camel-hair pencils” to create “the loveliest face [she] can imagine.” These materials suggest delicacy, precision, and purity while her self-portrait is done in “chalk,” “faithfully, without softening one defect” (16.190-1). Chalk is an insubstantial, blunt, and imprecise medium that would produce a drawing of less feminine beauty no matter what the subject in comparison to creations with the other materials. This does not seem like a “faithful” representation, but that is clearly not Jane’s goal. The portraits serve as reminders that Rochester would never “waste a serious thought on this indignant and insignificant plebian,” but they are hardly fair to the strong, witty, independent Jane the reader has fondly known thus far. The premise of the drawings seems less like a stern assignment of self-control than a dramatic expression of masochistic despair. While every reader is sure to identify with an episode in his or her own life when he or she experienced equal self-doubt and regret, and indeed reacted with much less composure than Jane, her extremely distraught emotional state betrays the framing of this exercise as one of strictly “reason.”

     Jane’s next portrait, a passionate and ardently-described drawing she does of Rochester while staying with the Reeds, is suggested to be a subconscious result of her desire for companionship in the friendless house, but this suggestion brings up the huge issue of whether or not Rochester is the trustworthy and equal companion that Jane says he is. She begins the drawing innocently as a search for “occupation or amusement,” selecting a “soft black pencil” to work with (Bronte 21.261). This medium would have a similar effect to the chalk that she used on her own self-portrait; the dark soft lead dulls quickly and produces mostly thick, brusque lines. She perhaps unintentionally draws parallels between herself and Rochester, while she intentionally did the same between Miss Ingram and Rochester in her portrait of Miss Ingram, thus causing another moment of dissonance within her self-narrative. Jane pauses at Rochester’s “large… somber” eyes, adding them last as they “required the most careful working” (21.262). Consciously, through this move she wants us to feel her intense wonder and admiration for his character, as eyes most often function metaphorically for “windows of the soul.” His soul is most important to her and takes priority over his physical features which she has said are ugly, but that she still finds handsome. Indeed, her cousin, upon seeing this drawing, reflects that it is “an ugly man.” His “flexible looking mouth, by no means narrow” could also be read into as an synecdoche for Rochester’s openness with Jane; however upon considering Rochester’s actions and treatment of Jane thus far it is much more wont to be read as a manipulative— “flexible”— organ meant to say a lot, but reveal little (21.262).

     From Jane and Rochester’s very first encounter there is a hierarchy between the two; he sits on his literal high horse, but also asserts his superiority by demanding her identity while lying to her about his own extremely relevant position (Bronte 12.146). This is just the first of many power plays he pulls throughout the novel. He later deceives all his guests by dressing as a gypsy woman and visiting the house (18.220), emotionally torturing his then lady-of-interest with a bad fortune (18.223), and using his disguise to try to manipulate an admission of love out of Jane (19.228). All of these instances are in addition to the fact that he has his mentally-ill wife hidden in a closet upstairs, for convenience’ sake (26.320). Jane constantly refers to Rochester as her “master” (18.217, 23.284, 37.456), he refers to her as his “little friend” (20.246), and she is constantly appearing before him on his whims and fancies when he knows how she feels about him (else he wouldn’t have tried to make her admit it when disguised as the gypsy), but won’t tell her how he feels— she must be the one to let her guard down. (13.151, 14.160, 17.198)  These sorts of power plays are manipulative and weak and do not inspire trust, especially when displayed in succession as such. For some reason, Jane continues to love him and draw confidence and a sense of equality through her ability to toy with his emotions by withholding affection. Such a manipulative relationship is not healthy and would not, in reality, result in the fairy-tale ending she envisions (although Rochester being crippled and blind does take away some of his power), and yet, she is inspired to draw this portrait out of desire for companionship; she “had a friend’s face” now to look at, so “what did it signify that those young ladies” (Eliza and Georgiana) “turned their backs on [her]?” (21.262). The argument is entirely unconvincing that Rochester is worthy of or respectful enough to Jane for many reasons that, fully explained, would constitute another several pages of study. This is the greatest case of self-report and selective self-narrative presented in the novel and, especially to the contemporary reader liberated from many of the social hierarchies in Jane’s time, causes the most dissonance between what she claims- that Rochester will allow her the freedom she needs with the friend and lover that she wants- and what we see from his actions.

     Sarton’s journalistic writing, too, contains evidences of framing self-report even though her diary-style entries would initially suggest a more honest recounting of events. Her moods are heavily, and consciously, influenced by the weather. For most of the winter she struggles with seasonally-affected depression, especially due to “extreme cold that saps energy.” It is during those coldest days that she becomes most exhausted, and with every ten degrees warmer the temperature rises, her hopes are raised for spring (Sarton 86-89). She resents the “relentless,” “numbing” cold, and “long[s] for the shift that will come any day to a warmer air” (90, 95). She even admits to “living in a vast cosmic mood-swing” (107). That her moods, affected by the weather, in turn change her levels of optimism or pessimism— filters that can dramatically change how one views ones’ own life, regardless of actual situational changes— suggests that Sarton’s overall depiction of her circumstances and chronicling of her life through this seemingly explicit diary form is not as reliable as one would initially assume.

     However, Sarton’s moods aren’t affected by the weather in a totally systematic way. Some days, the cold saps her of energy, on other days, she embraces the calming softness of snow, and on other days, gray clouds invigorate her (Sarton 86, 47, 66). She “rejoices that soon everything will be honed down to structure. It is all a rich farewell now to leaves, to color” (34). One could so easily instead take the losing of leaves as a metaphor for mortality, and in literature the transition from summer to autumn to winter is used to symbolize the passage of life from its prime to its deterioration and eventual end.  It could be argued that she doesn’t suffer from true seasonally affected depression; Sarton could, as writers are wont to do, be assigning metaphorical meaning to her natural surroundings that she feels most expressive of her current internal state. This internal state could, of course, be almost constantly depressed. Both alternatives are not mutually exclusive and it is most probable that her moods are influenced by the weather, and how she feels about the weather is influenced by her moods. Sarton is also given to embracing this depression; she reports that her writing is more successful when she is not cheered by sunshine (48-49). Regardless, Sarton’s uncontestable depression is a massive filter of reality in itself. Part of the evil of depression is its ability to take a happy, healthy life, and twist it uncontrollably in one’s mind into something failed and worthless. Although I would not go so far as to say that her whole account contains no value in terms of a factual representation of her circumstances, if one looks to her accounts to gain explicit knowledge, they will not come away with an accurate picture. However, this sort of information is not Sarton’s goal. Her journaling consists entirely of tacit knowledge: both Sarton and her reader gain immense emotional knowledge from the book. This difference brings up the important factor of the intent of both Sarton’s and Jane Eyre’s writing, and whether or not their extreme cropping and filtering of their own experiences is appropriate or necessary for what they are trying to achieve.

     Sarton’s entire premise for writing Journal of a Solitude is that she wanted to chronicle her life for a year—not her finances or daily activity, but her emotional and contemplative states which are of more value to her profession as a writer. For Sarton, her book exists as both a creative outlet not held to the same meticulous boiling-down involved in her poetry writing, and as a way to record all of her creative and emotional musings, perhaps for future reference, and certainly as a point of interest to her readers whom perhaps want to know more about her thoughts than the few lines contained in a poem. As in photography, where it is impossible for the photographer to translate all of the information present at the scene or object they photograph, neither can Sarton help her own head from analyzing and presenting information in a certain way. A photograph, once trusted as the truest representation of reality, is now understood for what isn’t presented on its 2-dimensional plane; Sarton’s journaling, by definition expected to be straightforwardly documentative, also by definition cannot escape the filter of the writer. This completely excuses, in fact makes necessary, every bit of depressive or weather-related filtering that occurs when she writes. The same could not be said so widely for Jane Eyre.

     Jane Eyre’s autobiographical writing oversees a long narrative with a driving force in the form of Mr. Rochester—therefore it make sense that she would leave out bits of information that, after her happy ending resolved itself and she sat down to write her story, did not serve to dramatize or romanticize the couples’ path to happiness. However, Jane Eyre seeks to tell a love story from the point of view of a highly intelligent, independent woman, and that she leaves out or plays down key criticisms of Rochester’s overbearing and manipulative character weakens her self-characterization as strong and in control. It seems, then, highly important that the novel ends with Rochester’s physical dependency on Jane, else she would be entering a relationship that seemed doomed with a distinct hierarchy of power. It is unfortunate that this leveling had to happen through such a brute act as physical crippling, but still makes leaps and bounds for romantic literature of its time as far as strong heroines go. Through Jane’s portraits and throughout the rest of the novel, she creates a representation with an argument: a picture of something forever frozen within that generated story that, while told firsthand, still unavoidably contains edges outside of which information is just hidden from our view.

     The photographic theorists Roland Barthes and Hollis Frampton both discussed the inherent death that occurs in a photograph by forever freezing something immobile; a sort of corpse of that which the photographer is trying to capture and make immortal. Barthes describes a photograph as “a motionless image…. this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies” (92).  He further explores photography as a morbid examination:

For the photograph's immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolute superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past ('this-has-been'), the photograph suggests that it is already dead. (94)

As in writing, photography seeks to immortalize information through documentation, and this action of immortalization essentially removes it subject from necessarily being alive.

     In Frampton’s video work “Incisions in Segments of History,” he narrates several short clips of film portraying one action, then takes the clips and the narrations and places them in reverse order. Eventually the viewer realizes that they’ve been misled, but not lied to; Frampton has simply taken the verbal form of the video and mixed up the context of both the image and the words. His work, with Barthes’ suggestion that photographs are a false mummification of their subjects, argues that photographs are reliable only to the photographer who has witnessed the whole scene themselves, and can understand the scene better than anyone who else might see the photograph out of context. (Even then, the unique ability of photography is that it can scientifically capture something in a way that plays tricks on even the photographer’s eye.) Sarton, Eyre, and any writer, for that matter, create the same sort of de-contextualized narratives any time they attempt to capture natural actions in writing; no matter how hard these authors may try to present to us a full picture of a narrative or even their daily thoughts uncensored, it is impossible to give every detail so as to make the story more real for the reader. This inherent obfuscation of information is not a failure; that which lies outside the frame is what invites imagination and allows the viewer to place them in, and have empathy for, the writing.

     Jane’s portrait drawings and May Sarton’s journal entries both display evidence of pictorial and narrative framing. The sorts of drawings that Jane produces are entirely unconcerned with what is omitted; all attention is given to what she chooses to place on the page. Her writing suffers similar evidence of cropping or revision— Jane retells her story in a very selective manner and doesn’t bother to show the “edge of the photo,” per se; that she doesn’t hint at what is inevitably left out of the picture. Sarton catalogs her moods with total admission of their dependency on weather or subjectivity to her depression, presenting the reader with a wealth of tacit knowledge and with no attempts at providing factual details of her existence over that year. Sarton, however, embraces this filter because of its beneficial effects on her writing—her career and livelihood. From direct narrative to free journaling, filters, cropping, and other photoshopping effects are unavoidable effects of presentation of any story; one cannot write every moment of their life without omissions, nor could they draw a frameless picture without an infinite piece of paper. The inconsistencies within Jane Eyre are especially apparent to a contemporary viewer with contemporary views on marriage, feminism, and other issues; these are less distracting in Sarton’s almost gender-less accounts in Journal of a Solitude. Both Sarton and Charlotte Bronte, through Jane Eyre, deserve recognition as both successful writers, and photoshoppers.

 

 

CITATIONS

Barthes, Roland. A Barthes Reader. England: Hill and Wang, 1983. Print.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Frampton, Hollis, and Bruce Jenkins. "Incisions in History Segments of Eternity." On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Frampton, Hollis. Nostalgia. 1971. Video art.

Sarton, May. Journal of a Solitude. London: Women’s Press, 1991. Print.