Sunday, October 2, 2005

Review: The Green Dwarf

The Green Dwarf: A Tale of the Perfect Tense by Charlotte Brontë. Recommended.

The Green Dwarf demonstrates that literary achievement owes perhaps as much to experience and craft as to ability.

Set in the exotic colonial city of Verdopolis in Africa, The Green Dwarf is awkward on its own as a novella. It's framed at the beginning as a tale within a tale; the recuperating Lord Charles, apparently a renowned literary figure, requests his venerable friend Bud to tell him a story, which turns out to be the story of The Green Dwarf. There are references near the beginning and end to "Captain Tree," who would apparently figure in other juvenilia by the Brontë siblings.

A time-worn adage about writing is to "write what you know." The Green Dwarf exemplifies the practical reason for this bit of wisdom; the Brontë siblings did not know Africa, so little of Verdopolis resembles a colonial African city or town. Even the descriptions of hills, glens, and forests, save for the occasional mention of a palm, evoke an English or Scottish setting, not an African one. It's also never revealed in which part of the vast African continent Verdopolis lies. The nature of the "African Olympic Games," the characters' names, the occasional anachronism, and the plot of a lady in distress lend The Green Dwarf the air of a fairy tale in a fictional setting.

Interestingly, Brontë's imagination is perhaps limited by her chronological age and her social and cultural experience and milieu. The piece villain says, "Beautiful creature . . . Behold me, fair lady, and know into whose power you have fallen!" A more mature or modern writer might hint at something more sinister to follow, as Brontë will later hint at Rochester's depravity and his paternity of his ward Adele, but after this ominous line the kidnapper merely gloats and then leaves to serve his country.

The Green Dwarf's beginning and early Napoleonic aside are nonsensical, its language overblown, and its plot awkward (and interrupted by authorial intrusions such as, "It may now be as well to connect the broken thread of my rambling narrative before I proceed further."). Brontë's imagination shines through at times, in whimsy, in images, and in words. The ailing Lord Charles is fed a diet that consists of, among other delicacies, ". . . stewed cockchafers . . . and roasted mice." In his rambles, he suddenly comes upon the green, foam-covered sea, which his "excited fancy" sees as a plains covered with "white flowers and tender spring grass and the thickly clustered masts of vessels . . . transformed into groves of tall, graceful trees, while the smaller craft took the form of cattle reposing in the shade"—quite a vision for the recovering poet. And Bertha's comment upon the arrival of Lady Emily answers its own question: "But what have you brought such a painted toy as this here for? There's no good in the wind, I think."

Brontë foreshadows the significance of the "carroty-haired hero of the cart and asses" when he defeats Colonel Percy's magnificent steeds and chariot in a race. She also cleverly keeps him a man of mystery: How did he win the race? How did he happen to be at the right place at the right time to find Colonel Percy's servant "at a very lonely part of the road"? If he is more than human, why does he need Colonel Percy's money to pay for his vices? Or is he a representative?

In many ways, The Green Dwarf reads more like a play than a novella. with the awkward authorial intrusions serving as scene breaks. Even the Ashantees and their king Quashie are mere plot devices who enter the scene, breathe wind into the plot's sails, and add nothing to the drama.

Work on The Green Dwarf and other juvenilia undoubtedly fired Brontë's continued interest in writing. She achieved success when she left Verdopolis and Africa behind and focused her imagination and her ability to convey it on what she knew and had experienced—the often difficult, lonely, isolated lives of independent, intelligent women in the 19th century, women who, like Jane Eyre, do what they believe is right at the cost of their own happiness.

Sunday, 2 October 2005.
© 2005 by Diane L. Schirf.

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