SO19 talks with JENNIFER O'GRADY

The work of poet and playwright Jennifer O’Grady investigates identity and love, among other issues, in spare, precise, and striking language. Her play Charlotte’s Letters uses inspiration from the life of Charlotte Brontë to evoke two women writers in a way that is at once true to the 19th century and profoundly modern. O’Grady’s poetry collection, White, won the Mid-List Press First Series Award. Her play “Juggling with Mr. Fields” just received a staged reading at Kentucky's Twilight Theatre Productions, while her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, widely published in periodicals from Harper’s to The New Republic, and featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. Find out more about O’Grady on her website. Here, So19 talks with O’Grady about the Brontës, the 19th century, and the complex transformations that turn history into art. —SF

So19: Let’s start with the basics. Charlotte's letters is set in the 19th century, but it's a very modern play: intertwining several narratives and using minimal sets and props, for example.

JOG: Charlotte’s Letters was inspired by the two years Charlotte Brontë lived in Brussels, before she wrote Jane Eyre. Once I decided to set a play in a prior century, I knew there could be theatrical challenges. To avoid those, to make my play feel more modern, and simply to have fun with it, I dispensed with realism. The play doesn’t need more than a few pieces of furniture and some suggestive props. A lot can be accomplished with sound and lighting.

Though it uses historical figures and events, the play is a work of fiction. It isn’t intended to depict what might have occurred between the real people, nor is my character Charlotte intended to document the actual person who was Charlotte Brontë. In fact, when speaking of my character I refer to her as "Charlotte," while I refer to the real novelist as "Brontë" or "Charlotte Brontë." The two are quite distinct in my mind.

So19: An interesting and necessary distinction, but a tricky one as well.

JOG: Theatrical characters, even those inspired by real persons, are only representations of people, used by the playwright to serve the needs of the play. When we watch Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example, we’re not watching Shakespeare's attempt to faithfully reconstruct the actual king. He’s not presenting his play as historical fact, but rather as a work of art.

I tried to remain true to what I saw as essential characteristics of the real Brontë—her intelligence, her sense of humor, her unflagging desire to be an author, her great capacity for friendship and sense of responsibility. But I also used my imagination.

In fact, it’s quite possible that everything that occurs to Charlotte in my play is imagined by Meta Gaskell, one of the characters within it. I won’t say that’s the case—it’s open to interpretation—but it’s possible.

So19: Before we get into the nitty-gritty of its 19th-century roots, let’s talk a bit about the themes of the play.

JOG: Charlotte’s Letters explores a number of areas, one of which is the creation of identity: in particular, how women writers must forge our own identities given the constraints we work against. Certainly women today have it much better than the Victorians, but there is still sexism. Women writers today still engender ambivalent responses, and are under-represented in many kinds of publishing and awards.

My play imagines Charlotte Brontë at a time when she is trying desperately to become a writer. Later, her friend Mrs. Gaskell feels forced to reinvent Charlotte—rescue her from her posthumous notoriety—in order to save her books. It’s a paradox that I don’t think would have existed for male writers.

Another area that the play (like my poetry) explores is love. What it is, and what we do about it when circumstances don’t make it easy to express, are questions than run throughout the piece.

So19: And speaking of love…at the heart of Charlotte’s Letters are the experiences and relationships Brontë fictionalized in her novel Villette. Talk about your reactions to that novel.

JOG: Villette has long been one of my favorite novels. Its use of an unreliable female narrator, its strong emotional content, its examination of the life of a single woman—all of that was unusual for its time. I think it’s a tremendous literary accomplishment. One wonders what Charlotte Brontë might have written after Villette had she lived long enough to finish another novel.

It wasn’t until after a subsequent reading of my decades-old paperback edition of Villette that I decided to read the front matter, and was very surprised to learn that Brontë had actually lived in Brussels, and had in fact based a main character, Monsieur Paul Emanuel, on her own teacher, Constantin Heger.

Unlike Paul Emanuel, Monsieur Heger was married, and to the directress of the school at which Brontë studied and later worked. Brontë became increasingly estranged from Madame Heger during her second year in Brussels, although the specific cause of their tension isn’t clear. Brontë finally left Brussels abruptly and unhappily. Many believe the school directress in Villette—not a likable character—is based on Madame Heger.

None of this, by the way, would have been news to someone who had read the letters of Charlotte Brontë or any modern biography of her. But for me it was a fascinating discovery. Suddenly Brontë was transformed in my mind from a writer with an amazing imagination, into one who used her own pain and life experiences to make art. The desire to know more about her was the genesis of my play.
So19: Many scholars assume that the “real” Paul Emanuel, Monsieur Heger, had no feelings for Charlotte Brontë.

JOG: I can’t quite see how that could have been true. More than anyone outside of her own family, he encouraged her writing. He also provided her with a way to earn her living, by inviting her back to Brussels as a teacher after her departure for family reasons. He gave her gifts of books, which she couldn’t afford to buy, and provided friendship and conversation when she felt isolated and lonely. Perhaps he wasn’t in love with her romantically. But he certainly valued and helped her. And it’s clear, when you read her letters to him, that she had tremendous respect for Heger. I wanted to honor that in my play. 

So19: As you mentioned earlier, posited against its dramatization of the Brontës, the play depicts Elizabeth Gaskell as she plans her biography of her late friend. How did the idea for this storyline arise?

JOG: I struggled for a while trying finding the right form for this play. I knew I wanted intertwining plotlines that would comment on each other. I experimented with setting the second plotline in the present, but it didn’t feel right. The moment I thought of Gaskell, the entire play began to take shape, and different thematic possibilities opened up. I enjoyed exploring Mrs. Gaskell, who was an author I hadn’t known much about when I began writing the play. Also, when I began the play, I was about the same age Mrs. Gaskell is when we see her. So I was able to understand her concerns as a writer and a mother.
So19: Mrs. Gaskell’s biography was intended to depict Charlotte Brontë in a way that would silence rumors of her scandalous character. Though it’s a remarkable work built entirely on good intentions, her depiction also helped distort Brontë’s character for history.

JOG: That’s true. I’m a good example of the fallout from that. Before I began this work, I hadn’t realized that Brontë had ever cared for anyone. Jane Eyre is one of the most convincing love stories of all time, and the fact that it never occurred to me that she must have loved somebody in order to write it, or Villette, is proof of the power of Elizabeth Gaskell’s depiction of her.

One of the reasons I wrote this play was to help de-mythologize the Brontës, to make them accessible to modern audiences. I wanted to disassociate them from the idea we sometimes have, that they weren’t actually real women with the ability to feel real love. I was interested in writing about a young woman who wanted very badly to become a writer, and who had the concerns, insecurities, and passions the rest of us have. I think Charlotte and Emily in my play are a lot like young women writers I’ve known.

At the same time, I wanted to depict Elizabeth Gaskell sympathetically. I think her biography is a testament to the friendship between the two women as well as how much she valued Brontë’s work.

The real Gaskell, it seems to me, was a creative, empathetic, open-minded woman who was smart enough to deduce, from Villette, that Charlotte Brontë had had strong feelings for someone. Later, when she met Monsieur Heger and saw the letters Brontë had written him, she must have understood Brontë’s feelings for him. But that wasn’t something she could put in her biography. The Hegers were still alive and had a school to maintain, and there was a very real possibility that Brontë’s novels would fade into oblivion, or at least be left for later generations to discover. Instead, they remained in print. That’s really due in large part to Gaskell.
So19: As its title suggests, the play works with the idea of letters: letters between Charlotte Brontë and Heger, a letter from Gaskell to Heger requesting information, a letter back. Are Heger’s actual letters to Charlotte Brontë, or vice versa, extant?

JOG: None of Heger’s letters to her survive. We don’t know what became of them. We do have a letter he wrote to Gaskell when she was seeking extracts from Brontë’s letters to him, and those extracts, with very little variation, are used in my play.
Four of Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Heger are now in the British Library, having been given to England by his children after his death. The letters are famous for their emotional content—Brontë wrote them after she had returned home, where she felt isolated and discouraged in her hopes of becoming an author. As she increasingly reached out to Heger for solace, he began to withdraw. Since his wife didn’t like Brontë, I suspect he found himself in a difficult position.

Three of the surviving letters were at one point torn into pieces, presumably by Heger, and subsequently repaired, supposedly by Madame Heger. She kept them, we are told, in secret, and passed them on to her daughter Louise, a professional artist. It’s commonly assumed that Heger destroyed the letters after he read them. That is often used as evidence that he didn’t care about Brontë or her feelings. But we know that Elizabeth Gaskell saw Brontë’s letters to him when she visited him in Brussels, years after the letters were written. Clearly they were in his possession then. Since I can’t imagine a scenario in which Heger would display torn-up letters to Gaskell, my play involves an alternate scenario. But I won’t go into that here, to avoid a spoiler.
So19: You mentioned above that Gaskell’s young daughter, Margaret Emily, known as Meta, appears in the play. What can you tell us about her?

JOG: The real Meta Gaskell was the second of Elizabeth Gaskell’s four daughters. She was intelligent, and a good artist. In fact, she once considered a professional career in the field. Interestingly, as I noted above, Louise Heger became a professional artist. Nineteenth-century women weren’t commonly encouraged to pursue creative careers, so that tells us something important about Heger, Gaskell, and their outlooks on life.

Meta Gaskell never married. She was engaged briefly but broke the engagement off. I’ve never been able to discover why. There are suggestions that she learned something negative about her fiancé. That intrigued me and worked well with the themes of my play. Most importantly, there was enough space in the record of Meta’s life to allow me to exercise my imagination.

So19: I loved the rather mordant humor in the play. Sometimes the Brontës and anything to do with them are seen as being very somber subjects, as though they were the stuff of tragic fiction and lived every day entirely in some kind of dark consciousness.

JOG: If one reads Brontë’s letters, nearly a thousand of which still exist, it becomes clear that she had a sharp sense of humor. I saw that as essential. Humorous people are often attracted to other humorous people, so it made sense to me that the major characters in my play would share Charlotte’s bent for sarcasm.
So19: Even when one isn’t attempting any kind of documentary realism, plays dealing with 19th-century events require research. How did you explore the Belgian aspects of, and characters in, the play?

JOG: I discovered a chapter of the Brontë Society based in Brussels. They very kindly shared historical documents and their own thoughts with me. Another enormous source of help was a marvelous book, The Belgian Essays, edited by Sue Lonoff. It brings together all the extant essays (or devoirs) that Charlotte and Emily wrote for Monsieur Heger. Lonoff offers extremely thoughtful commentary on both Brontë sisters’ writing and Heger’s responses to it. That gave me invaluable insight into Heger as a teacher, in particular how he taught and encouraged the Brontës. And Margaret Smith’s annotated letters of Charlotte Brontë gave me essential information about the Heger letters.

So19: How did you keep the language of the play at once accurate enough to the period to be believable, yet fresh enough for contemporary playgoers?

JOG: To begin with, I immersed myself in Charlotte Brontë’s letters. That gave me a good feel for how she sounded—which was actually surprisingly modern, at least to my ear. I read other letters from the time period, including those of other Brontë family members and those of Elizabeth Gaskell.  And I re-read Charlotte Brontë’s novels. Because they were written in first person, they sound a lot like someone speaking, and helped give me ideas for how my characters might sound.

So19: Speaking of language, the play begins with Emily and Charlotte speaking in counterpoint. I believe their words there are quotations from their actual writings?

JOG: The Stage Directions indicate that they’re speaking from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, though I’ve modified the texts very slightly for purposes of rhythm and pacing. Using the Brontës’ own words seemed to me essential in establishing their characters and some of the themes of the play. It also signals that the play is not realistic, which is something an audience needs to know right away.
So 19: You’ve also written plays about W.C. Fields, as well as about several different contemporary situations. What links this play about the 19th century to your other dramatic work?

JOG: I’m fascinated by characters who can’t or won’t reveal themselves for some reason, whether they’re hiding an emotional truth within themselves or something more concrete. That creates internal conflicts that I find very interesting and dramatically rich. How such people use or don’t use language also interests me. And I’m intrigued by art and the creation of art, what it is and why we do it, how it reflects other parts of our lives. Those concerns belong to people of our time, of course, as well as those who lived earlier.

Most importantly though, I’m fascinated by love—what it is, how we live with or without it. I think, ultimately, that everything I write is an exploration of love. Of course, it can take different forms. There’s romantic love but there’s also love between friends or siblings, between parent and child, love for one’s work, etc. We all know how love feels, yet it’s elusive—we can’t easily pin it down or define it. That fascinates me, and is one of the things that keeps me writing.
Elizabeth Gaskell by Emery Walker