For a long time I’ve been wanting to write a post on Charlotte Brontë’s 1839 novella, Caroline Vernon. It’s one of my absolute favourite works by Charlotte. The penultimate extant text from her juvenilia/Glass Town and Angrian writings, it tells the story of a teenage girl named Caroline who lives with her unstable mother in exile, falls in love with her guardian, is introduced to society by her father, then rejects it all in favour of pursuing her guardian in the hopes of seducing him. That’s one way of looking at it anyway. Other readings cast Caroline as a victim of a predatory older man but that’s not how I see things. It’s a valid reading, but to me, Caroline is an active agent in her own destiny. She has the power to reject certain things, and the power to pursue others, and it’s a power that she eventually uses. The beauty of Caroline Vernon is that it’s a text about a lot of different things (adolescence, coming of age, the transition between states – childhood and adulthood; private and public life; innocence and experience). It’s rich, deep in layers and meaning, and to me, it’s ultimately the tale of a teenager’s romantic and sexual awakening, and her journey into womanhood.
I think one of the reasons I haven’t ever blogged about Caroline Vernon is because I’m planning to one day properly revisit the chapter I wrote on it for my MA dissertation and use it as the basis for an academic essay. I’ve been planning this for 4 years now so I’m now determined to make a start on things. One of the reasons I’m writing about it now is that it’s just too good to keep quiet about any longer. It’s one of my dreams to produce a critical edition of Caroline Vernon one day as, as I said above, it’s such a rich text that needs some serious attention. Another reason is that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” a 1966 short story by American author, Joyce Carol Oates which tells the tale of 15 year old teenager named Connie who lives in the American suburbs with her parents and older sister. This is a story which fascinated me when I first read it in 2010 at university, and it’s one that continues to haunt me, and one in which I see echoes of the issues raised in Caroline Vernon, written over a century earlier.
Oates’ story was also introduced to me by one of my former lecturers at university, and a thoroughly lovely woman who very sadly passed away recently. Rest in peace.
I’d love to go in depth into this, but I’m actually going to try to keep it fairly brief (wait for the essay, it will happen!). Caroline Vernon is focussed on Caroline, a teenage girl who lives with her mother in a sort of exile. Caroline’s father is Alexander Percy, a creation used by both Charlotte and her brother Branwell. Here Percy is fairly mellow compared with his former appearances, and wans to reconnect with his daughter, whom he has not seen for many years. Caroline’s mother, Louisa, is his former mistress; at times she is depicted as dancer, opera singer, and beautiful socialite, but it is clear that Louisa’s life is dramatically different in this narrative. Complicating things, Caroline’s legal guardian is Zamorna, Angria’s king and Percy’s rival who is married to Caroline’s older sister, the beautiful and dutiful Queen of Angria, Mary Percy. Oh, and Louisa is also infatuated with Zamorna when she’s not trying to kill him. Still with me? The role of Zamorna in the narrative is what seems to divide most readers and critics. Is he an older predatory figure taking advantage of his young ward, or an ageing lothario who is seduced by his sister-in-law once she comes of age?
In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie is a bored teenager living with her family who desires some kind of excitement in her life. Whilst her family are out at a barbeque, Connie finds herself alone, and able to reflect on her life, and where she wants to go. This is until the arrival of Arnold Friend, a man who pulls up outside Connie’s home in his car, a man Connie had previously encountered at the drive-in theatre before the beginning of the narrative. Arnold is smooth-talking and charming, however, as the narrative progresses and she engages with him, Connie realises Arnold is a much older man, and with his talk becoming increasingly strange and threatening, she sees he is no friend of hers. At one point he tells her, “‘I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t. And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give into me and love me – ‘” Eventually, Arnold coerces Connie into leaving the safety of her family home and join him outside, where she heads into the unknown, and probable danger. Is Connie a victim of a predatory older man who leads her, “not to a promised new world, but rather to a violent sexual assault” (Marsden Gillis), or, despite, Arnold’s threats, does a part of her go willingly with him in order to experience what she believes to be the authentic adult world? It doesn’t matter how you look at both texts, both Zamorna and Arnold are key figures in the tales, and in the developments of their teenage protagonists.
Let’s look at Caroline and Connie. Both girls are teenagers with formerly beautiful but now somewhat washed-up mothers, both girls dread becoming another version of their mothers, both have distant fathers, seemingly perfect sisters, and both are filled with the desire to escape the confines of their childhood and experience life. Both girls are attempting to leave behind where they have been (childhood) and are seeking a new state to inhabit (womanhood). By the end of both texts, both girls have arguably made the transition from childhood to adulthood, and from innocence to experience after languishing in a state of limbo (adolescence) for so long. To many readers and critics Caroline Vernon represents the dichotomy between the powerful male and the powerless female through the figures of the teenage protagonist, her father, and the object of her adolescent desires, Zamorna, the latter of whom battle for control over Caroline. This can also be said of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” with Arnold Friend successfully luring Connie away from her home and family.
This apparent assumption of power has been addressed by critics who debate the main theme of Caroline Vernon and explore issues of male authority in the text. Christine Alexander states that “the central theme of the story is the seduction of Caroline”, portraying Caroline as a victim who is seduced by the older, socially powerful Zamorna. Although the relationship between Caroline and Zamorna is central to the narrative, I interpret the text as an exploration of the state of instability and uncertainty associated with adolescence. Caroline’s relationship with her guardian is more complex than Alexander and other critics suggest due to Caroline’s identification of him as the figure who holds the key to the sexual development she associates with adulthood. Caroline is not simply a passive victim, and her interactions with Zamorna highlight her psychological development and quest for sexual experience which will enable her to transition over the threshold into adulthood.
Caroline is taken to Paris by her father so that she can come out into society and achieve another step on her journey to womanhood with Charlotte writing, “She was no longer to be a child – she was to be acknowledged a woman”. However, she continues to pine for Zamorna and thinks of little else but him. Once Caroline has been introduced to society, she is returned to a house where, like her mother, she is exiled and isolated. Caroline rejects this version of womanhood and goes in search of another. She does not want to be an angel figure.
Interestingly, Caroline does not seem to aspire to be like her half-sister Mary, who is actually married to Zamorna, but rather to be like Mina Laury, a woman who fascinates Caroline, and who is Zamorna’s favourite mistress. It’s not clear from the text whether Caroline fully understands the relationship between Mina and Zamorna. She views Mina as a “‘mysterious & romantic’” (266) figure who is close to her guardian, and in her search for an adult identity, she desires to emulate Mina. This may be a realization that as Zamorna is a married man, she must find another role to play in his life other than his wife, and therefore looks to Mina for inspiration. With Zamorna’s track record and many mistresses and wives, it’s little surprise that Percy essentially locks Caroline away following her return from Paris as he senses some kind of attraction to Zamorna with Charlotte writing, ““Other considerations also disturbed the calm of the Earl’s soul – by him untold, by his daughter unsuspected”.
Caroline may be exiled but she writes to Zamorna, whose response indicates he has thought very little of her since their last meeting. Despite Zamorna’s well-documented libertinism throughout the Glass Town and Angria writings, it is significant to me that he only contacts Caroline following the receipt of her letter. Caroline eventually flees from where Percy is keeping her in order to pursue Zamorna across the country, who initially does not recognise her as she is so changed following her time in Paris. It is clear that Caroline has altered physically and now desires to make another kind of transition in order to complete her journey into womanhood. As stated above, many critics see Caroline as a powerless victim, but it is she who pursues Zamorna, and not the other way about. There is a passage earlier in the text where Zamorna sees how Caroline has almost become a woman, but declines to take their relationship any further precisely because she is not yet a woman, but an adolescent. Add this to his letter where he openly states he has thought little of her, and Zamorna actively rejects Caroline until she presents herself to him in her altered physical state, seeking the final and irreversible transition into adulthood.
Similarly, Connie seems to identify Arnold as the figure who holds the key to the sexual development she associates with adulthood. It’s overwhelmingly negative when compared with Caroline’s journey. Connie lingers in a kind of limbo until the arrival of Arnold presents a very real chance to move from innocence to experience and into adulthood, just like Zamorna’s arrival does for Caroline. However, despite the threats made by Arnold, Connie makes the choice to go with him. It’s not an easy choice, and indeed, is presented as something of a sacrifice by Oates in order to save her family from Arnold. But yes, both girls have a choice and are not passive in their fate. Connie’s is the nobler and more heroic, and for me, tragic, because I don’t see Connie going to her promised land either, but Caroline probably does. A life as Zamorna’s mistress may seem negative, and as if Caroline is moving from one version of exile to another, but Caroline clearly wants to be with Zamorna, and is aware that this is the only option open to her. It must be noted that my reading of Mina Laury’s character in the texts she appears (including The Spell, Passing Events, and Mina Laury) is far more positive than some. To me, Mina is strong, bold, brave, intelligent, and does not fool herself about what she wants. Caroline is cut from the same mould.
As readers, we assume there is violence and danger ahead for Connie based on Arnold’s behaviour and the theme of transition and development within the story, just like readers are left to assume that Caroline completes her transition into womanhood once she locates Zamorna. At the end of the narrative, Oates’s writes that in agreeing to leave the house her protagonist is going to “so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it”. It is clear that not only is womanhood a drastically different landscape to everything Connie has known before, but also that it is not the type of womanhood she thought she was familiar with or the one she wanted.
At the end of her own tale, Charlotte presents the end of Caroline’s journey, and her reaction to this new phase in her life; like Connie, the prospect of womanhood is not what she thought it would be. Confronted with the prospect of the sexual experience she associates with the final transition into adulthood, Caroline is struck by “a thrill of nameless dread” (307) when Zamorna admits his attraction to her, and Charlotte writes, “Here he was – the man Montmorency had described to her! All at once she knew him. Her guardian was gone” (307). This is Caroline’s realization that she is about to cross the final and irreversible threshold into adulthood and experience. It’s open to debate whether Caroline will achieve any kind of happiness as Zamorna’s probable mistress, or whether she is nothing more than another victim in a long line of women whose emotions Zamorna has successfully manipulated over the years in order to get what he wants. In my reading of the texts, the girls are both heading towards their ultimate aim of womanhood, albeit in very different ways. However, both narratives are also coming of age tales, with Connie sadly forced into this more quickly and probably violently than Caroline. Neither author condemns their teenage creations for wishing to explore their sexuality though, presenting it as an inevitable and natural step towards their transition into women.
The theme of the young lady’s “‘entering the world’” (Christina Marsden Gillis) is an established literary tradition that is built upon by Charlotte in Caroline Vernon, where she further develops the figure of the female adolescent in literature. Although examples of the genre such as Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) are concerned with the exploration of female identity and the heroine’s quest to locate a suitable position in patriarchal society whilst maintaining her virtue, a key difference between Charlotte’s text and previous literature is the specific and explicit focus on Caroline’s developing sexuality. Although she was contributing towards an established form of literature, her refusal to condemn Caroline is a refreshing approach which shows how in some ways Charlotte was way ahead of her time. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” also shares this focus on the protagonist’s sexuality. Caroline Vernon is not an isolated piece of youthful fantasy writing; it is part of a rich history of female transition literature in which heroines bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood, eventually successfully negotiating their way across the threshold to establish a new identity.
Charlotte later built on this with Jane Eyre (1847) where there are hints of Jane’s burning desires for Rochester beneath her composed surface, whilst Oates has penned hundreds of stories, novels, and essays, in some of which she also further examines the issue of coming of age and growing up. There are also plenty of 21st century narratives which present the modern coming of age story and the journey of the female adolescent in fiction; curiously enough, one of the most famous is probably John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) in which the teenage protagonist must deal with not only her feelings for her love interest, but also her own inevitable death from cancer. Yes, the young lady’s coming of age tale has certainly developed, and I feel that Charlotte Brontë has played her own role in this, inspiring those who read and became fascinated with Caroline’s tale. Joyce Carol Oates certainly has read the Brontë juvenilia as is evident from her essay “‘The Life of the Writer and the Life of the Career’: First Principles and ‘Transformations of Play”, so who knows, maybe she was in some way influenced by the fabulous Charlotte when telling Connie’s story?
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
All Caroline Vernon quotes are taken from Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings. Ed. Christine Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
All “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” quotes and Christina Marsden Gillis quote are taken from “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Ed. Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Christine Alexander quote is taken from The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.