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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Plain girl in crimson rose: Charlotte Bronte’s wickedly subversive anagrammed pen name, Currer Bell

Today, I promise a significant Brontean revelation, but first a necessary digression:

pretty girl in crimson rose: a memoir of love, exile, and crosswords is the evocative title of the memoir  by Sandy Balfour that first caught my eye several years ago, which was reviewed by the Guardian in 2003:   [Nicholas Lezard finds plenty of clues but few answers in Sandy Balfour's love affair with crosswords]

While I heartily recommend Balfour’s slim book in general, I’m writing about it today because of its title, which Balfour explained as follows in his book at ppg. 53-56:

“It is New Year’s Day, 1990. My girlfriend…is making another attempt to teach me the basics of crosswords…’Take “pretty girl in crimson rose…Eight letters. What does it mean?...It means that we have a pretty girl, and she is wearing something red, or pink…She is wearing something that suits her prettiness. Prettiness, girls, roses—they all go together.’
I nod. ‘Got it,’ I say.
‘It means…nothing of the sort…That is what they want you to think it means. What it actually means is either the first word or the last word What it actually means is “rose.” …So give me another word for ‘crimson’.
‘Very good. [she writes   R E _ _ _ _ _ D    on a piece of paper] And ‘pretty girl’?....’belle’. ‘belle’ is another word for ‘pretty girl’. And then we put ‘belle’ which means ‘pretty girl’ inside ‘red’ which means ‘crimson’, and we get  R-E-B-E-L-L-E-D, ‘rebelled’. Et voila.
‘Rebelled’ means ‘rose’?
It does.”  END QUOTE

Balfour never does learn or reveal to us the identity of the brilliant puzzle setter who devised that elegant clue a quarter century ago, and there ends my brief digression into British cryptic crossword puzzle solving. The question I now pose to you is: what further clue does Balfour’s explanation provide toward the discovery of the anagram that, I suggest, C. Bronte cleverly hid in plain sight in her famous male pen name “Currer Bell”? For those so inclined, I will pause here, and give you a chance to sleuth it out yourselves. Then scroll down to read my answer.




I imagine that at least a few of you, with an assist from Balfour’s crossword explanation, were able to discern that the ten letters comprising “Currer Bell” can be closely anagrammed into a nine-letter, two-word phrase, “rebel cur”, requiring only the addition/recurrence of a third “r”.

But…what payoff is there in this solution to a puzzle we’re not even sure was intended as such by Charlotte Bronte? You might first be interested to know in this regard that the novel’s earliest review in The Christian Remembrancer included a surprising speculation in that regard:

[Recently] no novel has created so much sensation as Jane Eyre. Indeed, the public taste seems to have outstripped its guides in appreciating the remarkable power which this book displays. For no leading review has yet noticed it, and here we have before us the second edition. The name and sex of the writer are still a mystery. CURRER BELL (which by a curious Hibernicism appears in the title-page as the name of  a female autobiographer) is a mere nom de guerre—PERHAPS AN ANAGRAM. However, we, for our part, cannot doubt that the book is written by a female, and, as certain provincialisms indicate, by one from the North of England. Who, indeed, but a woman could have ventured, with the  smallest prospect of success, to fill three octavo volumes with the history of a woman's heart?...”

Perhaps the Bronte mavens amongst you, who from numerous rereadings know well the actual text of C. Bronte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, by now have realized exactly why I’m so confident that this is not a coincidental anagram. I.e., Jane Eyre, eponymous heroine, is famous in the history of feminist literature as Charlotte Bronte’s enormously influential, thinly veiled, self portrait of a great female REBEL against patriarchal tyranny—against women being treated the way her cruelly sexist society treated mongrel dogs, which of course is the meaning of the derogatory word “cur”. And so, what better way for Bronte to put an emphatic, if subliminal, exclamation point on her feminist rebellion against bestial male oppression, than to adopt a male pen name which not only uses her own initials, but also carries within its very letters the jumbled seeds of her rebellious novel’s core theme?

Several small forests have been felled to supply the paper explaining the significance of that theme of feminist rebellion in Jane Eyre, and so I will not even attempt to recapitulate any of same in this post. For today, I’ll just add a wordplay gloss to that rich lode of critical scholarship, by quoting the passages in Jane Eyre which I am convinced were in the author’s mind when she called herself “Currer Bell”. For greater visibility, I’ve put in ALL CAPS the verbiage which literally or indirectly relates to “rebel” and to “cur”.

But before I do that, one last bit of prologue, where the level of apparent coincidence between “Currer Bell” and “pretty girl in crimson rose” gets pretty spooky. Among the words in Jane Eyre which suggest  “rebellion” is the word “rose”, because “rose up” is a synonym for “rebelled”. And of course that’s the key to the answer to that 1990 puzzle clue. And here’s the spookiest part—that resonance between pen name and puzzle clue not only involves the word “rose” as “rebelled”, it also punnily connects to “rose” as synonym of the colors “red” and “crimson”, which, as you’ll see, below, are crucial to the origin of the heroine’s defiant rebelliousness in Jane Eyre as well. (And I’ll return at the end with some final observations on the following textual examples provided).

Chapters. 1-2: “…Take her away to the RED-room, and lock her in there.”  Four hands were immediately laid upon me, and I was borne upstairs. I RESISTED all the way: a new thing for me, and a circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me.  The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s MUTINY had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.
“Hold her arms, Miss Abbot: she’s like a mad CAT.”
They went, shutting the door, and locking it behind them.
The RED-room was a square chamber, very seldom slept in…A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of deep RED damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre; the two large windows, with their blinds always drawn down, were half shrouded in festoons and falls of similar drapery; the carpet was RED; the table at the foot of the bed was covered with a CRIMSON cloth; the walls were a soft fawn colour with a blush of pink in it; the wardrobe, the toilet-table, the chairs were of darkly polished old mahogany.  Out of these deep surrounding shades ROSE HIGH, and glared white, the piled-up mattresses and pillows of the bed, spread with a snowy Marseilles counterpane.  Scarcely less prominent was an ample cushioned easy-chair near the head of the bed, also white, with a footstool before it; and looking, as I thought, like a pale throne.

Ch. 5:  The odour which now filled the refectory was scarcely more appetising than that which had regaled our nostrils at breakfast: the dinner was served in two huge tin-plated vessels, WHENCE ROSE A STRONG STREAM redolent of rancid fat. 

Ch. 12:  It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.  Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent REVOLT against their lot.  Nobody knows how many REBELLIONS besides political REBELLIONS ferment in the masses of life which people earth.  Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they SUFFER FROM TOO RIGID A RESTRAINT, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer…
…In those days I was young, and all sorts of fancies bright and dark tenanted my mind: the memories of nursery stories were there amongst other rubbish; and when they RECURRED, maturing youth added to them a vigour and vividness beyond what childhood could give.  As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large DOG, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me.

Ch. 16: “You should have seen the dining-room that day—how richly it was decorated, how brilliantly lit up!  I should think there were fifty ladies and gentlemen present—all of the first county families; and Miss Ingram was considered THE BELLE of the evening.”

Ch. 22: I suppose I do come on; though in what fashion I know not; being scarcely cognisant of my movements, and solicitous only to appear calm; and, above all, to control the working muscles of my face—which I feel REBEL INSOLENTLY against my will, and struggle to express what I had resolved to conceal.  But I have a veil—it is down: I may make shift yet to behave with decent composure.

Ch. 25: “Am I about to do it?  Why, the day is already commenced which is to bind us indissolubly; and when we are once united, there shall be no RECURRENCE of these mental terrors: I guarantee that.”
..The gale still rising, seemed to my ear to muffle a mournful under-sound; whether in the house or abroad I could not at first tell, but it RECURRED, doubtful yet doleful at every lull; at last I made out it must be SOME DOG HOWLING at a distance. 

Ch. 26: “Good-morrow, Mrs. Poole!” said Mr. Rochester.  “How are you? and how is your charge to-day?”
“We’re tolerable, sir, I thank you,” replied Grace, lifting the boiling mess carefully on to the hob: “rather snappish, but not ‘rageous.”
A fierce cry seemed to give the lie to her favourable report: THE CLOTHED HYENA ROSE UP, AND STOOD TALL ON ITS HIND-FEET.
“Ah! sir, she sees you!” exclaimed Grace: “you’d better not stay.”
“Only a few moments, Grace: you must allow me a few moments.”
“Take care then, sir!—for God’s sake, take care!”
The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors.  I recognised well that purple face,—those bloated features.  Mrs. Poole advanced.
“Keep out of the way,” said Mr. Rochester, thrusting her aside: “she has no knife now, I suppose, and I’m on my guard.”
“One never knows what she has, sir: she is so cunning: it is not in mortal discretion to fathom her craft.”
“We had better leave her,” whispered Mason.
“Go to the devil!” was his brother-in-law’s recommendation.
“‘Ware!” cried Grace.  The three gentlemen retreated simultaneously.  Mr. Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled…At last he mastered her arms; Grace Poole gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair.  The operation was performed amidst the fiercest yells and the most convulsive plunges.  Mr. Rochester then turned to the spectators: he looked at them with a smile both acrid and desolate.
“That is my wife,” said he.  “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know—such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours!...”

Ch. 27:  Some time in the afternoon I raised my head, and looking round and seeing the western sun gilding the sign of its decline on the wall, I asked, “What am I to do?”
But the answer my mind gave—“Leave Thornfield at once”—was so prompt, so dread, that I stopped my ears.  I said I could not bear such words now.  “That I am not Edward Rochester’s bride is the least part of my woe,” I alleged: “that I have wakened out of most glorious dreams, and found them all void and vain, is a horror I could bear and master; but that I must leave him decidedly, instantly, entirely, is intolerable.  I cannot do it.”
But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it and foretold that I should do it.  I wrestled with my own resolution: I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the awful passage of further suffering I saw laid out for me; and Conscience, turned tyrant, held Passion by the throat, told her tauntingly, she had yet but dipped her dainty foot in the slough, and swore that with that arm of iron he would thrust her down to unsounded depths of agony.
“Let me be torn away,” then I cried.  “Let another help me!”
“No; you shall tear yourself away, none shall help you: you shall yourself pluck out your right eye; yourself cut off your right hand: your heart shall be the victim, and you the priest to transfix it.”
I ROSE UP SUDDENLY, terror-struck at the solitude which so ruthless a judge haunted,—at the silence which so awful a voice filled...”  

Ch. 35: “Could you decide now?” asked the missionary. The inquiry was put in gentle tones: he drew me to him as gently. Oh, that gentleness! how far more potent is it than FORCE! I could RESIST St. John’s wrath: I grew PLIANT as a reed under his kindness.  Yet I knew all the time, if I YIELDED now, I should not the less be made to repent, some day, of MY FORMER REBELLION…”
… “I am coming!” I cried.  “Wait for me!  Oh, I will come!”  I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran out into the garden: it was void.
“Where are you?” I exclaimed.
The hills beyond Marsh Glen sent the answer faintly back—“Where are you?”  I listened.  The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.
“Down superstition!” I commented, AS THAT SPECTRE ROSE UP BLACK by the black yew at the gate.  “This is not thy deception, nor thy witchcraft: it is the work of nature.  She was roused, and did—no miracle—but her best.”
I broke from St. John, who had followed, and would have detained me.  It was my time to assume ascendency…. 

Ch. 37: [Rochester] pursued his own thoughts without heeding me. “Jane! you think me, I daresay, an irreligious DOG: but my heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now.  He sees not as man sees, but far clearer: judges not as man judges, but far more wisely.  I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent FLOWER—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me.  I, in my STIFF-NECKED REBELLION, almost cursed the dispensation: instead of BENDING TO the decree, I DEFIED it…” 

Ch. 38: My tale draws to its close: one word respecting my experience of married life, and one brief glance at the fortunes of THOSE WHOSE NAMES HAVE MOST FREQUENTLY RECURRED IN THIS NARRATIVE, and I have done.

Note in particular the passages linking rebellion with an animal – both the description of the madwoman in Rochester’s attic in Chapter 26, and the humbled Rochester’s description of his own rebellious life story in Chapter 37. That linkage is what clinches the deal with me on “rebel cur” as an intentional anagram of “Currer Bell”.

And then please take special note of that remarkably metafictional sentence in chapter 38, which occurs only a few paragraphs before the novel’s end. I see it as Charlotte Bronte addressing the reader directly, while slyly, broadly winking at her own wordplay, in adopting “Currer Bell” as her male pen name, reflecting all of the wordplay she scattered like so many proverbial bread crumbs throughout the entire length of Jane Eyre.—hence her choice of the word “recurred” in that particular sentence!

So, finally, in light of all of the above, I also cannot help but wonder---preposterous as I know it sounds--whether the deviser of “rebelled” as the answer to the clue “pretty girl in crimson rose”, might just have been thinking about Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s plain girl who rose from the blood-curdling agony of the red-room, to exert her indomitable will and rewrite a happy ending for her own tale of feminist rebellion, which has inspired generations of readers.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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