“If we treat literature as pure fine art, if we don’t contextualize it historically and aren’t aware of its intertextual complexities, then what’s the purpose? What’s the purpose of reading literature if it isn’t to understand humanity in its complicated development?” said Dr. Shouhua Qi, professor of English at WestConn. Qi is the co-editor of the newly released “The Brontë Sisters in Other Wor(l)ds” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) which explores the famous sisters’ reception and influence in non-English speaking countries.
Qi’s chapter in the book focuses on the reception of the Brontë Sisters in post-Mao, market-driven China, which has seen many dramatic changes intellectually, culturally, and socioeconomically. Other chapters continue to look at the Brontë Sisters as received and reimagined in other cultures including adaptations by surrealist icon Luis Buñuel and trailblazing Guadeloupian author Maryse Condé.
The three Brontë Sisters created masterpieces of English literature during their short lives. The eldest sister Charlotte Brontë wrote the gothic classic “Jane Eyre” which first appeared in October 1847. Emily Brontë published “Wuthering Heights” only two months later. Anne, the youngest sister, wrote the lesser-known but still beloved novels “Agnes Grey” (1847) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1848).
“They became almost instant celebrities. Right after the books were published there were stage adaptations and many reviews, ranging from celebratory to denouncing,” said Dr. Qi. Over the years, perceptions of the books have changed. Bertha, for example, the Creole wife of Rochester, is portrayed in “Jane Eyre” as mad, subhuman, and vampire-like. However, in recent interpretations she has been seen in a more sympathetic light and assumed much more critical significance. The seminal book of feminist criticism “The Madwoman in the Attic” by Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, in which the once silenced Bertha functions as a central motif or trope, is emblematic of such change.
The idea for “The Brontë Sisters in Other Wor(l)ds” began with a panel of the same name organized by Dr. Qi at the 2011 Modern Language Association Conference. When the opportunity to expand the subject into a book came along, he asked another panelist, Dr. Jacqueline Padgett, to join him as the co-editor. Dr. Padgett, a professor of English at Trinity Washington University, is a French-American comparative literature scholar. “I’m well versed in Chinese language and culture, but know very little French and no Spanish. It would be extremely challenging to go solo on this project,” said Qi. “We bring different backgrounds, perspectives, and temperaments to the project…It turns out to be a perfect partnership,” said Dr. Qi.
For Dr. Qi, the book is a way to get students and other scholars to see the Brontë Sisters in a new light. “It’s part of my continuing engagement with the translingual and transcultural. It’s not what I set out to do at the beginning of my career decades ago, but being bilingual and bicultural, I am happy to see it having evolved into a central theme and focus, from creative writing to literary translation to scholarly research,” said Dr. Qi.