Saturday, 19 June 2021
Was Charlotte Brontë a Blurter? The evidence from Shirley
contributed by Krista Ovist
|Illustration for Shirley by|
Thomas Heath Robinson (1869 - 1954)
one of those silly deeds it distresses the heart and sets the face on fire to think of; one of those small but sharp recollections that return, lacerating your self-respect like tiny penknives, and forcing from your lips, as you sit alone, sudden, insane-sounding interjections.
If you’re not subject to such ‘insane-sounding interjections’ yourself, you might easily breeze past these lines without pause for thought. But if you’re prone to this kind of private verbal seizure, your inner ears perk up. Your pulse quickens with self-recognition. You stop reading mid-page and assume a rapt gaze as the colossal, self-mollifying thought wallops you: Charlotte Brontë was a blurter too. How else could she have described so precisely what this bizarre behaviour is like?
For most of my adult life, I’ve been a secret blurter. It happens when I’m engaged in some solitary mindless activity: filling the bath, blow-drying my hair, washing the dishes, folding the laundry. Absurd words or phrases pop out of my mouth, many of them unprintable, others just dumb:
‘I want Rabbits!’ Do I? I wonder what for.
‘Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits!’
‘I love you!’
‘I hate you!’
‘I’m so tired!’
‘Go the f**king H*ll away!’
‘Shut up! shut up! shut up!’
Mornings, in the kitchen, while ironing a shirt for my husband (who’s safely out of ear-shot in the shower), I glance at the clock on the cooker and announce ‘It’s eight-o-five.’
Sometimes it’s just a silly sound, like a low-frequency vital sign: ‘Boopity-boo’.
I figured out long ago that the vocalization, whatever comes out, is meant to shout down a rising recollection of something that makes me uncomfortable. But most of the time these automatic iterations arrive ahead of any conscious thought; they swat the air before any memory has a chance to get there. They are a symptom of anxiety and are exacerbated by social interaction. Any social life I engage in – a transaction in a shop, a coffee hour after Sunday worship, even a meeting of the venerable and benevolent Brontë Society, London and South East Group – can trigger a spasm of nonsensical blathering as aftermath.
For the most part, I’ve rarely given my little secret much thought. Then, a few years ago, I noticed a decided spike in the frequency of my blurts and one or two sudden innovations in my blurt repertoire. So I went online and tried to find out what this curious verbal tic is. Does it have a name? Does it progress to weirder things? How goofy am I?
To my surprise, I found no clear references to this phenomenon in any of the many mental health webpages through which I sifted. There’s something called Tourettic Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That’s when obsessive intrusive thoughts give rise to involuntary movements, noises, or utterances, as with Tourette Syndrome. But, like Caroline, I blurt only when I know I’m alone or at least fairly secluded. The words and phrases that escape me aren’t premeditated, but they’re not exactly involuntary either. I seem to be able to control the impulse without thinking about it and know unconsciously when it’s safe to vociferate.
And there’s something called a ‘cringe attack’. That seems close, as it’s a wave of mortification brought on by reliving an embarrassing moment. But absurd verbal irruptions don’t appear to be diagnostic of such paroxysms.
I also learned about studies of so-called ‘involuntary autobiographical memories’ (or IAMs), but none of the researchers who write about these ‘mind pops’ seems interested in the wacky words they sometimes prompt.
The most helpful accounts I found came, not from medical authorities or clinical descriptions, but from ordinary users of online Q&A sites and social anxiety support groups. The best thread began with a question originally posted on 22 July 2008 at healthandfitness.com and picked up by the general information hub ask.metafilter.com.* A brave soul using the moniker ‘Alabaster’ wrote this now classic (to me) confessional query, under the heading ‘Compelled to blurt...’:
What’s with my weird compulsion?
As far as I am aware, I am a mentally healthy, well-adjusted, and sane person with no disorders. But I have a strange, fairly innocuous quirk which seems beyond my control and I’m curious about it...
When I think of/remember something embarrassing from my life, I compulsively make some kind of noise. It seems to happen unconsciously, before my censor can catch it and stop myself (it even happens when I am in a quiet or inappropriate place).
It’s not especially loud, in fact it’s often under my breath. The sound is usually just a quiet grunt, or a word/syllable or two. If I remember an embarrassing conversation, I tend to blurt out a random word of the conversation (as in, I’m replaying the dialogue in my head but then, all of a sudden, one of the words pops out of my mouth). If it happens while I’m reading, I tend to blurt out one or two of the words that happen to be under my eyes at the moment.
It usually only happens when I’m remembering something palpably embarrassing or humiliating from my life – not for mild everyday kind of stuff. (Again, I had a fairly happy childhood and have nothing particularly traumatic in my past – I don’t think my embarrassing memories are any worse than the average Joe’s.)
So what is this, do I have some kind of low-grade Tourette’s syndrome? Is there a name for this phenomenon? Does it happen to others, or is it unique to me?
It is in honour of Alabaster that I call this phenomenon ‘blurting’; Alabaster named it first. A hundred and thirty people responded to Alabaster, all elated to find that they were not alone and eager to relate their experiences and share their ‘wince words’, as one contributor (yclept ‘yclipse’) happily put it. People’s repertoires were astonishingly similar to one another’s and to mine: predictably, there were the expletives, but also the strange declarations of undying love and/or hate, often directed at long forgotten ex-partners, but just as often offered up to no one in particular. Here is a florilegium of my favourites:
I do this too. I say basically random words. It was “Harley Davidson” for a long time, and “hula hoop” for a long time. I'm mostly able to suppress it when there are people around, but not always. (Posted by ‘lastobelus’)
Yep, I do this. My word is “twelve.” Or sometimes “Imagine twelve.” But I only do it on my own. I can stop myself. (Posted by ‘creeky’)
For me it’s an exasperated “Ahh! Kill me!” followed by a slight giggle. (Posted by ‘tkolar’)
Mine are “givemeagun!”… and “ineedaknife”…. Lately, though, it’s been “Nobody!” I know that this last one used to mean something, but I can’t even remember what. (Posted by ‘Ian A.T.’)
…earlier this year, everything I said in those moments had something to do with eyeballs. As in, “oh my eyeball!” Or “blowing up your eyeballs now.” (Posted by ‘Coatlicue’)
Oh, wow. I do this too all the time, especially in the past 5 years or so. One phrase that seems to be stuck in my head is “I want to go home.” I have no idea where it came from and I often say it... you know... at home. This thread makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. (Posted by ‘brundlefly’)
I am reading this with my jaw dropped in awe. I laughed, I cried, I became aware. Blurting is what I do mostly. Sometimes I’ll shake the memory out or clench my hand. But sometimes a word will just pop into my head and “chinchilla” is floating out there. WTF?? I’m laughing so hard right now. (Posted by ‘eddiebaby’)
One contribution was especially relevant to the question here investigated – viz. was Charlotte Brontë a blurter? A literary-minded poster known by the sobriquet ‘arcanecrowbar’ wrote:
An aside about this – a few years ago I was reading Dickens’ Bleak House for the first time. Somewhere in that novel (sorry I have no way of finding the passage!) Dickens follows a minor character around for a while and gives an exact description of this phenomenon – the guy has a memory of an acutely embarrassing event and gets out of it by mumbling some nonsense phrase to himself.
I have to say I’ve ransacked Bleak House without finding any character I’d spot for a proper blurter. Mr Guppy is certainly a painfully awkward soul, and Mr Jarndyce has his ‘growlery’ where he goes when he’s in a foul mood, and Dickens depicts the latter lapsing into sotto voce commentaries intelligible only to himself, but neither character is ever observed, in an unguarded moment alone, in the grip of a really good blurt fit. Be that as it may (and I may have overlooked what arcanecrowbar had in mind), the important point is this: whereas it’s easy to imagine that Dickens, a noted social animal, wrote about human eccentricities based on close observation of others, it’s almost impossible to resist the inference that Charlotte Brontë gave Caroline Helstone this idiosyncrasy based on her own personal experience. As with everything she knew about intimately, she worked it into her fiction.
This is my bold thesis, then: Caroline’s discourse in Chapter 12 of Shirley constitutes compelling warrant for concluding that Charlotte Brontë was a blurter.
But why end the wild speculation there? This passage plants other fancies in my brain. Dare we take the next step and conjecture that Charlotte Brontë once asked Constantine Heger for a lock of his hair and that, forever after, the recollection of this show of hopeless devotion sent her into throes of explosive blurts? I think so.
We know that Charlotte, even though she found the courage to brave the wider world, was never comfortable outside her closest circle of family and friends. Like most people with social anxiety, she probably imagined that she had behaved foolishly or said something stupid after nearly every human contact, and she probably blurted over the least encounter. But her comportment over Heger must have afforded her a generous store of blurt-worthy memories. Never mind what she may have said to him directly; if I had written some of those abject letters she sent him, I for one would blurt for all I’m worth every time the post hit the floor.
If it is extracting too much from this passage to suppose that the specific detail of having asked an object of romantic feeling for a lock of hair was drawn from life, then I submit that this detail is the fictionalization of some similar Heger-related indiscretion. Such indiscretions, this passage tells us, tormented Charlotte Brontë and goaded her to outbursts that appalled her but probably also gave her fits of private giggles she shared with no one – no one, that is, except for readers likewise afflicted who find in Caroline’s words the confessions of a fellow-blurter.
So, what, I wonder, were Charlotte Brontë’s favourite wince words?
‘Imagine twelve!’? (Well, she did.)
‘I love Wellington!’?
Perhaps her blurts are legible in that strange exclamation – ‘Stuff! Phd!’ – in the Roe Head Journal entry beginning ‘I’m just going to write because I cannot help it’.
Or maybe her blurts were in French.
‘Je te deteste!’?
‘J'ai besoin d'un couteau!’?
‘Nous faisons exploser vos globes oculaires maintenant!’?
Some things we’ll just never know.
*As of 15 May 2021 this thread could still be accessed at https://ask.metafilter.com/97265/Compelled-to-Blurt.