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September 09, 2008

‘Charlotte Brontë’s Letters to M. Heger’ by Linda S. Kauffman

Writing about web page http://bronteparsonage.blogspot.com/

Letter to M. Heger

In beginning her exploration of Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger, Kauffman suggests that the letters reveal Charlotte Brontë’s transformation ‘from Heger’s correspondent into the novelist of Jane Eyre’ (Kauffman 1986: 160). Kauffman intends to connect the rhetorical strategies of the letters and of Jane Eyre to map ‘the metamorphosis of the rhetoric of passion from an authentic to a fictional discourse’ (p. 160).

To begin, Kauffman maps out the narrative of Brontë’s and Heger’s encounter including:
• Charlotte’s and Emily’s trip to Brussels in 1842 to learn languages;
• their return to England at the death of their aunt;
• Charlotte Brontë’s return to Brussels alone – without Emily – in 1843;
• and her final journey back to England in 1844.

Brontë began writing to Heger after her return and there is evidence to suggest that there were more letters than survive today. In the letters that do remain, Kauffman notes a variety of characteristics that fit the ‘amorous epistolary discourse’ on which her study focuses. These include:
• ‘the denial of the reality of separation’;
• ‘the desire for contact’;
• ‘despair at the master’s silence’;
• and ‘resigned desolation’ (p. 161).
In initial letters, Brontë is ‘submissive’ and puts ‘emphasis on having been given the authority to write’ (p. 161). When Heger writes back though with a firm, stern tone providing instruction as to how she must write, Brontë rebels and does the opposite; ‘she becomes more outspoken, more indignant, less submissive’ (p. 161-162). Kauffman notes that ‘[l]ike all amorous epistolary discourses, Charlotte’s letters are demands, pleas, threats, and confrontations, filled with the same marks of internal tension, contradiction, self-division, and torment’ (p. 163).

Like Mary Jacobus in ‘The Buried Letter’, Kauffman confirms that the figure of student-governess-teacher is an ambiguous one in nineteenth-century British society. She describes Brontë as ‘simultaneously a family intimate and a family employee; the boundaries between belonging to and being excluded from the family are constantly shifting ones’ (p. 163). In Jane Eyre, Blanche Ingram tries to humiliate the governess-heroine and in her letters, Brontë expresses anguish at her humiliation in being a governess. In her letters to Heger, Brontë seems unsure as to whether to situate herself as governess or pupil, but she tries to reconcile Heger’s mixed signals: his warmth in past encounters and the coldness of his response to her letters.

Gaskell and others have tried to suggest that the romance between Heger and Brontë was imagined, but Kauffman provides much evidence that suggests that Heger exploited teacher-pupil relationships on a regular basis with his charismatic personality. Brontë’s letters are always a work of persuasion to try to goad him into breaking his silence and writing to her again, which he never does. Silence is of course an obsession of Brontë’s novels too: ‘[i]h her letters, poems and novels Charlotte continued all her life to portray the intense misery of loneliness, exile and unrequited love’ (p. 170).

Reference
Kauffman, L. 1986, Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre and Epistolary Fictions, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Further Reading
Eagleton, T. 1975, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, London: Macmillan.
Gerin, W. 1967, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius, Oxford: OUP.
Moglen, H. 1976, Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived, New York: Norton.
Winnifrith, T. 1973, The Brontës and their Background: Romance and Reality, New York: Barnes and Noble.


‘The Buried Letter’ by Mary Jacobus

In this essay on Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Mary Jacobus begins by comparing that novel with another by Bronte, Shirley. Jacobus argues that Shirley is the ‘seed’ of Villette and that her earlier ‘assertion of the unalienable rights of self’ in Shirley leads to the situation of Villette where ‘repression returns vengefully on the heroine in the form of a ghostly nun’ (1986: 40). The idea of Villette being a ‘buried letter’ crops up early on and Jacobus refers to the letters of ‘Reason’ and ‘Feeling’ that Lucy Snowe writes to Graham Bretton: ‘one for his benefit […], the other for hers, an outpouring of her innermost self’ (p. 41). This sense of revelation and concealment is also clear in the narrative of the novel:

The narrative and representational conventions of Victorian realism are constantly threatened by an incompletely repressed Romanticism. Supernatural haunting and satanic revolt, delusion and dream, disrupt a text which can give no formal recognition to either Romantic or Gothic modes. The buried letter of Romanticism becomes the discourse of the Other, as the novel’s unconscious – not just Lucy’s – struggles for articulation within the confines of mid-nineteenth century-realism. The resulting distortions and mutilations in themselves constitute an aspect of the novel’s meaning, like the distortions of a dream text (p. 41).

Jacobus argues then that Villette is haunted by Romanticism, which was at the time being rather superseded by the rationalism and empiricism that had dominated since the Enlightenment period. Yet Jacobus also adds that Villette is haunted by other ghosts: ‘the unacknowledged phantom of feminism and […] the strangeness of fiction itself’ (p. 42). Fiction is apparently a ‘peculiar reserve both of repression and of the Unheimliche – the uncanny’ (p. 42). Jacobus concludes: ‘Lucy’s haunted self-estrangement encodes the novel’s alienation from its ghostly subject’ (p. 42).

Interestingly, in relation to narrative voice, Jacobus points out that both Matthew Arnold and Kate Millett have seen the narrator, Lucy Snowe, as being one and the same as the author, Charlotte Bronte (although Arnold uses this as a stick to beat Bronte with and Millett uses it to portray Bronte as a woman meditating on a ‘prison break’). Jacobus suggests that Bronte invites the reader to make such an identification only to then pull the rug from under us frustrating any equivalence between the narrator and author. There is a discussion of Lucy’s lies and her unreliability as a narrator. Jacobus suggests that Lucy forces the reader to ‘misread’ her, even while her hidden thought break through is imagery of the supernatural and the Christian Passion.

Lucy Snowe is of course the narrator of other people’s stories. She tells the story of Polly (Paulina) for example and her lament for the girl’s weakness might be a kind of displacement for her own feelings of hopelessness and despair. This might also apply to her identification with the spinster, Miss Marchmount, and with the deranged woman who she cares for at the Rue Fossette during the vacation from her teaching work. Jacobus sees both figures as ‘aspects of Lucy’s repression’ and she is adamant that Lucy’s ‘regression from child to invalid to cretin parodies and reverses the Romantic quest for self’ (p. 44). Many characters find Lucy enigmatic and want to discover her true self, but instead she is simply ‘a blank screen on which others project their view of her’ (p. 44).

Not even we, the readers, discover who Lucy is. For example, Jacobus refers to Lucy’s refusal to identify Dr. John as Graham Bretton, a reticence that suggests to Jacobus that ‘Lucy prefers to retain her social invisibility’ (p. 44). Instead she prefers to watch the acting out of other people’s relationships. In thinking about this acting out, Jacobus touches on the scene where Lucy does act in a play, but she is ‘impersonating a man while clad as a woman from the waist down’ (p. 45). Jacobus sees in this a ‘nonsubservience to her spectator’s role’ and the transformation of ‘her part into an unorthodox piece of intersexual rivalry’ (p. 45). I wonder whether there is also something more here. Why does Lucy refuse to become completely “male” by dressing up in the full costume? Is there some kind of anxiety here about being dislocated from her sex?

In any case, role play is obviously significant. Jacobus talks about the roles of middle-class women and she emphasises that ‘[t]he governess is peculiarly the victim of middle-class sexual ideology, for the only role open to her is that of bringing up children while marriage and motherhood themselves are paradoxically taboo for her within the family that employs her’ (p. 45). Falling between categories then, Lucy has to play a very unfulfilling role and it is no coincidence that she prefers teaching in Madame Beck’s school to being a governess or companion. Jaconus quotes from Bronte’s letters to show that Bronte had strong views about the role of the unmarried woman:

when patience had done its utmost and industry its best, whether in the case of women or operatives, and when both are baffled, and pain and want triumph, the sufferer is free, is entitled at last to send up to Heaven any piercing cry for relief, if by that he can hope to obtain succour. (Bronte in Jacobus 1986: 46)

Jacobus associates this ‘piercing cry’ with the actress, Vashti, who is such a strong presence in the book. To Jacobus, Vashti is a typical Romantic protagonist: ‘the satanic rebel and fallen angel whose damnation is a function of divine tyranny’ (Jacobus 1986: 46). Lucy’s reaction to this is of both ‘revulsion and admiration’, while Graham Bretton only feels ‘indifference to the spectacle’ (p. 46). In fact Graham Bretton brands Vashti as ‘a fallen woman, a rebel against conventional morality’ and ‘a demonic symbol of sexual energy created by a woman’ (p. 47). Vashti is the opposite then of what Jacobus describes as ‘the static, male-fabricated images of woman’ that Lucy views in the gallery (p. 47). Lucy may appear to be more like the gallery women, but M. Paul recognises in her pink dress the possibility of a ‘latent scarlet woman’ (p. 47).

This mingling of the familiar and unfamiliar brings us back to the uncanny and Jacobus notes how Freud who wrote a seminal essay on the uncanny found that quality particularly in works of fiction. This is especially the case in Villette in which Bronte is ‘suspending the laws of probability for those of the mind’ (p. 47). Jacobus emphasises that the narrative of Villette is dislocated and that it ‘insists on the irreducible otherness, the strangeness and arbitrariness, of inner experience’ (p. 47). Jacobus concludes:’The real becomes spectral, the past alien, the familiar strange; the lost home (heimlich [meaning “homely”]) and the uncanny (unheimlich [literally “unhomely”]) coincide’ (p. 47).

In considering home, Jacobus notes that Lucy cannot be at home in Bretton, but Polly/Paulina as the angel in the house rather than the fallen angel can make herself at home. Yet it is Lucy’s inner drama that is more interesting than the romantic plot of Lucy and Graham, because its supernatural manifestations ‘challenge the monopolistic claims of realism on “reality” – to render its representations no less fictive and arbitrary than the Gothic and Romantic modes usually viewed as parasitic’ (p. 48).

Jacobus now turns to the ghostly nun noting that realist readings of the nun have analysed her symbolism as merely a technique of ‘Gothic machinery’. Jacobus challenges such a view suggesting that the appearance of the nun ‘symbolizes not only Lucy’s repression, but the novelist’s freedom to evoke or inhibit the Unheimliche; to lift or impose censorship’ (p. 48). Jacobus considers now the moments when the ghostly nun appears:

1. When Lucy goes to the garret to read Graham Bretton’s letter.
2. When she buries Graham Bretton’s letters under the pear tree.
3. When M. Paul tells Lucy in the garden that they are alike and have an affinity.

Jacobus considers the ambiguity of the nun’s status, which, though it is revealed as a prank near the end of the novel, is never fully explained. Jacobus wonders whether the nun might actually represent Lucy’s ‘quest for identity and […] her self-estrangement’ (p. 51). There is a long list of women who are represented and constructed by Lucy, who are created through her telling of them: Mrs Bretton, Mme. Beck, Ginevra, Zelie de St. Pierre and Paulina. Jacobus comments; ‘No other woman in the novel has any identity except as Lucy bestows it’ (p. 51).

The whole novel is made by Lucy’s imagination and perhaps her fantasy, especially in creating M. Paul. Jacobus states that M.Paul ‘is animated by a wish fulfillment which it is surely justifiable to see as Charlotte’s own’ (p. 51). In the reflection and affinity of M. Paul and Lucy, Jacobus sees ‘not so much the rehabilitation of the plain heroine, as the persistence of the Lacanian mirror phase’ (p. 51).

[Lucy] is the joker in the pack, the alien, ex-centric self which no image can mirror – only the structure of language. Like the purloined letter in Lacan’s reading of the Poe story, where the meaning of the letter (the autonomous signified) lies in its function in the plot rather than its actual contents, the nun derives her significance from her place in the signifying chain. She has one function in relation to Lucy, another in relation to M. Paul, and another again in relation to Ginevra. The different meanings intersect but do not merge; the threads cross and intertwine without becoming one. (p. 52)

In response to this multiplicity of meanings with regard to the ghostly nun, Jacobus considers how, especially during Lucy’s delirious night walk through the city, the nun comes to represent ‘the external obstacle to marriage between Lucy and M. Paul’ (p. 52). As Lucy glides through the city, the families of the story flash before her eyes; the Homes, the Brettons, the Becks, M. Paul’s adopted family and M.Paul himself alongside his ward. While on the one hand it seems that Lucy is yet again an ‘excluded spectator’, Jacobus asserts that she is also ‘metteur en scene in a drama of her own making’ (p. 53). It seems that the nun has now become a ‘bourgeois belle’, yet Lucy’s commentary on the matter is far from clear and leaves us wondering if this is another fabrication. The nun does return one more time though as the costume left behind by de Hamal, who in leaving it on Lucy’s bed ‘labels her as the nun of the Rue Fossette – at once accusing her of animating the spectre from within herself and forcing her to recognize its true identity’ (p. 55).

At this point, Jacobus moves on to the final evasion: the conclusion of Villette. Just as Lucy writes two letters to Graham Bretton, there seem to be two endings to the novel:

The entire novel, not just its ending, bears the marks of this compromise – between Victorian romance and the Romantic imagination, between the realist novel and Gothicism. The relationship between the two texts is as arbitrary as that between the two letters; as the signified slides under the signifier, so the buried letter bears an ex-centric relation to the public version. This is not to say that the real meaning of Villette, “the TRUTH”, lies in its ghostly subtext. Rather it lies in the relationship between the two, which points to what the novel cannot say about itself – to the real conditions of its literary possibility. Instead of correcting the novel into a false coherence, we should see in its ruptured and ambiguous discourse the source of its uncanny power. The double ending in reversing the truth/fiction hierarchy, not only reinstates fantasy as a dominant rather than parasitic version of reality, but at the same time suggests that there can be no firm ground; only a perpetual de-centering. (p. 55).

Reference
Jacobus, M. 1986, Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism, London: Methuen.

Further Reading
Millett, K. 1970, Sexual Politics, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.


July 14, 2008

Armstrong and Tennenhouse on the Violence of Representation: The Example of Jane Eyre

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

In the introduction to the volume, Violence and Representation (titled ‘Representing violence, or “how the west was won”’), Armstrong and Tennenhouse begin by considering the changes in attitudes to literary criticism at the time (published 1989). They note that ‘[f]or criticism that once questioned the whole literary enterprise to have found a comfortable home within the humanities means that the literary criticism essentially hostile to it has performed some subtle but profound act of appropriation’ (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 1). This change seems to have occurred as scholars extended ‘literary critical methods into new areas which have never been read before […] lining ideology to figuration, politics to aesthetics, and tropes of ambiguity and irony to instances of ambivalence and forms of political resistance’ (Ibid.). What Armstrong and Tennenhouse are concerned about is maintaining political self-consciousness in considering literary representations and engaging in criticism.

The volume that emerges out of this aspiration focuses on ‘western, European’ traditions, especially the Anglo-American. The authors agree that violence can be located ‘at very different places within cultural production,’ but that the feminists included in the volume divide into two ‘camps’: those who ‘are interested in the symbolic practices through which one group achieves and the others resist a certain form of domination at a given place or moment in time’; and those who believe that ‘writing is not so much about violence as a form of violence in its own right’ (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 2).

To explain this theorising of the violence of representation, Armstrong and Tennenhouse give the example of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, which they use to shed light on ‘a definition of violence,’ linking to de Lauretis’ idea that ‘the discourse of theory, whatever its ideological bent, constitutes a from of violence in its own right in so far as it maintains a form of domination – “that of the male or male-sexed subject”’ (A&T 1989: 3). Armstrong and Tennenhouse wish to critique ‘the power of this discourse’ using Jane Eyre, because it is a novel that ‘exemplifies the other (feminine) half of liberal discourse’ (A&T 1989:4). The critics explain that as a kind of liberal feminist text, Jane Eyre conforms to certain conventions and yet it resists them too:

Much like fiction that participates in dominant discourse – as virtually all canonized or “literary” fiction does – literary feminism generally accedes to the terms of a rationalist, social science discourse that locates political power in men, in their labor [sic], in the institutions they run, or else in certain forms of resistance to men or their institutions. Our reading of Jane Eyre suggests that while these constitute the acknowledged domain of political power, the site of its agency, the theatre [sic] of its events, and thus the source of historical change, such power is not necessarily that which actually shapes people’s lives in the novel; another source of power proves equally if not more compelling. (A&T 1989: 4)

Armstrong and Tennenhouse suggest that although Jane Eyre’s world is dominated by men, these men lose their power through events such as Jane’s uncle dying and Rochester’s diminishment: ‘In relation to these masculine modalities of power, Jane is the triumphant underdog’ (A&T 1989: 4). Armstrong and Tennenhouse know that Jane is lacking in social power with its accoutrements of family, money, professional position and beauty. However she ‘can read, speak, and write’ and this allows her to slowly develop a community of likeminded readers. Armstrong and Tennenhouse are adamant that ‘the violence of an earlier political order maintained by overt forms of social control gives way to a more subtle kind of power that speaks with a mother’s voice and works through the printed word upon mind and emotions rather than body and soul’ (A&T 1989: 4).

Writing depth: difference as otherness
Armstrong and Tennenhouse start thinking about violence in Jane Eyre by noting the violence represented as ‘“out there” in the world on the other side of Jane’s words’ (A&T 1989: 5). This is encountered through ‘bad relatives, bad teachers, bad suitors, and more generally, a bad class of pwople who have control over her life,’ a class of people whose ‘capacities of self are inferior to hers’ (A&T 1989: 5). In confronting characters such as these, Jane Eyre must use the power of speech and language, e.g. in her early encounters with Mrs. Reed. Armstrong and Tennenhouse believe that Bronte’s project was to create a heroine to outdo her sisters ‘by accomplishing everything that they [her sister’s heroine’s] did without money, status, family, good looks, good fortune, or even a pleasant disposition’ (A&T 1989: 6). In the creation of such a heroine, ‘violence is an essential element’ (A&T 1989: 6).

Why is violence essential? Well, Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that ‘[e]ach time Jane is confined to a room, kept at the bottom of a social hierarchy, silenced, or humiliated, we have more evidence that there is something already there to be confined, silenced, or humiliated, something larger than its container, grander than any social role, more eloquent for all its honesty than those who presume to speak for it, and noble beyond their ken’ (A&T 1989: 6). This idea of the emergence of self through its very suppression is linked to Foucault’s theorising in The History of Sexuality I. Here Foucault writes about the contingency of self and the discovery of nineteenth century authors that ‘a regressive hypothesis’ of the suppressed self could become a more productive one. Armstrong and Tennenhouse use this idea to read Jane Eyre describing Jane’s fight against suppression and restriction as ‘a discursive strategy for producing depths in the individual – what we have come to think of as the real Jane herself – that have been stifled in order for society to exist’ (A&T 1989: 6-7). Armstrong and Tennenhouse conclude that in Jane’s discourse, ‘there is always more there than discourse expresses, a self on the other side of words, bursting forth in words, only to find itself falsified and diminished because standardized and contained within the categories contained within the aggregate of “society”’ (A&T 1989: 7).

In this reading, Jane is far from powerless. Armstrong and Tennenhouse even suggest that Jane manages to ‘ reconstruct[s] the universe around the polarities of Self and Other,’ fighting back in the violence of language (A&T 1989: 7). For example, in describing Blanche Ingram (Rochester’s supposed betrothed), Jane ‘deftly inverts Blanche’s position of social superiority to Jane by employing an alternative system of value based on natural capacities of self’ (A&T 1989, 7). Jane’s abilities in speaking are enough to silence those Others who would restrict, suppress or diminish her.

To earn the status of narrator, she [Jane] must overcome Blanche, Mrs Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, virtually everyone and anyone who stands in her way. This is the violence of the productive hypothesis: the violence of representation. To be sure, every mode of identity contending with Jane’s identity as a self-produced self poses a threat to that self. But in order for her to emerge as the knowledgeable spokesperson of other identities, these differences must be there and reveal themselves as a lack, just as Blanche ceases to be another person and become a non-person. The same process that creates Jane’s “self” positions “others” in a negative relationship to that self. The violence of representation is the suppression of difference. (A&T 1989: 8).

Jane eschews social power ‘as if her status as an exemplary subject, like her authority as narrator, depends entirely on her claim to a kind of truth which can only be made from a position of powerlessness’ (A&T 1989: 8).

Writing culture; how the representation of violence became the violence of representation

In response to their analysis of Jane Eyre, Armstrong and Tennenhouse note that they have made ‘a crude distinction between two modalities of violence: that which is “out there” in the world, as opposed to that which is exercised through words upon things in the world’ (A&T 1989: 9). In Bronte’s novel, this latter violence of representation ‘appears […] in its most benign, defensive, and nearly invisible form – a power one can use without even calling it such’ (A&T 1989: 9). One problem with the idea of the volume itself, according to Armstrong and Tennenhouse is the sense in which they as writers are ‘implicated in the very form of power [they] set about to critique’ (A&T 1989: 10). The editors admit: ‘Like Jane, we tend to think of ourselves as outside the field of power, or at least we write about “it” as if it were “out there.” That is to say, we situate ourselves in a “female” position relative to the discourses of law, finance, technology, and political policy. From such a position, one may presume to speak both as one of those excluded from the dominant discourse and for those so excluded. But doing so, we would argue, is no more legitimate than Jane Eyre’s claim to victim status’ (A&T 1989: 10). What the real project should be is the ‘tracing [of] the history of our own authority along with that of the modern subject’ (A&T 1989: 10).

Armstrong and Tennenhouse now summarise what essays and included and how they work within the scheme of the collection. It is well worth looking up these interesting essays, including de Lauretis’ essay on the violence of representation. However, what is very interesting is the way in which Armstrong and Tennenhouse sum up the focus and importance of the essays:

If these essays can be said to demonstrate a single point it is this: that a class of people cannot produce themselves as a ruling class without setting themselves off against certain Others. Their hegemony entails possession of the key cultural terms determining what are the right and wrong ways to be a human being. With this in mind, we have tried to provide some sense of the detailed process by which certain people, a relatively small group, at different times produced the Other in specific ways. In so articulating our project as a collective project, we want to insist that what we have offered is a story about the production of a culture-specific subject and only a very partial one at that; it suggests very few of what we believe were the myriad ways in which differences were suppressed in the process and positioned in a negative relationship to the ruling-class self. In this respect, our narrative will inevitably reproduce the very behaviour [sic] it set out to historicize. It will exclude points of view that are not of the dominant race, gender, class, and ethic group. (A&T 1989: 24)

Reference
Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse. 1989. ‘Representing violence, or “how the west was won”.’ The Violence of Representation: Literature and the history of violence. Ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. London: Routledge. 1-26.


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