Sunday, 17 April 2016

jane eyre

On Sunday 3 November 2013 - aided by two long bus journeys to and from the LGQ involvement in a church service in Whetstone - I finished, at long last, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I didn't like it very much.

I didn't write it up at the time, but I did have an exchange with an old friend on FB in January 2014, the relevant parts of which I reproduce below, as they give the general idea. (As I indicate below, Bethan would be on her side rather than mine, as were all the Facebook likers).

F: "Glauben Sie, ich habe kein Herz und keine Seele, nur weil ich arm und ohne Herkunft und haesslich und klein bin? Dann taeuschen Sie sich! Ich habe soviel Seele wie Sie - und mindestens ebensoviel Herz!"
or, as it's better known:
"Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart!"
- have spent too much of today reading "Jane Eyre". Even in a dodgy German translation, this bit still makes me cry every time. (I know, I ought to get out more - but outside is sooo cold). Someone, pass the tissues please!

I: I finished this wretched book last year. I'm not sure if I hated it more than or the same as the wretched Wuthering Heights by her sister. I need to read Pride & Prejudice again to cleanse my soul. When the great Austen-Bronte wars finally break out, as they surely must, there is no doubt which camp I will be in. There's no accounting for taste (as we could both say), eh? - and I fear my own lovely wife would be lining up alongside you on Jane Eyre...

F: Oh nooo, Iain, what a shame you didn't like it! Contrasting with Miss Austen's (slightly acerbic) sweetness and light, I really think the Brontes were The Dark Side - if they'd been around in the 1980's, they'd have been Goths, I'm sure, especially Emily. Apart from the fact that JE is beautifully written, i love the way Jane sets herself such starkly high moral standards .. don't think there's much of that in current lit. Yes, it's escapism, but with a moral compass!

I: I hate misery memoirs. I hate outrageous plot coincidences. I hate preposterous implausible dialogue (the audiobooks must be a hoot, with some poor actor trying to make those speeches and conversations sound as if they could ever come out of people's mouths). I hate 'bad boy who only I can get through to' plots (and more so in real life). I hate the grim loveless caricature of a Christian (and despite that I still found St John Rivers preferable to Rochester - someone who gave up love for his faith compared to someone prepared to bigamously marry Jane, which is a big flaw to swallow in your 'hero'). (But yes, you're right, a modern version of this book would be much shorter, with Jane and Rochester getting their kit off, mad wife in attic notwithstanding.) And I hate the humourlessness.
I want my escapism to make me laugh, not cry.
Yes, they would have been Goths, and equally insufferable. Jane Austen would have been the outsider, intimidating and scaring boys off with her ferocious wit and intellect (and yes, realising too late she's painted herself into a lonely corner and dying bitter and alone). I know which flame I'm drawn towards.

I: And, I guess not irrelevantly, I just didn't much like Jane Eyre herself.

F: I know, Mr R is v flawed, but I like the fact that CB for that & other reasons doesn't "let" them marry in ch 25. And yes, I can almost see why someone wouldn't warm to Jane; she seems impossibly wise for someone who's only c. 18/19. But despite those things I still love the book, and it's one of the few novels which actually improves if you read it a second (or third or fourth ...) time - if you know what's lurking in the background/attic, it creates even more atmosphere along the way.
The first time I read "The Hobbit" I really hated it. Left it for a mere 22 years, read it again and loved it. Give JE another go in 2035!
Anyway, am hoping that reading the German version doesn't leave me speaking 1847-style German - having enough communication difficulties as it is!

I: Nicely defended. I'm not one of life's re-readers - which makes me a bad reader in CS Lewis's terms - so many books, so little time... And I'm afraid I didn't manage to reach my advanced state of years without knowing who was in the attic...

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So, more than two years on from all that, here we are, prompted by a number of things, some of which are related to this being the bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte's birth. There's this article from the Guardian of 16 April, with the thoughts of various notable authors on Jane Eyre (I am with Mrs Winterson, who in her retelling to little Jeanette changed the ending so that Jane married Mr Rivers and not Mr Rochester; this puts me firmly in the wrong camp). And also this tweeted extract from a letter in which Charlotte trashes Jane Austen, which I retweeted with the elegant and trenchant comment, 'Charlotte Bronte is a monstrous twit.'

I noted in the back of my copy (a Penguin Classics edition of 1985, with intro & notes by QD Leavis dating from the 1966 Penguin English Library edition), as I often do, page numbers of bits which struck me particularly in one way or another. What unguarded, ill-informed, misguided and wrong-headed remarks, further to those above, will they prompt me to make in my minority opinion of this classic piece of literature?

- The 'misery memoir' element above probably hit me particularly because I wasn't expecting it - I didn't know that's how the book started. I had a general awareness of the story through cultural osmosis, but had also seen a stage version some years ago with Tim Pigott-Smith as Rochester (the theatre at the bottom of Northumberland Avenue, if I remember rightly). It's clear from the notes that those early chapters are autobiographical, though I think I'd probably have worked that out for myself, and knowing that makes it horrible to read. The Bronte story is full of awful tragedy; I'd rather read about it, if I must, in biography than in their fiction.

- I was incensed by the editor's grossly hateful and one-eyed descriptions of Victorian Evangelicalism, in both her introduction and one particular long note, presented as straightforward and universally accepted fact, which really made me think that she knew very little about it. I did learn some years ago to read introductions to novels after I'd read the novel, rather than before, after having too many spoiled in that way, but I do read the notes, if there are any, as I go. It would take more research than I'm prepared to do to find out to what extent QD's views exactly reflect Charlotte's, but they certainly coloured my view while I read the book. (From intro: 'Mr Brocklehurst [brings] a new oppression, the Evangelical attitude to life, into the child's world'; from note: 'exposing the horrors of Evangelicalism', 'Evangelicalism by her time had become an insufferable combination of Calvinism and class-consciousness', 'by 1830 the Evangelicals' work was done, in so far as they had done something worth doing ['moralizing society']', Evangelicalism is 'this menace' and 'this life-destroying force'.)

- it's quite striking, and I can't work out quite why it is, that the last word in the book is given to St John Rivers. I can't quite put my finger on what Jane and Charlotte's views of the beliefs of the Rivers family and Jane's doomed classmate Helen are.

- what I describe above as St John Rivers giving up love for his faith, which was the element of the story I probably found most moving, QD is completely scathing about. She really hates him. I found him a most sympathetic character.

- a striking sentence from the introduction: 'But with the Brontes the practice of creating a fictional day-dream world persisted into adult life, so that from being the most precocious of children they became retarded adults.'

- the introduction also quotes from the words on Jane Austen quoted in the tweet mentioned above, which were from a letter to a critic called GH Lewes: 'she wrote to explain to Lewes with admirable spirit why such a novelist could be of no use to her, indeed, by the light of what she was trying to do, was not a novelist at all.' 'Admirable spirit', indeed!

- inconsistency in tense in the telling of the story.

- always interesting to spot a usage one thinks of as modern in an old book. 'Negative' as a verb: 'One of the gentlemen, Mr Eshton, observing me, seemed to propose that I should be asked to join them; but Lady Ingram instantly negatived the notion.'

- a surprising indication of what languages might or might not be familiar to a Victorian lady, when Jane is peeping in on the Rivers' sisters: 'And in a low voice she read something, of which not one word was intelligible to me; for it was in an unknown tongue - neither French nor Latin. Whether it were Greek or German I could not tell.'

First line: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Last para (from a letter by St John Rivers): 'My Master,' he says, 'has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, "Surely I come quickly!" and hourly I more eagerly respond, "Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus!"'

Dedication: To W.M. Thackeray Esq. this work is respectfully inscribed by The Author [the author, at that stage, being 'Currer Bell']

The cover was definitely my favourite thing about this book. From the Penguin Classics design phase (which followed the orange 'Penguin English Library' phase) which I liked very much, with the elegant text-plate at the top, an old work of art as the cover image, and the black spine with colour-coding strip at the top. As the back cover says, 'The cover shows a detail from a chalk drawing of Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond'. The quality of the face - the eyes and mouth in particular - is beautifully photographic. (You can see from the original, on the National Portrait Gallery website (and in the NPG itself, of course), that this is a black and white version of a faintly coloured original.)