Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Reading Jane

Though I'm hardly averse to reading "girl books", I had never read Jane Eyre. I think I'd had the idea that the Brontes' oeuvre was yearning hearts and ghosts in lonely manor houses. But MrsDarwin had told me that I should read Jane, and so when I had a spare credit on Audible one month I picked up an unabridged recording, which I've been listening to lately on my commute.

I've been enjoying it far more than I expected, mainly because Jane herself is a far more engaging character than I had anticipated. I tend to loose patience with characters who get lost in their emotions and do obviously stupid things, and for some reason that what I'd expected Jane to be. (Falling in love with a guy who keeps a mad wife in the attic doesn't exactly seem like the wisest thing one can do.) Nor do I have much tolerance for the over-innocent damsel who is buffeted about by an increasingly improbably series of events, which seemed like the other likely explanation for the vague outlines of the plot I was aware of. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised at finding Jane to be a genuinely strong character, despite being (in Bronte's language) "of a passionate character". Despite her "sensibility", Jane is most definitely no Marianne Dashwood. I'd expected to be reading the book as something of an outsider, and Jane is indeed 100% girl, but she's reasonable and rigorously self possessed enough to appeal to my masculine sensibilities, even while seeming genuinely (though appealingly) foreign to them in her emotions.

I've also been struck, given my historical and economic interests, with the portrayal of mid-19th century England you get from Jane's point of view. As a tenuous member of the "respectable" class, Jane is well suited to appreciate the fragility of lower upper middle class existence. When she finds herself in Whitcross, without friends, money or references, she's changed instantly from the educated person Mrs. Fairfax was glad she would have to talk to rather than "the servants" into someone unlucky even among beggars:
Reader, it is not pleasant to dwell on these details. Some say there is enjoyment in looking back to painful experience past; but at this day I can scarcely bear to review the times to which I allude: the moral degradation, blent with the physical suffering, form too distressing a recollection ever to be willingly dwelt on. I blamed none of those who repulsed me. I felt it was what was to be expected, and what could not be helped: an ordinary beggar is frequently an object of suspicion; a well-dressed beggar inevitably so. To be sure, what I begged was employment; but whose business was it to provide me with employment? Not, certainly, that of persons who saw me then for the first time, and who knew nothing about my character. And as to the woman who would not take my handkerchief in exchange for her bread, why, she was right, if the offer appeared to her sinister or the exchange unprofitable. Let me condense now. I am sick of the subject.
This is perhaps the quintessential middle class terror: I am someone, yet one misstep and I could be no one.

17 comments:

Julia said...

Yes, that is the quintessential middle class terror. Funny how we think we put our trust in God until we're faced with serious economic insecurity. Then we realize that part of what we trusted him to do was keep us in a certain lifestyle with certain conveniences and comforts. And we find out how much of our 'someone-ness' has rested in our place/role in society rather than in the fact that we are God's.

Brandon said...

I remember my high school English teacher telling me that she'd read a study in which men consistently rated Jane Eyre as a better novel than a number of other classic novels, and that's always seemed plausible to me, for the reasons you note.

John Farrell said...

Another surprise: Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho--probably the quintessential Gothic novel, written a good generation or two before Bronte and Austen....

Jenny said...

I am ashamed to admit that I have never read Jane Eyre. I attempted Wuthering Heights and could not make it. Too much. I can't even say what was too much...I just couldn't do it. So I sadly wrote off all the Brontes. Maybe I should revisit...

MrsDarwin said...

Something I've noticed more and more in recent years is how tied in one is to one's first reading of a book. I've read Jane Eyre perhaps four or five times over the years, and yet, though of course I knew what was going on in this scene, I never thought too much about how perilously close Jane's character is to falling through the cracks throughout most of the book. She has no male protector and no stable family structure in a time when these elements were key to a woman's security. Darwin was also mentioning last night that one of the problems with Jane's begging is that since she doesn't fit into any social paradigm, such as tattered beggar or comfortable well-dressed lady, it seems pretty clear that the people she encounters view her as being a fallen woman, and they don't want anything to do with the scandal and the abnormality.

Though I pick up on different nuances each time I read Jane Eyre, at heart it seems I'm still the thirteen-year-old reading under the covers, stamping her foot with Jane as she declares, "I am not an automaton!"

MrsDarwin said...

John, here were my reflections upon reading The Castle of Udolpho.

Julie D. said...

Darwin, Jane Eyre is my choice for the next A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. I have been feeling rather guilty over making Scott read it, despite his not minding at all and making bracing remarks about enjoying Pride and Prejudice. I should've known there is something in Jane Eyre for everyone. Thanks for sharing that ... :-)

Darwin said...

Hmmm. I'll have to go check that out, Julie. I'm so bad about following podcasts these days, but every so often I go catch up on all the GSiHtF episodes on things I've read.

Anonymous said...

Time to read Jane Eyre again.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Brandon -- Your comment reminds me of some women who read Jane Eyre when it first came out and were convinced that Currer Bell was indeed a man.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Be fair. "Currer Bell" was a pseudonym designed to sound like it was a man, for marketing reasons. The Bronte sisters picked such pseudonyms because they didn't want to be written off as "A Lady" or have the credit stolen by "The Author of XY." And Pamela was written by a man, so it was plausible.

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are the quintessential examples of projects by sisters who share interests, but aren't much alike.

Jane Eyre is pretty obviously a Gothic by somebody who's read and criticized a lot of Gothics, and is determined to do one with a sensible (though not unfeeling) nerd girl as the heroine. (Providing her with sf/f artist cred, even.)

Wuthering Heights is much the same, but is a sort of critique of the personalities and dysfunctions needed for a really doomed cursed horrible love situation. (I still haven't managed to get through Wuthering Heights, because I want to kill everyone and instead stop reading it; but I know some people love it.)

Suburbanbanshee said...

I suppose you could argue that, even back then, there were already a lot of pseudonyms that sounded enough like a man's to be good marketing, but not enough like a man's to sound like a man's name to discriminating readers. Because now that I think of it, there were quite a few women writers like that already.

So it may actually not have been trying to sound like a man, but rather, trying to sound like the kind of woman author who isn't too soppy for either sex to read.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Fatherless Fanny is a very fun Gothic from Regency times. Just a bit after the first wave of Gothics, with a good sprinkling of Regency comedy stuff as well as heroine dilemmas and horror. Not a great novel, but deservedly popular for about a hundred years -- and probably one of Heyer's inspirations.

Brandon said...

Enbrethiliel -- That fits with what I (dimly) remember, and I can believe it.

Suburbanbanshee -- From what I remember, I think both are right: the pseudonyms were chosen for fear of being simply shoved in a 'woman's novel' box, but the girls being very moral daughters of a very upright curate, they weren't comfortable with outright deceiving people. I think it backfired in Charlotte's case, because once it became clear she was a woman, she was accused of having a coarsely unfeminine writing style.

Jane Eyre stands at a sort of opposite end of the spectrum from Austen's Persuasion for me, because while I like Persuasion, and think it a great novel I can never read it as easily as the others, because something about it makes it seem so very much girlier than the other Austen novels. I'm not sure what it is; it's not Anne Elliott, but there's just something about the novel that always strikes me as if I were reading a woman's magazine with incongruously brilliant writing.

Darwin said...

You know, for the longest time, I claimed that Persuasion was my favorite Austen book, but judging by what I actually reread most I think I need to admit that Emma is my favorite. I like Persuasion pretty well, but I think the reason I claimed it for so long is that I really, really love the movie adaption of Persuasion from 12 years or so ago.

After Emma I probably like Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice about equally. Sense and Sensibility a deal less so, and I've never read Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey.

Brandon said...

I think my list would go something like Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, then Lady Susan, and after that probably Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility about the same. I'm not sure where to put Northanger Abbey, which, despite I've only read once, and quite some time ago. My placing Mansfield Park first is one of my many, many idiosyncracies; almost everyone places it last. (Of course, the worst Austen novel is still an enviable position for a novel to have, like being the least brilliant mathematician to win the Fields medal.)

(Lady Susan isn't often read because it was never finished and only published a long time after Austen's death. We have the whole story in epistolary form, but there's good reason to think that this was just a draft that would have been modified to be more like her other novels -- S&S certainly started out as a series of letters, and P&P and Persuasion may have done so as well, which is why letters are so important to the story. The reason I like Lady Susan is that it has a truly awesome woman villain: her only flaw is that she is utterly selfish, and that selfishness makes everything she does both very plausible and very wicked. She's the ultimate nineteenth-century woman's novel anti-hero, doing almost everything a woman is not supposed to do and (mostly) getting away with it. It's a pity we don't have the final version.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

My Austen list would have Persuasion and Northanger Abbey close to the top, but this digression is reminding me that I kind of need to reread all her novels now. (I was supposed to do that last year . . .)

Mansfield Park would be somewhere in the middle for me because Austen actually had me unable to predict which way Henry Crawford would eventually go. (A huge Austen fan I know gives him pride of place among all other "Austen bad boys," and I see why. All her other cads can be written off immediately, but Henry . . . I shouldn't spoil further.)