Blowhard, Esq. writes:
When was the last time you read a romance novel? Yeah, I can’t say it’s a genre I sample much either. But I was talking to Paleo Retiree once at our weekly cultural salons (comparing and contrasting the oeuvres of Katie Sunshine and Remy LaCroix, if I remember correctly) when he said that all men should be required to read at least six romances so as to better understand women. I think he was talking about the dimestore Harlequin type, but I figured, what the heck, I’ll start off with a classic. Two friends are big fans of Jane Eyre, so that’s the first volume I chose for my informal Women’s Studies course. (The book is almost 170 years old so this is probably unnecessary but lots of SPOILERS AHEAD.)
I think it’s a wonderful book, probably one of my top 10 novels. To begin with, even though it’s over 500 pages, it has a plot that moves. The story is a pretty wild mix of fairy tale, romance, mystery, horror, suspense, and coming-of-age story. To give you a brief idea of her tale of woe, through the course of the story Jane has to deal with an evil stepmother, being shipped off to a dreary boarding school, the death of her best friend from tuberculosis, a co-worker who appears to be trying to murder her boss, competing with the beautiful girl across town for the affections of her beloved boss, finding herself destitute and homeless, the discovery of relatives she never knew she had, multiple marriage proposals, and being the heiress to a sizeable fortune. To say nothing of the Big Twist which has made the book infamous. Hey, what’s this I hear about people dismissing stories for being too soapy? Next time I hear that criticism, I’m pointing to this Undisputed Classic.
Another thing that makes the novel so fascinating is Brontë’s deft balancing of the external action with Jane’s internal thoughts. As events swirl around her, outwardly Jane appears calm and determined, the very model of the Victorian English governess, but all the while she’s letting us in on her innermost feelings. Doesn’t it seem like so many novels, particularly contemporary ones, forget how to strike this balance? The Wikipedia entry for the book says that Brontë “has been called the ‘first historian of private consciousness’ and the literary ancestor of writers like Joyce and Proust.” Yes, but while contemporary novelists seemed more concerned with novelistic depictions of thinking and feeling, Brontë never forgets that she’s a storyteller too. As soon as Jane reaches some kind of stasis, Brontë knocks her for a loop, thereby testing her heroine and surprising and engaging us as readers.
A word about the prose. It’s accomplished but never show-offy. Being a pillar of gothic fiction, all the scenes and elements are there: the foggy moors, the wind-swept countryside, the dark English manor. Even when she’s not describing them, you can see those ancient gnarled trees and handmade stone walls, all of which seem to contain a deep history of secrets. Yet none of this is ever dwelled upon, there are no self-conscious sentence pyrotechnics. This excerpt, where Jane has just run away from her employer, is typical of Brontë’s descriptive passages:
I touched the heath: it was dry, and yet warm with the heat of the summer day. I looked at the sky; it was pure: a kindly star twinkled just above the chasm ridge. The dew fell, but with propitious softness; no breeze whispered. Nature seemed to me benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was; and I, who from man could anticipate only mistrust, rejection, insult, clung to her with filial fondness. To-night, at least, I would be her guest, as I was her child: my mother would lodge me without money and without price. I had one morsel of bread yet: the remnant of a roll I had bought in a town we passed through at noon with a stray penny — my last coin. I saw ripe bilberries gleaming here and there, like jet beads in the heath: I gathered a handful and ate them with the bread. My hunger, sharp before, was, if not satisfied, appeased by this hermit’s meal. I said my evening prayers at its conclusion, and then chose my couch.
A few other observations:
- During the main action of the story, Jane is 20 years-old and her love interest, Rochester, is 40. Not only is Rochester twice her age, he’s rich where she is poor, worldly where she is provincial, AND he’s her employer, so Jane frequently refers to him as “my master.” Hey, uneven power relations are hot hot hot, aren’t they?
- When Rochester’s insane wife, Bertha Mason, is finally revealed, she’s depicted as a carnal, snarling demon. While that might have horrified the novel’s original Victorian audience, it’s the kind of thing that probably strikes modern readers (well, me at least) as an outdated, over-the-top anachronism. Could it be that vestiges of a more Medieval consciousness account for the disparity in reactions? Johan Huizinga, author of The Autumn of the Middle Ages, writes:
“When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. …
There was less relief available for misfortune and for sickness; they came in a more fearful and more painful way. Sickness contrasted more strongly with health. The cutting cold and the dreaded darkness of winter were more concrete evils. Honor and wealth were enjoyed more fervently and greedily because they contrasted still more than now with lamentable poverty. A fur-lined robe of office, a bright fire in the oven, drink and jest, and a soft bed still possessed that high value for enjoyment that perhaps the English novel, in describing the joy of life, has affirmed over the longest period of time. In short, all things in life had about them something glitteringly and cruelly public.”
In his lectures, Prof. Daileader argues the Middle Ages didn’t end until the period of 1750 to 1850. It feels as if Brontë’s depiction of Bertha Mason still tapped into these starker Medieval emotions.
- A friend once dismissed Jane Austen’s novels as not “real” literature because they deal with such mundane matters as relationships, marriage, and money, while the “true” great books grappled with life, death, good, evil, fate, etc. Have you encountered this attitude? Is that perhaps why women’s fiction, chick-lit, and erotica still don’t have the same intellectual standing of, say, mystery and crime novels? Given that, for the vast majority of us, marriage, money, and family are the most dramatic and significant elements in our lives, why shouldn’t those topics be fodder for art?
- Hang around enough English lit dorks for a while and one of them is bound to say something like, “Oh, I always prefer novels to movies because I prefer my imagination to whatever’s on the screen.” OK, I guess if someone feels that way, I’m not about to persuade them otherwise. Although I think my imagination is just fine, I dunno, I’d rather see the Sistine Chapel ceiling than read a great literary description of it. So as soon as I finished reading the book I watched the 2011 adaptation directed by Cary Fukunaga.
The movie is a high-class production that’s worth it for the photography and production design alone. At least when it comes to English costume dramas, I’ll take the work of dedicated artists and craftsmen over my vague notions.
As for the overall film, I enjoyed it a lot and thought the actors did a great job, but I’m not sure if those unfamiliar with the story would think much of it. The movie felt more like Jane Eyre’s Greatest Hits than a complete story. Two hours just isn’t enough time to adapt a 500-page book, thus events are overly compressed and the pacing is off. One of the joys of the novel is Jane’s slow realization that she’s in love with Rochester. It’s fun watching her being taken by surprise, but that isn’t conveyed well in the film. Also, although Lloyd disagrees, I felt the movie’s portrayal of Jane’s Christian faith, which is the wellspring of her independence, was muted.
So what’s your experience with the romance genre? You a Jane Eyre fan or are you someone who resents having it foisted on you in school? Will Wuthering Heights blow my mind too?
- Paleo Retiree reviewed Kirsten Mortensen’s When Libby Met the Fairies and Her Whole Life Went Fae back here. Fabrizio reviewed Mortensen’s Can Job here.
- Jane Eyre reminded me of Ray Sawhill’s and Polly Frost’s The Bannings, another tale about an independent woman deceived by family secrets. You can buy The Bannings here.