Friday, November 27, 2009

The Reading List: "Jane Eyre"

Jane Eyre is not properly speaking even on the Reading List, but I was told that it would help with The Eyre Affair, which is, and besides it seemed like it was time to get this important and influential novel under my belt. I read a Random House printing from 1943, a pleasantly bulky and solid volume with two columns of text per page and moody, occasionally trippy full-page woodcut illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg.

It is a well-crafted and entertaining novel, and I daresay it must have seemed at the time like a quantum leap forward in pleasure reading. Its greatest strength is in the development of its title character, who is the book's narrator and protagonist. She is a solumn but quirky heroine, not a little uptight but also bracingly intelligent, diligent, and sassy. I suspect that Jane Eyre was also, by the standards of the day, an unusually independent and liberated female character. The use of the first person is intimate and beautifully pulled off; Brontë crafts a character-narrator who writes about herself in a way perfectly consistant with her reported thoughts and actions, and this adds a great deal of depth and verisimilitude to the book.

[mild spoilers from here on out]

Brontë also keeps us wondering how her story is going to end. Even having seen countless allusions to Jane Eyre over the course of my reading life, even knowing that I would eventually encounter the famous sentence "Reader, I married him," I was still left guessing until very close to the final page which way things would fall and who would be the lucky groom. Importantly, I found myself caring a great deal how the book would end, which is always a sign that the author has done well.

There is, to be sure, quite a bit about Jane Eyre that seems a little corny today. Who knows, maybe it seemed a little corny at the time as well. There's a Great Big Coincidence, there's an Unexpected Revelation Involving Money, and there's a little cosmic magic towards the end that makes the eyes roll a bit. But eh, that's the Nineteenth Century for you. (To be specific, it's the middle Nineteenth Century; part of the historical interest of the book is its portrayal, from a vantage a decade or so later, of the profound isolation possible in the last years before rail travel radically shrank the world, and of the epic journeys still undertaken then to traverse just a few dozen miles.)

Too, I found the overall structure of the novel slightly inelegant. It is constructed in four episodes -- four distinct times and places in the title character's life -- and an coda. The first two episodes (early childhood and schooling) are brief and tightly constructed to the point of seeming almost chopped off, ending just as they are reaching their stride. The third episode (Mr. Rochester's house), on the other hand, sprawls out in extended slo-mo, gleefully hanging on to its Big Secret for as long as humanly possible. Generally I don't feel a enormous need for perfect order and balance, but something about this assymetry -- or rather, the irregular pacing that produced it -- bugged me a bit.

But on the whole, Reader, I liked this book. I liked Jane and her uncanny understanding of the psychology of courtship. I liked the big, brash, sharp-witted Mr. Rochester, with all his many faults and flaws. I liked being called "Reader." I liked the musty smell of old book wafting up from a classic novel, too. Wrapped in a quilt on autumn evenings, making my way through this vintage volume, I felt like Charlotte Brontë was right to call me "Reader." I'd earned the title.

Plot: Plucky girl escapes abusive foster home to attend abusive school for orphans. Arriving at adulthood, she meets Mr. Right*, but is troubled by the magnitude of his asterisk. Then she meets Mr. OK, who is nice enough until she does him a big favor, at which point he turns into a world-class knob. Eventually she marries somebody.


Yankee in England said...

This has nothing to do with Jane Erye or the Reading List but last night I had a dream about your blog.

I dreamed it was monday morning and I got on your blog to read it and you were having the Monday quiz and explaining all the great new prizes and I was really pissed because I thought it was suppose to be the Wednesday quiz and I was not ready. Not that it really matters you can't be ready for one of your quizzes. But there you have it the Life and Times of M5K dream.

sister jen said...

This is one of my fave novels of all time.

Structurally, I find the extended absence from R. in the happy siblings household a clunky protrusion from the plot line, and the [how do I say this without spoiler?] Secret of the Gypsy Woman apallingly bad--I declare these impediments--but otherwise near perfect. How thrilling for the rest of us plainsters to witness plain Jane (for so she is presented) becoming the object of such romantic passion. Plus, you know, drinking, card playing, sassing by the upper classes, insanity, burning bed curtains(!)--jeez, what's not to like? Also, one of the later chapters (27, I believe) made a dandy text for an exercise we taught in an Intro to Ethics course several years ago.

And, Reader, I named my dog after Rochester's. Isn't that sweet?

I envy your groovy old edition with the woodcuts. Maybe I can borrow it some day. Tomorrow I'm digging out my copy--now I'm dying to read it again. Thanks!

sister jen said...

Oh, P.S.: I only made it through about four pages in the The Eyre Affair before I'd just had it. I look forward to reading your review.

Rebel said...

Yay! I'm so glad you enjoyed this one!

Elizabeth said...

I have that edition, and the matching "Wuthering Heights" (which I never really got into) - they were my grandmother's. It's a book I go back to read every few years. The movie adaptations have been pretty darned good as well, and there's a not-so-good reworking by a writer I actually really like, titled "Jenna Starborn" which I frankly don't recommend whether you've read the original or not. But I've always loved plain Jane.

Michael5000 said...

I should confess here that the Secret of the Gypsy Woman TOTALLY GOT me. I felt a little sheepish afterwards, but there you have it.

In terms of the narrative, we're given ample evidence that the upper class twits Mr. R has been partying with are thick as bricks (like me, apparently) and some evidence that he is a good actor, so it's just plausible that he could pull the wool over their eyes.

Rebel said...

I didn't pick up on it either. But I claim "Age 16 & stupid" as my excuse. =P

Michael5000 said...

@Sis, second look: OMG! (as we say) You named your dog after Mr. Rochester's! That's very cute. I noticed the name, of course, but figured it was just a coincidence.

@Reb: Age 41 & stupid, here!

sister jen said...

Oh, I'm not saying I didn't fall for the Gypsy dealie--just that it was lame. He might have been able to pull it off--but--uh--why?

In my re-reading Jane has just arrived at Thornfield--not a lot of reading time, what with work resuming and all, and after Mater5000 directing the installation and full decoration of the 'hamster Christmas tree (very sparkly). Can't wait to meet Mr. R again--

Michael5000 said...

I actually thought the gypsy trick was reasonably consistant with Mr. Rochester's character. He is a little immature, our Mr. R., and more than a little manipulative. (What I like best about the novel, really, is the way Bronte has Jane recognize, accept, and manage these human flaws.) I can easily imagine him devising schemes to trick information out of people by exploiting their gullability. His stated purpose in the book is that he wanted to see if little Ms. UpperClassTwit was just after his money, but he's fishing to see if Jane really likes him, too.

Then, too, he's hanging out with a bunch of peers who are not nearly as bright as himself, and television won't be invented for another century or so -- he's probably bored out of his skull. Why not play a goofy trick on his guests?

Having said all this, it struck me while reading that it was a little implausible that he would be able to pull it off. But then, his houseguests ARE a bit dim....

lauren said...

My favorite film adaptation is the one with Charlotte Gainsburg as Jane--she looks very plain and pale one minute, and then in the blink of an eye looks ravishing in an other-wordly sort of way.

Jane Eyre is the patron saint of all adolescent girls: she's not pretty, she's not rich, she's not well-connected, but she refuses to compromise herself.