Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Case of the Two Janes

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, Read by Josephine Bailey, Books on Tape, Inc., 2002

My first thought on listening to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was that the Brontë sisters were some damned repressed types, longing to break out in murder and revolt. To consider the plight of women in those years, you can rather sympathize with such a consideration.

There were many times in the first few chapters when Jane is a young girl living with her aunt and cousins (and later when her aunt returns to the story) in which I wished, personally, to commit brutal outrages against those characters. The long history of the put-upon innocent more sinned against than sinning in literature seems to have been mastered by the English it in a finer degree than many other nations. They seem to have almost made it their national literature.

Actually, there is much about the novel that is maddening, on many levels and for many reasons. Some of it is stylistic, some of it thematic, some of it characterization. While Jane herself narrates the novel and often heatedly denounces those who have abused her or taken advantage of her, she is, in practice, almost entirely docility itself, the prim picture of Christian charity. That’s all fine and good if you like turning the other cheek, but I seethed through all her too-too goodness. Luckily her even bigger goodie two shoes friend Helen died of consumption before I could gag.

In a nutshell, Jane is an orphan who grows up essentially to be Cinderella, after a fashion. She is routinely tested on her values, her morals, her particular view of herself and what is acceptable both to her morals and to her sense of decorum. After her aunt decides to get rid of her following yet another altercation with her cousin, John (a fight which he picks and ends with Jane bleeding from the head), and Jane’s denouncement of her aunt, Jane ends up being shipped off to the Lowood School. You may recognize certain elements lifted nearly wholesale into Harry Potter.

As if writing Dickens’ template for him, the Lowood is one of those institutes of hardship charity in which thin slop is served to anemic waifs, stringent austerity is observed in every regard, and the very notion of any light or warmth is anathema to the master, Mr. Brocklehurst, who is lining his pockets with the school’s proceeds. Despite all this, Jane thrives (after a fashion), and after a typhus epidemic nearly decimates the school, exposing Brocklehurst’s crimes, the Lowood is improved, and Jane becomes a teacher there. Finally, tiring of her time there, she gets a private position as a governess and proceeds to fall in love with, and become beloved of, her employer, the brooding, tragic Edward Rochester.

When Rochester is on the page, the book is tres compelling, filled with mystery, suspense, and an undercurrent of threat. For a great period of time while Jane is at Lowood as student and as teacher, the book rather sags under a preachy kind of quality full of striving against hardship, maintaining your self-worth, and not falling prey to the kind of self-abnegation practiced by Helen. It is at this point in the novel where it most resembles a tract teaching us the value of not falling prey either to self-sacrificing Christian charity of Helen’s type and the vindictive Leviticanism posing as Christianity as practiced by the master.

But Rochester dominates his scenes even more so than Mr. Darcy strode across Pride and Prejudice merely because his dark secrets are even more bloody minded. Because the tragedy he hides is indeed his own and not another’s. There is a rather passionate violent streak in his character as well as some kind of psychopath on the premises, Jane discovers, but she can never quite discover its true nature. The revelation of this enigma happens in the cruelest of fashions, leading Jane to flee. As I found this whole plotline rather thrilling and exciting, I won’t provide and spoilers.

What I will gripe about is something of a fashion or a mode of writing in the Victorian era whose necessity or meaning I have never fathomed and whose popularity I can only credit to a kind of primitivism in literature (remember that “realism” or what passes for it is of recent vintage in the thousands of years of literary tradition). On fleeing Rochester’s home, Jane flees to a faraway village where she begs from and is taken in by two woman and a man, Diana, Mary, and St. John Rivers, who turn out to be Jane’s cousins from the other side of her family. Through some complications, Jane is ultimately made the inheritrix of a very large fortune (which she rather too decently splits with her new-found cousins).

This is very much like Oliver Twist fleeing to London and just by damned sheer luck running into his own relations’ lives. For reasons that escape me, it just seemed outside the power of Victorian era writers to construct plausible scenes of long-severed families reuniting. Surely there simply had to be other arguments available to them rather than mere accident, there had to be. Yet the coincidental meeting with just the right person is so prevalent a device that it should be ranked up there among the veriest of clichés.

While Charlotte Brontë is more admired than loved, Jane Austen manages to make us love her for her pert and tart observations, for her sharply sketched little types. Brontë’s narrator can’t see any humor in the situation of Miss Ingram striving so hard to win Rochester’s heart. Jane Eyre’s too strident sense of self-purity that nearly completely destroys her and another’s happiness through its naively literal interpretation of moral strictures makes her a somewhat unlovely, unlovable character. You admire her, but you do not love her. There is no perfect happiness for her as there is for Austen’s poor ladies; cruelly Brontë will finally compensate her narrator, but not without great sacrifice, great sorrow, and suffering.

Narrator Josephine Bailey reads in what can only be described as a slow measured pace, the kind of somber style too often applied to older works, much in the way actors let their voices trill and roll when declaiming the works of Shakespeare. It’s a kind of put-on honorific that quickly grows tiresome, then eventually becomes a kind of breathy background white noise, save for the occasional lines of speech given a hint of passion, all too absent throughout most of the book. Luckily for her Charlotte Brontë is engaging enough of a writer to catch our attention anyway.

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