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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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“It is a very remarkable book,” critic Elizabeth Rigby wrote of Jane Eyre in March of 1849, in Vanity Fair. “We have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste. Both together have equally assisted to gain the great popularity it has enjoyed; for in these days of extravagant adoration of all that bears the stamp of novelty and originality, sheer rudeness and vulgarity have come in for a most mistaken worship.”
I admit it: I don’t remember reading Jane Eyre. I do remember re-reading Charlotte Brontë’s best known literary achievement, because that’s what I did when I was a kid and something grabbed me by the eyes and tugged. New books were also lovely things, and could occupy me for as little as a few hours or as much as a few days. But when I read certain electric passages, I needed to revisit them, the same way I’m still driven to crack open “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or watch Star Trek reruns, or listen to Fiona Apple’s “Fast as You Can” six times in a row. My urge to shift from consumer or critic to fan was unpredictable, and the books that didn’t make the cut were returned to the library and checked off my ambitious (and in retrospect pretentious) list of Classics: Achieved. It could be argued that doing this—indulging in pure angst, or pure adventure, or pure entertainment, because these books reliably bring you back to the first time you read them—is indeed in “horrid taste.” But I’m far from alone in the habit, and I still find that, in certain moods, rereading can give me more solace than reading does. Some might say, solace is not the point of reading, and explain to me what they believe the point of reading is, in which case I’d direct them to the Rigby quote above with a hearty de gustibus non est disputandum.
April 21st, 2016 would have been Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, if such were possible, and thus she has been much on our collective minds. Though I didn’t know it until studying her life long after reading her fiction, Brontë did not care for Rigby’s take at all, which hugely endeared her to me. In her legendary prologue to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Brontë seethes, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” The passage moves me. One can easily imagine the Twitter tumult such a scathing attack on her critics would cause today.
Would such a rebuttal be in horrid taste within the modern context of social media, were it directed at anyone, from a one-star Amazon Vine reviewer to Michiko Kakutani? Probably. But it would also be a woman stating for the public record that she thinks her worst detractor is an intellectual chuckle-bucket, and Brontë’s willingness to stand up for herself throughout her life remains deeply inspiring. Bronte truly suffered through the boarding school child abuse she describes in Jane Eyre, which ruined the health and probably took the lives of two of her sisters. But did she embroider a sonnet about it to hang on the wall? No: she wrote a massive blockbuster barnburner about it, following in the footsteps of other successful female commercial authors like Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley.
As a result of Brontë’s audacity, Jane Eyre remains one of my favorites; but the book frustrates me in 2016 in ways it didn’t as a child, as indeed it frustrates many of my feminist friends, some of whom I spoke to about this article. On the one hand, Jane often refuses to indulge Mr. Rochester’s whims simply because she can. She fights fires with equanimity. She figures she probably won’t be squeamish over blood, and isn’t. She asserts the validity of her own free will often, and vocally. And she escapes a fraught relationship to find happiness with a cozy pair of female cousins (Diana and Mary Rivers—let us never speak of St. John). On the other hand, Jane spends passage after passage fretting over her inferiority to Mr. Rochester. She apparently takes no issue when her erstwhile fiance’s inner violence threatens to become physical violence. And when she does flee Thornfield, she nearly starves to death due to her lack of prudent financial planning and her complete physical inability to knock on a door and ask for food.
The swooniest parts of Jane Eyre are obviously those which deal with the Byronic, unhandsome, guilt-ridden, manipulative, abrasive, brooding, lying, charming, inconsolable, irresistible Mr. Rochester (who is a very different sort than Austen’s shy, prickly, snobbish, overwhelmed Mr. Darcy). Reader, it will surprise no one that the romantic moments were the parts I read over and over again, doubtless due to my execrable taste in literature. Is Mr. Rochester a hardened colonialist and would-be bigamist who woos his extra bride by seducing another woman entirely, namely Miss Blanche Ingram? Definitely. Does he threaten to “try violence” if Jane won’t listen to his explanation of that little wife-in-the-attic incident? Yes, to my utter adult dismay. Is he a sad-eyed, precious man-child one yearns to see comforted, and one who when spurned by Jane, falls weeping on the sofa? That, too.
Despite the fact that Jane Eyre has been fully accepted into the canon of great Western literature, I have to fight to be proud of loving it, and of enjoying these florid, fabulous scenes. A century and half after it was written, I have to battle not to agree with Rigby’s scorn over their vulgarity—and why is that, exactly? After conceding that if a man ever mentioned crushing me, as Mr. Rochester does to Jane, I’d be out the door in under six seconds, do I have to give up the rest of the novel? For example, I’d prefer to keep the part where he thinks they have a little string, each end connected to the other’s ribs. And I’d like to keep it without it being a “guilty” pleasure, because I don’t believe in having any guilt over pleasures.
I’d prefer rereading favorites to be an unabashed joy, period. Whether the stigma of guilty pleasures applies to men in the modern era I know not, but there seems to be a certain gravitas awarded to a bearded fellow slipping his frameless glasses off and quietly reflecting that he sets aside a period every bleak mid-winter at the cabin to reread Catch-22. That sounds “intellectual,” while poring over Jane Eyre sounds… sentimental, perhaps. Well, I’ve reread Catch-22 also, many times, especially the chapter titled “Death of Snowden,” because it taught me as a teen that, “The spirit gone, man is garbage.” It is a wrenching, raw feeling to read those words. But Brontë’s little string speaks to me as deeply as Heller’s garbage. Is there truly a difference in the dignity of rereading them, or have I internalized something self-deprecating women are taught about the way we experience books—especially books written by other women?
When I asked Suzanne Rindell, author of Three-Martini Lunch, what drew her to Jane Eyre, she answered, “I was reading a lot of books around that time where the female characters were preening and posturing and using their feminine wiles to either catch a man or get the better of someone. And the way Jane just owned her plainness seemed revolutionary to me… I always liked how she chose practicality over most other things and did not make apologies about that.” I liked that too, because growing up as a bookworm in the Pacific Northweset, I was entirely wile-less myself. We hear—very rightfully—copious talk recently of representation, the idea that non-white, or non-cis, or non-heteronormative characters are not literary window dressing: they are vitally essential. Novels ought to reflect humanity, not a narrow sliver of it. Supporting Rindell’s assertion that Jane Eyre’s lack of beauty was revolutionary, I hereby cite the vast majority of film adaptations, which cast stunning actresses in the role, slap a grey dress on them, and call them “plain.” Terming the likes of Joan Fontaine, Ruth Wilson, and Mia Wasikowska “plain” makes as much sense as calling Timothy Dalton’s Mr. Rochester unhandsome (he also played James Bond). Brontë achieved greater inclusion of the female spectrum in 1848 than Hollywood can today.
Jane is never coded as a femme fatale: she’s plain, pale, diminutive, poor, young, in every way unimpressive—but her spirit is indomitable. That teaches the reader—any reader—something valuable about life. One does not have to look like one walked out of a Vogue spread in order to speak up for oneself, and that is hardly a gender-specific lesson. As a little girl, I also read the books that boys were taught to devour: all the sci-fi and fantasy, and yes, the entire Hemingway canon. I can’t possibly calculate the number of times I’ve reread “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”; its portrayal of loneliness and compassion is breathtaking. But while I’ve had plenty of meaningful conversations with men about Hemingway, I’ve had about three such discussions with men about Jane Eyre, even though I would argue that both works are powerful creations, merely in different ways.
Until my last day on earth, I’ll be quoting Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon in Maps and Legends: “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.” Jane Eyre directly inspired me to write my fifth novel, Jane Steele, a satirical-romantic reworking in which the much put-upon governess is also a heroic vigilante killer. The line, “Reader, I murdered him,” makes an early appearance, tongue firmly in cheek. I’m nothing but joyful at having taken a hefty heap of Brontë, stirred in sprinkles of Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and tried to recreate a sweeping Gothic adventure saga. It takes on shades of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and I flatter myself that you don’t need to self-identify as female to enjoy it. But though I am lucky enough to have a following of generous male readers (partly thanks to the fact that my last protagonist, Timothy Wilde, was a circa-1845 male policeman), the fact remains that there will be men who won’t even glance at Jane Steele due to the title alone. I want to know how that speaks to the broader dilemmas facing our culture.
I was once asked by a man regarding my New York cop trilogy, “Who are these books even written for?” He was asking because my protagonist was a man, and then he gestured at my physical form. Why did that happen? (I asked him whether he thought that Lewis Carroll was a pre-pubescent girl.)
Any conversation about Brontë’s legacy surrounding her 200th birthday inevitably leads to a dissection of gender inequalities, partly because Jane Eyre has been hailed as one of the first explicitly feminist (or at least proto-feminist) novels, and partly because we are still solving them. Sarah Weinman, the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, said to me, “I’m baffled, always, whenever I run into a man who professes not to read women. Why? Every time I ask I don’t get a satisfactory answer. It’s a challenge to masculinity? Isn’t masculinity itself a challenge?” This baffles me also. It likewise baffles me that many men profess to read only non-fiction—is that “smarter,” or more useful somehow? Many of these same men would likely have zero qualms about seeing a movie or a television series that was not a documentary. And that raises the question: where are men learning that reading fiction written by women is somehow uncouth—or worse, trivial?
Now, bear in mind: I am not talking about passionate men who simply can’t muster an interest in anything whatsoever save working in their molocular gastronomy labs, in the same way that I’m not talking about women who can’t get into cookbooks because, how novel, they don’t cook. If I spoke to someone who said, “I tried three classic Westerns including Lonesome Dove—I guess I just don’t like Westerns,” then I’d say yes, that’s right, you’re not into Westerns, and go with God. But I am saying don’t knock it till you try it, because books are not just about solace; they’re also about empathy. If you’re a teacher of any gender, how many books about girls or women, written by women, are on your curriculum? If you are a parent, are the books your child reads gender-specific? Surely it’s only logical for young gentlemen to conclude there are “girl books,” and “boy books,” and to carry that belief into adulthood. And this is a problem, because women comprise half the human race, and we struggle to make our voices heard in male-dominated communities. We could very much use more empathetic chaps on our side; even if breaking down gender barriers where reading is concerned doesn’t approach magic bullet status, it certainly couldn’t hurt for boys to read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And it might even eventually improve equality in my chosen workplace: writing fiction for a living.
While discussing strides women have made in publishing equality since Brontë’s birth in April 1816, thanks in large part to the subversive female authors who followed in her footsteps, Sarah Weinman said, “We are doing better, but think of it like a radioisotope with a half-life. It decays significantly over time, but there is always a trace left over; it can never go to zero.” This assertion is distressing—but historically speaking, there is nothing to contradict it. “Women’s fiction” is still, to a large extent, segregated. Regarding how Brontë would view this problem, Suzanne Rindell pointed out, “It would all really depend on how Charlotte Brontë would want to define herself as a writer, were she alive today. Would she want to be understood as a ‘Literary’ writer? Would she want to earn a buck? Would she have to fight for the dignity of any of the publishing categories she or her writing might get lumped into (mystery, women’s fiction, chicklit)?” They both identified the disturbing truth that so many women experience: female writers, like their books, might bear “the stamp of novelty and originality,” as Rigby would have it, but they remain vulgar: often perceived as catering to popular tastes; commercially successful, yet underrepresented when it comes to reviews and awards.
The word “Literary,” when it is used as an arbiter of cultural value, means nothing to me. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a horror novel. Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor is alternate universe sci-fi. And perhaps that’s what gives me pause about Jane Eyre: it is unabashed romance, dripping with passionate, agonized declarations. Admittedly, it’s a bit florid, and what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know? It is about self, and selflessness, and love, and self-love, and I love it. Perhaps, in another two hundred years, more men will too.