Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Jane Eyre part 1

Jane Eyre, so the popular version of the story goes, was written by Charlotte Bronte after a conversation with her sisters in which the sisters were speaking about how a heroine ought to be beautiful and stunning. Charlotte held the position that a heroine could be plain (it's said echoing Charlotte's own view of herself and treatment by others) and to prove her point went and wrote one of the greatest novels in the English language.  I have no idea if that story is true or not.  If it were true, I certainly hope Branwell Bronte was nothing like John Reed.

Upon completing our first section of Jane Eyre, I think I've already gained a little understanding into the process of elimination employed by the good people at Penguin Classics in compiling their list of 10 essential classics. At first glance of their list, oh so many months ago now, I was shocked, even a bit bilious, over the omission of any work by Mr. Charles Dickens. For one. There were many other classic authors omitted from the list that scandalized me until I calmed down enough to realize that a list of 10 books must needs only include a maximum of 10 different authors.

In this case, I think I understand why this book covers ground that would also be covered in, say, Oliver Twist, Bleak House, possibly even The Old Curiosity Shop. And in spite of my love for the work of Mr. Dickens, given how much I'm enjoying Jane Eyre, I don't feel robbed by any means.
We have the young orphan with the mean guardian and odious guardian's biological children.  There's one nice nursemaid.  There's accounts of near torturous treatment, an odd supernatural moment, and the doctor who sort of saves her from her condition both physically and geographically.  There's the boarding school/charity school or whatever the proper term may be complete with strict teachers, inadequate nourishment (a theme which recurs so often in accounts of Victorian schools that one must conclude that it was epidemic), and an even stricter headmaster.  The latter struck me as a villain reminscent of Dickens but without a funny name. Although do please bear in mind that in reading the classics we are exposing ourselves to source material, no matter how familiar they may seem now.  Seeing this as a "stereotypical" impoverished orphan in a boarding school scene would be a bit like watching a Marx Brothers film and complaining that they've stolen all their jokes from Animaniacs cartoons.

I was a little surprised to see Bronte's very forward thinking view of the inequality of men and women already in the book (so far we just have the headmaster and John, the brutish bully of a brother through adoption.)  We also see very strongly the oppositional forces between children and adults, the needs of each of those two groups from the other and how people, while giving the appearance of having it all together, are fumbling and failing over those needs.  I almost hesitate to mention it as this is the first female author in our series, but in all fairness we did talk about male-female relationships with male authors in the past (at least parenthetically.)

Also we have a little moment of contrasting world views between Jane and Helen Burns (the latter may well have been my favorite character thus far in the narrative.)  Helen is the Christian antidote, the polar opposite religiously to Mr. Brocklehurst (whose name, if I translate correctly, is something like "Badger Hill."  So maybe there's your touch of Dickensian names or maybe my brain is stuck in Dickens.)  Helen's virtuous character, long-suffering, patience, compassion, and love is in glaring opposition to Mr. Brocklehurst's legalism, cruelty and perfectionism (long-time readers of this blog may be pulling the same modern comparison my mind made over Mr. Brocklehurst to a modern, child-rearing pharisee.) I have recently read a paper on Charlotte Bronte where the author suggested, with this book as evidence, that Bronte had a very negative view of religion, specifically Christianity, on the basis of Mr. Brocklehurst.  This seems to me a re-write through modern goggles.  I assume they rather conveniently forgot the sections that we've just read with Helen Burns.  Either that or there is text to come which will cast a very different light on Helen.  Anyway, Jane's reaction to the sainted Helen's religion is a very natural one, one that I daresay religious people struggle with as well.

At the conclusion of this week's reading, we've established her time and place at Lowood.  We have some basic sketches of the main characters in that place, the varied degrees of teachers as far as kindness and I daresay ability.  We understand the poor conditions of clothing, food and cleanliness.  In the face of these predicaments, Jane seems fairly happy or at least content in her new living situation, so in spite of my immediate modern repulsion at the conditions, I have to reserve my judgment on Lowood until I see how this plays out.  

I'm heartened by our arrival at page 75 without having a single yawning moment.  I think this bodes well for the 400 some to come.  I am enjoying this tremendously (a phrase you'll see repeated over and over if you look back on my entries in this reading group, but what of it?)

Next week, we shall read through Chapter 14 which is up to page 160 in my edition.

1 comment:

  1. I'm running a bit behind on this one - I was on vacation for most of last week, but I hope to be caught up by the end of this week. I'm not really looking forward to this reading, and I'm not sure if I've read it before or not - still, this book is one I would normally consider to be not my cup of tea. I hope to be proven wrong.