Ann Hulbert on The Illustrated Jane Eyre
My partner, A, just read Jane Eyre for the first time this week. One of the great things about relationships is their potential for vicarious pleasure: I haven't read Jane Eyre for the first time in so many years, but I long for the satisfaction.
So, in the heat of relived first reading, I found Ann Hulbert's delicious discussion of the new Illustrated Jane Eyre.
Now, I must first say that I'm generally against "illustrated" anything. Even Blake. Give me some semi-unadorned typescript on an otherwise blank page, please. Though I like Dame Darcy's take on Jane Eyre, I'd prefer that to bubble up from the language (and I think it does). Also, though Dame Darcy's illustrations are gorgeous, they are gorgeous in a way that, I think, detracts from the incredibly cabin fevered feeling of that novel (and, indeed, of just about every novel of it's kind).
I was telling A about this film version of Jane Eyre, which I can't seem to find online right now, but remember viewing as a child, in which the filmmaker chose to completely forego "the mad woman in the attic". I think s/he was trying to make it more of a children's tale, but, I mean, how is that the same book?!
So, Ann Hulbert reminds me of something I'd forgotten:
Brontë's guiding insight into life and literature, to simplify only somewhat, is that surfaces are suspect: Beware of assuming they are a reliable sign of the real passions within. Her own title page in 1847 (a facsimile of which appears in the Viking edition) was purposely misleading: Brontë adopted the male-sounding pseudonym of an editor named "Currer Bell" and presented the novel as an "autobiography." This immediately sparked debate about the real identity of the author. Subsequent biographical treatments of Brontë only added to the gallery of mythic personas.
There's very little more interesting than these editorial forewords of the era. I'm mostly familiar with them as they appear before slave narratives, but this reminded me that they accompanied a great many works of literature whose claim was "a true story". And this case is particularly interesting because the conceit was used to "deceive".
Brontë's most famous character, the "Quakerish governess" Jane, is a prime case of deceptive packaging herself. Out of a "poor, obscure, plain, and little" victim emerges a commanding—and demanding—narrative voice, proclaiming a right to bold self-creation almost as jarring today as it was a century and a half ago. A mistreated orphan at the start, Jane goes on to script her own dramatic fate—and to alter the destiny of her "master," Mr. Rochester, who falls under her spell. In a story tricked out as a melodramatic romance, Jane embodies a force that still deeply discomfits us: a female refusal to be valued as less than an equal, which blossoms into a fierce ambition to make her mark on the world.
No doubt this is true, but not strictly. One of the things that makes the novel so enthralling is Jane's conflicted relationship to her own status as a servant. Simultaneously, Rochester's conflicted relationship to her status. She even (as A reminded me the other day) notes that, were she not his servant, the attraction between them would be less certain. The moment at which she ceases to be a technical "underling" is the moment that her spiritedness and command become mixed blessings, sometimes liabilities, to their relationship. It's only, as many feminist scholars point out, when Rochester is completely physically disabled, that she's able to marry him. But this is complicated by the fact that it, in some way, forces her into eternal servitude. Jane both fights and embodies what philosophers have called "slave mentality". And the erotics of slave-master take place in all their multifaceted and contradictory patterns in the text.
In an era when everybody—from the Girl Scouts to guidance counselors to the Gossip Girl series—peddles the "you-go-girl" message, Jane Eyre is a book that evokes the struggle for self-definition as a truly harrowing one. This isn't a coming-of-age story about absorbing the counsel of wise mentors, overcoming temptation, and thus learning to "be yourself." As Edward Mendelson astutely observes of the novel in The Things That Matter, Jane sets about doing something much lonelier and harder. She insists on finding "her beliefs by herself," in her own way, as she weathers exile after exile, first from her past (a hellish home and school) and then from a future that seems, fleetingly, to await her with Rochester. She doesn't come to accept others' values as her own, as the protagonist of the traditional novel of education does. Instead, "[w]hat Jane learns," Mendelson writes, "is not how to act, but how to believe."
While reflecting on the vicarious first reading, it made me realize part of why I love reading and writing literary criticism. It's corny, but I love great literature being made new to me again and again.