In Other Words

Two new books about Jane Eyre

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Pa­tri­cia Leni­han

A Girl Walks Into a Book: What the Bron­tës Taught Me About Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Mi­randa K. Pen­ning­ton, Ha­chette Book Group, 320 pages

The Se­cret His­tory of Jane Eyre: How Char­lotte Brontë Wrote Her Mas­ter­piece by John Pfor­dresher, W.W. Norton & Com­pany, 256 pages

Read­ers whose edi­tions of Jane Eyre are worn from re­peated pe­rusals may find two re­cent crit­i­cal works about Char­lotte Brontë worth a look. Mi­randa K. Pen­ning­ton and John Pfor­dresher each see Brontë as an­tic­i­pat­ing mod­ern fem­i­nism, though Pfor­dresher re­mains at an aca­demic re­move. By con­trast, Pen­ning­ton uses Jane Eyre es­sen­tially as a life man­ual.

Pen­ning­ton’s un­con­ven­tional ap­proach and light touch may en­cour­age read­ers to ap­pre­ci­ate her per­spec­tive. Her method is to mix knowl­edge that is based on years of re­search with an ap­praisal of how she’s ex­pe­ri­enced par­al­lels be­tween her own ro­man­tic life and Jane’s, es­pe­cially con­cern­ing the search for love while wrestling with sex­u­al­ity. Brontë buffs may or may not care to read how Pen­ning­ton at­tempts to build a strong mar­riage partly by mak­ing guide­posts out of the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ences. But A Girl Walks Into a

Book pro­vides in­sight into the world of Jane Eyre as an ar­dent realm of in­tense imag­i­na­tion and im­me­di­acy.

Upon Jane Eyre’s pub­li­ca­tion in 1847, con­tem­po­rary read­ers of the novel knew only that it was writ­ten by some­one named Cur­rer Bell and that its hero­ine worked for a liv­ing, feis­tily de­manded re­spect, and mixed dig­nity with re­silience and re­bel­lion. In the Vic­to­rian era, Jane’s story made for com­par­a­tively shock­ing, wild read­ing as it bashed the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy in many ways, in­clud­ing through the re­la­tion­ship that de­vel­ops be­tween Jane and Mr. Rochester. There were work­ing-class up­ris­ings oc­cur­ring through­out Europe at the time — food ri­ots in France in 1846, Ger­man eco­nomic protests from the 1830s through the 1840s, and the so­cio-eco­nomic un­rest that de­fined the mid-cen­tury in Hun­gary, Switzer­land, Poland, and be­yond. Jane Eyre and its stance — that a gov­erness is not to be tri­fled with, work­ing-class though she may be — prob­a­bly alarmed some read­ers and in­trigued oth­ers.

As ad­mir­ers of the book know, Jane is quickly shown to be a hero­ine who does not nec­es­sar­ily ac­cept es­tab­lished wis­dom. (“Con­ven­tion­al­ity is not moral­ity. Self-right­eous­ness is not re­li­gion,” Brontë said in her 1847 pref­ace to the novel.) Nei­ther does Jane pine for the man to whom she’s at­tracted, as more con­ven­tional hero­ines might. And to­ward the novel’s end, Jane’s strong moral sense al­most pre­vents her from be­liev­ing Rochester’s mar­riage pro­posal: “I am no bird; and no net en­snares me: I am a free hu­man be­ing, with an in­de­pen­dent will.”

In part be­cause of Jane’s ev­i­dent back­bone, Pen­ning­ton takes as her main premise that Brontë’s pro­tag­o­nist is emo­tion­ally rel­e­vant in 2017. Then Pen­ning­ton adds a few pinches of per­sonal at­ti­tude and makes Jane and her cre­ator, along with Char­lotte’s sis­ters, Emily and Anne, into be­hav­ioral role mod­els. In this way, Pen­ning­ton com­bines long-term, deep knowl­edge of a bi­o­graph­i­cal sub­ject with a cer­tainty that life les­sons may be drawn from that sub­ject in the here and now. Her ap­proach is eye-open­ing, per­sonal, and en­gag­ing.

The Se­cret His­tory of Jane Eyre by Pfor­dresher — an English pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity — is much more tra­di­tional. If one has a pass­ing knowl­edge of Brontë’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy — that she lived on the York­shire moors; that health con­cerns due to the damp, windy ter­rain may have had some­thing to do with her fam­ily’s early deaths; that the Brontë sib­lings cre­ated fic­tional worlds to­gether in their ju­ve­na­lia; or that their only brother, Bran­well, had se­ri­ous is­sues, you’ll find that the pro­fes­sor stands in fa­mil­iar ter­rain. For ex­am­ple, it’s widely ac­cepted that Char­lotte of­ten wrote au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally in her nov­els, per­haps es­pe­cially in Jane Eyre. It’s a straight­for­ward task to draw par­al­lels be­tween the book’s char­ac­ters and the small cir­cle of peo­ple that Brontë knew well. Pfor­dresher takes this one small step fur­ther by main­tain­ing that she dis­dained the world around her, ex­cept for the windswept land­scape of Ha­worth par­son­age.

Pfor­dresher be­gins some in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ments, but doesn’t fully de­velop them. He main­tains, for in­stance, that Brontë dis­liked women of color and of­fers a dis­cus­sion of Bertha (the mad­woman in the at­tic) to prove this point. How­ever, the more com­pelling find­ing may be that Brontë her­self re­lated strongly to Bertha even while por­tray­ing her un­sym­pa­thet­i­cally. This in­te­rior strug­gle in Brontë’s writ­ing is ex­actly what Pen­ning­ton writes about and finds most ger­mane. By com­par­i­son, read­ers may find Pfor­dresher’s more fa­mil­iar ap­proach some­what col­or­less. He notes that the death of Brontë’s mother and wi­d­ow­hood of her fa­ther in­fil­trate vir­tu­ally all of her fic­tion, but leaves one long­ing for an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the strains the sis­ters ex­pe­ri­enced in other fam­ily in­ter­ac­tion — such as with Bran­well. For one thing, he fa­mously re­moved him­self from his paint­ing of the sib­lings. Pfor­dresher’s no­tion that Bran­well is the model for Rochester at least pro­vides a wel­come (if un­con­vinc­ing) foray into a less well-trod area. Is this the “se­cret his­tory” to which he refers?

Nev­er­the­less, both crit­i­cal ap­proaches are re­minders of just how com­pelling and dif­fer­ent was Brontë’s au­tho­rial voice. A re­sult of read­ing ei­ther book will be a strong urge to pick up Jane Eyre once again. Even from a high-desert van­tage point, there’s sim­ply no turn­ing away from what West York­shire and its peo­ple meant to the cre­ative psy­chol­ogy of Char­lotte Brontë.

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