In Other Words
Two new books about Jane Eyre
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.