Thursday, May 12, 2011

My Life With Charlotte Bronte

My very favorite classic book has always been Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. My first reading of the book was from this 1943 Random House set that was in my parochial school's library.





The book's story is enhanced in this printing by these wonderful wood engravings.


The style of text, layout and pictures in this publication added a great deal to the feeling of its classic worth as well as enhancing the mysterious story in its bleak Old English setting.

If you are only familiar with the story of Jane Eyre from one of its many film and screen interpretations and have not read the book, then I have to say you are missing out on one of the greatest characters in literature. A film interpretation tends to highlight only the events of the story while a book brings you into the complex people inhabiting it for a deeper understanding of the whole.

I read Jane Eyre as a teenager (and it was not an assigned school book) and was mesmerized by it from the first chapter. It was so original and unlike any other book I had ever read, then or now, thirty-five years later. The character of Jane Eyre, an orphan, withstands incredible hardship, cruelty, injustice and temptation with perseverance, always steadfast in her faith and integrity. Charlotte Bronte was a brilliant writer, bringing to life unique and often unsavory, unlikeable, characters and making the reader care deeply about her heroine.

After I read the book, I was of course wanting to read more of Charlotte Bronte. Bronte died at a young age and had published only a few other works. I could not get any of them from my library sources. So I next read Wuthering Heights, written by Charlotte's sister Emily. It was a very different work by a different author and I found it difficult to understand. I then found out what I could about the Brontes from encyclopedias and a biography that was sent to me by a penpal that I had at the time from North Yorkshire, England. In the end I only knew the basics about the Brontes, that they lived austere lives, cut short by disease and that their books were published under pseudonyms though I didn't understand the reasons why.

Of course I have also seen every film adaption of Jane Eyre that has been made in English. I can tell you that the BBC version, with Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester, is by far the best, using Charlotte Bronte's own words and staying more faithful to the spirit of the book.

Last year I was shopping for some novels to read on my trip to Michigan. Though I usually only buy books for school and reference use, our local library here had closed due to some severe county budget issues so I was willing to shell out some money for some fiction to read on the airplane. I somewhat reluctantly bought a book called Romancing Miss Bronte. I say reluctantly because I have read modern novels based on or written as sequels to classics and am nearly always disappointed by the results (including Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre). I was afraid this book would be a Harlequin style romance with a protagonist that just happened to be kind of like that grim Charlotte Bronte. I bought the book but my skepticism kept me from actually delving in and reading it- until this spring when I was desperately needing some fictional literary diversion. I was deeply delighted to find that Romancing Miss Bronte is nothing like the title implies. It is less about romance and more about the life and times of the Bronte family in an authentic yet entertaining rendering. Yes, there is a very satisfying (and true!) romance- a very surprising one to me- but it is not the real reason to love the book.

Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael is historical fiction. It is tells the story of the adult life of Charlotte Bronte in a way that feels very authentic to the Victorian times and the Yorkshire setting. The author Gael takes the real events of Charlotte Bronte's life and informs and entertains with them. In this book it was so interesting to meet the members of the Bronte family and to find out how they wrote their books, how they were published, why the sisters used the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Anton Bell (for Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte) and how the books were received by Victorian England and the world. Charlotte endures the deaths of her brother, Branwell, and sisters, Emily and Anne, in the short space of less than a year. Though she originally publishes Jane Eyre anonymously as Currer Bell, the popularity of the book makes her a celebrity. After her sisters' deaths she comes out in society and enjoys the fruits of her fame to some extent. It was surprising to learn that Jane Eyre, a book I considered so unique because of Jane's morality and strict adherence to her principals, was considered scandalous at the time of its publication. Yes, people lived wickedly in the world, but it was apparently not to be written about! Part of the popularity of the book was due to the mystery of the anonymous author as well as the audacity she had to honestly write about deception, temptation and madness.

I also learned in this book how much Charlotte Bronte's writings were based on the real people and real events of her life. In Jane Eyre, the orphan child Jane is sent by her cruel aunt to a dismal boarding school. At the school the girls are fed nasty gruel and moldy bread for breakfast, they have to break the ice in the water pitcher to wash before meals but then are harshly punished for dirt under their fingernails. The deprivation causes a disease epidemic that kills a number of the children. The school is run by a headmaster who is a pompous, self-righteous Pharisee. In Romancing Miss Bronte I learned that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters attended a school just like this. Charlotte's two older sisters died at the ages of eleven and twelve from disease they acquired at that school. Charlotte's friends suspected her authorship of Jane Eyre because they recognized the school she attended and the head master, a still-living person when Jane Eyre was published. After Charlotte's death there were litigious problems with that same arrogant head-master who was revealed in Charlotte's biography.

I'm sorry if I am boring your socks off with this but I think it is utterly fascinating!

At the end of Romancing Miss Bronte, Juliet Gael writes that she hopes to inspire her readers to read more of Charlotte Bronte and recommends the definitive biography written by Charlotte's friend Elizabeth Gaskell from which Gael gets much of her material. Well, Ms. Gael, you inspired me! The day I finished Romancing Miss Bronte, I went to Amazon and purchased the biography as well as Charlotte Bronte's Villette.

Reading Villette will be so much richer with the insight of her biography. The characters are drawn from the real people in Charlotte's life and those people recognized themselves when the book was first published.

Now, if I was still sixteen but living in our modern age of technology, I have found that I could extend my obsessive indulgence beyond just more books and movie interpretations. I've discovered there are things like websites and blogs and virtual book clubs.

It's a good thing I'm not a teenager any more!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, yes and yes again. Most of my time in school was taken up with musicals. ;) As I began teaching Rebekah and reading all the reading recommendations in catalogues, I decided to read all the classics I could get my hands on. And so began my journey into Austen, Bronte, Dickinson, Steinbeck, Stowe, Dafoe, etc, etc. Some of them I had to force myself to finish; others I still reread every chance I get (Les Miserables when I have oodles of time).

    I tried to convince Rebekah to go see the recent Jane Eyre release. It's not her favorite so she turned me down. I should have a neighbor like you! Love these recent posts. Keep it up.

    And I picked up The King's Speech at the library yesterday. I can already tell I'm going to love this book. Then I'll be ready to see the movie.

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