Yesterday was the birthday of Kathleen Woodiwiss. Once upon a time, in the halls of my high school, you'd see young women openly carrying and reading those books by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers. You could recognize the books by their lush covers: plunging bodices, female heads thrown back (in ecstasy, one presumes), everyone's hair blowing beautifully. I thought of myself as the discriminating romance reader: I wouldn't read those books that had rape scenes and later the victim falls in love with her rapist, and they live happily ever after. Kathleen Woodiwiss barely passed the test.
I thought of Kathleen Woodiwiss yesterday as my book club discussed Jane Eyre. One of our members even asserted that the novel had nothing to do with love. I will admit that all the men in the book left me a bit queasy--more than a bit in the case of St. John Rivers. What a creep that man was.
Of course, Rochester wasn't much better with his various manipulations. How much do we excuse in the name of love and passion?
As I reread Jane Eyre this time, the intensity of the passion surprised me. I think of Jane as a sturdy woman alone in the world pluckily making her own way. I don't remember it particularly as a romance novel, but all the elements are there: lovers kept separate by all sorts of circumstances, a grand passion that overcomes all, the very elements of nature that represent the emotional turbulence of the characters.
I have written elsewhere on this blog about my reading experiences with Jane Eyre (here, here, and here). I thought I hadn't read it since grad school, but I was wrong. I read it in 2001, as I prepared to teach my FAU class of English majors. I remember loving it.
After my experience with reading Anna Karenina a year ago and reading Jane Eyre this year, I'm wondering if my ability to read nineteenth century novels has disappeared. I've been reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, and even before I read it, I had wondered what the Internet was doing to my brain. Have my reading tastes changed that much? Did the parts of the book that frustrated me always annoy me, but I used to just skip right over them?
I was surprised by how much of the book we could have sliced right out, if we had been Charlotte Bronte's modern editor--huge chunks where characters tell us what we've already witnessed happening, where characters tell us in long paragraph after long paragraph about their emotional state. I'm used to older books giving me lots of description that I don't really need. This reading experience was the first time that I noticed the long chunks of monologue that tell us plot that we've already spent 50-100 pages reading for ourselves.
The modern novel is quite different. Last night I read half of a much more modern novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, the book by Jean Rhys which gives Bertha Mason (Rochester's mad wife who spent much of Jane Eyre locked up in the attic) her voice and perspective. What a delight to read that novel after slogging through Jane Eyre this week.
Of course, after Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea seems a bit underdeveloped, with shadowy characters who we never really quite meet, much less come to know deeply. But what a use of setting to evoke a mood!
When I was younger, a teenager, I most responded to Jane's feeling plain and lonely. As a reader approaching or at midlife now, I most responded to Jane's yearning for a life she didn't quite have yet. I've always loved that Jane knew what she needed, and she wasn't willing to settle for less. She knew what was good for her and what wasn't. I found myself near tears when Jane found out about her inheritance, and I wanted to cheer when Jane realized she had family members whom she had already come to love. Even though I knew that Jane and Rochester would live happily ever after, I found myself feeling an almost unbearable suspense when Jane returned to Thornfield Hall to find a burned husk left.
Ah, virtue rewarded! If only life could be like a nineteenth century novel. No, wait, I take that back. If I was a character in a nineteenth century novel, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't deserve a happy ending. Or would I?
Now there's an interesting parlor game: transfer your modern life into nineteenth century novel terms. Are you the virtuous character or the cad? Will your virtue be rewarded or must you be punished?
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