Thursday, April 21, 2016

Charlotte Brontë's 200th Birthday Today

Charlotte Brontë Portrait
(from Wikipedia)
Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë! I am re-reading Jane Eyre to celebrate, but it's really not a very celebration-friendly book. From the beginning of the book, when Jane is aged ten, she has a strong sense of injustice being done to her, and a strong appreciation of the few people who show her kindness. The semi-starvation of the children in the charity school (where her arrogant aunt sends her) and the death of Jane's friend, who tried to have a calming influence on her, are vivid.

I'm finding reading to be painful -- and enlightening. For example, on Jane's first morning in the school, she and all the children are given burnt porridge for breakfast. Her description of the inedible and nauseating taste of burnt porridge startled me! Jane then learns of the kindness of the school head who arranges for the children to eat a bit of bread and cheese later -- and eventually is chastised herself, for coddling the children by feeding them anywhere near adequately. The reader discovers that the self-righteous clergyman who owns/runs the school is using hunger as a tool to put the orphans in their place.

Out of curiosity I checked to see how the book was received upon its publication in 1847. It was a bestseller, and also judged strongly for its frankness about sex. By modern standards, in contrast, the treatment of sex seems subtle, while the elements of cruelty to children and their deprivation due to the frequent death of their parents are the shocking part. Jane's rebellious reaction to cruel treatment seems normal to me, but not so much to reviewers at the time.

A review by George Henry Lewes praised the realism and innovative quality of the novel. A summary of his review appears on the British Library website. His review, according to the summary helps "to remind us just how great an impact this curious and unconventional novel had on the 19th-century literary and social landscape." Lewes, says the summary: "suggests that Jane Eyre introduced a new kind of female consciousness to the British novel. Reinforcing this idea, Lewes describes Jane as ‘a woman, not a pattern’"

Another website, "Contemporary Response to Jane Eyre," offers several quotes from reviews published soon after the novel appeared:
"The incidents are sometimes melo-dramatic, and, it might be added, improbable; but these incidents, though striking, are subordinate to the main purpose of the piece, which is a tale of passion, not of intensity which is most sublime." (The Atlas)
"Jane Eyre is, indeed, one of the coarsest books which we ever perused. It is not that the professed sentiments of the writer are absolutely wrong or forbidding, or that the odd sort of religious notions which she puts forth are much worse than is usual in popular tales. It is rather that there is a tendency to relapse into that class of ideas, expressions, and circumstances, which is most connected with the grosser and more animal portion of our nature; and that the detestable morality of the most prominent character in the story is accompanied with every sort of palliation short of unblushing justification." (The Rambler)
"Altogether the autobiography of Jane Eyre is preeminently an anti-Christian composition. There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment--there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence--there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with." (Eliza Rigby in the Quarterly Review)
I have only begun re-reading Jane Eyre, and I'm looking forward to the rest, though of course I know how it all comes out in the end! I also recently read a newly-published collection of stories reacting to Jane Eyre titled Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre by many authors, edited by Tracy Chevalier. So I'm very aware of the book's modern impact too.

I assume many articles about Charlotte Brontë have appeared today for her 200th birthday: an interesting one at the Guardian is: "The secret history of Jane Eyre: Charlotte Brontë's private fantasy stories."

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

What a fun and comprehensive look at this book. I'm thinking it was a week or two ago and someone in the NYT (Gwyneth Paltrow, I think, in the book section) said this was one of her favorite books. I remember reading it in -- I think -- sixth or seventh grade. It was one of my mom's favorites. Then, of course, I read it later as an adult with much more impact! It's one I should pull out again! It's about time.