Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reading Jane Eyre for the Fifth Time

As part of my Jane Eyre film viewing experience, I thought it would be a good idea to reread the novel. After thinking about it a bit, I realized that this is my fifth read of Jane Eyre. I think. I once had a high school teacher who said he reread the novel every summer, and had been doing so for decades, from the sounds of it. I don't think I'll ever quite get there, but there are novels I go back to a lot, whether for school, for teaching, or for personal reasons. Austen's Persuasion is one of them, as is Forster's A Room With a View, and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and of course Jane Eyre. There's something comforting about rereading a novel for the third or fifth or seventh time. The characters become like old friends, and even certain pages become comforting and familiar. And sometimes I even get so caught up in the story that I irrationally forget that I've read the novel five of six times, and still feel suspense, or hope that certain things will turn out differently this time. Like maybe Rochester could just tell the truth about Bertha before attempting to marry Jane, and they could just discuss it in a calm and rational way and figure out a viable solution? But that wouldn't make for a very exciting or effective novel, I suppose.
So today I began my reread. I'm only reading a bit at a time, so I've read the preface through Volume 1, chapter 2, and since I don't want to make this post too long, I'm just going to get into the preface here. The preface is to the second edition of the novel, and Bronte's identity was still a mystery to the public. Jane Eyre had received mostly positive reviews from critics when it was first published, but there were a few detractors, including the conservative Quarterly Review, the same publication that had savaged Keats twenty years before. The Quarterly had this to say, in an unsigned review by Elizabeth Rigby: "We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre." So while most reviews responded positively to the novel's realistic portrayal of psychological depth, there were those who criticized it on moral and religious grounds, and for its spirit of rebellion (though oddly enough, the Roman Catholic Tablet praised the novel as a "healthful exercise").

In her preface, Bronte thanked her critics but also made a point of responding to the "carping few" who criticized the novel on religious and moral grounds. Her response is pointedly anti-hypocrisy: "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns." Jane Eyre is not a kind novel to hypocrites. That's plain enough from the first few chapters, in which the Reeds are obvious hypocrites, and more complexly rendered later in the character of St John Rivers. Jane and Rochester are both rebellions, and morally complicated, but Jane is able to see hypocrisy clearly, and doesn't hesitate to point it out. I'll discuss this further when I do my post about chapters one and two. I have a lot to say about the Reeds (they are the nineteenth-century version of the Dursleys!), so I'm going to make my next book post about them, and move through the novel from there.

One other note of interest about the preface - Bronte spends a good portion of it praising Thackeray and Vanity Fair, and proceeds to dedicate the second edition of Jane Eyre to him. Unfortunately, Bronte didn't know that Thackeray's wife was suffered from insanity, and her dedication sparked rumors that Jane Eyre was actually written by the governess in the Thackeray household. Yikes!

So, since this blog is largely going to be about film, I picked up the 1943 version of Jane Eyre, starring Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine. Look out for that post soon! There's a small chance I'll get to see the new film this weekend as well, and I'll definitely post my review here if I do. Either way, I'll be seeing it soon. Watch this space!

1 comment:

  1. Why is it that I just now found a blog strictly dedicated to the promotion of my favorite novel!!??? Lovely review! I am a complete "Jane Eyre" fanatic, so when I found your blog it was almost like stepping into heaven on the internet. I discuss Jane Eyre a LOT on my blog so I hope you'll stop by some time.