Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jane Eyre (1847)

I never got around to Charlotte Bronte's magnificent mid-19th-century novel until recently, but I'm here to tell you now that it's definitely worth getting around to. As with Jane Austen's work—and unlike, for me, Charles Dickens's—the language is pellucid and shimmering, the plot carries its own headlong momentum, and reading the thing is as easy as falling into a warm pool. Recounting the life and various hardships and triumphs of the titular character, it's a big sweeping melodrama of orphans and cruel foster parents, of privation and grit, of haunted houses and secret debts long owed, of marriage proposals made in bad faith and good, of arson and suicide and unspeakable kindness when least expected, of misperceptions and misapprehensions of character, of love found and lost and denied and found again. Some of its tricks are terribly obvious—the class conflicts, for example, or the various coincidences on which the story relies, or the symbolism of the tree where Jane and Rochester rendezvous at some of the most critical points of their relationship—but the entirety of it is carried off with such poise and confidence that it's impossible not to believe every word, and more, want to stand and cheer at them. I understand from the introduction to my ancient Rinehart edition (by one Joe Lee Davis in 1950) that, in 1846, Charlotte and her two sisters, Emily and Anne, set themselves to the task of each completing a novel. They had previously published poetry under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton, respectively; at that time Charlotte, the eldest, was barely 30. In a year's time Emily produced Wuthering Heights (which I loved the first time through, and liked much less a second time), Anne Agnes Gray (which I haven't read yet but intend to), and Charlotte Jane Eyre, taking a bit longer. That's a stupefying feat of production for a single household in such a short period of time. Emily died a year later, and though Charlotte and Anne would go on to produce other work both of them died young as well, Anne at 29 and Charlotte at 38. While we're at it, Jane Austen died pretty young too, at 41. Hard times back then, as the first-person Jane Eyre will detail for you at length in Charlotte Bronte's brilliant and essential novel.

In case it's not at the library.

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