How many of you had a crazy aunt or uncle who gave you totally inappropriate gifts for Christmas or your birthday?
I had more than my share of whacked relatives. Coming from a large Irish/Italian family, I had sixteen aunts and uncles.
By the time I was four, I'd been well-schooled in the etiquette of receiving awful gifts. "Oh, thank you, Uncle Q. It's just what I wanted." Of course, the gracious effect was completely spoiled when I turned to ask my mother, "What is it?"
One of those inappropriate gifts arrived on my ninth birthday: a copy of Jane Eyre. My Aunt C, who usually knew better, told me, "This was my favorite love story when I was a girl. Because you're a reader, I just know you'll like it, too."
Since I really WAS a reader, I accepted the book and headed to the backyard to start reading it.
I was reminded of this experience recently while reading the Book Cannibal's blog here. She was trying to read Jane Eyre for her bookclub and finding the going a bit hard.
I can empathize. Here's the first paragraph of the novel:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
Deadly, isn't it? Starts out with a bunch of narrative describing the weather and employs a "telling" style. Not to mention I had to look the word "sombre" up. Ugh.
The book was VERY SLOW GOING for me. On the first page alone, I had to look up the definitions for "chidings," "sprightly," "cavillers," and "moreen." I think I averaged six look-ups per page that first reading before I gave the project up when confronted by this sentence:
He gorged himself habitually at table, which made him bilious, and gave him a dim and bleared eye and flabby cheeks.
I simply couldn't face the prospect of looking up four words in one sentence.
My edition of Jane Eyre came with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman, a well-known critic. Every year, from the time I was nine until I turned fourteen, I re-read that introduction (and re-tried the book).
You see, Fadiman offered me hope. He said that when he first read the book as a youth, he'd been turned off by all the "love stuff."
That introduction provided optimism on two fronts: First, at some point, Fadiman had obviously changed his mind about the book because he was now flacking it. At nine, the possibility that someone might promote a product for money simply never occurred to me.
The second incentive was more base: Both my aunt and Fadiman had referred to the book as a love story. I'd never read a love story before. In my pre-teen mind, this was tangible evidence of my maturity and, by God, I was going to read that damn book--even if I had to sit with the family dictionary at my side to do it.
As the Book Cannibal points out, the love story doesn't really get going for a hundred pages. It took five years for me to get past those hundred pages. By then, I was fourteen and had a fair amount of experience reading love stories. Of course, they were thin category romances from Harlequin. Still, I never gave up my determination to finish Jane Eyre.
And like the Book Cannibal here, once Mr. Rochester made his appearance, I was HOOKED. I lived every moment of Jane's romance with her--the longing, the joy, the shock and the devastation.
I'm embarrassed to admit that, a few years later, I actually hand-copied and sent an excerpt--the line about feeling as though there was a string tied under my left rib knotted to a similar string tied to his rib--to a completely bewildered male who didn't get the point. It was probably the most witless thing I've ever done. Well, no, there was that time I found a copy of the Starland Vocal Band's single "Afternoon Delight" and sent it to my boyfriend, sug-
gesting we meet for lunch. Ick! And then there was the time--no, forget that.
I still have that copy of Jane Eyre. Maybe I'll send it to one of my nieces.