Sunday, July 22, 2007

Revisiting Jane Eyre

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.


B.E. Sanderson said...

See, everyone has a different take on things. I loved Jane Eyre from the first time I read it. I got lost in the language, and flew past the words I didn't understand that first time. The whole horror of Jane's childhood, the trials she went through to reach adulthood... *sigh* And then to finally reach Rochester only to be torn away. I gave it to my daughter as soon as she was old enough, and she loves it, too. Now Jane Austen. I can't get through more than a few pages without forcing myself, and I've never read one of hers all the way through. I just can't do it.

Maya Reynolds said...

Beth: That's really interesting. I took to Jane Austen like a duck to water. But I read her works AFTER I read Jane Eyre so, by then, I was older with more reading experience.

I still love that first line from P&P: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." It is so amusing.

Mitz said...

"Jane" was written in a time when reading was one of the major pastimes - if you were lucky enough to have time to past instead of work. Sitting down by candle or lantern light and reading those words must have been a transporting experience.

And yes, no Bronte would get past the slush pile today or score in any RWA chapter's contest. Internal motivation for Rochester - didn't that come on page 400?

Back to Potter.


Stephen Parrish said...

Most of us boys dreamed of girls inviting us to some "Afternoon Delight." It's good to know that at least one boy's dreams came true . . .

David Roth said...

Ah,but how many young girls invited a boyfriend for afternoon delight thinking that it was iced tea with lemon and saccharine? Boys of the era (mine, I'm thinking) were more versed in the subject than were the girls. Imagine her surprise when her invitation was answered by a wandering hand....

Delightful blog, Miss M.

Hmmm - the Divine Miss M?

Maya Reynolds said...


I have NO idea what you're talking about.

Book Cannibal said...

Thanks for the shout-out Maya! I cannot believe you tried to read JE as a NINE-year-old... wow. But actually, I would have loved to have used words like "bilious" to insult someone back in the fourth grade...

Maya Reynolds said...

No problem, BC. I enjoy reading your blog.

The operative word in your comment was "tried" to read JE as a nine year old. Obviously, I didn't succeed.

Thanks for stopping by.