Rereading Jane Eyre, Which Are the Best Illustrations?, & Why Used Books Are Dicey

I’d love to read Erica Jong’s introduction!

I’m racing through Jane Eyre, and of course it is a masterpiece, but I have read it too many times. As I wrote here in 2013:

Jane Eyre is serious.

That’s why we loved her when we first read the novel. After I saw the old movie starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine at school, I begged my mother to take me downtown immediately to buy the book. (I still have my original 50-cent copy.) I didn’t just read Jane Eyre, I was Jane Eyre.

Did this apply to all women? Or do some reject Jane Eyre?  I first read Jane Eyre at 12, when I was very intense and rebellious; and this is (I think) my fourth reading, at what has turned out to to be a very slightly mellower but still rebellious age.  (We shall skip the number.)

But I also agree with this observation from my 2013 post:

[At 12] I loved Mr. Rochester, the dark, almost sadistically flirtatious character, and then in my thirties said, “Oh no, I’m done with that.” The Byronic heroes are mad.

And this still applies.

The orphan Jane’s horrifying childhood world is  peopled by sadists: she lives with her Aunt Reed and three cousins, who dislike her:  John Reed hits her and draws blood; Mrs. Reed locks her in the terrifying red room and poor Jane screams to be let out and then faints in a fit; and she is dumped at Lowood School,  a charity school run  on principles of humiliation and starvation by rich, pompous Mr. Brocklehurst.

But not all is grim.  The years pass.  The school is reformed after Mr. Brocklehurst is fired:   Jane gets proper nutrition, becomes Head Girl, and is later a teacher at the school.  But as a governess for Mr. Rochester’s bastard child Adele (though he denies she is his), she finally is in control and happier–for a while.  She loves ugly Mr. Rochester, who is witty and charming, though his teasing is sometimes sadistic.  Still, It’s nothing Jane hasn’t seen or heard before.  By her standards, he is totally benevolent.  But I do think it is cruel to insist she attend his evening parties, even though she does sit in the corner.  His  houseguests are insensitive:   the upper-class Ingrams are  a variation on the monstrous upper-class Reed family.  Blanche Ingram, the buxom brunette assumed to be Mr. Rochester’s future bride, launches a tirade against governesses in front of Jane (does she view Jane as an inanimate doll, or as a threat?). She suggests Mr. Rochester should practice economy and send Adele to school.  In other words, he should fire Jane, because governesses are useless.

“No, you men never do consider economy and common sense. You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi—were they not, mama?” …

“My dearest, don’t mention governesses; the word makes me nervous. I have suffered a martyrdom from their incompetency and caprice. I thank Heaven I have now done with them!”

And the tirade continues.

I’m not all about Power to the People every single minute of the day, but I have had a Jane Eyreish moment. I once attended a a country club dinner the night before a boring conference I was writing about. I was sitting with the other writers at our end of the table, and we quickly learned we needn’t ask the aging ex-debutantes to pass the bread or butter because we did not exist for them!  They literally did not answer!   They were the Ingrams/Reeds, and we were the Jane Eryes. They must have thought of us writers: “half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi—were they not, mama?”

Now let me entertain you with all my copies of Jane Eyre.

MY FIRST EDITION OF JANE EYRE was a Washington Square paperback.  Inside I scrawled my name in very fat penmanship.

THEN WE USED THE PENGUIN IN COLLEGE.  (First we read Jane Eyre as autobiography and then Mrs. Gaskell’s marvelous biography.)

Then I acquired an ex-library book copy of the Heritage Press edition of Jane Eyre (1975) with lithographs by Barnett Freedman from the original 1942 Heritage Press edition.  Oh, dear, I bought it for the pictures!  Do I need pictures?  I LIKE pictures!

Lithographs by Barnett Freedman


Now here is the luxury edition.  MY FAMILY AND I BOUGHT THE FOLIO SOCIETY EDITION OF JANE EYRE (2014) AND ARE SHARING IT:  a month here, a month there.  Beautiful paper, and the  strange illustrations by Santiago Caruso are very effective:  they capture the grotesqueries of  the Reed household and Lowood School from the child Jane’s point of view.  Everything looks so big to her!

© Santiago Caruso, 2014 – Jane Eyre

And here Jane and Mr. Rochester are FINALLY equals in this love scene.

There are so many editions of Jane Eyre:  something for everybody!  I recommend buying new books if you can afford them. The problem with used books:  sometimes they ARE in excellent shape, but other times you’ll find tea or chocolate stains (usually on the first pages, and then the person abandons the book!), and it is just not nice.  According to the Date Due card in the back of my Heritage Edition, no one in Rome, Georgia, ever checked it out! And yet there are coffee and chocolate stains on the first five pages.

Well, it’s only five pages…

Sylvia Plath

Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast. All book poems. Terrific stuff, as though domesticity had choked me.

—Sylvia Plath, letter to her mother, October 12, 1962

Sylvia Plath was the first woman poet I read, after Emily Dickinson: few women were in the canon, and Plath, a brilliant confessional poet, was not.  I discovered Ariel after I read her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which was a best-seller in 1971.  When I mentioned my enthusiasm to a professor, he disparaged her poetry as “second-rate.”  In retrospect, he was a terrible teacher.  The idea is to encourage interest in poetry, not squelch it.  I mean it was Sylvia Plath, not Ogden Nash.

But my taste has changed, and I much prefer Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop these days, though Plath earned her place in the canon.

That said, there was a strange feminist suicide cult in the ’70s surrounding Plath (and the poet Anne Sexton, who also killed herself). Plath was a feminist icon: her life and death were used to illustrate the evils of “male oppression.”

Plath struggled with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide in college. She responded to therapy, medication, and shock treatment and went on to write poetry. She married the glamorous poet Ted Hughes, and they were a gorgeous couple.

But after Plath discovered Ted Hughes’ affair with their friend Alissa Wevill in 1962, he left her with their two children and lived with  Wevill.   Plath spiraled into manic-depression but did  write Ariel.  Then, in 1963, at the age of 30, she killed herself.  And in 1969 Wevill killed herself and the four-year-old child she had with Hughes.

That is three too many deaths, isn’t it?

The biography of Plath at Poem Hunter says,

Feminists portrayed Plath as a woman driven to madness by a domineering father, an unfaithful husband, and the demands that motherhood made on her genius. Some critics lauded her as a confessional poet whose work “spoke the hectic, uncontrolled things our conscience needed, or thought it needed,” to quote Donoghue. Largely on the strength of Ariel, Plath became one of the best-known female American poets of the 20th century.

Sylvia Plath

I no longer believe that women’s “madness” is a consequence of sexist society (chemical imbalance is often the problem), but I am horrified that two women involved with Hughes killed themselves.

And today I read a shocking article in The Guardian.   In unpublished letters to her American psychiatrist and friend,

Sylvia Plath alleged Ted Hughes beat her two days before she miscarried their second child and that Hughes wanted her dead, unpublished letters reveal. The two accusations are among explosive claims in unseen correspondence written in the bitter aftermath of one of literature’s most famous and destructive marriages.

I do not jump to conclusions on the basis of an article in The Guardian.  What she wrote in the letters may have been true, or she may have been in a psychotic state.  There will be arguments on both sides.  And I do not know enough about her or Hughes.

But it is very disturbing, and so I hunted up a poem by Plath, in honor of National Poetry Month. .

“Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Another Novel by Barbara Pym: No Fond Return of Love

“There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.”–Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love

I recently went on a Barbara Pym bender.

Last spring I binged on Anita Brookner; this year it is Barbara Pym.  Do they have anything in common? Their voices and themes are very different, but both are stereotyped as spinsters writing about spinsters. As I happily reread Brookner’s dramas and Pym’s comedies, I was surprised to find their perspectives much more varied than they are given credit for.

Pym’s novels are a delight. I love her whimsical humor, especially concerning anthropologists and indexers:  as I’ve said before, she is the only writer who can make me burst out laughing at the mere mention of these professions.  In No Fond Return of Love  (1961),  the Oxford-educated heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring,  is an indexer, not a scholar (typical for women of the ’60s). When her younger fiance, Maurice, breaks off their engagement, she philosophically decides to attend a conference, and while not looking forward to talks on “Some problems of an indexer,” it provides a change.

In the dorm, she introduces herself to Viola Dace, who regards Dulcie with horror as “already halfway to being a dim English spinster.”

Every line of dialogue reflects Dulcie’s wry humor and perspicaciousness.  Snobbish Viola is horrified by Dulcie’s tweeds, and regards her  black dress as the mark of a bohemian.  Dulcie, on the other hand, is skeptical of Viola’s claim to have been involved with one of the lecturers.

“It’s an unusual idea having a conference of people like us,” said Dulcie.  “Do we all correct proofs, make bibliographies and indexes, and do all the rather humdrum thankless tasks for people more brilliant than ourselves?”

Viola does not like this description at all.

“Oh, my life isn’t at all like that,” she said quickly.  “I’ve been doing research of my own and I’ve already started a novel.  I’ve really come here because I know one of the lecturers and…”

Love doesn’t conquer all, but it certainly can make a fool of us.  Viola has a crush on Aylwin Forbes, the editor of a literary journal, who is speaking on “some problems of an editor.”  Other women have crushes on him, too:  one  older women with low expectations of the conference jokes that he’s “so good-looking, and that always helps.”  Dulcie is stunned by his beauty, but when he faints during the lecture, she is the knight in armor who comes to the rescue with smelling salts.

Pym writes from different points of view:  although Dulcie is my favorite, we also have glimpses into the characters of Viola and Aylwin.  Viola is neurotic and restless, living in a very messy bed-sitter;  and selfish, egotistical Alywin is disturbed because his wife Marjorie has left him, and his mother-in-law calls him a “libertine.”

Dulcie hilariously becomes mildly obsessed with Aylwin. She methodically looks him up at the library.  But her quiet life is disrupted when her 18-year-old niece Laurel (taking a secretarial course in London) and Viola move in with her. Dulcie and Viola chat about Aylwin (Viola is doing his index for free), and when Dulcie’s library research reveals that Aylwin’s brother Neville is a clergyman, they attend a service at his church but learn he has gone home to Mother (who owns a hotel) to escape the attentions of a female parishioner.

Are Dulcie and Viola really in love?  Well, they are smitten, in an adolescent way. They  invite Aylwin to a small dinner party, after he gives flowers to Viola, but does he love either of them?  No, he  is smitten by teenage Laurel (who finds him very old).

The two women mischievously spend a weekend at Aylwin’s mother’s hotel, and find solutions to the mysteries of Aylwin’s relationships.

And love proves more unpredictable than their fantasies.  Don’t feel sorry for Dulcie and Viola:  men have noticed them by the end of the book.  The ending is not neatly tied up, but their expectations become more realistic. Even Aylwin is not romantic once you get to know him.

The whole book is extremely funny!

Note:  Some Goodreads reviewers misread No Fond Return of Love  as a comic novel about a stalker! Trust me, no reviewer in 1961, or in 1982, when it was published in the U.S., considered gentle Dulcie a stalker.  She is not pursuing a quarry stealthily, hunting an animal, or walking stiffly and angrily.  Isn’t it typical that in the age of  obsessive Googling someone would think Dulcie is a stalker?

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women

Like all of us prim-yet-not-so prim bachelor girls of the late 1970s, I used to read The New York Times Book Review cover-to-cover.  I lived above a bookstore, and around the corner from another bookstore, so sometimes I strolled downstairs  and bought the books.  One weekend I was thrilled to read about the revival of a neglected writer Barbara Pym.  Philip Larkin’s praise of her in the TLS  in 1977 had triggered American interest:    in 1978, Dutton simultaneously published two of her novels., Excellent Women and A Quartet in Autumn.

There’s something about spinster lit. I did of course buy both books, and read them in the company of my Siamese cat, a suitable familiar for a spinster.  But during a recent binge rereading of  Pym, I realized that Pym’s heroines are not all spinsters.  They may be spinsters at the beginning, but they are often attractive to men, despite their tweedy clothes, and sometimes they marry, or we learn in a later book that they have married:  for instance,  in An Unsuitable Attachment, we  hear secondhand that the heroine of  Excellent Women has married an anthropologist.

In Excellent Women, first published in 1952, the narrator, Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter, works part-time for an organization which helps distressed gentlewomen.  She is astonished that “I should have managed to make a life for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive.”  As you might expect, she is active in a neighborhood church, St. Mary’s, and is a friend of  Father Mallory and his sister, who live next door.  But she resents being viewed as one of those excellent women who are expected to put others’ interests ahead of their own.  And she is annoyed when one of the churchwardens teases her for watching the furniture movers in front of her house.  “I expect you know all about it.”

She muses,

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no  hope for her.

Her new neighbor, Helena Napier, is the object of Mildred’s curiosity.  She has moved into the flat downstairs, and they will have to share a bathroom.  Helena is an anthropologist whose husband, Rockingham, a naval officer, is still in Italy,  where she claims he has  nothing to do “but be charming to a lot of dreary Wren officers in ill-fitting white uniforms…”  But he will join her in London soon.

The small events of Mildred’s daily life are richly observed.  She is slightly scandalized that Helena stays out late with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, with whom she is writing up their notes from 18 months in Africa.  Helena is out with Everard Bone the evening the charming Rockingham arrives, so Mildred gives Rocky a cup of coffee and soon they are gossiping about their shared love of Victoriana.  In subsequent chapters, Helena admits she is in love with Everard Bone, who does not return her affections. Rockingham is furious after Helena puts down a pan on a valuable wooden table and scorches it.  Helena moves out,  and   Mildred  washes all the dishes she left behind.  And then Everard loiters outside her office and asks her out for lunch.

Then there are parish troubles:  Mrs. Allegra Gray, a clergyman’s widow, moves into the flat in Father Mallory’s house and vamps him.   Before you can blink she is engaged to Father Mallory, and poor Winifred learns Allegra intends to throw her out of the house after the wedding.  She wonders if she could live with Mildred. (It’s not an option.)

Oddly, Mildred becomes the confidant of Rockhingham  and Everard Bone; she also occasionally hears from a school friend’s brother, William Caldicote (he seems to be gay).  And, annoyingly, everyone believes Mildred is in love with Father Mallory.  Surprises lie ahead for all:  when Allegra and Father Mallory break up, and smug Father Mallory approaches Mildred flirtatiously, she is happy to tell him that she was never in love with him.

Pym  is often compared to Jane Austen, but that is not quite accurate. The marriage plot, such as it is in Pym, is different, important, but not the be-all and end-all. And Pym’s gentle, whimsical humor falls somewhere between the spiky wit of Austen, the offbeat hilarity of Nancy Mitford, and the gentle charm of Dodie Smith. Pym is subtle and offhand in a droll way that always makes me smile.  And Pym is the only writer who can make me burst out laughing with the use of the words “anthropologist”  and “indexer.”   Even “researcher” can cause a chuckle.

I love Pym’s books, and Excellent Women is a gem.  More on the  Pym binge later.

Five Books I’ll Never Read

We are deranged bibliophiles.  We have books in every room.   We buy them at bookstores, we rescue discarded library books, we go to sales…  Why don’t we open a bookstore?

We have too many books in our house, but can’t bear to discard them.  What if 10 years from now we need to consult Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America, or The Easy Russian Phrase Book?

Here are five books I’ll probably never read and why I bought them.

Robert Harris’s Lustrum (the American edition is called Conspirata.)   I yawned through Imperium, the first novel in Harris’ trilogy about Cicero, and yet I ordered the British edition of the second book, Lustrum, before it came out in the U.S.  Why?   Well, it was very well-reviewed, and I’m a fan of Cicero, so shouldn’t  I want to read a novel about Cicero?

I’m not fond of historical novels, with the exception of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. After 35 pages of Lustrum, I gave up:  I found the prose clumsy and the dialogue preposterous.

“Are you a patriot, Sansa?”  asked Cicero the moment I showed him in.

“I like to think I am, Consul,” replied Sanga cautiously.  “Why?”

“Because I wish you to play a vital part in the defense of our beloved country.”

Yikes!  But just in case, it must stay on the shelf.  I might want to read a novel about Cicero someday.

2 Robin Morgan’s Going Too Far:  The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist. Morgan is a poet, a feminist activist, and political theorist.  Going Too Far, published in 1978, often does go too far:   this collection of letters, essays and articles, which originally appeared in  Ms., The New York Times, Rat, underground newspapers, and  anthologies, is painfully evocative of the political/personal struggles of the ’70s.   I bought this  book because I wanted to understand the politics of the Women’s Movement of the  ’70s, which, for better or worse, shaped my youth. Morgan is fascinating but the radical language is sometimes harrowing and angry:  language changes very fast, and sometimes the jargon is embarrassing, though I was  used to this style in underground newspapers in those days.

Morgan is brilliant, though, and a much better writer than many of her feminist peers. (I could barely read Shulamith Firestone the first time and cannot read her at all now.)  And I  am fascinated by Morgan’s much-anthologized essay, “Goodbye to All That,” in which she chronicles her experience with a group of women taking over an issue of Rat, a male-written newspaper.  She admits Rat has always tried to be “a really radical cum life-style paper.” But at the same time

It’s the liberal co-optative masks on the face of sexist hate and fear, worn by real nice guys we all know and like, right?  We have met the enemy and he’s our friend.  And dangerous.  “What the hell, let the chicks do an issue; maybe it’ll satisfy ’em for a while, it’s a good controversy, and it’ll maybe sell papers”–runs an overheard conversation that I’m sure took place at some point last week.

Yes, I know what she means.  The language has changed, but things have changed very little for women (think politics–no, don’t, it will depress you).

Who can live on this painful level of consciousness for long? Though I may not read  Going Too Far cover-to-cover, I will certainly keep it.

3 Michael Crummey’s Galore.  I want to read more Canadian literature.  Galore won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book and the Canadian Authors’ Association Literary Award.  It also got a spectacular review somewhere–I no longer remember where I read about it.

But honestly?  It is not my kind of thing. A whale is beached in a Canadian coastal town in the 18th century,  and a live man is found inside it:  he’s a kind of Jonah.   I’d discard it, but my husband thought he might want to read it.  So it is on the shelf…

4 Agatha Christie writing as  Mary Westmacott:  Absent in the Spring and Other Novels.  I bought this hefty volume because I love Agatha Christie.  She wrote romances under the name of Mary Westmacott.  Has anyone read these?  I keep this book around just in case I’ve exhausted Christie.  I don’t like romances, alas.

5 Dorothy Dunnett’s The House of Niccolo series.  I bought these at a library sale on 50-cent day.  Why?  Well, everyone has told me Dunnett’s Lymond series is brilliant, and though this is not the Lymond series, I couldn’t let them be pulped.  But they do take up a lot of space, so eventually I’ll give them up.  I’m giving myself a year to read at least a few chapters in one of them.

Have you, too, bought books that you will not read?  Or is this just my thing?

Passionate Governesses and Sexy Spinsters: Why We Love Charlotte Bronte

Illustration in Jane Eyre (Folio Society edition) by Santiago Caruso

It began with Jane Eyre. We loved her, to a woman. We were convinced that, plain though we were, except when dressed as bridesmaids or in suits for job interviews, we would marry Mr. Rochester.

Only one friend laughed–the friend who never married. (Radical feminist, or evil fairy at the wedding?) “Rochester didn’t marry Charlotte Bronte:  he married Jane.  And she’s fictional.”

Perhaps she had a point. We were twentieth-century women—what did we know about the Brontes’ chaste dreams of passion? Charlotte did not marry Mr. Rochester:  she married her father’s curate at the age of 37. Then, alas, she got pregnant and died the next year, apparently of complications in pregnancy.

Most of my friends did marry curates, or the well-educated twentieth-century equivalent, and since we weren’t rich, most of us, at one time or another, were teachers:  like Jane Eyre and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, we taught the children of the rich.  As the years passed, we continued to love Jane Eyre but lost faith in Mr. Rochester.  There but for the grace of God… we said.  Think about it:  Jane married Rochester only after he was “castrated/crippled,” as  the Freudians say.   And then we read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the point of view of Rochester’s “mad” wife, and it confirmed our suspicions of his character.

In Charlotte’s later books, things were less pat. In Villette, my favorite Bronte novel, Lucy Snowe, a plain Jane Eyre-like heroine, teaches English at a girls’ school in the Belgian city Villette (Brussels), as did Charlotte, as did I (not in Brussels), but she doesn’t get the guy, though I did. Or rather, she doesn’t get the guy she wants. He prefers someone else. And isn’t that the way it would have been for Jane Eyre, a brilliant but plain orphan governess? Only my beautiful friends, the ones who married doctors, would have attracted Mr. Rochester. (There is a pecking order of beauty.)   And beauty is so fragile.  You can be beautiful one year, get sick or unhappy, you lose sleep, and your looks fade.  Just like that.

Villette is a novel for the middle-aged and elderly  Though I appreciated it as a young woman, I revere it now. It is Charlotte’s Gothic masterpiece, a smart un-Bridget Jones study of single life, complete with ghosts, cross-dressing, and drug-induced hallucinations.

But what happens when you’ve read Jane Eyre and Villette over and over and need some Charlotte you don’t know by heart?  You turn to Shirley.   It’s the the plain Jane sister novel, albeit the only one with attractive heroines, and has never been quite weird enough to capture a huge audience in our time.

It should be called Caroline, not Shirley, I’m convinced.  Shirley doesn’t appear till page 204 in my edition.  The real heroine, to my mind, is Caroline Helstone, the blonde, delicate, intelligent young woman, who muses on, of all subjects, being an old maid.

Everyone assures Caroline she will not be an old maid. But she wants to be prepared.  She is in love with her cousin, Robert Moore, a charming, impecunious mill owner, who is determined, despite the levels of unemployment among the men,  to introduce machines into his business.  He is by turns hot and cold with her:  poor Caroline!  He flirts for a few hours then withdraws for days.   And after her uncle/guardian, Mr. Helstone, the clergyman,  fights with Robert about politics, she is forbidden to see him and his sister Hortense. Caroline wastes away—but she is not sure that Robert loved her anyway.

I love a good soliloquy, and what better soliloquy than Caroline Helstone’s musings on being an old maid?  And she is very kind and insightful about two old maids in the neighborhood, who never married because they are ugly and eccentric, and she begins to respect them and to understand their character.

Convinced that she will see Robert married to someone else and that she will never marry, she pictures herself alone and wonders how old maids live.

“What was I created for, I wonder?  Where is my place in the world?”

She mused again.

“Ah, I see,” she pursued presently, that is the question which most old maids are puzzled to solve: other people solve it for them by saying, ‘Your place is to do good to others, to be helpful whenever help is wanted.’ That is right in some measure, and a very convenient doctrine for the people who hold it; but I perceive that certain sets of human beings are very apt to maintain that other sets should give up their lives to them and their service, and then they requite them by praise: they call them devoted and virtuous. Is this enough? Is it to live? Is there not a terrible hollowness, mockery, want, craving, in that existence which is given away to others, for want of something of your own to bestow it on? I suspect there is. Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it. Undue humility makes tyranny; weak concession creates selfishness. …”

There’s much more of that, fascinating stuff, and such philosophizing is not so entirely unsuited to our modern day.

Much more lies ahead for Caroline Helstone .  Don’t give up on her yet!

Why Are There So Few Editions of “Shirley”?

I’d love “Shirley” in a Vintage Classics edition like these.

Why are there so few paperback editions of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley?  Doesn’t anyone read Shirley any more?

It is not a masterpiece like Villette or Jane Eyre.  Yet I love Charlotte, and it is Charlotte. I have a nice hardcover, but a paperback is better to carry in a bike pannier.  It doesn’t matter if it gets bunged around.

Mind you, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about Shirley when I reread it a few years ago.  I was binge-reading Victorian factory lit, and it was very like Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South.  Earnest industrial politics, plus everybody falls in love with a mill owner!

I wrote in my book journal:

Shirley is a mess of a novel…. It is a mix of 19th-century cotton mill politics, romance, and feminist meditations.

Well, now I’m loving it. Every rereading is different. A pity I lost my cheap Wordsworth edition.  The choice is between the Penguin and the Oxford.  But I’ll have finished it by the time it gets here, so why bother?


I can’t resist new books about the Brontes. Here are two forthcoming books.

  1. The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece  by John Pfordresher (June 27).  The description says:  Why did Charlotte Brontë go to such great lengths on the publication of her acclaimed, best-selling novel, Jane Eyre, to conceal its authorship from her family, close friends, and the press? In The Secret History of Jane Eyre, John Pfordresher tells the enthralling story of Brontë’s compulsion to write her masterpiece and why she then turned around and vehemently disavowed it.

2. A Girl Walks Into a Book:  What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work  by Miranda Pennington (May 16)

The description says:  “How many times have you heard readers argue about which is better, Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? The works of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne continue to provoke passionate fandom over a century after their deaths. Brontë enthusiasts, as well as those of us who never made it further than those oft-cited classics, will devour Miranda Pennington’s delightful literary memoir.”

3. And last year I never got around to Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Brontë.  Is it any good?

Kathy Chamberlain’s Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World

 I love Victorian novels, but do not read many biographies.  I seemed an unlikely candidate for Kathy Chamberlain’s brilliant new biography, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World.  

But the biography arrived in the mail, and I was intrigued by the introduction.  Virginia Woolf called Jane Welsh Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle’s wife, one of “the great letter writers.” Like many women, my friends and I were keen letter writers before the internet, so I was fascinated by the idea of what Elizabeth Hardwick called Jane Carlyle’s “private writing career.”

Kathy Chamberlain concentrates on a very short period, the years 1843–1849, which sharpens the narrative and vivifies  our understanding of Jane’s character. Jane is in her forties, 20 years into her (possibly sexless) childless marriage to Thomas, and though they are comfortable together,  she often must endure his gloom, depression, and egotism.  In the first chapter, Chamberlain describes the morning of December 18, 1843, at the Carlyles’ house in London.  She borrows novelistic techniques, setting a realistic scene and using quotes from the letters as dialogue. She introduces Jane, describes her dress, hairstyle, and pastimes.

As always in a thrifty Victorian household, much sewing needs to be done (clothing, not yet available ready-to-wear, is far cheaper when made and repaired at home), and the woman, Jane Welsh Carlyle, has resigned herself to tackling her basket of work today.  She would rather do the darning herself than hire a sewing girl to come in–such a nuisance to have a stranger girl around the house and underfoot.  Besides, residing in close quarters with a single servant, and a most eccentric one, is problematic enough.  Her maid-of-all work is busy just now with the baking–a faint fragrance of gingerbread rises from the kitchen below.

Then Carlyle enters in his long plaid dressing gown and throws his Oliver Cromwell manuscript in the fire, saying he must start over.  How would you like to live with that while you’re darning his socks?  One of Jane’s witty lines is:  “Cromwell must come to an end, or he and I will come to an end.”

Jane Carlyle was witty and popular, and knew many writers, among them Elizabeth Gaskell, Thackeray, Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Tennyson, Emerson, Geraldine Jewsbury, Harriet Martineau, and Margaret Fuller.  Everybody loved Jane and competed for her attention.  Indeed, men fell in unrequited love with her, and in one case that almost alienated her close friend Geraldine Jewsbury.

It is no wonder she was popular with writers.  She was a passionate reader. She and Thomas were both touched by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which inspired Jane to think more about the poor, and, at Thomas’s insistence,  to give two parties that Christmas. She also loved Charlotte’ Bronte’s Shirley:  she said she and Charlotte “must have been much together in a previous state of existence.”   She was infatuated with  Ludwick Tieck’s now forgotten historical novel, The Roman Matron, or  Vittoria Accorombona, set in Italy during the Renaissance, with a creative, philosophical, independent heroine who hates the thought of marriage.

As so often, husbands and wives do not always care for the same books. Naturally, Thomas doesn’t admireTieck’s book: he enjoyed it, but call it as untrue as opera.  Jane wrote, “And you do not like my beautiful Vittoria!–Oh what want of taste!”

Jane’s witty style reminds Chamberlain (and me) of Jane Austen.  But Jane disliked Austen, calling her books “washy waterygruel.”  In one hilarious letter, however, she writes about a scene in  life that reminds her of  a scene in Persuasion.  A gentleman she had noticed at an inn passes her admiringly in a public place.

He looked at me, but said nothing–and a minute or two after I saw him also drive past the window.  Some twenty minutes after; I started myself, in a little gig, with a brisk little horse, and silent driver–Nothing could be more pleasant–than so pirring thro’ quiet roads in the dusk–with the moon coming out–I felt as if I were reading about myself in a Miss Austin novel!

Among her closest friends were the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini and the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury.  Jane was very altruistic, befriending people with money problems and helping them find jobs. She had a long ambivalent friendship with a German translator, Miss Amely Bolte, for whom she found governess jobs.   But Amely often got on Jane’s nerves, staying in their spare room for too long between jobs.

Richard Plattnauer, another  German friend, had a nervous breakdown at a vegetarian commune and ended up in an asylum.  Jane consulted a doctor,  visited him at the asylum, and eventually arranged for him to come home with her .  His bipolar mood swings were hard to cope with, in the days before medication, but she took care of him until she could arrange for him to return to his family in Germany.

Although the Carlyles were comfortable together, there were marital problems.  Thomas became a little too close to Lady Harriet Baring, who had her own salon.

A writer in her own right, Jane led a full life.

A fascinating biography! And you can read Jane’s letters online.