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…

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!

Re: Book-Buying Rehab

Bertha discovers her inner Jane Eyre (illustration by Fritz Eichenberg)

Bertha Mason discovers her inner Jane Eyre  (illustration by Fritz Eichenberg)

Doctor Shopaholic’s Notes:  Ms. Mirabile is a compulsive book shopper.  She bizarrely admits to spending her vacation in London bookstores. Could have gone to theater, concerts, and museums.  Spent one day reading The Oresteia in her hotel room.    Is not sure how much she spent on books: it adds up differently every time. Her math is terrible!  Her receipts are a mess!

Prescription:  Get that woman a Kindle!

Yes,  I’m fooling around.

I have an e-reader!  And a new shopping journal, a pretty notebook I bought at Paperchase in London.

Here’s my new entry:

Oct. 14:   Bought a latte, $3.50.

Yup.  Buying a new notebook means I will shop less.

When will this madness end?

Who knows if I will ever get to London again?   I went to all my favorite bookshops and bought a number of books. I also discovered the fancy little bookshops on a lane off Charing Cross Road, Cecil Court. Most of them were a little rich for my blood, but I browsed at Stephen Poole Fine Books, which specializes in first-editions of 20th century literature.  A collection of Rumer Godden’s short stories tempted me, but it was pricey.   Maybe next visit.

But here’s why I really have to cut back.

I went to Barnes and Noble yesterday.

Heavens, what did I need at a bookstore?


I went to B&N to see what they are promoting this week .  Oddly, they are not making a big deal of the tenth-year anniversary edition of Twilight, or George R. R. Martin’s new novella.  I had predicted they would. They’re in the best-seller section, but not prominently displayed.  In the literature section I found Faith Sullivan’s Good Night, Mr.  Wodehouse, published by the small press Milkweed Press.  And I am looking forward to reading Joy Williams’ new collection of short stories.

But steady on!  Not right now.

What would Jane Eyre do, I ask myself.

In London I discovered my inner Jane Eyre.

At the British Library, I saw the manuscript of Jane Eyre  on display in a glass case.  And Branwell’s portrait of the Bronte sisters is  at the National Portrait Gallery.

Why do we love the Brontes so much?  Why especially Charlotte?

A.  We’re all plain Jane Eyres compared to the buxom Blanche Ingram, whom Rochester rejects.

B.  We all want Mr. Rochester to choose us.  And he will, because he chooses Jane.

C.  Then in middle age, we identify with Bertha Mason, the mad wife in the attic.  Depending on the way we read her, she can be life-affirming, too.  (See Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Bertha’s story.)

There is a scene in Jane Eyre when Bertha discovers her inner Jane Eyre.

Jane wakes up from a dream and sees Bertha, a monstrous woman with a purple face, standing in front of the mirror trying on Jane’s wedding veil. Jane is terrified.  She has never seen Bertha before.  She didn’t know she existed. Bertha takes off the veil and tramples it.  Then she takes a closer look at Jane, who pretends to be sleeping.

Jane tells Mr. Rochester,

“It drew aside the window-curtain and looked out; perhaps it saw dawn approaching, for, taking the candle, it retreated to the door.  Just at my bedside, the figure stopped:  the fiery eyes glared upon me–she thrust up her candle close to my face, and extinguished it under my eyes.  I was aware her lurid visage flamed over mine, and I lost consciousness:  for the second time in my life–only the second time–I became sensible from terror.”

It is a Janus-like scene:  two faces of the same god.   Bertha sees her own past self when she tries on the veil and sees Jane on the eve of her wedding. Surely she has escaped from the attic because she knows of the wedding.   And Jane sees her own future:  or it could be, if she married Mr. Rochester before he is “castrated.”

Anyway, I was quite happy to read the Brontes, Jane Eyre and Villette, and discover my inner Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe.

And I have made a new plan for book-buying rehab.

  1. Stop reading book reviews, except at blogs.   I need to avoid publications like The New York Times Book Review, which feature too many books per issue.   Blogs are less overwhelming, because the bloggers can only manage a couple of reviews a week.
  2.   Read three books a week from my shelves.  That’s a LOT of reading, and if I’m busy with my own books I’ll buy less. That’s the theory anyway.
  3.  Also get back to my roots and step up on my reading of classics.  My new rule is that 800 lines of Latin equals one English book.  So again I’ll be reading from my shelves.

Will I carry through with this?  We’ll see.

Remember:  it’s my inner Jane Eyre!

Rereading Bronte and Austen & Modern Versions

As I grow older, there is nothing I like better than rereading the classics. If I only have three or (optimistically) four decades left, I want to go out with the Charlotte Bronte-Jane Austen party.

Jane Eyre old penguin bronteLast month I partied rather intensely with Bronte and Austen.  I reread Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

I hadn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in 20 years, because I’m such a Villette devotee that I feared disappointment.

And I hadn’t been able to face Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is so slight.

Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, is Jane Eyre for adults (I have written extensively about Villette here), and it is by far the better of the two books. Indeed, the heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, has a more challenging time as a woman (she is sexy but too plain to attract the hero) and as a teacher has no training and must figure out both how to teach and how to discipline a class of unruly girls.  She has it harder than the plain, girlish Jane Eyre, who fulfills all our romantic dreams. Jane Eyre is Charlotte’s dream autobiography; Villette is the realistic version.

The good news? I loved  Jane Eyre.  It is a beautifully-written work of great literature, not just for teenagers.   Bronte penned a stunning, fast-paced, emotionally pitch-perfect blockbuster.

Jane Eyre is an orphan who stands up for truth–and who of us hasn’t felt like an orphan?. Her cruel aunt banishes her to a charity school, where she is forced to wear a sign that says “liar” because her vicious aunt told the lie that she was a liar.  She wins many friends at the school, and becomes a teacher, and finally lands a governess job at the romantic house, Thornfield Hall.  The owner, witty, rakish Mr. Rochester, whose love child, Adele, is her charge, falls in love with here.

Bronte’s dialogue is witty and, if not quite realistic, compelling.  Who can help but fall in love with Mr. Rochester when he jokingly compares his dog Pilot to his bastard, Adele, by his opera-singer girlfriend, Celine Varens?

But unluckily the Varens…had given me this fillette Adele, who, she affirmed, was my daughter; and perhaps she may be, though I see no proofs of such grim paternity written in her countenance:  Pilot is more like me than she.”

And Rochester presents himself as a hero:  he says Celine deserted Adele, so he took “the poor thing out of the slime and mud of Paris , and transplanted it here, to grow up clean in the wholesome soil of an English country garden.  Mrs. Fairfax found you to train it;…”

And on an emotional level, we love it that the plain, smart heroine wins the hero’s affections.

But we worry about the mad wife in the attic who constantly sets the house on fire, seeming to know that Jane Eyre is there, and exactly who she is.  The mad wife is at the center of Jean Rhys’s sequel, Wide Sargasso Sea.  I didn’t think Wide Sargasso Sea was very good when I read it years ago; I tried to reread it last month, and my original judgment stands.  But I do like the idea of it.  Anybody know any modern versions of Jane Eyre?

Northanger Abbey jane austenI reread Austen’s Northanger Abbey so I could read Val McDermid’s retelling, also called Northanger Abbey, the second in a series of updated Austen novels (the first was by Joanna Trollope, Sense and Sensibility).

Austen’s Northanger Abbey is thoroughly enjoyable, a novel about a novel reader so absorbed in Gothic fiction that she is constantly fantasizing about ghosts and murders.  But it is mainly the story of a likable, if ordinary and rather silly, young woman, Catherine Morland, who goes to Bath with her neighbors, and falls in love with Henry Tilney.  The difference between Northanger Abbey and Austen’s other novels?   There is no suspense; we know immediately who will get the girl, and whom the girl will get.  And the writing is uneven.

Naturally, we all fall in love with Henry, because he, like Catherine, is a novel reader.  He says,

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has no pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

He also teases her about writing in her journal, and predicts she will go home at night and write abouit their meeting.

Austen is always witty, and I laughed aloud as I read this.

Northanger Abbey val mcdermidI have read half of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and it, too, is lots of fun.  The 21st-century Cat is a fan of paranormal romances, and , indeed, at one point she wonders if Henry is a vampire.  He teases her about updating her Facebook page, rather than writing in her journal, and she spends a lot of time texting. A missed appointment has to do with Henry’s sister’s having written down the wrong phone number.  McDermid is an award-winning mystery writer, and she is up to the challenge of rewriting Austen’s lightest novel.  Don’t expect too much here, but it is charming and will certainly make  good “summer reading.”  The writer who has signed on to update Pride and Prejudice or Emma will have the greatest difficulty!

Ms. Mirabile on Jane Eyre, Intense Women, & Why We Like to Be Liked

Jane Eyre, with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (1943)

Jane Eyre, with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (1943)

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.

Jane Eyre is intense.  Intense women readers all over the world are thrilled by Jane’s intensity.

Because intense women aren’t often taken seriously.

“Get shallow,” my husband used to say.

Hillary Clinton has been an intense First Lady, Senator of New York, and Secretary of State.  My mother hoped she’d be president.  She didn’t get to see a woman president in her lifetime. Is it because Hillary is too intense?   Clinton has supporters for the 2016 campaign, but are there other female candidates?

When Sally Field won her first Oscar in 1980 for her role in Norma Rae, she said, “You like me, right now, you like me!”  She’s a great actress, and of course we like her.  But perhaps intense women aren’t liked as much as they’d like to be liked.

Women writers are allowed to be intense, but they don’t win many awards.  Although Doris Lessing said “Oh, Christ,” when she stepped out of a cab and heard she’d won the Nobel, she was obviously very pleased. There have been only 13 female winners of the Nobel.

faceAnd so we still talk about Charlotte and Jane Eyre.  Things haven’t changed that much.

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.

When Mr. Rochester says to Jane,

In about a month I hope to be a bridegroom….and in the interim, I shall myself look out for employment and an asylum for you.”

she is shattered.

His teasing hurts her very much.  She is in love with him.

Now we see significance in his use of the word “asylum,” with its double meaning of mental hospital and refuge.  Is Charlotte Bronte thinking of Rochester’s mad wife when she introduces this word?  The wife’s asylum is in the attic, but is it an asylum to a woman who bites men and sets fire to the house?

In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a sequel to Jane Eyre, we see Mr. Rochester from the point of view of Antoinette/Bertha, his mad wife.

Mr. Rochester is just another man with a mad wife who wants to get involved with a younger woman.

Nowadays the younger women would feel sorry for him.  Oh dear, the mad wife.  Then they’d forget her.

Poor Jane almost spirals into a depression before she knows that Rochester wants to marry her.  She passionately tells him,

I grieve to leave Thornfield!  I love Thornfield:  I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life–momentarily at least.  I have not been trampled on.  I have not been petrified.  I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high….  I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to know I must be torn from you forever.  I see the necessity of departure:  and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”

If we were Jane, we might well become a little mad:  she learns at her wedding that he has a wife.

It is a brilliant book, but in many ways it is a girls’ book.  If you want to read Charlotte Bronte at her best, you must read Villette, a more mature version of Jane Eyre.  The heroine, Lucy Snowe, wins affection, but it is not the affection she wants.   She is a teacher, and she remains a teacher.