On My Bookshelf: Jane Eyre

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I will be very honest here: I tried to read Jane Eyre as a high schooler and failed. I never made it past the Red Room. This is a common theme in my life, and in recent years I’ve revisited classic books that I either didn’t like or couldn’t finish (or couldn’t finish because I didn’t like) when I was forced to read them in school. Jane Eyre was no exception; I originally started reading it at summer camp because it was on my summer reading list.

But many of my friends love this book, and when Tracy at Fanserviced-B recommended it on Instagram, I decided it was time to revisit it (incidentally, I think I’ve loved every book recommendation I’ve gotten from Tracy). So I went to find it for Kindle, as most of my reading time happens in the dark after putting the baby to bed. And it turned out, I’d actually attempted to re-read the book a while ago because it was already on my Kindle (no, Amazon is not yet so creepy that it can predict that I’d be getting around to re-reading Jane Eyre soon… I don’t think).

Anyway, the book. If you are concerned about spoilers for a book that was written over 150 years ago, well, you probably should leave now. Yes, I recognize that not everyone has read the book, and some people might be genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot, but really, elements of the plot have become commonly-referenced literary tropes (ones that I’ve referenced even when I’d never read that far in the book).

The story follows the life of Jane Eyre, an orphan who was sent to live with her aunt and their three children, including their oldest, John. After being neglected and abused until the age of ten, she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is infamous in it’s poor treatment of its charges. While there, she befriends a girl who later dies of consumption, and a teacher, who doesn’t. She makes her way through the trials and tribulations of the school, eventually becoming a teacher there, and then leaves at 18 to take a position with a man who is looking for a governess for his young ward.

Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to find a motley assortment of characters, including her pupil, a very silly French girl named Adele, who may or may not be her employer’s illegitimate daughter. She eventually meets her elusive employer, Mr. Rochester, when his horse throws him while passing her in the street. Their relationship is very reminiscent of the Disney “Beauty and the Beast” montage of Belle and the Beast. All the while, there are strange goings-on, including a fire from which Jane saves Mr. Rochester, all of which Jane attributes to the servant Grace Poole, whose job is not made immediately obvious, and who apparently has a taste for strong drink.

After Jane saves his life, Mr. Rochester starts to act more warmly towards Jane, and she starts to wonder if she might be falling in love with him. But shortly after, he brings in a pretty heiress who is speculated to be a potential new wife for him. Jane is jealous, which Mr. Rochester can sense, and uses this jealousy to get her to admit her feelings for him, at which point he proposes marriage to her and she accepts. But the strange events escalate, with a mysterious woman coming into Jane’s room to rip her veil apart one night. And during the wedding ceremony, a man arrives to announce that Mr. Rochester cannot marry Jane because he is already married, though his wife has a congenital disorder that results in erratic behavior and has been imprisoned in the attic of the house. It is therefore revealed that Grace Poole’s job has been to guard her, and they mysterious incidents are the doing of Mrs. Rochester when she escapes.

Despite Mr. Rochester confirming his love for Jane and offering to live with her as husband and wife in another country, Jane refuses him and leaves. At this point, I realized that I didn’t really know all that much about the book, since I never really thought about the fact that there was plot outside of the “mad wife in the attic” reveal, but it was here that you see Jane’s character start to anneal and become stronger. While her early life is certainly hard, it is almost entirely the result of other people doing horrible things to her. At this point, she makes a decision for herself, and chooses not only to leave Thornfield Hall, but to leave it immediately, with little preparation and no notice to anyone else.

And she is immediately beset with surprisingly realistic troubles. While she has a little money and brings along a bundle of belongings, her money does not get her as far as she had hoped, and she ends up losing her belongings on the coach she takes away from Thornfield Hall, so she finds herself sleeping rough on the moors, nearly starving. She manages to find a village, where she is generally refused by the inhabitants of the houses she approaches, but eventually finds the house of the local clergyman and is rescued. Once again, she has a new life into which to settle, until she learns that her elusive uncle, who never knew of her ill treatment at the hands of his wife and children, had previously found her at Thornfield, and later died and left his sizable fortune to her. Not only that, but the clergyman and his sisters, with whom she has becoming close, are her cousins. She shares her new fortune with her newfound cousins and continues to live with them.

But eventually, her cousin the clergyman thinks that she would make an ideal clergyman’s wife, and proposes marriage to her, despite being in love with another. Jane refuses him at first, but when she considers accepting, she mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice echoing over the moors saying her name. In the one moment of “deus ex machina,” Jane returns to find that Thornfield has been burned to the ground, and Mrs. Rochester died by suicide while it burned. Mr. Rochester has been gravely injured, and though he still loves her, he fears his injuries make him too hideous for her. But, in a moment of impeccable sass, when he asks Jane if she finds him hideous, she replies that he is, of course, as he always has been. And thus, the two lovers, neither particularly pretty, are together in the end.

I love this book because Jane is flawed and impulsive and naive and makes mistakes, but is ultimately led by a strong moral compass. Though I don’t necessarily share her faith or morals, I admire how she doesn’t compromise them, even to achieve happiness. She also has a strong need to care for other people, but tries her hardest not to lose herself in the care of others, as evidence by her interactions with her cousin St. John when she knows he is proposing a loveless marriage for the sake of having a useful wife on mission with him.

But I think the best part of this book, and one that is supremely overlooked in pretty much all of the film and television adaptations, is that both of the romantic protagonists are explicitly said to be not very attractive. While the story is told from Jane’s perspective, so it could be excused as overmodesty on her part, it is referenced by other characters. And Mr. Rochester’s coarse appearance is also commented upon throughout his parts of the story, which gives the story more of its “Beauty and the Beast” feeling. But while Rochester is aloof, he doesn’t cross the line into abusive or cruel, even alleviating Jane’s jealous virtually as soon as he learns of it. And when they reunite, it is clear that it is Jane’s choice to be with him and care for him.

I love the agency that Jane has, despite having some real tribulations befall her. While she is somewhat forced into some very nasty situations, she neither despairs nor blames fate and instead chooses to make her own way as best as she can. It’s a remarkable book and one that I’m sad that I never read sooner. Like many “classic books” that I was assigned to read in high school, I feel like it is the kind of book that benefits from the insight of age. I highly recommend everyone try to re-read a few of the books that you hated when you were forced to read them in school. You may find some new insights.

On My Bookshelf: The Woman on the Orient Express

I posted a cryptic Instagram post about this book a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d share a full review. The Woman on the Orient Express, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford, was a book I purchased on a whim for my Kindle. I liked the premise of an historical fiction book about Agatha Christie, whose work I enjoy and whose life I wish I knew more about. Of course, the book is entirely fictionalized, if based on real people, but it is an interesting look at characters based at least in part in history.

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The story itself is not serious literature or high art. It has intrigue, action, and plot twists, but nothing ground-breaking. Of course, because it was about Christie, I assumed the story would be a mystery, which it isn’t really. But for some reason, most of the book felt like the setup of an Agatha Christie mystery. In each chapter, something is mentioned or set up that, in one of Christie’s works, would be a clue for a diminutive Belgian detective. Likewise, this book is full of Chekhov’s guns, sprinkled liberally throughout the story.

The plot begins with Agatha Christie planning a trip to the Middle East in an attempt to escape the publicity surrounding her mysterious temporary disappearance and her divorce. She is not only hurting from being left for another woman, but she is trying to balance recovery from a breakdown that has put her in the public eye. Ashford’s picture of Christie as a character is actually quite relatable, although she is sometimes a bit thick. However, whether the Christie of the book is just too stupid to see what’s in front of her or purposely turning a blind eye because she subconsciously wishes it weren’t so isn’t so apparent.

The other main characters are Nancy, based in part on Christie’s husband’s mistress, and the archaeologist Katherine Keeling, who was based on Katharine Woolley, a noted archaeologist of the time. I like how Ashford weaves the other two women into the story, although sometimes the particular plot choices are a bit soap-opera in their dramatism. That said, the characters themselves are well-enough written that they can handle their respective overly-dramatic subplots. If anything, the male characters tend to be one-dimensional, which is perhaps a welcome change in literature, in some light.

The plot does meander a bit, but it does eventually get to the point, with a rather unsatisfying climax, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole. There is a bit of romance, but the central focus seems to be the relationship among the three women. And it certainly doesn’t ever get boring.

That said, the thing that really grabbed me about this book was the afterwards, in which the author explains what inspired her to write this story. You see, the story is, in some way, an imagining of how Christie met her second husband. And the author calls Christie “the patron saint of second marriages,” which spoke to me on a personal level as I prepare myself to get married for the second time.

In the time in which Christie lived, it was considered a deep failing of a woman to end up divorced, and indeed it was sometimes catastrophic to end up without a husband and without the social dignity of widowhood. But the book goes further than this, bringing up the timeless issues of personal self-doubt, children’s lack of understanding, and the feelings of helplessness that accompany a divorce. Because Christie was fortunate enough to have an independent income in her writing, Ashford can treat her as a somewhat more modern-style divorcee, which helps the story reach a modern audience.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book for what I intended it: a piece of light reading in between other works. But I found a surprising depth of insight in the words of the author about Christie and her divorce and remarriage.

On Enjoying Shakespeare

I’ve teased in the past about a recent project in which I’m involved. Well, we opened two weekends ago. I’ve spent the last few months rehearsing a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I’ve loved to act since I was a young child, and I’ve been doing Shakespeare since I started in a local theater school’s company over 20 years ago, but I hadn’t had a chance to perform the Bard since returning to the stage two years ago after graduate school.

My first Shakespeare role was Ferdinand in The Tempest and it rather set the tone for many of my Shakespearean roles. I’ve played as many male characters as female ones. And that’s the beauty of Shakespeare: he creates characters that often transcend stereotypes and categories despite drawing on familiar tropes of comedy and tragedy. And I just love getting into these characters.

The language is what frightens some people when they think of Shakespeare, but the language is what I love. His words are his canvas and he paints beautiful pictures, both with the word meanings and with the sounds of the words themselves. My most recent role is that of Feste and he dallies nicely with words. It was a challenge to memorize some of his more mouthful pieces, but so, so fun to deliver them. He talks circles around most of the characters in the show (with the exception of the other two characters I’ve played in Twelfth Night in the past: Maria and Olivia).

But the language of Shakespeare truly has to be heard to be appreciated. Reading the text on the page has little of the same appeal. A colleague of mine commented that he’s decided to try to read his way through Shakespeare’s complete works, to which I responded with a grimace. That sounds like truly grim work. But a Shakespeare club? Get together a group of friends to read scenes from Shakespeare as a way of getting through the works? Fantastic! I suggested he at the very least look up films of the various plays that have had films made of them. So you don’t get much of the histories, but the more popular tragedies and comedies have some representation.

Above all, I think that most people take Shakespeare too seriously. He’s fun. He’s a playwright who chose to insert knee-slappingly funny bits into some of his most serious plays, often at the most intense points in the main action. He did this because he wasn’t catering to the enjoyers of high art, but the enjoyers of entertainment. Shakespeare is a reminder that sometimes in the darkest times, laughter is necessary. Sometimes you need the drunken porter or the nostalgic gravedigger to break up the intensity of life. Take the laughs as they come and let them temper the tragedy just a bit.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s views on Shakespeare, acted or read. And who wants to start a Shakespeare club?