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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Literature Recomended for Children: Jane Eyre

This is actually a very interesting article. In it Andrew Motion lists ten books children should read. The list is as follows:

The Odyssey by Homer
Don Quixote by Cervantes
Hamlet by Shakespeare
Paradise Lost by Milton
Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Waste Land by TS Eliot

But at the end of this article there are some interesting comments that are well worth reading as well! Last year I took a Children's Literature course at the university I currently attend. We were invited each week to present some of the books we read when we were children. Most people brought out standard nursery rhyme books, and assorted stories of bunnies, children left on their own, and several children's classics. I felt a little odd because there were only two books I still had that I could present- one was My Biggest Bedtime Book Ever (which is still dear to my heart and reminds me of Pilgrim's Progress for reasons that I'll keep to myself) and the other was Jane Eyre.

I felt very strange presenting Jane Eyre as my treasured childhood classic, especially since, as many of you loyal readers will know, the Brontes are next to unknown where I'm from. There is a vague idea that there is a Bronte- possibly several Brontes- and they wrote... stuff. The university does acknowledge their existence but they were never mentioned in my grade school or high school. So, I held up my gorgeous first copy of Jane Eyre, it's stitches looking like they were sown by someone using their teeth, the cover a fetching dark green duct tape (it was, I believe, the victim of a library rebinding gone horrifically awry). The professor came to my aid after my talk by describing Jane Eyre's long history as a classic of children's literature.

I had presented it once before, when I was 16 or 17 years old. I was always very shy. We had a class assignment where we had to express what we show the world and what we keep to ourselves- in the form of a brown paper bag which we decorated. Inside the bag went whatever we feel deeply about, that somehow defines us but that we keep to ourselves. Inside my bag was the beat up copy of Jane Eyre. When we were asked to show what was inside, if we felt alright with it, I was the only one who volunteered. I took out the book and said something about how it was a lot like my life- then I thrust it back into the bag, feeling strangely exposed. A deep sense that I had already said far too much. Obviously, I've grown to be less timid.

Now, as for Ulysses, all I can say is that it reminds me of when one of my teachers in high school discovered that I had been reading Joyce for fun. He said to my mother: "Your daughter is surprisingly literate!"

But that was Portrait of the Artist- not Ulysses... I tried that when I was 16 and only made it four pages in but that wasn't counting 25 pages of endnotes!

Even though I read JE at the age of 14 or 15, I didn't read any other Bronte novels until I was 23, with the exception of Wuthering Heights. As soon as I finished Jane Eyre I snapped up WH but I'm sorry to say that I was completely disappointed with it. My memory of the first reading is distinct in my mind- I did it all in one or two days, while lying on the living room couch. I reached the end, let my hand drop to the floor and I put down the book thinking what a waste of time that was. I can't say why this was the case, but I think, as one of my professor puts it, reading has much to do with the culture inside. I have a very angry family. I saw in WH a book about my family. And I wondered why anyone would want to read something like this. When I read it again I was 23 and living away from my angry family members. Now, this was a very different book. Now if it a powerful book, it is a disturbing book. It is not 'a waste of time'. As a shy little girl I was irresistably drawn to Jane but as a shy little girl with coping daily with tension, anger, and violence I completely rejected Wuthering Heights. Maybe I've said too much...


mysticgypsy said...

Hi Bronteana!
I found your descriptions of your childhood experiences honest and moving. Truly.
I would like to add that I agree with the notion how one's perception of a book correlates with the "culture inside". Jane Eyre used to be on the top of my list when I was younger more because I was intrigued (and frightened) by Bertha. As I grew up, I was drawn more to Jane. Afterward, for a brief period of time I even ceased to think of JE (when there were other pressing events going on in my life). Lately, however, I found myself drawn more towards Villette; Lucy Snowe more than Jane Eyre.
I hated Wuthering Heights when I was younger, scarred by the external (violent)actions of the characters. But this definitly changed as I got older.
Books, I believe, are not static, but evolve with the reader, with time. At the same time, if the reader is motionless, it does not necessarily follow that the books will do the same...

mysticgypsy said...

Hi again
As for that survey, I'd be interested in knowing what age group of children they targeted.
The demographics really matter. prep-schools Vs. inner city. Girs Vs. Boys. etc
I also noticed that there was only one book chosen by a female writer :-/ hmmmm
And I am curious about his choice of "The portrait of a Lady" .

Brontëana said...

I'm beginning to believe that I haven't read a book unless I have read it twice-at least. I thought this was mostly true about poetry but I think it applies to novels. When I first read JE it was all about Jane for me. Now that I've read Villette I also identify more with Lucy than Jane, or rather I did... I think it might have changed my life in a way JE hasn't- yet. As I read, I kept wondering why Lucy kept cutting herself down. I would will her to live more fully. Very soon, though, I realised that I was doing just what Lucy had been. I took the book as a warning.

You're also right about the survey. I had similar questions. Really, I think Patrick Bronte's plan is best. Let them read what they are drawn to. My parents let me read what I chose. I hated English class until I went to university where I took two courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer because I was interested in them.

rinabeana said...

Some of those books seem a bit advanced for children, so I was wondering about the target demographic as well. I've actually not read Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Great Expectations, Portrait of a Lady, Ulysses, or The Waste Land. I've not read all of Coleridge's and Wordsworth's ballads, either. That leaves me with 3.5/10. What does that say about me? I've been an adult for some time. (heh)

Brontëana said...

I read the first chapter or so of Great Expectations when I was young, and I remember a first year prof shouting "Just read the damn thing!" when it came to Paradise Lost. I can't remember if I made it through the entire poem or not!

Don't worry, I think you've made up for it in the thousands of poems you must have read by now!

rinabeana said...

Awwww, thanks! I think I'm fairly well read, despite not having read much on that list. At least I've read all of Charlotte, Emily and Anne's novels!

Anonymous said...

I recall learning in my college Rennaissance Literature class that C.S. Lewis insisted "The Faerie Queen" was the perfect book for a child of twelve. I was struggling with it at age eighteen. Since then, I've wondered if children are capable of grasping much heavier literature than what is presented to them. In a documentary, I learned that Queen Elizabeth I was extremely literate at the age of five (might have been younger--I just remember being shocked). If it is true, that children can handle much smarter reading than they're given, we've got a culture that's dumbing it all down...I don't know.