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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"I don't remember that"

To quote Charlotte in a letter wherein she remarks that she doesn't remember Mr Rochester being repulsive. I thought of this immediately after reading this recent review of Polly Teale's Jane Eyre:

"A memory unsoiled is an exquisite treasure," muses the intolerable Mr Rochester of his "poor and obscure" Jane Eyre.

I am puzzled by other things in this review:

Unable to escape from the horrors of her own miserable childhood, Bronte's heroine finds herself reliving her nightmares as an adult when she finds herself back living in a house with a secret attic room sullied by tormented cries of madness and drawing rooms dominated by stern men. Clinging to her faith and somewhat limited education, she works tirelessly to bury her innermost desires and elude her she-devil alter ego.

I obviously have not seen this production but I think I am becoming very weary of this treatment of the story. I really do not find the concept innovative. I might say I find it hackneyed, in fact. Scarcely three adaptations of the novel do not turn the story into something far darker and tormented than it reads- with all of its humour and wit. After viewing nearly a century of such adaptations, I'm truly weary of it. And I'm tired of hearing that Jane is emotionally repressed when she is one of the most expressive heroines of literature. She struggles with convention, she does not surrender to it- the poor dear.

Need I add that Jane Eyre has been used as a template for cheap, awful Romance novels for... who knows how many years? And that they tend to follow the same trend of oppressing the young woman, and turning the man into something formidable and stern- even sadistic? In fact, minus mad-woman alter-ego, the template sounds... exactly like this description of the play. (A professor I studied with affirms that there actually is a template which authors of these 'novels' use. A sort of 'quick-e-plot' which is a horridly bastardised version of Jane Eyre).

There is nothing that appears out-dated or immaterial. Who would have thought stiff corsets, ringlets, breeches and proper Queen's English (albeit spoken with a Yorkshire drawl) could sit so comfortably in today's society of iPods and PSPs? Shared Experience proves that they do.

'Stiff corsets, ringlets, breeches and proper Queen's English' are things that I have never thought typified the work. But it's a snappy ending to the article... I also don't know what a PSP is, so who am I to say?

10 comments:

mysticgypsy said...

I wonder if the plot is borrowed from Jane Eyre or if Jane Eyre is itself borrowed from a plot?

Brontëana said...

The basic plot was hackneyed in Charlotte's time, as I understand it, but she broke most of its important conventions when she wrote Jane Eyre. It seems like a step backward to reinstate those conventions, and then call it innovative!

It surprised me when I made a slow reading of the novel for LERO Jane Eyre month, how little of the gothic element there really is in the work as a whole. And by gothic I mean to include also the framework of the gothic period romance.

mysticgypsy said...

Really?
I thought it had plenty of the Gothic elements in it....
I am interested in knowing what you found lacking in this regard.

Brontëana said...

I am thinking of how much humour there is, as well as domestic scenes- the gothic elements simply don't saturate the text. they are present, but not predominant. It is a strange novel, you know. I seldom find works so tempting to misread. For instance, why is it that Thornfield is so often imagined as a sinister sort of place, dark, and forbidding? When it is described as being rather cosy, set in pretty fields, and some rolling hills (not moors). I think of how Jane is too busy playing with her friends (yes, she has several friends!) to pay much attention to Helen's last illness. For much that is a trial for Jane, there's often a benefit as well. She has a mixed measure of sorrow and happiness.

I think the way in which Jane's life is NOT so agonising, dark, and repressed is vital. As I understand it, an important element of the female gothic is this apparent contrast between the gothic dangers of the night and the happiness of the domestic day. It is limiting to focus only on the one at the expense of the other (the 1934 film nearly eradicates the gothic element, and it is just as uninteresting as a result).

mysticgypsy said...

I agree with you that Jane Eyre (the novel) does have lighter elements that counteracts the density of the gothic.

However, I believe the gothic element is heavily enhaced by Bertha's presence in the plot. Because of Bertha, everything can be interpreted as dark, mysterious, and sinister. Without Bertha, the story will not exist.

Liz said...

I agree with you entirely about the humour, and the general sunny, optimistic outlook of the novel. I’ve got a theory that the novels that tend to define a genre (Bridget Jones, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre) tend to have a slightly parodic, self-reflexive aspect to them, which is why they’re so compelling (and create the genre in the first place. Bridget Jones, after all, is comically aware that she is a neurotic boyfriendless thirtysomething, which makes her predicament all the more comical (and telling). In the same way, Mr R tells his hackneyed (if fun) tales of mistresses and roués, fully cognisant that he was playing a somewhat clichéd role (apart from the lack of looks, of course). Seemingly, because the genre-defining text has already taken the piss out of itself, the texts that follow can only be solemn and shallow and misunderstand the whole point.

Brontëana said...

to Mysticgypsy:

Bertha is of course the centre of the gothic machinery in the novel. I'm not sure to what extent she changes my perceptions of the rest of the work, however. And it is very possible to replace Berth with another blocking device, although it would remove the gothic element entirely- probably. Thornycroft Hall replaces Bertha with a will in which the ownership of the hall relied on an arranged marriage which had not been consumated yet when our heroine meets the (young, handsome, theological) master. Jane would still have a life story without Bertha. Maybe she would have had to open a school of her own, and write novels when she fell in love with a married man she could never have...

I wish I could remember the name of this article I read last year about Bertha's place in criticism... It was one of the best articles I've read in a long while. I admired it's precision- he took on many critics and works, including Madwoman in the Attic. Some of the things he said were so simple and apparent and yet undermined entire theories! *glee*

(I just love when that happens! ;)

He argued also that critics are responsible for enlarging Bertha's role. There are three volumes of this novel, and she doesn't appear in more than a few pages of it. The work is also written in a very witty, snarky tone which makes it very enjoyable to read.

Brontëana said...

to Liz:

When I took a seminar course on the Brontes, someone on the first day said that Jane Eyre was 'hilarious.' I wanted to declare that I agreed but then I realised that they really meant the entire thing was ludicrous. I have actually read disparagin comments about the book targetting the humour as a flaw. For example, when Mr Rochester mistakes Jane's eye colour while he's off in one of his poetical spoony daydreams ;) It's funny! Charlotte often has her characters loose touch with reality like this when they are superlatively happy. But they took it to mean that he's just a idiot.

And I agree with what you say about Mr Rochester's awareness of his own ridiculous behaviour. To add to what you've said about his affair with Celine, I think it is also significant that his infatuation ends when he realises she is not the idol he had made of her. In the Erie Playhouse version of JE there's a song about the affair only they change it so that his infatuation doesn't end- he wants to die in the duel. Instead of being more dramatic, it seems pathetic and silly- and hackneyed. There is also none of his sardonic commentary. No humour, and the result is... something from a harlequin romance.

Liz said...

I like the ‘joke’ when JE says ‘but you are a married man!’ to Mr R in the proposal as well. Even the plucking out the eye/right hand reference could be seen as a kind of grim joke.

Much as I appreciate how the Gilbert & Gubar interpretation has made JE popular and scholarly again, I probably agree that poor old Bertha has been overcooked a bit. The Freudian unconscious aspect I find probably the most unfertile, eventually. I think that CB was just as keen to show Bertha as an alternative destiny of Jane’s (like the nun, and the pale bourgeoises for Lucy).

Brontëana said...

That's interesting, Liz. I believe that governesses often ended their days in asylums because they had nowhere else to go when they became too old to continue working, and had not been able to save enough money to retire. I have never read any criticism looking into this.