Saturday, 21 January 2017

All things Jane Eyre: The verdict

In my last post, I wrote about my project of reading books related to Jane Eyre. To recap, I was going to read a prequel, the actual, a retelling, a sequel, and a spin off. Having now completed the project  - lest anyone thinks I've read all these books in a week, I should point out what I read most before my post last week - these are my GoodReads reviews of the books I read. Note: I was going re-read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier but decided against it as realised I have enough paranoid thoughts of my own without reading about someone else's. 

Wide Sargasso SeaWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time but, without a doubt, it's a fantasy - plain governess finds love with her Byronic hero of an employer, who turns out to have a mad wife living in the attic? That's a ridiculous plot even if you ignore the amazing coincidence of Jane bumping into her long-lost cousins and discovering she's inherited a fortune.

Wide Sargasso Sea is very much the reality. Rochester and Antoinette (aka Bertha) come from very difficult cultures and barely know each other when they are persuaded to marry each other, so of course their relationship fails - particularly as Rochester, being a 19th Century English man, is incapable of grasping that he ought to try to understand Antoinette rather than try to change her. Given her awful marriage and a difficult upbringing, it's no wonder Antoinette loses her mind.

I did really like this compelling novel but I was frustrated by how little I knew Antoinette by the end. A lot of the book focuses on Rochester's perspective or Antoinette's reaction to things - but there doesn't seem to be much about her wants and needs (perhaps because no-one really lets her have any).

Jane EyreJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's fair to say I am more than a little obsessed with Jane Eyre. But I did wonder if I had built it up to be better than it was - so I decided to re-read it (not the for the first time mind; this must be at least the third time I've read it).

Looking at it objectively, there are some deep flaws it - the implausibility of Jane finding love with her employer despite being famously "poor, plain, and little" and the somewhat miraculously coincidence that the kindly trio of siblings that come to her aid when she's destitute turn out to be her long-lost cousins. Not to mention Bronte's problematic treatment of people with mental health issues, particularly the implication that Bertha's Creole heritage is partly to blame for her madness (she was writing in much less enlightened times to be fair).

But, even with these flaws, Jane Eyre is still a wonderful, powerful call to arms for anyone who has ever felt that they have been unfairly overlooked because they lacked the necessary charm or looks. Jane never lets the rejection of others affect her sense of self. In fact, so strong is her sense of self that she spurns Rochester because even though she knows she will never love anyone like that again, she cannot compromise her principles to be with him (read it to find out exactly why).

Astonishingly for a book that was first published 170 years ago, Jane and Rochester are portrayed as equals. Rochester loves Jane not just because of her "pure heart" but also because she's fiercely intelligent and can match him in conversation. There's many a book or film these days that fail to show a woman's intelligence being an attractive quality (alas, many even show it to be an unattractive quality).

Reader, I Married HimReader, I Married Him by Tracy Chevalier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was initially disappointed to discover that most of the stories within this anthology were "inspired by" Jane's famous declaration rather than different takes on "what happened next" (which is what I thought the book would contain).

However, I found I didn't actually enjoy that the few "what happened next" stories that the book did contain - they either questioned the love between Jane and Rochester or questioned Jane’s motives. I love Jane Eyre because it’s about finding love against the odds, so I don’t want read anything that undermines that! Mind you, Audrey Niffenegger’s (she of Time Traveller’s Wife fame) The Orphan Exchange was one of my favourite stories of the whole book. While that completely changes the plot of Jane Eyre, Jane is still the steely “poor, plain, and little” woman with a strong moral compass that made the Bronte’s book so great.

I much preferred the “inspired by” stories, so more so than others. I particularly enjoyed “Since I first saw your face” by Emma Donoghue and "Migrating Bird" by Elif Shafak.

Overall, I think this a lovely book to read if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre (not sure why you would read it if you’re not a fan). It does remind me why I don’t usually read short story collections – they can be hit and miss and the “hits” are never long enough – but I am glad I read it.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1)The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idea of a detective specialising in crimes involving literary fiction was a fun concept to begin with but the book did run out of steam a bit by the end I think. Plus, like a lot female characters written by a male author, Thursday did come across as a man's perception of a strong woman - straightforward and a little lacking in emotional depth (ie, not that complex).

Still, it was an enjoyable read and an intriguing mix of sci-fi/crime/magical realism

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