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How to Appreciate a Novel by a Woman

I am here today to tell you that all things are possible in this old world of ours: I have just enjoyed a novel by a woman novelist: Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."  My goodness, one of the Bronte sisters, just the sort of book a school marm would have approved of, and thus would have been hated by most (male) youths. A freakish event like this must be explained somehow.

Actually the idea of reading this book came from my enjoyment of movie music scores. Dario Marianelli seems to have carved out a niche for himself in writing piano-intensive scores for movie renditions of Jane Austen or Bronte novels, such as the recent Jane Eyre movie. It certainly makes sense for the piano to be the main instrument here.  

In explaining why this book was enjoyable, let's start with what it doesn't have. (Recall the Latin poet, Horace, and his "Fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue.") This novel is not built around a love triangle. Surely we can agree that there are too many love triangles in the world of literature.

Nor does "Jane Eyre" suffer from the Glorification-of-the-Fool Syndrome. There is an insidious idea that floats around in literature. It shows up worst in a movie like "Forrest Gump." This idea glorifies the retarded or simple, the senile, the diseased, or the demented. Modern novelists, at least, think they are on the forefront of research to explore the depths of human depravity. Too often intelligence is linked with diabolical characters, e.g., Hannibal the Cannibal. The idea seems to be totally missing from literature that a character can be intelligent, at least half-wise, kind, and interesting.

But the main characters in "Jane Eyre" are admirable, yet imperfect. Jane is intelligent, tough, cautious, forward-thinking. She doesn't act rashly based on pure emotion. And yet there is a woman's heart underneath her tough skin. It is how I remember and imagine my ancestral females.

 I want to admire women. If I can't succeed with modern woman, then at least women in the past can be admired. Remember that in our depraved culture, 90% of advertising has been aimed at women. It is only to be expected that their minds and characters have collapsed in modern times.

It was just dumb luck that this enjoyable experience of reading "Jane Eyre" coincided with a woman showing up in my roadie bicycle club. It has been years since I have ridden with a woman. But she is fast and dependable on her bike. Despite being a married woman who is no spring chicken, her voice sounds almost girlish. As I ride along in single file, and hear that pleasant girlish voice, it is impossible not to inwardly smile.

Jane Eyre does not suffer from the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome. Nor is Jane beautiful, although some men find her attractive enough. It is true that the heroine of a movie is usually visually stunning. That seems to be necessary for commercial success, and after all, movies are meant to be eye candy, not mind candy. 

But there is something about a beautiful heroine in a book that makes the novelist look like a hack, writing for money. I don't really want that kind of trite entertainment. A novel should offer some enlightenment to a reader, and not just popcorn-munching entertainment. How can it do that without moral integrity?


John V said…
I would have expected the misogynist in you to have been drawn to the crazy wife who burns down the house.
Could you rewrite this comment so as to eliminate the "spoiler", while still making your point?
John V said…
You know that's not the "real" spoiler. Besides, how many people reading this blog are going to wade through Jane Eyre if they haven't already. Just pull a George Costanza, skip the book and watch the 2011 movie instead. (grin)
Allison said…
Wow, I did not know that my mind and character had collapsed due to advertising. Really, kB? Don't forget, I can find and successfully use all of the gears on my bikes.
XXXXX said…
I do agree that moral integrity is powerful reading. Not only does it provide a good example to the reader, it also provides hope, something that can suffer greatly when one just reads the news. I don't think that gender has anything to do with it though.
I have always been interested in the point that the Rochester character is not perceived by most readers as a villain since he demonstrated the very bad manners of trying to commit bigamy and the even worse manners of not letting Jane in on it and that Jane somehow still considers him a suitable husband in the end. A huge lack of morality, yet he is still desirable and this is still a "lived happily ever after" story.
One would wonder what Jane would have done if the real wife was still around when she got back. Perhaps then it wouldn't be such a good example of moral integrity.
XXXXX said…
One more point here. This novel written in the mid l800 occurred at a time when women had few options and were quite locked into their lot. People with land, as Rochester had, generally sought to make a marriage with someone of their same social status; someone who also had wealth, someone who could help solidify position. It would be unlikely that he would marry down.
And it has never ceased to exist that everyone wishes to marry up. So I have always concluded that Rochester's bad behavior (as well as his generally irascible personality) are mute points since he basically meant marrying up, any governess' dream. Again, practical, but not something that would stand up to the test of moral integrity.
George, All in all Jane Eyre's behavior was quite admirable, which is usually not the case in any kind of romance. It made me think well of Charlotte Bronte.

I dislike the idea that permeates literature that people who have brains, can have no heart, and vica versa.
In Jane Eyre's era a wife/mother literally made the difference between being cold and hungry next winter and being semi-secure and comfortable. Life was hard and serious. There was no room for frivolous spending based on whether X matches Y in color, or whether Z is cyooooot. The iron discipline had to come from momma, or you weren't going to make it.
Joy said…
I like to think I've kept my mind and character from collapsing with a steady diet of good books by both sexes. And the ability to ride a geared bicycle is not a sure sign of old-fashioned toughness. Some of us have poor balance and worse eyesight, but can still morph into mama grizzlies if our cubs are threatened.
Have any of you read "Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys? It tells the Jane Eyre story from the point of view of the "crazy" wife and how she fell into the clutches of Mr.R., who comes off very badly indeed in this version. It's not as good as the original, but still worth reading.
Joy, no I have never heard of the book you mentioned. What a bizarre idea for the plot!
XXXXX said…
Joy, must admit I cheated and just saw the movie.
One must be very careful with the ability of an author to romanticize a character and cause the reader to sympathize with him. It's an interesting process to observe in oneself, the defense of a cad within one's own mind and the power of good writing (or a good movie) to do so.