What Is Your Damage, Heathcliff?

Spoiler alert for…uh…Wuthering Heights because duh.

The Bad English Major Train hasn’t left Brontë Station yet. Now that I’ve read all about Jane Eyre, Edward Fairfax Rochester, and Antoinette Cosway/Bertha Antoinetta Mason, I moved on to Wuthering Heights, the only novel published by Charlotte’s younger sister Emily before her untimely death at the age of 30.

From what I’ve researched (and it’s not that much), very little is known about Emily Brontë’s biographical details: it sounds as though much of it comes from her sister Charlotte, who may not be a very reliable resource. Emily was very reclusive and seems to have had very few friends outside her family. This makes constructing an accurate biography difficult, since Charlotte was the most famous and lived the longest of the Brontë siblings (and Charlotte’s 1857 biography by North and South author Elizabeth Gaskell is full of false information that was approved by Patrick Brontë).

A little bit of biographical information on the Brontës: their family history is very tragic. Their father, Patrick Brontë, outlived his entire family. Most people only know about the three sister novelists—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—and maybe their brother, Branwell. But there were actually six Brontë children altogether: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Their mother (Maria Brontë, née Branwell) died of cancer before Anne was two years old, and her sister Elizabeth Branwell moved in to help bring up her nieces and nephew. The two eldest daughters got sick at school and died before they hit their teen years. The other four survived into adulthood.

In 1847, the three sisters all published novels under male pseudonyms: Jane Eyre was released as one volume, and Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published together as another. Branwell became a published poet, an aspiring artist, and a drunkard (perhaps laudanum addict). He died of tuberculosis in September 1848. Emily died two months later, and Anne in May 1849—also of tuberculosis. Charlotte married in 1854 and died in 1855. Her cause of death is not totally known: she may have died of tuberculosis, typhus, or as a result of dehydration and malnutrition from extreme morning sickness during pregnancy. Charlotte published three novels during her lifetime (her father published a fourth posthumously), Anne two novels, and Emily just the one.

In my post on Jane Eyre, I talked a lot about how the Brontës’ novels (at least those of Charlotte and Emily, but I’m reading Anne’s work next!) are unlike many of the novels of their time. These novels don’t have large, complex social worlds and they don’t try to mirror the real lives of middle class people. Instead of realist novels, they’re Gothic romances that take place in very small, physically isolated worlds that are populated with intense characters. Like really intense. Like “this is one of the most messed up books I’ve ever read, you guys.”

It doesn't help that there is approximately one name for every two characters. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It doesn’t help that there is approximately one name for every two characters. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Holy crap, if I thought Jane Eyre was intense, it was like a light-hearted farce compared to Wuthering Heights. Compared to Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester is practically Hugh Grant. I’ve been hearing for years that Wuthering Heights is one of the greatest love stories ever written. Now that I’ve actually read the novel, I see two options: either no one else has, or humanity is wayyyyyyyy more messed up than I thought.

Wuthering Heights (named for the Earnshaw family’s house) spans two generations of heartbreak. At its center is Heathcliff, a child found on the streets by Mr. Earnshaw. Earnshaw brings Heathcliff home, where his son, Hindley, abuses Heathcliff. Heathcliff and Earnshaw’s daughter, Catherine, become obsessed with each other. The Earnshaw parents die, Hindley’s wife gives birth to a son (Hareton) and dies. Heathcliff, Catherine, Hareton, and the servants live under Hindley’s brutal rule: Hindley is a raging alcoholic who showers physical abuse on all others in the household. He forces Heathcliff to act as a servant as revenge for his father’s favoritism.

Even though she loves Heathcliff, Catherine marries Edgar Linton, the rich guy at the next house over, Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff runs away, gets rich, comes back to live with Hindley (and gamble with him until he’s forced to give Heathcliff Wuthering Heights), then comes around to stir up trouble. Catherine and Heathcliff do this weird hate-love dance for a while, until Heathcliff elopes with Edgar’s sister, Isabella. Catherine becomes sick, Heathcliff and Isabella return, and then Catherine dies and gives birth to a premature daughter. Isabella escapes her cruel husband, gives birth to a son named Linton and dies many years later. Hindley dies six months after Catherine, and Heathcliff is in charge of Hareton.

The second half of the novel is often left off in film adaptations, including Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation, which I saw before reading the novel. The second half follows Catherine “Cathy” Linton (Catherine and Edgar’s daughter), Linton Heathcliff (Heathcliff and Isabella’s son), and Hareton Earnshaw (Hindley and Frances Earnshaw’s son). Heathcliff brings Linton to live with him, even though he obviously hates him. Hareton has been kept in total ignorance, mirroring Hindley’s cruel treatment of Heathcliff. Cathy and Linton become friends, though their families keep them apart. As the years pass by, Heathcliff forces Cathy to marry his ill son so that he can inherit Thrushcross Grange (and keep Cathy from her dying father’s bedside). Edgar and Linton both die; Cathy becomes almost a prisoner in Heathcliff’s household. Cathy gets a wild hair to befriend Hareton and teach him to read. Heathcliff’s scheme undone, he starts tripping balls with visions of Catherine and then he basically starves/exhausts himself to death because that’s the power of literacy I guess. The novel closes with the impending marriage of Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw.

Every character in this novel is someone I would not like to know in real life. Most of the cast are completely horrible to each other. I don’t understand them at all and in some way Emily Brontë must not have either: almost none of the story is relayed through the perspectives of these characters. Instead, the novel opens on a renter named Mr. Lockwood who travels up to Wuthering Heights from Thrushcross Grange to visit his landlord, Mr. Heathcliff. He’s treated very rudely and attacked by the pack of feral dogs running around. He asks the housekeeper at the Grange (Ellen “Nelly” Dean) what Heathcliff’s problem is and Nelly tells him the whole story, much of which she witnessed firsthand as Catherine’s and then Cathy’s nurse. Some of Nelly’s story comes from old letters, but the point here is that whatever is going on in Catherine and Heathcliff’s heads only comes out through dialogue.

Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is the kind of love I know I definitely experienced (unrequitedly) as a teenager. I really do think Brontë does a wonderful job of putting Catherine’s feelings to words. It’s moments like these that actually make Catherine sympathetic (note: all citations come from the fourth Norton Critical Edition):

“I was only going to say that [in the dream] heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.” (63)

That is some pretty powerful shit. However, Catherine’s anger is just as intense as her love. Where as Jane Eyre will tear people to shreds with her words, Catherine tries to tear people to shreds with her bare hands. Her savagery is soothed when she marries Edgar—but only because Edgar and Isabella just bend to her every will. She keeps Heathcliff around after she’s married to her husband’s chagrin and uses Isabella as a pawn in her cruel games. Here’s an example of what Catherine does after Edgar and Heathcliff scuffle (narrated by Nelly):

She rang the bell till it broke with a twang; I entered leisurely. It was enough to try the temper of a saint, such senseless, wicked rages! There she lay dashing her head against the arm of the sofa, and grinding her teeth, so that you might fancy she would crash them to splinters! Mr. Linton stood looking at her in sudden compunction and fear. He told me to fetch some water. She had no breath for speaking. I brought a glass full; and as she would not drink, I sprinkled it on her face. In a few seconds she stretched herself out stiff, and turned up her eyes, while her cheeks, at once blanched and livid, assumed the aspect of death. Linton looked terrified. (93)

Like, I consider myself an emotional person, maybe even overly emotional, and I just don’t get it. And Heathcliff’s character is just as intensely, angrily, in love as Catherine. If this is what love truly is, if it’s Heathcliff threatening to murder people and digging up graves and seeing ghosts and exacting multi-generational revenge, I never want to truly be in love. Above almost all things, this novel just made me depressed. Not even the good, cathartic kind of depression where you weep beautifully and learn more about yourself. I mean, I’m not having a good time in my life either so maybe that influenced my reading, but I just couldn’t handle this novel. I began trying to have sympathies for the characters. Heathcliff is some kind of racially ambiguous “other,” which could probably be the topic of some interesting critical discussion—he also might have some kind of Gothic “otherworldly” thing going on, since just before his death Nelly sees him as like a scary goblin/demon thing. But as the characters went on ruining their own lives and the lives of others that sympathy faded, the excitement faded, and at times I felt like I’d been consigned to read Wuthering Heights rather than choosing to read it. 

Heathcliff and Catherine experience this gut-wrenching love of one another seems to me to be where most of the substance of the novel lies. A lot of the novel is kind of unexplained: there aren’t really demonstrative episodes of Heathcliff and Catherine’s childhood obsession. Nelly is a really unreliable narrator, not just in the sense that there are gaps in her memory, but because she seems to hate Heathcliff and then when someone insults him she will defend him. Her feelings toward the other characters are pretty inconsistent.

I found the pragmatist in me always asking, “Why?” at this novel: why does everyone just enjoy torturing each other? if everyone around her died of colds, why does Catherine stand out in a storm and make herself sick from refusing to change out of her wet clothes? Why does Wuthering Heights make people crazy? And that’s really the scariest thing about this novel to me: there’s no answer for why the characters are how they are. They seem sort of doomed to move forward as they are, die, and pollute future generations; Heathcliff will live on and drive others away from one another, away from happiness, away from their personal property, as though trying to thwart his beloved Catherine from her grave. The book does have a happy(ish) ending because Cathy stops judging Hareton on his ignorant state and actually BECOMES AN AGENT OF CHANGE, but it’s like, “After all I’ve been through with this novel I’m not sure how I even feel anymore.” If I’m not going to risk TB by standing in the rain for my lost love and then foaming at the mouth when people get me to change into something dry, then do I even HAVE FEELINGS?

I suppose the bottom line is I kind of hated this novel, but I also kind of didn’t: imperfect novels are more interesting than perfect ones. I will end on a positive note, though, and say that this book really made me want to learn more about the Brontë family.  Like, what kind of upbringing produced these women? What of Emily is biography and what is myth? Do we even know?

Also now if I want to wander around any moors or whatnot shouting “HEATHCLIFF! HEATHCLIFF!” now I can officially do as such and not be a poseur. English major win.

Next time: I don’t really know because I have to move in like the next week and am completely overwhelmed. But I am going to start Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


Wide Sargasso Sea Gave Me the Wide Sargasso Sads

Warning: This post on Wide Sargasso Sea contains spoilers for this novel and also spoilers for Jane Eyre. This is the second post in a row with Jane Eyre spoilers, so if you have spent the time between 1847 and now not reading Jane Eyre, I suggest you correct yourself before you wreck yourself.

Part of my reading goal for the year is to not be as completely ashamed of my bookshelves. You see, I buy books much, much faster than I read them, since books are non-perishable goods (kind of) and since sometimes publishes change things like how Vintage has changed my beloved McCarthy and Faulkner covers recently. (I also shop used a lot, so you sometimes don’t know when you’ll be able to find a decent used copy in the edition you want again.) As I closed in on the end of Jane Eyre, I was torn between continuing with the Brontës by jumping into Wuthering Heights, or taking a slight detour.

I took the detour, which came in the form of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966In a way, it is  like continuing with the Brontë sisters because Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre, told primarily from the perspective of the latter’s “madwoman in the attic”: Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway (which Rhys’s narrator calls herself). Though the book employs a few different perspectives (including Mr. Rochester’s), but Antoinette’s is the primary voice. The novel primarily takes place in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, and in Dominica, where Rhys grew up.

Postcolonialism is one of the topics in the field of English I always found I found endlessly fascinating. In a nice bit of circularity, I was asked to read both Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Foe by J.M. Coetzee in both my first (Basics of the Novel) and last (British Lit Colonialism and Slavery 1680-1830) college English classes. Foe is a postcolonial retelling of Robinson Crusoe and features other elements from Defoe’s works. Coetzee pulls apart Defoe’s novel by making his own the story not of Crusoe but of a female castaway, Susan Barton, trying to get her story published by a writer named Daniel Foe, who co-opts her narrative into a fictitious adventure story.

Susan travels with another character from Robinson Crusoe: Friday. In Defoe’s novel, Friday is the obedient manservant of ambiguous non-white racial makeup who, despite years of Crusoe’s instruction, never manages to pass “Racist Pidgin English 101.” In Foe, Friday has had his tongue cut out (Crusoe alleges this was done by slavers) and Susan tries to get him to tell his story through other methods, but fails to understand Friday’s forms of communication. To simplify: Coetzee’s narrative brings those marginalized in Defoe’s original to the forefront, but much of the novel revolves around their inability to communicate their own stories with one another. Their stories are co-opted by a white male author, who turns their narratives into a fictitious account that displeases Susan. And nobody can discern Friday’s own narrative or personal feelings, even though he spent the most time on the island.

Wide Sargasso Sea is almost like a cousin to Foe in how it provides more context for the events and characters in a “classic” literary work. Rhys gives voice, depth, and humanity to the madwoman in the attic of Thornfield Hall, whom the reader of Jane Eyre sees as barely human. I was already pretty sour on Mr. Rochester going into this novel: he has a tendency to shade the truth from Jane, so I didn’t completely buy the story of his unfortunate marriage. According to Rochester, his father refused to divide his estate between him and his older brother, and therefore sought a rich heiress for his younger son to marry. This was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, a white Creole woman from Jamaica with a fortune of £30,000.

Rochester claims that Bertha’s family shielded him from the degree of their mental problems: her mother was insane, her brother was developmentally disabled (not Rochester’s term), and he was not allowed to talk to Bertha. After their marriage, he realized Bertha was totally unstable (violent, lusty, etc.), but couldn’t bear for her to be chained to the floor in an asylum. The best solution was clearly to lock her in a room of his house with a personal caregiver (Grace Poole). During Jane Eyre, Bertha escapes her room to set Rochester’s chamber afire while he sleeps, stab and bite her visiting brother, and ruin some of Jane’s wedding clothes. After Jane learns this story and sees Bertha in the flesh, she flees Thornfield. While she is away, Bertha succeeds in burning down all of Thornfield. Rochester tries to rescue her from the flames, but she commits suicide by jumping from the roof. Rochester is disfigured by his injuries, Jane still loves him, they get married, the crazy lady is dead, happily ever after, “Reader, I married him!”, etc.

But apparently Jean Rhys saw another side of the story that Charlotte Brontë doesn’t allow Bertha to tell.

First of all: I can’t recommend the Norton Critical Edition of Wide Sargasso Sea enough (all citations in his post come from that edition). Any Renegade Word readers know I have a slight hoarding problem when it comes to Nortons (this blog’s photo are all of mine together). I’ve had more than one person tell me they didn’t like this novel, and I wonder if part of that could be due to insufficient annotations in some editions. Rhys herself was born in the Caribbean, and many references in the book refer to things I was totally unfamiliar with. They really enrich the text. For example, on the very first page, there are five footnotes in the first four paragraphs that reveal things about Caribbean dialects, the tense relations between English and French colonies, historical contexts for the name of Antoinette’s house, as well as the historical events going on in the area when the novel takes place.

Jane Eyre was written in 1847, but it takes place in an earlier era: the editor of Wide Sargasso Sea says the events in Brontë’s novel are narrated from 1818, referring to events before 1808 (31, note 7). Most novels in the 19th century actually take place 30 or more years earlier than their publication date—my English Major brain is failing as to why, but if I’m remembering correctly, it’s to take that whole “bearing no resemblance to any person living or dead” thing to “even if this novel did bear that resemblance chances are most people still alive don’t remember/care anymore.” Of course, some of the novels where I remember going over this point were placed purposefully in the Napoleonic era to veil any commentary on contemporary political climates.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys changes the timeline so that her novel aligns with the Emancipation Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery in Britain and its colonies. Antoinette and her family are Creole—white people who are of European descent, but not members of European society. The transition out of slavery allowed men like Rochester’s father to come in from abroad and buy land for cheap . Here’s a footnote that explains it well:

The emancipation legislation imposed upon newly freed slaves a so-called apprenticeship period. Their former masters were required to provide apprentice laborers with food, clothing, housing, and medical care or to give land on which apprentices could cultivate their own produce during their “free time.” Apprentice laborers were not free to chose their “employers” or to negotiate their wages. The apprenticeship was, in fact, a new form of slavery under the jurisdiction of special magistrates paid by the government, and the punishments for alleged infractions were severe, at times more so than under slavery…. English entrepreneurs…came to the West Indies to take advantage of the depressed sugar market and to buy the estates and plantations being sold cheaply after emancipation. (15, note 7)

The reader sees episodes of Antoinette’s life and it is not an easy one. Her widowed mother, Annette, is ostracized by the other few Creoles because she is from a French colony (Martinique). Her brother, Pierre, is developmentally delayed. Creoles in the Caribbean were greatly outnumbered. After Emancipation, Rhys makes it clear that the Cosway family lives in danger of starvation or being killed by a mob. Annette marries Mr. Mason, one of the new Englishmen come to profit off the losses of the Creole class, in order to survive. Annette does go insane, but only after the family’s house is burned by a mob, resulting in Pierre’s death.

I’ve kind of shot my wad on exposition in this post. It’s a little hard to talk about the bulk of this text: it reads as dream-like in many ways and it’s so short and I’m convinced I missed a lot of important points. What I hope to have done is to begin to demonstrate how Rhys fleshes out properly the tragic history of “Bertha Mason” (called “Bertha” only by her husband, even though she hates it). Rhys also beautifully demonstrates the same kinds of tensions at work in the colonial, post-Emancipation West Indies: Antoinette’s family have been displaced from their position in the social hierarchy, and she and her mother find themselves caught between the societies of the colonized and of the colonizers, and at the mercy of white Englishmen who don’t understand the West Indian world they try to control.

The criticism presented in the Norton goes into greater depth on many aspects of this novel, such as its parallels with Jane Eyre, race, postcolonialism, etc. I will get to my bottom line: this novel made me miss college because it is teeming with complexity. And on a more personal note, it made me incredibly sad. My heart broke for Antoinette on almost every page. I even pitied Rochester when the narrative swerved into his perspective (a little bit; he was still kind of a jerk). I found the prose powerful and haunting. I felt deeply and I learned a lot from this novel. I left this book feeling more aware of the world than before, like Rhys had done a beautiful job of busting open the underpinnings of Jane Eyre so that any re-reading will be colored by Rhys’s work.

So I’m sorry this review doesn’t make very much sense. It took me forever to write and I had a million things to say, but I’m not really sure about any of them anymore. So…go read Wide Sargasso Sea and let’s talk about it.

Next time: the sadness continues with Wuthering Heights.

Jane Eyre is My Shoulder Devil

Spoiler alert: this discussion of Jane Eyre makes reference to a twist in the novel that may not be known to some readers, even though the novel was published in 1847.

As I mentioned in my blog reboot, I have shocked many people in my literary life by admitting I have never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I’ll admit, it’s weird for someone whose coursework consists mostly of nineteenth-century British novels to not have read one of the most well-known novels of the time. It took me three starts to finally finish Jane Eyre after college.

Here’s a story about a class I took in college because all my blog posts start out this way: my best introduction to the works of the Brontës besides Kate Beaton’s comic. I took a class in college called The Victorian Social World. We read five novels: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. Someone asked about the Brontë sisters one day in some capacity: probably because their books all came out about the same time as the books on the syllabus. Our professor told us that the only novel any of the Brontës wrote that has a large social world is Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, which he left off to avoid redundancy in our small department, since Shirley was the centerpiece to a class taught almost every year (those of us who took that class the next semester discovered that Shirley has a plot very similar to North and South anyway).

He told us the Brontës’ novels were not engaged in larger social worlds. Instead, there were few characters, and they were often geographically isolated from anyone else. He said that the Brontë heroines were full of strong emotions roiling below the surface and they would bubble over at intervals: anger, passion, despair. Their novels were Gothic romances, highly melodramatic stories where these  passionate heroines fall in love with brooding Byronic heroes despite forces threatening to tear them apart. (I have read no Anne Brontë yet, but I believe many of these traits pertain mostly to Charlotte’s and Emily’s works. I could be wrong.)

In March of 2011, I went to see Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre in the theater. I really enjoyed it and wanted to read the book, but I had less than two months until graduation and had other things occupying my time (read: finishing my thesis, writing two long finals, and not going insane). I picked up Jane Eyre soon after graduation and saw what my professor was talking about—things that were downplayed in the film.

First, a synopsis (skip to the the picture of Charlotte Brontë if you’re familiar):

Jane Eyre is an orphan who lives with her aunt and cousins, the Reeds, who all despise and mistreat her. She is sent to Lowood school to endure abuse and a strict religious education until age 18, when she seeks employment as a governess. The only respondent to her advertisement is Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall. Jane begins to teach Adèle Varens, a French child who is the ward of Thornfield’s master, Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane first meets Rochester when she is out walking and he is thrown from his horse, though he doesn’t reveal himself as her employer until Jane arrives back at the house.

Rochester is a hard fellow to read: he’s gruff, abrupt, he seems to delight in making Jane uncomfortable, but she meets his mental obstacles with grace and without fear. Jane is happy in her new home, but weird stuff happens at Thornfield. There’s weird laughter in the halls at night. One night she wakes up to discover Mr. Rochester’s bed chamber in flames and saves his life. Jane and Rochester become closer and act almost as equals, but Rochester seems to favor a nearby noblewoman, Blanche Ingram, as a potential wife.

Miss Ingram’s party comes to stay at Thornfield and subject Jane to humiliation. An unexpected guest turns up while the party are there, Richard Mason. In the night, Rochester fetches Jane to his aid—Richard has been stabbed and bitten, and Jane must attend to the wound while Rochester fetches the doctor.

Jane receives news that her cousin John Reed has squandered his fortune and committed suicide, sending her Aunt Reed into an apoplectic fit. Jane goes back to see Mrs. Reed, who tells her that Jane has a living relation, John Eyre of Madeira, who had written to ask about adopting Jane. Mrs. Reed replied that Jane had died of typhus at Lowood. Jane forgives Mrs. Reed, who dies. Jane writes to her uncle to correct her aunt’s lie.

When Jane arrives back at Thornfield, rumors of Mr. Rochester’s impending marriage fly. Jane tries to leave Rochester, the two confess their love for one another, and Rochester asks Jane to marry him. Jane loves Rochester, but she is apprehensive of the marriage: she does not want to wear fine clothes and a strange woman tears her wedding veil in the night.

One month after the proposal, as Jane and Rochester stand at the altar, a solicitor named Mr. Briggs and Richard Mason interrupt the ceremony to reveal that Mr. Rochester is already married to Mason’s sister: Bertha Antoinetta Mason, who still lives at Thornfield. Richard Mason was tipped off by John Eyre of Madeira that his niece Jane was to be wed. Rochester takes everyone back to the house to reveal his wife: violent and insane, she lives locked in a room with a caregiver. Bertha is responsible for the fire in Mr. Rochester’s room and the stabbing of her brother; she stole the keys while her caretaker slept.

Rochester proposes to Jane that they live as though they were married in Europe without legally tying the knot. Jane refuses; she says she must respect herself. She runs away and finds shelter and employment with the Rivers family, St. John the parson and his two sisters. Jane does not reveal her real name or past, but soon St. John uncovers her secrets after receiving word that his uncle, John Eyre of Madeira, has died and left a fortune of £20,000 to his niece Jane Eyre. Jane, overjoyed at having family, splits her inheritance four ways. St. John feels a calling to become a missionary in India and asks Jane to accompany him as his wife.

Jane does not love St. John. She travels back to Thornfield to seek news of Rochester. She finds the house a blackened ruin: Bertha set the house on fire before jumping from the roof. Mr. Rochester survived, but lost his vision and his right hand trying to save her. Jane travels to his cottage, where she and Rochester reunite, they eventually get married, and live together happily, have children, hooray everybody.

Charlotte's got a pretty brooding countenance herself.

Charlotte’s got a pretty brooding countenance herself.

I enjoyed Jane Eyre each of the three times I began it after graduation, but finishing the novel was a challenge and took over two years. Some of it was readjusting to reading for pleasure, but a lot of it was the fact that I have a really weird reaction to this book (and the first third of Wuthering Heights, but that’s another story for another time).

Here’s the thing: if I could be a character in literature, it would probably be an Austen heroine. Austen heroines take all of society’s ridiculous bullshit with aplomb and eventually they meet the man of their dreams, there’s some mutual sanding-down of rougher edges from both parties, and they live happily ever after as islands of well-tempered bliss in a sea of blithering idiots and flat characters.I’m not saying Austen heroines are without emotion, no matter what Charlotte Brontë thought of Jane Austen’s work.But I’m probably closer to a Brontë heroine than an Austen heroine. Whether I like it or not, I feel like I could sometimes be described as a “simmering soup pot of rage,” even if I generally keep a tight lid on it. To continue with the soup metaphor (I skipped lunch, okay?), I have had moments where I feel like I might overboil. Generally, I vent in a safe space, like to friends over instant messaging instead of hauling off and yelling at the construction workers next door, “Do you HAVE to start at 7:30 EVERY MORNING?”But when I read Jane Eyre, something happened to me.The first time I read through Jane Eyre after graduation, there was a little bit of friendship drama going on in my life. After one particularly bad night, I tried to calm down by escaping into the world of literature. Big. Mistake.

Here’s Jane having a showdown with Mrs. Reed (note: all citations come from the third Norton Critical Edition):

“I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty….You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity….I will tell anybody who asks me questions, this exact tale. People think you a good woman, but you are bad, hard- hearted. YOU are deceitful!”

Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty. Not without cause was this sentiment: Mrs. Reed looked frightened; her work had slipped from her knee; she was lifting up her hands, rocking herself to and fro, and even twisting her face as if she would cry. (30-31)

This is one of those moments that hasn’t made it into either of the film adaptations I’ve seen (the 2011 feature film and the 2006 miniseries—both very good). It shocked me. Even at age 10, Jane Eyre takes no bullshit from anybody. Sometimes I feel as though I go through life as a doormat that secretly covers a hellmouth. Reading Jane Eyre’s telling-off when I as already mad at all my friends, when I was struggling with moving back home after graduation, when every job application was rejected….I stopped reading because I felt like continuing on  would put me in genuine peril of grabbing my phone and texting someone “YOU ARE DEAD TO ME.”  Brontë’s work resonated with my emotional tumult in a way I’ve rarely experienced in literature. It’s kind of creepy, actually.

The next two times I began the novel, these strong emotional reactions persisted. It wasn’t just the “you go, girl!” moments of Jane Eyre giving somebody the business. Even though I knew what was going to happen, the nighttime arson and stabbing gave me real cases of the heebie-jeebies. Throughout, Brontë seasons her narrative with Gothic flavoring (note to self: eat before writing next time): not only are Thornfield and its happenings and its surroundings creeptastic as all get-out, but Jane grows up in a home where a servant feeds her fantastic tales about fairies and the haunted Red Room. But for all Jane’s imaginings of the supernatural, the horrors she experiences are a weird mix of the realistic but melodramatic: Lowood school is tortuous and plagued by disease, the laughter at Thornfield is not a spirit but the very tangible obstacle to Jane’s happiness.

I would go so far as to say I loved Jane Eyre. I’m not sure I would say, “I loooooooove Jane Eyre,” and my sticking point is actually Mr. Rochester, even though he’s supposedly everybody’s favorite romantic hero. This doesn’t pertain to Movie Rochester when played by either Toby Stephens or Michael Fassbender—in that case the creepy-sexy-cool stars align and it’s more like, “No, Mr. Rochester—leave your ascot on.” But in the book, I found Mr. Rochester overbearing to the point of creepiness. When Jane tells him about her veil being torn by what is revealed to be Bertha, Rochester totally gaslights her. Once he finally proposes, his insistence of showering her with gifts and her insistence on not giving an inch made me feel really uncomfortable:

“I will myself put the diamond chain round your neck, and the circlet on your forehead,—which it will become: for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow, Jane; and I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy- like fingers with rings.”

“No, no, sir! think of other subjects, and speak of other things, and in another strain. Don’t address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain, Quakerish governess.”

“You are a beauty in my eyes, and a beauty just after the desire of my heart,—delicate and aerial.”

“Puny and insignificant, you mean. You are dreaming, sir,—or you are sneering. For God’s sake don’t be ironical!” (220-221)

Like…is this “oh I’m so ugly why would you marry me” schtick supposed to be flirtation? Protofemisim? Nineteenth century humblebrag? I DON’T LIKE IT. WHERE IS THE JANE THAT TELLS AUNT REED TO EFF OFF? I agree with what this rundown of Jane Eyre adaptations points out: we love Rochester because we love Jane. Jane and Rochester is like when you secretly hate your best friend’s main squeeze, so you just say like, “I’m just happy you’re happy.”

So here’s some more textual evidence that Jane Eyre totally rules:

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!” (215-216)

And my favorite:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” (270)

Aw yis. Doesn’t she just make you want to call up that person that made your day totally crappy and lay down the law? Four for you, Jane Eyre. You go, Jane Eyre.

Final thought: Reader, I hearted it.

Esther’s Narrative 2.0

Well I haven’t touched this blog in over a year. There are drafts that have been sitting in my dashboard for so long I wouldn’t know where to begin if I wanted to pick them up. My Mad Men rewatch died long ago, my weekly Mad Men recaps died just before the Season 5 finale, my Wes Anderson project is suspended in midair, I never finished Twilight.  And now I’ve changed my mind. Again. (I’m not hiding my old posts, though. It seems disingenuous on the internet.)

I’ve decided on a new direction for Esther’s Narrative. I’m currently the assistant editor at The Renegade Word, which is dedicated to the topic of writing. I often try to use my B.A. in English to give my posts a sort of reading/literary bent and I have a series about what the authors of today can learn from the writers of yesterday. So that’s all well and good—and not just because “I often try to use my B.A. in English” encapsulates my entire life in a single phrase.

But sometimes I just want to talk about books. So Esther’s Narrative is going to be my book blog from now on.

Background info: I studied English in college, but didn’t arrive at school particularly well-read—my high school seemed to have a weird aversion to the nineteenth century. I always thought I’d study American lit in college, probably twentieth century authors. Well I didn’t. (I did write my senior thesis on Blood Meridian and a semester-long paper on As I Lay Dying.)

The thing about going to a small college is that sometimes you don’t get to take the classes you always dreamed of taking. Sophomore year was the earliest you could take an English course. My intro English was a survey course of the British novel from Daniel Defoe to J.M. Coetzee (he’s South African, but it was a postcolonial novel, okay?), with stops along the way that included Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Sherlock Holmes, and The Early Gothic. I loved these books (okay, Robinson Crusoe, not so much). Well that was great! Peace out, England, I thought, and signed up for Intro to Poetry and Anthropology so I’d have all the time in the world to take things like Melville-James-Faulkner and other cool-sounding 300-level American lit classes when I finally became a Real English Major (which only happens after the Blue Fairy/Registrar’s Office grants your wish).

Yeah…that didn’t happen. When I was at the 200-level, my standing wasn’t good enough for the 300-level classes. When I hit the 300-level standing and above, it seemed like all the American lit classes shifted to the 200 level. And once you’re past your own intro experience, it’s no fun to be a part of someone else’s. Granted, I was picky about professors. But whatever the reason, most of my upper-level courses either involved lit theory (god knows why; I’m awful at it) or the Brits. Brits for days. Brits from Sidney to Virginia Woolf: Shakespeare, Jonson, Dr. Johnson, Milton, Behn, Defoe, Austen, Keats, Dickens, Gaskell, Thackeray, Brontë (Charlotte), Forster, and others. (No Thomas Hardy, though.)  Through books, I’ve lived the life of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and that is one thing about myself I will always be proud of.

So by this point, I’ve read a respectable amount, but I still had some embarrassing moments as an English major. For one thing, I have huge gaps in my reading repertoire. More than one professor has looked at me, gape-mouthed, and said, “You haven’t read Jane Eyre?” (see also: Heart of Darkness, practically any American author). So part of me wants to be a Good Little English Major in that respect. And I’ve found myself to be rather a lit snob: I am that person who says, “I don’t really read much….contemporary lit.” This year I read through some of my contemporary short story collections and some contemporary novels for book club and they just don’t spin my wheels in the same way. It’s possible I haven’t found a living novelist I love other than Cormac McCarthy.

So on the one hand, I want to be that person who says something like, “Well, even though Northanger Abbey lacks the structural unity of Pride and Prejudice, I think its imperfections open it to richer discussion.” On the other hand, I have the embarrassing habit of dismissing books simply on the basis of not liking them. A good English major mines The Sacred Fount for things to contribute to the discussion and can articulate why the book didn’t work for them instead of just, “My god, did anything happen in this book?” A good English major doesn’t make sturgeon face at the mere mention of Henry James. (If you can’t tell, I really don’t like Henry James. Many of my beloved professors loved him. I just don’t get it.)

So I’m conflicted as an English major. I also lost my English major identity for a while: it took me more than a year to finish reading a book after college, which I’ve already written about. This year I got back on GoodReads and made a goal to read 38 books this year: two every month plus one for my book club. I’ve read 26 so far. I started with more contemporary stuff, if only to free up some shelf space by weeding out what I didn’t love. I’ve skipped around a lot in genres and eras, but I’ve read three novels by Jane Austen, Nicholas NicklebyJane Eyre (after starting and stopping twice after college)and am about one-third through Wuthering Heights. I’d like to write about books more in the vein of “classic literature” (read: shit you would get assigned in school), but I will probably throw in some contemporary works here and there as I want to comment on them.

This blog is named after one of the two narrators of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Esther Summerson. Esther is someone who seems to narrate faithfully what goes on around her, but is also weirdly emotionally withholding and often represses her own feelings. This blog is titled after her because a) irony is 4 kool kidz; and, b) I want to give people my honest perspective on the media I consume, even if that perspective is embarrassingly simplistic. I will promise to keep an open mind and I will at least try to articulate why I don’t like something.

And here comes the mission of this blog: staying true to the idea behind Esther’s Narrative while expanding my literary repertoire. What I want to give the people who read this blog is my struggle to reconcile the part of myself that insists on reading with a pen to annotate novels with the part of myself that uses that pen to write notes like “what a dick!” in the margins. I am part lit snob, part philistine. I will try to be thoughtful, but I will not hold back.