Janeites Unite: Deborah Yaffe, Austenmania, and Me

2013 was a banner year for me as a Janeite, and not just because it marked the bicentennial year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I finally read Sense and SensibilityNorthanger Abbey, and Emma for the first time, cementing my own personal baseline of Janeite cred. I wrote an article about my love for Jane Austen at Renegade Word and purchased my first piece of Austen fan art. I went to my first JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America for those not in the know) event: a series of lectures featuring Claudia L. Johnson, Susan Celia Greenfield, and Sandy Lerner. I transcribed an 1815 novel for Chawton House Library’s Novels On-Line Project (founded by Sandy Lerner). I saw Austenland in theaters (spoiler alert: hated it). I joined JASNA officially and went to my chapter’s annual Jane Austen birthday tea. On a trip to England, I went to Chawton to see the Jane Austen House Museum, saw Jane Austen’s writing desk in the British LIbrary, and on my twenty-fifth birthday I got to see the only known portrait of Austen in the flesh in London’s National Portrait Gallery. I received two books on Jane Austen for Christmas. One of these books was Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe.

Before I talk about the book, here’s my own Janeite tale, with apologies for the long intro:

While I was a lonely young nerd, I came to Austen later than many. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time until I was sixteen or seventeen, an assignment for eleventh grade Advanced Placement English. I don’t remember my preconceived notions of Austen beforehand—they were probably of the erroneous “the nineteenth century is hard you guys” variety. I may very well have repressed them because they would embarrass me now. I had seen the Wishbone version, but that was about it. I laughed out loud at the first sentence, and a love affair began slowly.

My junior year of high school happened to be in 2005, and we finished Pride and Prejudice about a month before the Keira Knightley version hit theaters. We went to see it as extra credit as a class. I saw it a second time. I didn’t really care a fig for Mr. Darcy and his unflattering pants scared me a little. I loved the film visually and I liked that it was funny. But the book was better. I distinctly remember our class discussions being among those that really illuminated the world of literary analysis for me, the this-description-of-Pemberley-is-pretty-reflective-of-Mr.-Darcy discussion.

In college, I read Persuasion in my first English class and Mansfield Park in my last. Persuasion was simply amazing. I did a video presentation highlighting Patricia Rozema’s postcolonial treatment of Austen’s text in her 1999 adaptation of MP—a controversial topic among Janeites (a tangential dimension to the famed Fanny Price wars). I confess that in between finishing and defending a thesis, worrying that a Shakespeare paper would blow up in my face, and the fact that I was about to pack up my earthly possessions, clean out a rental house, and leave all my friends to move back in with my parents to enter the so-called “Real World,” I could have given Mansfield Park and the paper I wrote on it a little more attention.

The Janeite facet of myself became more or less dormant in practice. I watched the movies, but I didn’t read much of anything after graduation. And then I wanted to save face for a day of Jane Austen lectures put on by two nearby JASNA chapters and the rest is history. Well, one year of history. But a banner year.

I’ve had the pleasure of reflecting on my own identity as a Janeite in part due to Deborah Yaffe’s excellent new book, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom. Here’s a great summary from the book’s purpose from the introduction (sorry for the long quote):

…I set out to examine Janeite obsessiveness from the inside, and maybe to figure out along the way what kind of Janeite I was myself. I didn’t go looking for a single Big Theory that would make sense of Jane Austen’s appeal; I wasn’t planning to collect quantifiable data and fashion it into an explanation rigorous enough to satisfy a social scientist. My task was more impressionistic: to explore what Austen obsession looks like and feels like for people who are living with it, and perhaps to tease out some of the common threads that weave this diverse array of individuals into a community. I’d spent enough time immersed in online Austen discussions to know how differently her works could be read by people who all considered themselves Janeites. Were all of us just seeing what we wanted to see, finding ourselves relfeted in an Austen-shaped mirror? Or did our divergent interpretations reflect something real about Austen herself? (xxv)

I think two things really make this book work: 1) Yaffe’s training as a journalist is apparent and she does a great job of conveying facts while painting a compelling portrait; and, 2) Yaffe has been a Janeite for most of her life. Her affinity for Jane Austen gives her a good baseline: she gets it because she’s one of us (gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble). Austen fandom is so widespread (especially in this Information Age we’re all talking about), but it’s also a very private thing. Everyone’s love for Austen presents in a different way, but we all feel like she speaks to every one of us.

This is a task best handled by a Janeite, and Yaffe does a wonderful job. There’s a great balance of humor and affection throughout the book. I think Yaffe and I have similar Janeite styles: pretty middle-of-the-road, tending on the side of Austen purists (i.e., preferring Austen’s work to the myriad of sequels, adaptations, fan fictions, etc.), and not really into costuming or conspiracy theories. There is an overarching narrative of Yaffe’s exploring another dimension of Janeite-ism by buying a period dress for the ball at JASNA’s Annual General Meeting.

Yaffe’s book starts on a Jane Austen tour of England and ends at a JASNA AGM. The bulk of her book tells about the subjects she meets along the way and they are fascinating: they are the costumers and the conspiracy theorists. They’re also the fan fiction writers, the academics, the speech pathologists (yes! Austen is used therapeutically), the roller derby academics, and on and on. Sandy Lerner makes an appearance. I loved reading about how each person carved out her or his respective Janeites paths and the places their Austenmania has taken them. (And, let’s be honest, it made me feel pretty normal, which was good or bad depending on the chapter.)

I also got the pleasure of seeing Yaffe speak to my local JASNA chapter this weekend. I wish I’d taken more notes during her talk, but a) I was spellbound, and b) I couldn’t write due to having an injured thumb and a plate full of cookies. The talk was a great supplement to the book. One illustrative example in particular has stuck with me: Austen leaves a lot open to interpretation in her novels. Yaffe brought up the end of Sense and Sensibility: in the film versions from 1995 and 2008, Edward Ferrars comes to confess his love to Elinor Dashwood and asks if she’ll still have him after his missteps. Poor, repressed Elinor loses her shit on the spot, assents, and they live happily ever after. But in Austen’s actual words, it’s hardly the romantic scene the films make it out to be. Austen’s blend of romantic plots with dry wit is widely open to interpretation and appeals to lovers of romance and satire alike. Basically, you get Jane Austen or you don’t, but there are also as many different ways to get Austen as there are Janeites.

Through all these experiences and Yaffe’s book, I’ve gotten to know myself as a Janeite: I don’t think I could ever dress up, I might buy some Austen fan art here and there, my adaptations must take place in the period, and I have no stomach at all for the fan fiction (except, for some reason, the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club, which I will talk about at a later date). My Austen is the feminist satirist, and okay, some of the romantic interests are pretty alright, too. I look forward to really growing into myself as a Janeite: re-read more, plumb the literary depths deeper, and maybe even take a strong stance in the Fanny Price Wars.

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On Meh-Moirs

For the Staff Reading Challenge I keep talking about, I had to read a book in the “humor” genre. For genres I wasn’t familiar with, I tried to stick with suggestions I had from friends, like I did with Parable of the Sower and The Lies of Locke Lamora. Sometimes I went the popular route, as with The Fault in Our Stars and a crappy Gillian Flynn novel (which, in the interest of time will have to stand in as my mystery instead of the Dorothy Sayers novels I wanted to read, DAMN AND BLAST!).

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant for a book to be in the “humor” genre. Sure, I had frequented the shelf in my local Borders or Barnes and Noble as a teen, but a lot of those were straight-up parodies of things like travel guides. And I’d already done the audiobook of Bossypants. So I literally went to my handy-dandy 800s shelf and picked up a tiny volume with an 817 call number (Dewey Decimal for “Satire and Humor“) called I Suck At Girls by Justin Halpern, the mind behind the apparently popular Shit My Dad Says (which I’ve never read).

I will say as an avid feminist, at the very least Justin Halpern’s approach isn’t too terribly offensive. He’s not one of the famed “nice guys“—most of his problems aren’t really with women in general but with his own lack of confidence navigating the world of sex and romance. Parts of it were relatable. Most of it read like a romantic comedy and I hate romantic comedies.

But it also just wasn’t very funny. I chuckled from time to time, but the jokes were immediately forgotten. I mean, the dad was funny kind of. But overall it was heartwarming. If it’s going to be a memoir about a romantic history, I probably won’t enjoy it unless it’s there is true, total, cringe-inspiring humiliation. Halpern wasn’t humilated enough for me to care about his happy ending (in which case, good for him, I suppose). But I do give him a lot of credit for eventually maturing and not being a total asshole about women. Even his dad, who seems firmly ensconced in some kind of macho ideal from another age, isn’t that big of an asshole about women. Or maybe I’m blind to mild misogyny after living through the deluge of congressional bullshit with regards to women’s rights.

This book actually reminded me of another book I read last year: Quiet Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. Along with I Suck at Girls, this book falls into the category of what I call “Meh-moirs.” A Meh-moir is pretty much what it sounds like: a memoir that’s kind of just “meh.” You read it, you carved another notch in your GoodReads bedpost, and you’ll probably forget you ever read it. Meh-moirs are not really that compelling. In my experience, a lot of the “meh” element seems to come from the author trying to take a humorous approach and just not cutting it. But I’ve read very few memoirs in general and they usually feed a need for tragedy porn within me. Ones I remember reading include Prozac Nation, Girl, InterruptedJesus Land. Ones I remember liking are Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi and Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf (if that counts).

What makes a good memoir? Unfortunately, I think you need kind of a hook to get people interested. I got Quiet Please when I was checking out other books on librarianship as a potential career path. Life as a public librarian should have interested me, but the execution just didn’t cut it and it tried unsuccessfully to be funny. Maybe it’s that it’s harder to make someone laugh than to make them sad or disgusted? But then again, I remember reading Running with Scissors as a teenager and I kind of wanted to just run the book through with scissors. And Bossypants was pretty good.

So…I don’t know. It might just not be my genre. Or it might be that I should have just gone with David Sedaris or something.

If I Don’t Become a Sci-Fi Reader, I’ll At Least Become an Octavia Butler Reader

Spoiler alert: If Parable of the Sower doesn’t give you all the feels (or at least some of them), then you are made of stone.

It might surprise you to learn that in addition to not being much of a fantasy reader, I’m not much of a sci-fi reader either. I’m even less of a sci-fi viewer than I am fantasy: I think the tone of sci-fi is usually bleaker, and I don’t give a shit about space/spaceships/technology/aliens/many of the tropes and oversimplifications that come to mind. I do love the original Star Wars trilogy because I’m not a robot (sci-fi joke?).

I have known many sci-fi fans throughout my life and virtually none of them have convinced me to give the genre a try. Like most other tenth graders, I did have to read 1984 and I was like “whatever.” I did have friends growing up who have always told me, “Octavia Butler is really awesome.” For the oft-discussed Staff Reading Challenge at work, I decided my science fiction book would be Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Parable of the Sower takes place outside Los Angeles in the 2020s (2024-27ish). It’s told from the perspective of Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl growing up in a walled community outside Los Angeles. The U.S. has more or less fallen apart: global warming leads to scarce water and astronomical food prices; bands of scavengers roam around stealing, killing, and setting fires; dangerous street drugs threaten communities; corporations make actual slaves out of their workers. Lauren also struggles with something called “hyperempathy,” a condition brought about by her biological mother’s drug abuse, which causes her to feel the physical pain of anyone she sees.

Lauren’s father is a Baptist minister and she finds herself disagreeing with him over issues of faith. She begins to carve out her own, which she writes in verse in her diary, called Earthseed. As she grows up, she is forced to leave the community she called home and wander in search of a better future. Along the way, she encounters others who have survived horrific circumstances and starts to create a community that she hopes will prosper under her plan for Earthseed.

That’s pretty much glossing over this novel. This novel is gripping, it is heart-wrenching, and it is terrifying. Butler originally published Parable of the Sower in 1993 and she did her research about the threats she recognized to be facing society. Again: corporate greed, wealth disparity, climate change, dangerous drugs. Butler passed away in 2006, but I wonder if she ever talked about how her predictions had actually begun to come to light. They’re sickeningly prescient to me.

A quick diversion: when I was in eleventh grade, we read The Stranger. I loved The Stranger so much I’m afraid to re-read it because in one of my college French classes we read Nausea (or La Nausée because it was in French). I hated Nausea because it’s so obviously a vehicle for Sartre’s schema of existentialism: the characters are all in service of philosophy and it shows even with the language barrier. Perhaps The Stranger is the same if I look at it now that I have an actual literature degree. But this is something Butler manages to avoid beautifully: the problems are speculative and allegorical, but they don’t really feel that way.

My quibble: the love plots. Lauren has a couple of boyfriends both in- and outside her walled community. Now I’m generally not a fan of love stories, but Butler’s treatment was kind of weird. People kind of just get together and when they’re together they’re “together” and when they’re not physically together you kind of forget they are a couple. It was a little jarring, but it kind of makes sense in the novel’s epistolary form. I think Lauren has enough feelings about real shit (like the danger of feral dogs carrying off babies) that she probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about romance. But some element of romance is there and when it occurred, I kind of just went, “wait…what?”

What I really enjoyed about this book is that it wasn’t all bleak, even though it was pretty damn bleak. There is hope for Lauren and her companions, but it’s hope they must struggle to hold onto as they continue to encounter dangers. It’s also not cheesy hope. Like, through the power of community they won’t overcome global warming or melt the icy heart of a corporate slaveowner. They still have to use firearms to defend themselves and don’t think twice about it. It’s the kind of hope that seems appropriate to have given the reality they live in.

So, yes, everyone, go read Parable of the Sower, and make sure you have a box of Kleenex and something to hug nearby.

I’d love recommendations for your favorite sci-fi novels. But if I ever read only one sci-fi author ever, I’m pretty happy to have chosen Octavia Butler.

As If Kids Weren’t Terrifying Already, I Read A High Wind in Jamaica

Warning: As with most books I want people to read for themselves, I don’t spoil much of A High Wind in Jamaica.

A friend told me about A High Wind in Jamaica years ago and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since. Some time ago, the New York Review of Books said it was one of the best novels of the twentieth century or something. I even got halfway through once. It was my turn to pick for my book club, and the rest of the group went along with me, so I finally got to read it.

Written in 1929 and set in the nineteenth-century Caribbean, A High Wind in Jamaica is the story of the Bas-Thornton family. Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton have five children and live in a ruined plantation. Most of the story is filtered through the perspective of the children, particularly the oldest daughter, Emily, age 10. After a hurricane destroys their home, Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton put the children on a boat bound for England. The ship is taken by pirates and the children (along with those from another family they knew in Jamaica) are also abducted. But what follows is not exactly what you’d expect.

The novel actually really reminded me of Wide Sargasso Sea, and even Jane Eyre in some regards, particularly in the descriptions of the islands. (For some reason, all the vegetation seems to bother British-born characters.) Hughes’s novel takes place after the 1833 Emancipation of Britain’s Caribbean colonies, but the narrator says something about not being to the West Indies since 1860, so I think it might take place in that intervening 20-25 year period. Either way there are similar shades to Rhys’s novel, though the locale is portrayed very differently.

I’m not 100% sure what I thought of this novel. I liked it overall, but I think I’d built it up too much in my mind. I found the descriptions to be powerful and economical. The introduction has no biographical notes about Hughes, but does note that he is reacting to Wordsworth’s conception of childhood as some time of purity and innocence. But as someone who has read my share of Victorian novels (though I think I was sick when we talked about Victorian childhoods in my class on Victorian novels), I think Hughes’s portrayal is also a radical departure from those. Characters that I’ve read from Dickens, the Brontës, and George Eliot are pretty innocent, but I’d characterize them more as vulnerable than necessarily innocent (especially Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw).

The Bas-Thornton children are neither innocent nor vulnerable. The psychological portrait Hughes weaves of each is fascinating—unlike almost anything I’ve read before. His style is very dry, very dark, and very matter-of-fact in a macabrely humorous sort of way. I wish I could remember more of the Virginia Woolf I’ve read, because I have the distinct feeling there must be some way they’re similar—probably due to Woolf’s trademark psychological realism. But even Woolf’s child characters seem to absorb everything around them and carry it with them. Hughes’s tend to be oblivious or put up walls or react to immediate circumstances in terrifying or bizarre ways.

At times, the portrait is darkly funny, and sometimes outright disturbing. Again, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the book. I liked it, but I expected to love it. I could chalk it up to a bad reading, but I’m not sure that would remedy things. I was left with a weird feeling of foreboding. Not quite worthy of curling up in the fetal position, but enough it will stay with me until I re-read.

I have to add, I think my reading was colored by two external factors: 1) I had a very stressful week and had to burn through the book in under 24 hours (I know, I know); 2) the night before the book club meeting to discuss A High Wind in Jamaica, I read about 1/5 of the book and then went to see a special showing of EraserheadEraserhead is David Lynch’s first feature film, a terrifying and surreal look at a man who unwittingly fathers a baby that terms out to be severely deformed (i.e., not even human). I can’t help but wonder how much watching Eraserhead colored my reading of A High Wind in Jamaica. I already find kids kind of scary, so between the novel and the movie I think I’m just going to be giving any and all children some serious side-eye for a while yet.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Inspiring and Overlooked

I have lived in the Denver Metro Area my entire life. I was born and raised in the Mile High City’s white-bread suburbs and today I live in Denver itself. I lived out of state for four years when I was in college and I found myself missing Denver. I thought it might be a grass-is-always-greener type deal, but after college I’ve realized that I love

I am a Denver nerd. I hope to learn more about the local history, but for now I have a decent working knowledge of the neighborhoods, and have checked out a whole book on its street logic. One of the most fascinating historical figures ever (in my opinion) happens to hail from Denver. Well, not originally, but that was where she spent most of her life and bought a house that is now a museum devoted to her life—and that means dispelling myths about the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” known from Broadway and Hollywood.

Margaret Tobin Brown never went by “Molly” in her life. That’s one of the first myths Kristen Iversen dispels in her definitive biography, Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth. So many of her portrayals have her as a backwoods socialite, an uncouth woman whose New Money couldn’t buy her manners. It’s a shame that she exists like a figure out of a tall tale, because she was really a fascinating person. James Cameron take note: Margarat’s surviving the Titanic was barely a blip compared to all the other things she did.

I don’t want this post to bore you with Margaret’s accomplishments (and I want you to learn about them for yourself, especially if you’re in Denver and can get to the museum). Let’s just say she didn’t sit idle on her millions once her husband struck gold in Leadville in 1893. Toward Progressive causes she leant both her fortune and her fighting spirit. Though often portrayed as nearly illiterate, she valued education and as an adult learned about art, literature, music, and theatre. She became fluent in five languages, which served her on her many world travels and as the person who stayed in New York after the Titanic‘s sinking to make sure all the third-class widows had a place to go. She helped found the first juvenile court system in the country; she fought for miner’s rights after the Ludlow Massacre; she was a great suffragist and the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate (before women could even vote!); she was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I; and so much more.

I’m not much of a biography reader, to be honest. There’s no particular reason why not, just time I suppose. Here I’m talking about biography specifically, not memoir or autobiography. Perhaps some of that is due to the potential for slant or omission in a biography. I have read Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, which is both hilarious and very much exaggerated. I have also attempted to read Joseph Blotner’s two-volume biography of William Faulkner. The “condensed” version is around a thousand pages. I made it as far as Faulkner making the first grade honor roll and then I had to move on with my life.

I think it’s hard to strike a balance between creating a biography that’s interesting and also accurate. I really enjoyed Iversen’s portrait of Margaret. I think that she really sets Margaret in the context in which she lived. It helps that Margaret’s life seems as if it was rarely empty: when she died, she was teaching aspiring actresses in New York (and was one herself, as a lifetime fan of Sarah Bernhardt). There were a few times where I wished I had more information, but given the fact that Iversen spent eight years doing her research, I’m sure that little has been left out. I’m so glad the biography (and museum) exist to set the record straight about “the unsinkable Molly Brown” and I hope more people will continue to learn about her life.

Commenters: any biographies you’d recommend? I want to read some Brontë ones at some point but I don’t know when that will be.

I Read a Fantasy Novel and It Was Indeed Fantastic

Warning: I’m pretty sure I didn’t give much away you couldn’t have learned on the back cover of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Spoiler lovers, go elsewhere! 

I’ve mentioned briefly before that I’m participating in a staff reading challenge at one of my jobs (which is at one of those places that lets you borrow books for free). It’s to encourage people to expand their horizons and keeps our reviews honest (so people like me don’t just give their faves five-star reviews).

Obviously, my horizons need expanding. I might take a turn with a twentieth-century author sometimes, but my dance card is full of the nineteenth century and I can’t stop. I can reach for Faulkner and grasp Dickens. I can crack open a frosty Fitzgerald and find myself pining for Austen.

I kinda have to get the lead out on this reading challenge. I completed some of the books in the fall, but then Brontë-palooza took over my life and now I have to read approximately one million books by the end of February in order to get credit for participating.

I let the Library Gods dictate my fortune to me, and they chose fantasy.

I do not read much fantasy. As a child, I read The Hobbit two or three times, but I remember almost nothing about it. I love The Princess Bride, but that’s really about it. Fantasy on-screen, though, is an entirely different story. When I was in the seventh grade, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring no less than six times in theaters. I tried to read the books as a poopy-faced teenager and closed them when I couldn’t take the lack of Elijah Wood’s beautiful face anymore. Then I tried to read The Silmarillion, which killed my interest in pursuing Tolkien stone-dead. I want Game of Thrones to come back so badly it hurts. But when I see someone with those bricky George R.R. Martin paperbacks, I have no desire to pick them up. None at all.

One of my friends loves A Song of Ice and Fire, though. And while she enjoys her share of science fiction, she usually doesn’t do fantasy because the genre is so ridden with uninteresting cliches. I knew I couldn’t read a thousand pages for one book for my reading challenge, so she recommended something she said was better even better than George R.R. Martin.

Enter Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first in the Gentleman Bastard series. The Lies of Locke Lamora tells about the life and times of the eponymous main character, an accomplished thief in Camorr City. Interweaving narratives tell two stories. One is of Locke’s origins and that of his gang, the Gentleman Bastards. The second follows the Gentleman Bastards as they try to pull off the biggest con of their careers…and accidentally get caught up in a war that rips apart the Camorri criminal underground.

I hope that this doesn’t negatively influence anybody, but this novel was like reading the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I mean that in the best way: it’s action-packed, brimming with swashbuckling, cool magic shit, and all manner of awesome characters. I don’t just mean characters that are likable, but characters that are real. Locke is a really good thief, but his skill isn’t preternatural. He’s not physically strong or a very good fighter—he relies on his team to complete him where he falls short. The banter is quick and fresh and full of swearing, which I love because I’m foul.

One thing I appreciated is that unlike, say, Tolkien (or some of what I’ve heard about Martin), Lynch’s action almost never suffers at the hands of his world-building. Part of this is due to the fact that the characters are orphans and poor and/or unconcerned with wealth, so there’s no real way for the narrator to take tangents on things like weaponry or family lineage. The historical asides and expository world-building are interesting, sprinkled throughout, and, most importantly, relevant to the action.

Really, I had a couple of issues that weren’t big trifles. There’s a love interest off in the distance who never appears, but I’m told she plays a greater part later on in the series. I did have issues with the pacing. For me, the novel got off to a relatively slow start, which was fine because I could soak up Camorr, Locke, etc. But I think the end moved at just a little too quick a clip for me to totally buy the resolution.

The only other complaint I had were character deaths. And that’s not really Lynch’s fault, just something I’m unprepared for. Usually, in Victorian novels you can tell the orphan/peasant with the sunny disposition will buy the farm after a long and dignified illness. Fantasy deaths are much more jarring, and a couple of these characters were killed off while I was still getting to know them. And I’m sure I can’t handle A Song of Ice and Fire if The Lies of Locke Lamora gave me roughly the same reaction as that kid in The Princess Bride. Perhaps, it takes building up an immunity to unfair character deaths. Now if only I were free to continue with the second book straightaway…

Surely I Had to End My Year of Brontë Reading By Re-Reading Shirley

Warning: I try not to spoil Shirley too much here, but no guarantees.

I touched on my personal history with the Brontës a little bit with my post on Jane Eyre. The only novel by any Brontë I had read before this year was Shirley. I read it in my junior seminar English class along with Coriolanus and Paradise Lost (both of which play a sizable role in Shirley), plus scads of articles. Not to get too dorky about it, but when I think about my reading life, I hear Galadriel give the opening monologue to The Fellowship of the Ring: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth. And for two-and-a-half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.” Er, well, in my case, for two-and-a-half years my retention became pretty hazy. But it feels like it could have been thousands of years sometimes.

I ended my year (or six months, anyway) of Brontë reading by re-reading Shirley. I am terrible at keeping to schedules and I was very busy this holiday season, so I found myself up until four in the morning on New Years Eve re-reading it. I knew I wasn’t giving the text the time it deserved. I feel pretty guilty about this, truth be told. As a lover of literature, I hate to turn reading into a numbers game, but I have to acknowledge that given the fact that I work two jobs, try to freelance on the side, write for two blogs, and volunteer for three organizations…well…that number of books read by anybody might have been 0 if I hadn’t made it a numbers game.

I wish I could take time to explore criticism of Shirley, or at least read (re-read I guess; it’s all marked up) the Introduction. The fact is that Shirley is the least popular today and the least looked-at by critics—or at least it was in 1974, when my little brick of a Penguin edition was first published. I hope things have changed. (Academics? Shed some light?)

Shirley is probably the most complex of Brontë’s novels and it’s also the most imperfect. Jane Eyre and Villette give Charles Dickens a run for his money with their intricate plotting. But these are the stories of individuals; they are told from the perspectives of single young women who spend more time alone than in society. Shirley is much more akin to the “social problem novels” of Brontë’s friend and first biographer Elizabeth Gaskell (in fact, North and South and Shirley have pretty similar plots in my opinion/to my recollection). And although I find that Villette and The Professor were much more realist than I expected, Shirley says on the very first page:

Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciounsess that they must rise and betake themselves thereto. (39)

I think we’re supposed to take the narrator’s characterization with a giant grain of salt, of course, because there is plenty of melodrama. Shirley takes place in Napoleonic England, around 1812, during a time of war, famine, poverty, and political unrest. The little corner of Yorkshire that serves as the setting sees a constant struggle between the half-Belgian mill owner—Rober Gérard Moore—and his workers, many of whom are starving due to a food shortage and economic stagnation created by the government (I don’t pretend to understand exactly how the Orders of the Council work, but my Napoleonic history is pretty paltry). There is a riot. One of the characters is shot later on.

There is a huge social world apparent in Shirley, and Brontë’s omniscient narrator presents the perspectives of many of the characters, even one’s diary entries. It’s a little bit of a mess, but it’s so intriguing. Still, there are moments where I felt as though Brontë had bit off a little more than she could chew—it takes a really long time to get to the emotional center of Shirley: the story of Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar.

Caroline is resigned and repressed: she lives under the care of her severe uncle and is lovesick for Robert Moore. Caroline struggles with herself constantly: she want to be really employed but doesn’t have a lot of employment options as a woman, she tries to accept her inevitable spinsterhood but doesn’t want to. She actually starts to waste away: there’s a lot of talk of her bloom disappearing. I remember really loving Shirley, but when I re-started it, I found myself bored at the long, meandering beginning. It turned out that what I was missing was the emotional charge I get from reading Brontë heroines. Take this beautiful passage:

Yet I must speak truth; these efforts brought her neither health of body nor continued peace of mind: with them all, she wasted, grew more joyless and more wan; with them all, her memory kept harping on the name of Robert Moore; an elegy over the past still rung constantly in her ear; a funereal inward cry haunted and harassed her: the heaviness of a broken spirit, and of pining and palsying faculties, settled slow on her buoyant youth. Winter seemed conquering her spring: the mind’s soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation. (199)

And take this one:

What I have just said are Caroline’s ideas of the pair: she felt what has just been described. In thus feeling, she tried not to suffer; but suffered sharply, nevertheless. She suffered, indeed, miserably: a few minutes before, her famished heart had tasted a drop and crumb of nourishment, that, if freely given, would have brought back abundance of life where life was failing; but the generous feast was snatched from her, spread before another, and she remained but a bystander at the banquet. (254)

As I burned through Shirley, I had thoughts like, Blergh augh ugh my feeeeeeeeelingssssssss when I came across these passages. Along with all the other Brontë novels I’ve read (maybe not The Professor so much), moments like these are what I live for. They’d seem almost too flowery if they weren’t so true.

It’s a huge relief when Shirley arrives—not just for Caroline’s sake, but because Shirley is awesome. Shirley Keeldar is a wealthy heiress who grew up in the area. Where Caroline is analytical, Shirley is wildly passionate. While Caroline’s lack of money has her chained to her social position, Shirley can use her wealth to try to affect change in their community. There’s a lot to be said about Shirley and gender: Shirley has a man’s name (yes, Virginia, until Shirley, men were called “Shirley” almost exclusively), and often refers to herself using male pronouns and as Captain Keeldar—she takes up and sheds this aspect of herself as she pleases.

One thing that strikes the modern reader about Charlotte Brontë’s novels (and Anne’s, too, really) is that the main characters are pretty feminist—whether or not that was the intention, or whether there is even a word for feminism I don’t know (help me, academics!). Shirley is always talking about the women of the community: there are the old spinsters, the women who provide medical treatments, there is Shirley’s governess, Mrs. Pryor, Caroline’s want of employment, Shirley’s ability to do business dealings with the men. Shirley goes on long, feminist tears and argues with men when they try to characterize women as inferior. Shirley has this whole feminist mythology at work in her vast imagination. Here’s a little taste from when she denounces Milton:

“I say, there were giants on the earth in those days: giants that strove to scale heaven. The first woman’s breast that heaved with life on this world yielded the daring which could contend with Omnipotence: the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage, – the vitality which could feed that vulture death through uncounted ages, – the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which, after millenniums of crimes, struggles, and woes, could conceive and bring forth a Messiah. The first woman was heaven-born: vast was the heart whence gushed the well-spring of the blood of nations; and grand the undegenerate head where rested the consort-crown of creation.” (315)

Awesome, yes? I think so.

When I first read Shirley for class, I remember talking so much about all the doubles. I have notes about “double-consciousness,” though I don’t remember what I was on about those many years ago (Shirley vs. Caroline, probably). Still, there are double heroines, and double plot lines as the reader follows the lives of both Caroline and Shirley (and their respective love interests). I remember really feeling strongly that this novel also had a little bit of double plot structure going on: it begins as a social problem novel, but there’s also a kind of marriage plot going on. I remember reading elsewhere that a lot of the social problem novels don’t really advocate ways to solve the social problems they bring up, and Shirley is certainly no different.

I don’t know—I know these posts have gone off the rails from analysis to ramblings, but there’s so much to say and no way to say it all. Shirley is just one of those novels that make me want to go to grad school.