Beyond the Governess Novel
This post is kind of awkward. It was supposed to come after my "Top 5 Governess Novels" post--and if it had, then the title would make sense. But then my Top 5 hit a snag . . . a novel I was sure deserved a place on the list turned out to be a real disappointment when I actually got around to reading it . . . and now I don't know when I'm going to find a replacement. (Maybe I should just spin the book? I mean, it's not so bad; I just had really high expectations before I started reading it.)
And then there are my computer troubles, which make me think I should schedule this post for tomorrow, just to have some content up, because I don't know the next time I'll be free to publish anything.
So here it goes . . .
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has more to it than just the governess trope. Here are some other books that regularly came to mind throughout my long, leisurely, lovely reread . . .
in the Light of Jane Eyre
Emma by Jane Austen
Is there another Austen novel with so many "legends" from Austen's own life tacked onto it? There's the one about the word Frank Churchill spelled for Jane Fairfax . . . the one about Austen's admission that she didn't believe anyone but she would like her own heroine . . . and my current favourite, the one about her sister wishing that Austen had written a novel about Jane Fairfax instead. This last story has given the Bronte side of the Austen-Bronte wars its best rejoinder ever: "There already is a novel about Jane Fairfax . . . and it's called Jane Eyre!" (LOL!!!)
For as far as characters go, Jane Fairfax is a natural heroine and Emma Woodhouse is an acquired taste. I had a Literature professor who liked to say that Emma is the "Lady Catherine de Bourgh" of her own novel--which anyone who has ever loved Pride and Prejudice knows is a damning description. But yes, Emma does think she knows better than everyone else and does meddle in other people's affairs all the time; and it is because of these flaws of hers that Jane Fairfax's hopes for love are nearly lost forever.
It's probably pointless to step gingerly around spoilers when one is writing about a 200-year-old novel (Right, DeLynne? LOL!), but of course I'm going to do it, anyway. Let's just say that what Austen's Jane and Bronte's Jane have in common are their steely sense of morality and a dignity even before those society says are their "betters": and both of them are willing to give up a chance at some happiness when they realise it is the wrong choice to make.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
After many long chapters filled with relentless prose about the different styles of architecture and a structure's need for integrity, we arrive at the idea that persons, as much as buildings, can have a single basic theme that determines everything else about them. Which isn't a new thought, really, except for Rand's audacious conviction that this theme is evident not just in a person's words, actions and likes, but also in his face.
It is a conceit reminiscent of the phrenological influence in Jane Eyre. Bronte, a typical Victorian, had a similar, if grosser insistence on the integrity of form and principle. All her characters with low foreheads are brutish; all her characters with high foreheads are intelligent, if not also virtuous; and so on. But Bronte knows that the prettiest faces do not always mask the best characters. And so her "plain" heroine whom nobody admires finds love with a man even she admits is rather "ugly" and turns down the suit of another she compares repeatedly to a Greek god.
Rand plays a variation of the same theme. Most of her other characters consider her hero, Howard Roark, one of the ugliest men they have ever met--for they are also incapable of understanding his vision and his unwillingness to compromise his work. Only one woman in the world find him handsome--and when she reveals this to someone who has already mastered Rand's arbitrary phrenology, the style of her soul becomes even clearer to him. In both Jane Eyre and The Fountainhead, the romance is driven by the idea that "like attracts like"--that, indeed, only "like understands like."
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Well, why not read the Bronte novels together? This is another classic I last read too long ago and would do well to revisit. It is the story of a woman who flees a bad marriage to an alcoholic husband, and tries to make a new home for herself and her son in hiding.
To the literary critic, it seems worth comparing to Jane's escape from Mr. Rochester's "indecent proposal"--although, yes, they are very different. They have a strong religious streak in common as well, although Jane Eyre has more of an untamed sense of the supernatural, while The Tenant in Wildfell Hall keeps a rigid adherence to doctrine. And the heroines of both novels are artists--albeit with markedly different styles.
Note that the first person to denounce such a reading might be Charlotte herself. I don't think I exaggerate when I say she hated this book. When Anne was done with the manuscript, Charlotte tried to talk her out of publishing it; and after Anne's death, Charlotte prevented the printing of new editions. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she said, was a mistake from the beginning . . . because it was too realistic. That is, it was merely a scrupulous reproduction of real life events, and not "real" literature. But every critical argument Charlotte puts forward, coupled with the parallels between the two novels, only makes the idea of reading them together more tantalising.
Image Sources: a) Emma by Jane Austen, b) The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, c) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte