20 September 2010


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 . . .

3 Books to Read
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


Sullivan McPig said...

To be honest Anne Brontë is my favourite of the Brontë's. I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall because it doesn't shy away from real life problems like abusive marriages (and not just Charlotte didn't like this book, it caused quite a stir back in the days)
And have you ever read Agnes Grey?
A governess tale just like Jane Eyre and the one I'd pick if I had to chose between the two as Anne's writing style is just a lot more pleasant than Charlotte's and because Agnes is closer to me than Jane.

antiaphrodite said...

"There already is a novel about Jane Fairfax . . . and it's called Jane Eyre!"


Tracy said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person that doesn't quite know what to do with Miss Emma Woodhouse.

DeLynne said...

How flattering to be mentioned on Shredded Cheddar. Lesa told me and I had to run straight over to see my name in lights! Thanks, E, you made my day. Oh, and nice post, too. I am not so narcissistic that I didn't read the whole post. ;)

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

I love Lady De Bourgh-- she isn't nice but she makes me laugh-- there are definitely similarities between her and Emma.

I don't think I have read any Anne Bronte but I am definitely intrigued. This is now on my towering imaginary TBR mountain-- I'll be checking at the library for it. (my imaginary TBR is much taller than my real TBR since I don't buy many books)

Are you on FB? We started a Mrs. BG group on Fb, if you are interested in joining. Not sure where we are headed with the group...

Arnie Perlstein said...

Those of you who agree with me that Jane Fairfax is the "shadow heroine" of Emma may be interested in reading the following link:


Arnie Perlstein
Weston, Florida

Salome Ellen said...

Are you (all) familiar with Jane Aiken, one of the novelist daughters of Conrad Aiken? She wrote a number of "Austen from the opposite side" books, including "Jane Fairfax", and "Mansfield Revisited." Fun stuff.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Jane Aiken's retake from Jane Fairfax's point of view was well done as a work of Aiken's own imagination, but it has NOTHING to do with the shadow story of the novel that Jane Austen herself imagined, and embedded throughout the novel by means of a thousand hints, and which I have "decoded".


Suburbanbanshee said...

First off, it's Joan Aiken, not Jane.

Second, the Austen stuff is okay, but the least of her works. Good God, the woman was one of the most prolific children's authors around, without even mentioning her adult books, and all people can talk about is her paid fanfic and her relatively obscure poet dad????

Her sister was the Jane. Jane Aiken Hodge. Wrote suspense, historical and Gothic romance novels (some quite good, all readable) and wrote the book on Georgette Heyer (who was a friend). Better known in the UK than the US, I think. I'm sorry to find that she killed herself last year in one of those stupid "I'm old and must go" suicides.

Suburbanbanshee said...

To be fair, there was tons of depression in her family, and she wasn't the first suicide. She was probably not fully responsible for her actions.

But sheesh. Nothing like having other people's bright ideas about the "right to die" enabling your own suicidal ideations.

Re: Emma, it's amazing how few people want to visualize Austen as anything like Emma, when in so many ways this kind of busybody is trying to impose her own art on life. It often seems to me that Austen's a lot more clear-eyed about portraying the sorts of folly that she herself had been known to fall into.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Jane Austen's principal alter ego in the novel is not Emmma, it's Jane Fairfax--read a bit in my blog and you will get an idea why I say that.

Cheers, ARNIE

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully: Yes, I've read Agnes Grey! There's a review on Shredded Cheddar somewhere . . . You can find it on the "Reading Roundup" page if you're interested. =)

And you must be the first reader I've met to prefer Agnes to Jane. How fascinating! Care to elaborate? =)

Antiaphrodite: Fangirl alert! =P

Tracy: Hi! It's nice to see you here. =) As we all by now, Emma can be very frustrating. I think what kept me going was the knowledge that Austen herself really loved her and thought her worth writing a whole book about. (If you think about it, Austen seems quite affectionate towards Lady Catherine, too!) So I wanted to see what Austen thought I should see. But that was so long ago in "reader years" that I can't remember whether I saw it or not! =P

DeLynne: I thought we had a lovely discussion at your blog, and it was my pleasure to continue it over here. =)

Lesa: There is something fun about Lady Catherine. She's awful, yes, but she is also the reason Darcy rushes over to Lizzy in the end. Without her meddling, we wouldn't have that happy ending! (Something more to ponder in the light of Emma, aye? =P)

I think we all have a relative like her whom we love to hate, but whom we have to live with. And how better to deal with such a situation than with humour? (The same goes with someone like Mr. Collins. Those two deserve each other! Poor Charlotte . . .)

Arnie: Thanks for visiting. I will check out your link.

Ellen: I'm afraid the only Joan Aiken book I've read is The Way to Write for Children. I hadn't known about her takes on Austen, though, so thanks for bringing them up! Mansfield Park was a great read for me, so I think I'll look up Mansfield Revisited.

Banshee: I do think that Austen's admission that only she would really like Emma Woodhouse is a barefaced hint that of all her heroines, Emma is the most like her.

At the same time, Mr. Perlstein's theory that Jane Fairfax is Austen's alter ego in Emma is worth considering. Emma and Jane Fairfax as two sides of the same coin: there's a fascinating reading for you!

Sullivan McPig said...

@Enbrethiliel: I think it's because of two things.
1 - Agnes isn't as rigid in her thoughts as Jane. She's more likeable because of that in my opinion. And she's more ready to speak up, I love her reaction when she discovers the children killing a little bird.
2 - The stuff she encounters (nasty, bratty kids, spoiled debutantes) is very recognisable and more real to me and makes her more like someone I could meet and relate to.

And as I said: I like Anne's writing style more than Charlotte's which makes Agnes Grey a pleasant reread where I can just enjoy the flow of the text.

Enbrethiliel said...


Nasty, bratty kids, aye? You should look up my older Tutor Tales! ;-)

Seriously, I think the differences you see between Jane and Agnes are valid--and precisely what Charlotte Bronte didn't like about her sister's writing. She thought novels should be more imaginative and less realistic, when it has turned out that Anne has her own fans precisely because her characters are more real. =)

But I'm still really in love with Jane Eyre, overblown prose style, larger-than-life characters, overwhelming Gothic atmosphere, and all! =D

CMinor said...

I once read a biog of the Brontes (sorry, haven't figured out how to add that umlaut) and it pointed out that Anne was young enough not to have remembered her mother's death and not to have gone to the (abysmal) boarding school where the two oldest sisters died. Instead, she remained at home in the care of an affectionate aunt and thus probably had the most normal childhood of all the girls. I got the sense that Anne was the warmest, most optimistic, and best-adjusted Bronte, and I think her openness to the real world and her optimism come through in Tenant.

Incidentally, she seems to have entertained some universalist ideas regarding salvation and liked the idea of purgatory because, in her view, it opened up salvation to the sinful. How like the family peacemaker! I guess it's not surprising then that she ended Tenant as she did, with redemption for the sinner.

Enbrethiliel said...


Interesting! I haven't done any intensive research into the Brontes since my uni days, and what I seem to remember about Anne doesn't match up with what you're telling me. I recall that Anne had her own sort of stifled childhood, thanks to a dour relative with strong Wesleyan beliefs . . . or maybe that's just me colouring in the blanks of my inadequate study. In her writing, she does seem to be a happier soul than her two sisters (and brother)--and not quite the brooder of the family that Charlotte makes her out to be.