Saturday, May 22, 2010

Old School Romance

I'm not sure how it happened, but I managed to get through a whole lot of literature classes without ever reading Jane Eyre. My high school Brit Lit teacher chose Dickens over the Bronte sisters. In my undergraduate work, my two favorite English professors specialized in Medieval and Renaissance literature and American literature. I don't think I read any nineteenth century British lit when I was an undergraduate.

Finally, in grad school, I met Emily Bronte through Wuthering Heights. I liked the novel immensely, so it makes sense that I would like Charlotte's Jane Eyre, but I just never got around to reading it.

My eldest son, a high school senior, was assigned Jane Eyre this spring. When I saw the book sitting on my kitchen table, I cringed. When eldest son reads (which, to my everlasting sorrow, isn't often), he chooses fantasy. Getting him through a Gothic romance was going to be a challenge, painful even.

And it was.

I'll spare you the gory details, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the audio book, the chapters I read aloud. Suffice it to say, he needed the English credit to graduate, and I was going to get him through that damn book if it killed us both.

A strange thing happened as I dragged my son through the 400 pages of stilted, sometimes overwrought, nineteenth century British prose. I realized I liked it. A lot.

Okay, I should qualify that last statement. I did like the book, but it totally started in the wrong place. Charlotte Bronte would never have sold that novel as is in today's market. Go out there and read agent and editor blogs. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants all that back story slowing the plot down and losing readers twenty pages in. And yes, all you purists out there. I know that living Jane's horrible childhood helps us understand the woman she becomes, but it's boring. The story doesn't get interesting until Jane leaves school as an independent young woman and arrives at Thornfield Hall.

But I digress. I realized I had been drawn into the plot when I was reading the chapter in which Jane saves Rochester's life when his bed mysteriously catches fire. My son was laying across his own bed, head hanging off the end, bemoaning being held prisoner while I read aloud. I was trying to figure out why Grace Poole would want to kill Rochester when I heard my son's voice.

"Mom! Earth to Mom! Are we going to do this or what?"

He was apparently listening enough to notice I had stopped reading aloud. I didn't even realize it. I guess I wanted to read faster than my mouth could form the words. Normally, I like reading aloud. I'm pretty good at it. I do it in my classroom to generate interest in whatever we're reading. Given the choice, my son would rather listen to me than the audio book, but the story had sucked me in, and I wanted to read for my enjoyment rather than his.

Bronte built the romantic tension between Jane and Rochester beautifully. When Jane thought Rochester was going to marry Blanche Ingram and she would have to leave, I actually shed a tear. I felt her pain. The major obstacle to Jane and Rochester's romance is a doozy, and when it was revealed, I had to put the book down for a day. Since I hadn't read the book before now, I'll assume there are others out there who haven't and might, so I won't give too much away, but overcoming that obstacle was hard for the characters. Because I was invested in the characters, it was hard for me.

The hallmark of a truly great book is one that stimulates my intellect and touches my heart. Jane Eyre did both. Jane was a heroine you could root for. She was a strong, independent woman who wouldn't compromise her core values even when sticking to them meant leaving the man she loved. She understood that happily ever after can't be built on a lie. I have nothing but respect for Bronte. Writing those scenes had to be painful. No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.

The thing about those tears, though, is that the shedding of them makes the happily ever after so much more satisfying because it was hard won. I felt the joy at the end as keenly as I felt the pain that came before it. The only thing that would have made it better was if Bronte had included a love scene at the end. Yeah, I know. It was the nineteenth century, and the poor woman had to publish the book under a male pseudonym, but it needed that last love scene.

Of course, then I would have had to read the thing aloud to my eighteen year old son, so maybe not.

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