Friday 6 June 2014

Jane Eyre & Wide Sargasso Sea

(May 2014)

Get me with the classics, such as they are. We’ve been watching clips from the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre in class, and after banging on about how it’s the English equivalent of Kokoro (in so much as it’s often studied in school) I figured I may as well read the damn thing properly.

I started a couple of days before G*ve, the current UK Secretary of State for Education, got a lot of people very upset by not removing To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the English, er, English syllabus, in much the same way that mafia enforcers don’t extort protection payments from small business: “I ain’t that fond of this book, y’know. By the way, nice little curriculum you’ve got here. Be a shame if an accident happened to it…”

I don’t intend to bang on about the politics of this, as otherwise this post will just descend into a rant about how much I detest the man. I do need say something about it up front though, not for any ‘declaration of interest’ reasons but because if I don’t I’ll just end up bottling it all up for the whole post only to finish by doing a Torrence and typing GOVE’S A CUNT several thousand times without the benefit of cut and paste. Not only would this be bad for my blood pressure but it’s also a very problematic gendered slur, being as it is unfair to cunts and owners of cunts everywhere which and who have done nothing to bear such a heinous comparison. They’re, in my admittedly limited experience, generally warm and lovely and pleasurable, and that certainly doesn’t apply here. I will content myself by merely stating that the man is an ideologically driven zealot, and that regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum people like that should not be in charge of the development of an entire nation’s children.

To return to the books; G*ve apparently wants less of the filthy foreign rubbish and a greater focus on homegrown ‘classics’ – i.e. British books for British people (there’s nothing for you here). And this, finally, is where we get to the point about Jane Eyre, because I’m actually very, very glad that I didn’t read it at school.

Don’t get me wrong, its status as a classic is clearly entirely deserved. It’s just that I took English Lit at A-Level and while I enjoyed it as a subject hugely I also now appreciate how the texts we studied suffered slightly through the process. This was especially the case with older stuff; the old-fashioned vocabulary and grammar take up so much teenage attention and processing time that there’s very little left over to appreciate more salient aspects. I would also point out that, to both my teenaged self and my classmates, Sons and Lovers (publication date: 1913) comfortably qualified as ‘old-fashioned’. There’s also, quite before the point that doing something through obligation is always less fun than doing it through choice, the way we studied books at school. I remember one of our younger teachers banging on at the start of the course about how this was the greatest depth in which we were ever likely to study a book, even compared to university (a comparison which was predictably lost on us, none of us ever having been. The follies of youth obviously don’t end with the award of a PGCE). While she made a valid point, the preferred method of examining a book chapter by chapter over the course of a couple of years doesn’t really allow for much in the way of dramatic tension to play out. Not a lot of room for the ‘I couldn’t put it down’ page-turner when you are going through it line-by-line in search of uses of light and shadow as metaphors for vitality and illness, or whatever.

The necessity of teaching to a set of exam-board mandated learning outcomes inevitably does a disservice to both text and reader. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, with the obvious exception of Shakespeare, of all the authors I studied in school the only one I’ve since read another work by is Kazuro Ishiguro. And it took me a decade and a half just to get round to that. Even so, I should reiterate that I was really into it at the time, in balance it was an undoubtedly positive experience, and I certainly don’t want to sound like I don’t still feel considerable gratitude and warmth to my teachers (at least one of whom was one of those teachers: the ones who stick in your mind for the rest of your life, for all the right reasons). But still, it’s a way of reading that you are unlikely to ever experience again and that inevitably has drawbacks.

Regarding Jane Eyre (remember?), I’m specifically glad I didn’t read it in school because, in amongst all the other good stuff, its most surprising narrative strength is that Brontë absolutely fucking nails the pacing.* It inevitably falls off slightly after the aborted wedding and the big reveal of The Madwoman in the Attic,** but for the first 350 pages of a gothic romance novel I already knew the plot of I was genuinely hooked. Things happen in exactly the order they should, and when they should, and the narrative proceeds in the precisely effortless way that can only be produced by unarguable authorial talent at the peak of its powers. I know, I know, Charlotte Brontë could write, hold the front page, but this is exactly the kind of thing I would have failed to appreciate if I’d studied it at school; the kind of thing that would have got lost behind the lexical archaisms and the painstaking dissection of metaphor and allusion. I also, perhaps, would have been less able to make the observation that both Edward Rochester and St John Rivers are aching bellends of the greatest magnitude, both of whom spend several months essentially grooming Jane. Being motivated by romantic passion or religious conviction is no excuse for behavior which is, at best, downright fucking creepy:

I shall be absent a fortnight – take that space of time to consider my offer; and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God.

Oh, St John, St John. Do fuck off with your self-deifying guilt-trip, you pious bible-fucking wanker.

Yes, yes, ‘of its time’, blah blah blah. But while we’re not of that time now, the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight demonstrates there’s still a massive cultural appetite for the ‘abusive older man + docile young girl’ narrative, and we have far fewer excuses as far as religious or societal constraints go. Or at least we should have. Fortunately though Jane, for all her (slightly self-hating) snobbery, is a superlative protagonist. Again, nothing new in that observation, but prior to reading this I never fully appreciated the truth of it: straight-up kick-ass knock-down drag-out awesomeness who would send Anastasia Steele or Bella Swan home in a fucking box. This, perhaps, is another reason why it would not be so great to read this at school, because the unavoidable conclusion of such comparisons is that we’ve somehow regressed as a culture, and teenagers have enough pressures to deal with as it is.

The Penguin Classics edition I have of Jane Eyre comes fully loaded with a scholarly introduction and extensive footnotes, one of which relates that Brontë eventually came to regret her wholly unsympathetic portrayal of Bertha Mason. I mention this as a rhetorical crunching of gears that allows me to segue as smoothly as a learner driver attempting their first hill-start into Wide Sargasso Sea, which, for those of you who don’t know, was an attempt by Jean Rhys to belatedly (by a gap of some 120 years) correct this failing. It bears a similar relation to Jane Eyre as does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead does to Hamlet: it fleshes out the story of members of the supporting cast and in doing so makes you question just how much abuse of minor characters you, as a reader, are willing to overlook for the sake of narrative expediency.

It’s worth noting that, quite apart from any broader thematic concerns, Wide Sargasso Sea is astonishingly well-written. Maybe the fact that summer’s just starting to kick in here and the cicadas are beginning to chrip of an evening aided the effect, but you really do feel immersed in this tropical landscape which paradoxically, beautifully, viciously Rhys makes stand for a multitude of contradictions. The land is at once verdant yet barren, humid yet chilling, wild and unfettered yet constraining and imprisoning (what was I saying about looking for metaphor and allusion? It’s always there, ticking away in the background, and once you start you just can’t stop).

There were trailing pink flowers on the table and the name echoed pleasantly in my head. Coralita coralita... We drank champagne. A great many moths and beetles found their way into the room, flew into the candles and fell dead on the tablecloth. Amélie swept them up with a crumb brush. Uselessly. More moths and beetles came.

The opening and closing sections are narrated by Bertha Mason (née Antoinette Cosway), but the bulk of the story is told by her unnamed husband (Rochester, of course). It’s an interesting decision – to write a story with the specific aim of giving a previously ignored character a voice, but then to deny them that voice for the majority of it. It’s a decision that has many repercussions, not the least of which is to reinforce my views on Rochester’s bellendery. He’s not wholly unsympathetic, to be fair, but it would be facile to try and paint him (as both he and Jane attempt to do throughout Jane Eyre) as just as much of a victim as his wife. Yes, he is to a certain limited degree entrapped by circumstance, but by letting him tell most of the tale Rhys is essentially giving him the rope with which to hang himself. And hang he does, as a markedly less noble (post)colonial Othello: the old white ram tupping his black ewe (there are those contrasts and inversions again).

And so we come full circle, as Othello was one of those texts I studied in school, and I guess I’m going to contradict myself slightly here, or at least fall back on some lazy platitudes. Because, frankly, it’s a chicken and egg question: how do you build a base? Studying ‘difficult’ stuff when you’re young necessarily robs it of the potential impact it would have at a later date, when you’re better read and can get more from it, but you have to start somewhere and aiming high is better than aiming low. Which is more important, the work or the reader? (Rhetorical question: it’s always the reader.) Questions questions questions, but I think it’s definitely true to say that if you’re trying to build a base, you want it to be as wide as possible.

*This is the kind of nuanced critical expression of which Mr. Ashworth would be proud.
**If anyone makes a ‘SPOILERS!’ gag I will stab you in the fucking knees.***
***Don’t read that bit Mr. Ashworth. I didn’t really mean it.


  1. I enjoyed my English Lit classes in high school and am glad I was made to read some of the classics I did at such an age, mainly because once I became a student of the hard sciences at university, I pretty much stopped reading fiction altogether. I do take a classic home every now and then from the library, but I have a lot of catching up to do compared to most avid readers.
    No doubt, the level at which literature is dissected in high school is much different in the US than in the UK (obviously, we don't go into it anywhere near as deeply), and very little from non-American authors is actually required reading. It seems to me that most Americans who become avid readers do so because they were encouraged to do so at home. A real shame...

    1. Yeah. As I said, I really enjoyed it at school, but I can see how it was set up to appeal to kids who already liked it. Didn't do so much to engage the less keen. We're obviously trying to encourage the boys, but so far the youngest is considerably more enthusiastic than the elder. Hopefully the sheer weight of books in the house will act though some kind of osmosis and we'll be all right in the end...

  2. Lost my last comment, so this will be shorter. My Facebook reaction to 'G*ve' was: "'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen...' but then again, Emerson's not British."

    I quite a major in Lit to enjoy reading again, and thank god it worked. Potential heavy readers need a syllabus cast wide, not narrowly studied to the depths. The rest need to be able to properly fill out their ration cards. It comes to personality that there is little movement between the two.

    1. Both 'hobgoblin' and 'little mind' are perfectly apt. Make me disappointed that the full glory of your original comment got lost if there was more like that in it.

      Quitting it to enjoy it is definitely something I can understand. Obligation is a tricky bastard, even if it is notionally self-imposed.