It's a big anniversary year for literature (#Shakespeare400) but also with the bicenteniery of Charlotte Brontë's birth there has been a lot being written of about Jane Eyre - published in 1847 the face of female heroines forever changed.
Jane is plain (described several times throughout) and the emphasis being on her character, soul and true nature rather than her looks is a breath of fresh air even today when characters are so much defined by their beauty.
Reading this article on the Guardian got me thinking of how and why I read Jane Eyre. It was first year uni - I had taken a token Modern Literature Class and Jane popped up in a week devoted to speculative/adaption literature in the form of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and then the Wide Sargasso Sea. A little embarrassed I hadn't read the source text I read all three and woah - I think my brain expanded threefold.
The Eyre Affair is fabulous. It is a complex and fun literary adventure story where it's heroine Thursday Next has to solve mysteries as a Literary Detective and in her parallel universe have to deal directly with characters from fiction. Reading it after Jane Eyre was wonderful as I felt I could access Jane and Rochester again in a new context that breathed new understanding into the original source.
Wide Sargasso Sea was more difficult to fall for because it is a deliberately confronting and difficult text. It is a feminist-post-colonial story of Mr. Rochester and his first wife - how they married and how her world disintegrated into madness.
I wrote an essay on Wide Sargasso Sea - my first proper encounter with postcolonial theory - about Antoinette Rochester and the deep sense of alienation from place that the characters experience. An excerpt below:
Jean Rhys complicates colonial definitions of place by identifying characters with opposing positions and then bringing them into open conflict. This personification of colonial relationship is presented through Antoinette and Rochester’s tumultuous marriage. England versus the West Indies colony becomes Rochester versus Antoinette. In aligning reader sympathies with Antoinette, Rhys is challenging the colonial principle of English ascendancy.
I didn't do that well in Modern Literature, although now reading back over my essay it is well argued and solid in content. I wasn't suited though to the more "high-brow" side of lit and fell very comfortably into Creative Writing and Theatre Studies. The thing I most took away from the course was how the layers of a work can be expanded, dissected, pulled apart, rebuilt and act as a spring board to new work. It changed how I receive and make art.
This week I've read a lot of other people's reactions to Jane Eyre and the more insightful nearly always mention Wide Sargasso Sea. For many it taints the story of the plain and little lady and her dark Rochester. For me, whilst they are in dialogue with each other it is quite easy to separate the two from each other and The Eyre Affair.
Truth is I find very little more romantic than Jane returning to her blind love and him whispering "Jane, are you altogether real?" She is Edward and that is why we love her so.