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So. Jane Eyre. This is actually a favourite novel of mine; partially for its lovely Gothic elements and atmosphere; partially because of the amazing feminist analyses which enrich my readings of it (Gilbert & Gubar and madwomen in attics); and partially because of Jane herself, who I find both interesting and appealing. She's an amazingly self-contained spirit, Jane - someone who has risen through really quite awful circumstances of deprivation and mental assault, to become nonetheless a decided entity in her own right, a person with intelligence and will and opinions which are all the more powerful for being hidden by her generally self-effacing reserve. I love watching her vivid mental life spark out of that reserve. She's a fascinating icon for female suppression, and I like her for some of the same reasons I have a soft spot for Austen's Fanny Price.

I have to say, I never quite attained the requisite literary crush on Rochester - he seems to me to be an odd, abrupt, rather narcissistic individual whose conversational roughness and cruelty always prevent me from trusting him enough to like him. He's tormented, sure, but it never quite excuses his behaviour. (I like him a lot better if I imagine him played by a mid-career Alan Rickman; it gives him a complexity the book never quite manages).

I have been driven into a Jane Eyre kick by the lovely treatment of the novel in one of Sarah Rees Brennan's wildly amusing Gothic Tuesdays. ("THE PLOT: Suddenly, typhus!" Hee.) This has caused me to do the following:
  1. Repeatedly forget to bring my copy of Jane Eyre back from campus so I can re-read it.
  2. Order, acquire and re-read Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, since my copy seems to have fallen to earth, I know not where. (If you're the one who borrowed it, consider it yours).
  3. Order, acquire and read Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn.
  4. Order, acquire and watch the recent film version of Jane Eyre featuring Mia Wasikovska and Michael Fassbender.
Lucky readers, you get a three-part review, whether you like it or not!

In loving Nine Coaches Waiting, I am utterly unrepentant. Mary Stewart romances are still a comfort read (far more so, in fact, than her Arthurian series). Nine Coaches is one of my favourites of hers, a loose Jane Eyre mirror featuring a French/English governess sent to a chateau in France (written late 50s, probably set contemporaneously) where she finds Lies And Shenanigans Afoot, possibly perpetrated by devilishly handsome Frenchmen. It's fascinating as a Jane Eyre response because it deals neatly with the problem of what Sarah RB calls "Edward 'Crazypants' Rochester" - i.e. he's both hero and villain, attractive and alienating, desirable and bloody dangerous - by splitting him into a father-son team who embody the two halves separately. This works beautifully. I spent most of my teens with a passionate crush on Raoul, possibly secondary only to my passionate crush on the chateau. But the novel also plays very nicely with the class issues in Bronte's novel, and the dangerous appeal of attraction in the middle of lies and cover-ups. It substitutes the standard Mary Steward thriller-tension for some of the Gothic moments, but still nods affectionately at the Gothic. It works.

Jenna Starborn is a far more up-front and faithful adaptation of the novel, but set in a far-future, multi-planetary setting where class divisions are those of citizenship and wealth rather than birth (although the characterising of the Jenna as a clone is a fascinating choice in terms of how it externalises difference and alienation). Lowly governess becomes lowly but essential technician; mad wives setting fire to houses become assaults on the containment and life support systems on a low-atmosphere planet. The "madness" of the hidden wife is beautifully translated, and I decline to spoiler it here, because it was effective in its unexpected revelation. However, the novel doesn't quite work, in part because its adaptation is too faithful: the constraints and strata of nineteenth-century British life are too wholesalely flung into the future, and there isn't much to account for why such retrograde social structures should be re-created. It also, given the update of the Jane-figure into a (technically) more enlightened era, spotlights the really gaping absences at the heart of the Jane/Rochester relationship, and the comparative lack of explanation for why Jane should fall for the ridiculous man when he's such a surly and uncommunicative bastard. I mean, please.

I watched the Jane Eyre movie last night. It's absorbing; slow, but beautifully made, and casting Mia Wasikowska as Jane was genius - she portrays that essential self-containment beautifully, playing right into my sense of Jane as all surface primness, all hidden fire. Fassbender also manages to make something almost human and understandable out of Edward Crazypants Rochester. The film is interesting, though, because it strips out a lot of the better-known Gothic moments to focus, instead, on relationship and feeling. Very little screaming from the attics, in fact. No Edward Crazypants Rochester in drag, therefore no gypsy figure. Absolute lack of the torn-wedding-veil moment, which I've always adored for its incredibly complex symbolism. You see the mad wife precisely once. Instead, the film gives you minute after drawn-out minute of beautiful landscapes, Jane trudging through them, rain, storm, high-angle shots of fields and downs and forests and fog and cliffs by the sea. It's landscape porn, which tries, I think, to use the landscape and environment as emotional indicators, but ultimately fails. The film feels as though it's been gutted, the heart stripped out of it; what makes Bronte's novel powerful is the way in which Gothic symbol and motif externalise and explore feeling and implication, and in a lot of ways substitute for character development. Rochester's pain and corruption aren't in what he says or does, they're in the figure of the mad wife, who also embodies the threat to Jane's integrity and safety, both mental and physical. You marginalise the mad wife and it really all stops hanging together. Which is sad, because the film is beautiful, and the actors are both beautiful and accomplished. (Total waste of Judi Dench, though.)

Thus endeth your dose of pseudo-lit-crit for the week. I must go and feed the cats, and water the garden, and possess my soul in patience until the second and third seasons of Veronica Mars hove to on the horizon. Twitch.

April 2019

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