Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sunday Salon - Revisiting Jane.

One of the greatest things about being writer in residence at a university is the access it affords to that wonderful thing that universities supposedly stand for - knowledge.

This means I have free rein (reign?) of the libraries, which has proved very useful for research for the latest novel. I even think that being here has changed my novel significantly: as I make use of the resources, the characters, story and structure of the novel are all making use of them too. I think it is very interesting how outside factors, such as where you are when you write a novel, can have such a powerful influence, but that's another post topic altogether.

The point of this post is that this week I attended a lecture: my first English lit lecture in about 13 years. It was a stage 3 course on the Nineteenth Century Novel, a subject that was very close to my heart when I did my BA in English many moons ago. This particular lecture was on Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Due to all the reading I've got on my plate for the festival, I didn't get a chance to re-read the novel before the lectures began, but I was pleased to find that I still scored 8 out of 10 on the quiz the lecturer gave to see who had actually finished the book, so it has stayed with me for many years.

I loved the lecture. It made me, once again, wish that I could do my BA all over again, or at least transport myself back in time and make the younger, distracted me pay a bit more attention and get a bit more out of it. I loved the books then; I didn't love the lectures or the coursework or the exams. Older me would relish the lectures and the essays, if not the exams.

I loved hearing about the context in which the book was written, the life of the Brontë family - all which I knew about but enjoyed hearing in such an intense, distilled environment as a lecture on the novel.

At the beginning, after the quiz, the lecturer asked the class what they thought of the book. One young woman said that she was a huge Jane Austen fan, and that when she started Jane Eyre she was disappointed that it was so different in style, that she couldn't get into it, but that by the end she was won over. It reminded me that when I studied stage 1 nineteenth century lit, I had the exact opposite reaction when I started Pride and Prejudice. I was a big fan of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I wrote in my journal at the time that I thought P&P was boring, that it was so mannered and dispassionate. I don't even think I got past the first chapter. Now I love Jane Austen, but it was interesting to realise so many years on why I had that first reaction to her. Charlotte Brontë herself said of Austen that she was "only shrewd and observant" and not passionate, that her work was "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck".

I'm looking forward to diving back into Jane Eyre when I get the chance, and upcoming lectures include Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White, both of which I plan to read (re-read in the case of WH) to get the most out of the lectures. And yes, they do all have something to do with the novel I'm working on; I'm just not sure exactly what just yet, but I'm sure that all will become clear.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the uni flashback Rachel, I too wish I had paid more attention! Woman in White is great - the heroine is very different to the regular 19century type.

Found that really interesting - the Bronte/Austen thing, I find that people fall harder into one camp than the other, like fire and ice - I tried an Austen, but am afraid not won over...she is great, but I find I just want to shake all her characters and muss up there hair and manners...! (Forgive me Jane Austen Society Members!)

Anonymous said...

Rachel, somehow I seem to have missed out on your blog before, no chance in future - I've just bookmarked you. I know just how you feel about the privilege of going back to University in this way. Last year, when I retired our local University gave me an Honorary Fellowship and like you I get Library rights and am able to go to all the post grad seminars. This means sitting in on lectures by some of the best people in the field as the Department I'm attached to is very prestigious. It is wonderful.
When it comes to the Austen/Bronte debate, I'm a Janeite. I do love 'Jane Eyre' but don't do well with the rest of their output. Perhaps I don't do passion very well.

Anonymous said...

I never liked Austen. But Bronte sisters, I have read all!

Do check out my Sunday Salon posts :D

SS 1: Review of The Dark Child

SS 2: Musings about books

Mary McCallum said...

Yes, Jane Eyre - delicious terror and romance all in one package. I had so many teenage nightmares about a woman with a candle creeping around my room....and dreams about being a governess to a Rochester... And Wuthering Heights -- I mean look at that word: 'wuthering' ....

It took me awhile to get into Jane Austen, too. So maybe I was 'spoilt' by the other Jane. I always thought it was an age thing - that one 'came' to understand Jane and her cleverness whereas the Brontes appealed naturally to the romantic 'teen spirit.'

Interestingly, when I had my first baby I read all of Jane Austen as as a perfect literary escape.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Austen/Bronte thing is to do with their eras - Austen a Regency girl and Bronte a Romantic ( in the Byronic way) Girl - they are ultimately writing the same story, but come at it from opposite angles / different cultural divides

I think Austen is the head, Bronte is the heart. Hence that is why Bronte's can appeal to 'teen spirits' ( The Brontes smell like teen spirit!) because the heart is a riot at that age. I only came across them both when I was older. I made my partner read Wuthering Heights and he was shocked by the violence, so I suppose we read from the age we are at.

That is also why I think Austen makes for better adaptations, that heart hiding behind the noise of the head, perfect subtext for an actor, where as Bronte, a bit harder to do

Was it Thomas Jefferson who wrote that long poem about the head vs the heart?

Anonymous said...

I love that dry wit of JA. I'm about halfway through Middlemarch at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a lot of heart and passion of Jane Austen, but it is masked by the repression and politeness of her time. The scene in "Persuasion" where Anne is writing to Captain Wentworth is incredibly passionate, romantic and filled with feeling.

I love both the Brontes and Jane, and George Eliot is bally brilliant as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gondal-Girl about the teen spirit of Bronte. As a passionate teen and young woman I loved Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and found Jane Austen's writing to be witty but altogether less moving.

Those layers of deep feeling held tightly within the bounds of social responsibilities held no appeal to a teenager, and yet now they feel increasingly familiar. Ouch!