Further Evidence That Charlotte Bronte Is a Piece of Work

A friend alerted me to the Austen/Bronte-themed podcast Bonnets At Dawn, which recently featured the creator of the marvelously strange web series Black Girl in a Big Dress and referenced a fascinating LitHub article from a few months back, Reading Jane Eyre While Black. Around that time I’d been reading “Villette” and was struck by how much she seemed to deplore Catholics, too. Which does not excuse her handling of poor Bertha Rochester, but does help us set it in a wider context.

By a strange coincidence, I learned of the Bonnets At Dawn podcast at the same time I was reading “The Professor,”  the only Bronte novel I’ve not read before. Continue reading

Reading While Human

This week I read a wonderful essay titled “Reading Jane Eyre While Black”  that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Not only does it compare two of 19th -century England’s most fascinating writers — Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen — but it hits on many of the issues I’ve been thinking about lately. About authorial intent, and how there will always  be something a little mysterious about it, even to the author. Also how as both readers and writers we bring our own biases, both the known and unknown, to the page.

Tyrese L. Coleman makes many interesting points along the way, but one key theme is how “Jane Eyre” has been ruined for her by Bronte’s depiction of Bertha Mason, whose craziness and evil is inextricably linked to her West Indian origins and implicit blackness. Continue reading

Mr. Darcy vs. Mr. Rochester

darcy firth

orson rochester

No one today seeking to write about love, a group I must, however reluctantly, class myself with, can escape the towering shadows of two 19th-century romantic heroes: Jane Austen’s Darcy and Charlotte Bronte’s Rochester.

What has brought this to mind was rereading “Jane Eyre,” a work I had avoided for years; I think I feared it. I recalled from last reading a vague sense of its force, closely connected to the powerful first-person narrator, who grabs the reader by the throat, relates uncomfortable truths, refuses to shut up. The initial account of the cruelty of her life with Mrs. Reed and the early days at Lowood is even more ghastly than I remembered. Continue reading

A Return to Mansfield Park

I felt I did not do full justice to Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park the last time I wrote about it, and I resolved to go back and do something about that. I should have done so before now, but so many things have gotten in the way.

I wrote my comments at about midpoint in my first reading of the book, shortly before the murder is discovered. The book has 363 pages in the edition I am reading, and the body is discovered on page 158. Once a murder has been discovered, the book takes on a kind of energy it seemed to lack before that. Or maybe it is not the book that underwent a shift, but the reader.

For the things that were troubling me about the book up to that point — how it both was and was not like Mansfield Park, the abrupt shifts in points of view and tone, the moments of foreshadowing that did not seem to fit, my sense of puzzlement about what the author’s aim was — all seemed to fall away. Suddenly, everything made perfect sense, for I found myself in the familiar, forgiving world of an English country house murder mystery, and I understood exactly what the author was doing. And thought she did it very well. The detective, Charles Maddox, is perfect. Mary Crawford, once she steps out of the shadow of  the other Mary Crawford , becomes an engaging and sympathetic character. The mystery plot is taut and engrossing; the language never gets in the way.

And could I have not figured this out before? The title of the book, after all, contains the word “Murder.” There is an image of a corpse on the cover; a tasteful image, sure, but still; I was a bit slow on the uptake. The only thing I can say in my defense was, there was so much of Jane Austen here, I got confused. I was thinking the author was trying to do something else — what? I was not certain. Construct an alternate Mansfield Park, somewhat the way the wonderfully strange Wild Sargasso Sea constructs an alternate Jane Eyre? Certainly Mansfield Park is the novel that Jane Austen fans find the most vexing: the way the people we feel we are supposed to admire (Fanny and Edmund) are so much harder to like than the supposed villains of the piece (Mary and Henry Crawford). Certainly there is a large body of readers who think the main characters married the wrong people, and that a Henry-Fanny and Edmund-Mary match-up would have been a more satisfying result. I do not share these views, but I do understand them. Was this the author’s intent, to at once construct a homage to Mansfield Park and a more satisfying end to it, through the device of murder mysteries and alternate endings?

It’s a good deal easier, and probably more pleasing to readers, to write a good murder mystery than the Mansfield Park answer to Wide Sargasso Sea, and I am happy that this is what Lynn Shepherd did. The main lesson I took away from this book is how truly  elastic the murder mystery is as a form, despite its seemingly ironclad requirements.

SPOILER ALERT!!! And in this retelling, I really did think the heroine married the wrong person! I was hoping Mary Crawford would marry Mr. Maddox and travel around England solving crimes with him. I think this could be the basis for a very promising series. Perhaps in Lynn Shepherd’s next book, he can end up with another overlooked Austen heroine. Charlotte Collins, anyone (after the convenient death of her first husband)?