marginalia || Becoming Jane Eyre, by Sheila Kohler

[I owe myself a couple more Jane Eyre posts here, I know, as well a publication an essay on Edward Rochester. Crap. I know, I know. Still, here is a detour. Not an entirely unenjoyable one: Sheila Kohler‘s Becoming Jane Eyre.]

It comes to her out of thin air.  She is not sure if she has heard such a name.  Was there someone she knew with that name?  Does it come from the family arms she once saw in a church, or the river she knows well, the beautiful valley of the Ayre?  Or is it a name that comes from air, perhaps, or fire?  Fire and ire will be in the book: rage at the world as it is.  Unfair!  Unfair! Ire and eyer: she is the one who now sees in her father’s place.  She has become the voyeur, the observer.  Plain Jane, Emily Jane, her beloved sister’s second name, Jane, so close to Joan, brave Joan of Arc, Jane so close to Janet, Jeanette, little Jane.  A name that conjures up duty and dullness, childhood and obedience, but also spirit and liberty, a sprite’s name, a fairy’s name, half spirit, half flesh, light in darkness, truth and hypocrisy, the name of one who sees: Jane Eyre.

My old copy of Jane Eyre contains a sentence in the author’s bio that went something like, “Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in two weeks, while taking care of her sick father.” Two weeks. This tidbit of a trivia wormed its way into my sensibilities, to my writing process, to how I attack the craft. Until now, once a short story I’ve been working on has passed the seven-day mark, I grow tired of it. The exhaustion comes with what Lynn Freed so simply put: “Who cares?” I kept asking myself—a deadly question in fiction. The answer was—the answer always is when one has to ask it—No one. It just becomes unsalvageable for me. I don’t know how many stories I’ve “lost” with this process. But on the other hand, as feeble consolation, I like to think it has saved me from some stinkers: I remember, at 12, oh-so-ambitiously and quite feverishly trying to finish a novel. I failed. It was craptastic; no part of me weeps.

Anyway. I’ve revived my love for Jane Eyre–for the longest time, I knew I loved the book, and said so, but it wasn’t until I reread it that I discovered how much I’d forgotten. But I’ve always been interested in all things Jane Eyre. Enter Becoming Jane Eyre, by Sheila Kohler–a book that gives us a glimpse into the life of Charlotte Brontë, most especially what parts of it helped her along in the crafting of her most celebrated novel. Nothing like a little voyeurism from a die-hard fan–How often have a squealed when an author I admire clues us in on how he/she writes?–even if it’s fictional.

I actually learned of Kohler’s novel through Sophia Lear’s disdainful and withering review of the book way back in January. I did not care. Hee. While I was running amok in the bookstore, I found this lone copy buried underneath zombie-fications of many other classics. That beautiful cover, the deckle-edged pages. Auto-buy, along the lines of compulsion. Though I was mindful, even then, of Lear’s complaints: I resolved to read the book with, well, lowered expectations.

Things I noticed, that echo Lear’s observations:

  • These are vignettes, flashbacks, daydreams–told in different points of views ranging from the Brontë patriarch, to the nurse, to each of the Brontë sisters.
  • There is a distance between the narrative and the actual story. Charlotte herself is hazy: While I read, I simply saw a woman in shadow, wearing a bonnet, and all I saw of her face was the curve of her cheek illumined by candlelight. There is, of course, the sound of a pen scratching. We exist mostly in the heads of these different characters, and sometimes we never go past that interior–Quite possibly a failure of the use of the first-person POV.
  • What I was not at all expecting: Overwrought passion. Passion is good. Passion is what makes Jane Eyre, for goodness’ sake. But not in prose so clunky and awkward that it rivals your Old Skool Romance Novels–He has almost forgotten the feeling of her tender, shy touch, as he guided her small hand to the place where he throbbed and yearned. For goodness’ sake, he throbs. Reader, I was jarred. It was like seeing your great-great grandparents make out. Aherm.

And this brings us to a debate I’ve had with myself ever since the second chapter of this book rolled around: Passion. There’s a rather disquieting abundance of quiet in this novel. Compared to Jane Eyre–no, compared to any other spin-offs of that text–Kohler’s novel lacks passion. There’s overwrought, yes, there are fervent desires in our characters. But they burst only once in a while, placed in a text that simply rumbles along rather calmly. Did I like this? I suppose. I recognize that this was the safest route to take, an idyll afternoon in the inner lives of the Brontës. But. But. I wanted more life. I wanted Kohler to make things new for me, not just artfully elaborate on information I could find in the author’s bio. I wanted more. I came from Jane Eyre, I was set up for this. But, another But: I liked the novel well enough, aware of its flaws. It’s quiet, at times passionless, but, well, it was okay. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s not appalling.

What could be the biggest criticism aimed at it is that it fails to even attempt matching the icon, the Brontës, Jane Eyre. Is my reaction–this “okay enough” response to the novel–better than criticizing it for failing to equal Jane Eyre? Oh, but note that it did not become Jane Eyre, it did not. Then again, that’s not the point is it? It’s that each book–spin-off or no–has to be a book that could exist by itself. Becoming Jane Eyre, sadly, did not.

Ultimately, Becoming Jane Eyre settles for being a companion book to Brontë’s novel–Kohler never makes the story her own. Of course it’s not, we know that, but the novel she wrote, the novel-as-thing, it doesn’t know that. The book relies heavily on making parallelisms to Jane Eyre, excerpting passages, summarizing scenes, showing us events in Charlotte Brontë’s life that we know would mirror her novel’s. I don’t know if this is laziness, or if it’s simply what Becoming Jane Eyre aspires to be: Give or take a few missteps with the prose, an elegant footnote.


Reading begets reading: Now, well, now I really want to read Villette. And I got Ann Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and it’s only a matter of time before I reread Wuthering Heights. S&TS HQ now gladly accepts donations, hee.

11 thoughts on “marginalia || Becoming Jane Eyre, by Sheila Kohler

  1. Villette! I highly recommend it. I read it last summer, and fell head over heels in love with it. It has some similarities with Jane Eyre, which I found rather interesting.

    1. I know, I know, I very badly want to read it–but I’ve been to five bookstores, and none of them stock Villette. Augh. As soon as I get my hands on it, though!

    1. Though I didn’t much like Wide Sargasso Sea when I read it about two years ago, I did appreciate how it was stand-alone. It could exist even without Jane Eyre, though of course it wouldn’t be as rich.

  2. I enjoyed Villette, although it pales in comparison to Jane Eyre. Just saying, nothing is Jane Eyre though. I think I’ll probably just skip this one. The Secret Diary of Charlotte Bronte was alright.

    1. Thanks, Ash. Nothing’s ever like Jane Eyre, and we love that. We try to read as much as we can about it, though. Still, I’d love to read more Bronte, but I’m not too keen on The Professor.


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