Saturday, May 4, 2013

April Reading

Here's what I read in April.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Thanks to my wife for providing
awesome stickers.

Jane Eyre is a long, romantic 19th-century novel written by a woman.  In other words, Jane Eyre  is a book that I have never read.  However, now that I am a teacher of AP literature, I decided that I could no longer avoid reading this.  My students needed it after all, as the AP test is heavy on just this kind of 19th century literature that is difficult to sell to reluctant students.  And it would be perfect to time it so that my students were just finishing the book as they came to exam day, which is exactly what is happening now.  They will finish the book on Monday, and the test is on Thursday.  Wish them luck.

I was impressed at how readable the novel was, especially in the early chapters.  Charlotte Bronte lays out her themes of survival, abandonment, Christianity, and gender expectations early on, while keeping the plot moving quickly.  She goes from her bitter existence at Gateshead through the hell of Lowood and through the gates of Thornfield in 80 pages.  Along the way, the reader sees the remarkable transition from a dejected orphan to a stern, if plain, young woman.

Then there are the twists and turns of the plot, which I won't spoil for anyone, and the book shocks us because it is fresh, inventive, and thrilling.  Some of my students--mostly the boys--were stopping me in the hall when they figured out what was going on, which is always a good sign.  The girls were repulsed by Mr. Rochester, who they found lascivious and creepy, but at least they were emotionally involved.  They didn't much buy my lecture on the Byronic hero, and why Jane would naturally fall in love with such a character, but they were with me.

But then comes the last third of the novel, at Moor House, which is an unalloyed bore.  It's just dreadful.  St. John Rivers, who comes in in chapter 29 and drags down the momentum of the novel for the next eight chapters, is one of the dullest characters you are likely to meet in an AP-approved text.  And my students hated him.  They found the plot developments that took place in Moor House to be ridiculous rather than satisfying, and many of them lost patience with Jane altogether.

I tried to convince them that the author is also trying to test us, just as Jane is tested by the possibility of a socially-acceptable, safe, if entirely unsatisfying marriage to St. John.  I explained that plot is not the only element that makes a great novel, and that the theme of Jane's ongoing maturity continue through the boring chapters.  Finally, I suggested that Charlotte Bronte is committing the imitative fallacy by making us feel bored and frustrated at the point in which Jane is feeling bored and frustrated.  But they didn't care; they just wanted it to be over.

I tried to play it off as best as I could, though, in truth, I was also bored.

It's entirely counter-productive and unfair to compare Jane Eyre to Pride and Prejudice, but I could not help doing so at every step of the way.  Pride and Prejudice is the last female Victorian (or Georgian, if you will) novel that I forced myself to read, and I love every moment of it.  (I wrote about the novel here.)  Where that novel crackled, this one fizzled; Pride and Prejudice was a thrill, but Jane Eyre was more of a chore.

2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

As long as I was going to go all in on Jane Eyre, I figured that I might as well read Wide Sargasso Sea, too.  This novel is the story of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's first wife.  Set mostly in the Caribbean in the first decades of the 19th century, and then later at Thornfield Hall, this novel lets the mad woman in the attic tell her own story.

Her name is Antoinette, not Bertha, and she is stuck in between worlds. She is English, but is looked down upon by the British because she is Creole.  She lives in Jamaica, but does not fit in with the native Jamaicans because she is white and a descendant of the slave-owning elites. Like Jane, she clings to an upper-class lifestyle, but it utterly destitute.  There is madness, disease, and death in her recent history, and she is hoping that a marriage to a dashing British adventurer will be her salvation.

Anyone familiar with Jane Eyre knows what ends up happening to Bertha.  The story is not pleasant and Wide Sargasso Sea, which is written in beautiful, dense prose, is ultimately a grim tale.  Where Jane Eyre was able to rise the forces that opposed her--poverty, orphanhood, being an independent woman in an patriarchal society--Antoinette was not.

If you are going to read Wide Sargasso Sea, I highly recommend the Norton Critical edition.  Maybe you know more about Jamaican society in the 1830s, but I couldn't imagine reading this book without the help.

3. Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

The last book I read for my first semester or graduate school was Joseph Andrews, one of the first English novels.  The novel was a new and suspect genre, and Fielding himself doubts that it or its writers should be taken seriously.  That is one reason he calls his work a "comic Epic-Poem in Prose," and not a novel. He then goes on to make dozens of self-referential intrusions into his own novel, a funny comedy of errors surrounding the titular character.

There's much more that needs to be said about Joseph Andrews, but I am not the one to say it.

4. A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

I really read A Tale of a Tub back in March, and I wrote about it in that month's "What I read this month," but I thought it was only fair to include it here, too.  While I feel that I deserve double credit just for reading the damn thing, I also chose to write about this work for my final paper for my class.  Consequently, I spent many more hours researching, re-reading, and writing about Mr. Swift's book than any of the other three above.


  1. I read Jane Eyre, and I love that book! Hi Mr.Brame how are you doing? I just want to let you know that I'm graduating May 26, 2013, and YOU ARE THE BEST ENGLISH TEACHER EVER!!

    1. Autumn:

      It's so wonderful to hear from you! Congratulations on your upcoming graduation; I have no doubt you have a very bright future ahead of you. Are you still baking?