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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jane Eyre.....Air.....Heir....Eyer....AUSTEN!

I saw the new Jane Eyre adaptation yesterday, and I join with the many reviewers who’ve given the film an enthusiastic thumbs up. It’s as good, I think, as my personal favorite among the earlier versions I’ve seen, the 1983 Jane Eyre starring the charismatically crazed Timothy Dalton and the quietly impressive Zelah Clarke. In particular, I found the out-of-sequence chronology of the new version quite effective, it seemed to allow the screenwriter to present the entire story in only two hours, without the viewer feeling the loss of any significant material from the book.

Anyway, as I watched Wasilowska and Fassbender (and those who said that Judi Dench upstaged them are wrong, they were all three of them great), Jane Austen was never very far from my mind. I began to revisit in my mind all the research I did 4 years ago (spurred by the invaluable assistance of a very brilliant and good Janeite/ Brontean friend) on the mysterious relationship between Jane Eyre and JA’s novels.

Then, this morning, I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing all my files on this topic, and then extending my previous understandings. I was not surprised to be reminded that in 2001, when I first considered the Austen-Eyre connection, I took a conventional view and saw Bronte as rejecting Jane Austen because Bronte was a wild romantic in contrast to JA’s controlled genteel world.

In 2011, I am a million miles away from that interpretation, in two crucial and fundamental ways:

First, it has been many years that I have seen JA as a covert radical feminist who in many ways was deeply in sync with, and even went beyond, Bronte’s radical romantic feminism; and

Second, and closely connected to the first, I have, since 2007, been utterly convinced that Bronte only _pretended_ (famously, to George Eliot’s soul-mate, Henry Lewes) not to have read any of JA’s novels before writing Jane Eyre, and also later only pretended to find Austen’s novels emotionally sterile. And so I also am convinced that Bronte wrote Jane Eyre as a veiled homage to, and enthusiastic extension of, the feminism of _all_ six Austen novels! In a variety of ways, I think that Bronte was pulling Lewes’s pompous chain, exactly the same way that Austen herself had pulled off a massive put-on of false self deprecation on the pompous James Stanier Clarke.

I’ve written a few posts over recent years in Janeites and Austen-L about the JA in Jane Eyre, but I think this is a good moment to pull things together today in light of my having crystallized my thinking about JA as a radical feminist.

As background, I first give you the following citations of three articles which have been most important in looking at Jane Eyre in an Austenian light:

Margaret Lenta, "Jane Fairfax and Jane Eyre: Educating Women" Ariel, Vol. 12, #4, Oct. 1981, ppg. 27-41. This was a pioneering essay from 30 years ago. Although Lenta does not suggest or realize that Bronte read Emma before writing Jane Eyre, she nonetheless does an excellent comparison that brings out many striking parallels between Jane Fairfax and Jane Eyre.

Kathryn Sutherland, “Jane Eyre's Literary History: The Case for Mansfield Park”, ELH, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 409-440. Although Sutherland’s article is for the most part unreadable with all its dense, verbose, off-putting jargon, Sutherland does, to her great credit, take the plunge and make the following insightful claim:

“ In a series of letters written between January 1848 and April 1850, to Lewes and later to her editor and friend W. S. Williams, Bronte declared her settled antipathy to Austen. Surprisingly, she had read no Austen at all, until Lewes recommended Pride and Prejudice; and two years later she has added only Emma to the list. "I excite amazement," she informed Williams, "by replying in the negative" when asked "whether I have read" Austen. Nevertheless, _it seems clear that Jane Eyre addresses itself to the revision of Mansfield Park_…”

However, although Sutherland makes this leap to realizing Mansfield Park was a crucial allusive source for Jane Eyre, she apparently saw MP as the _only_ Austen novel read by Bronte, because Sutherland is utterly silent about the other five Austen novels.

And finally, I recommend most strongly the article I have previously written about in Janeites and Austen-L, Jocelyn Harris’s “Jane Austen, Jane Fairfax, and Jane Eyre” in the 2007 issue of Persuasions. Harris waffles on the question of whether (i) Bronte read Emma, or (ii) Bronte and Austen’s novels resemble each other because they both alluded to a common source, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. However, Harris, who seems not to have been aware of either Lenta’s or Sutherland’s earlier articles, does bring out many important parallels between Emma and Jane Eyre, which augment those found by Lenta 26 years earlier.

While I will be expanding on this topic at length in my book, I would like to give a brief overview here of how I extend Lenta, Sutherland and Harris’s insights vis a vis Mansfield Park and Emma, respectively, all of which I find to be spot-on:

First, I see Bronte as having alluded, in Jane Eyre, in a variety of ways, to _all six_ of Austen’s novels. For example, and only as the tip of the iceberg;

It is no coincidence, as Harris points out, that both Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax share a name with Jane Fairfax; but it is also no accident that the doctor at the Lowood school who is called in to treat poor Helen Burns who is dying of typhus (strangely, the disease that almost killed Jane Austen at almost the same age as Jane Eyre’s age when sent to Lowood, and which, according to my friend Linda Walker’s recent Persuasions article, may well have flared up again and killed Jane Austen at age 41!) is named…Mr. Bates!

It is no coincidence that Jane Eyre, like Mansfield Park, is haunted by the spectre of slavery in the West Indies, and that in both novels, there are several characters who, mysteriously, have brown or olive colored skin. As good as Sutherland’s analysis is, she only goes halfway into the allusive shadows connecting Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre.

It is no coincidence that Jane Eyre, while at Whitwell with St. John and his sisters, chooses the false name “Jane Elliot” which of course is the surname of the Elliots of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion;

It is no coincidence that the impecunious heroines of S&S and Jane Eyre, respectively, for extended portions of their respective stories, are secretly in love with (i) a younger son (ii) born to wealth (iii) named “Edward” (iv) who has a second name beginning with an “F” (recall Mrs. Jennings’s guessing game in that regard, and note the very similar sound of “Ferrars” and “Fairfax”), and (v) as to whom they must suffer the torture of having to keep silent while knowing that he is likely to be marrying another woman (Lucy Steele, Blanche Ingram), and (vi) as to whom each heroine suffer a huge, but temporary shock, at a climactic moment late in each novel, when she hears news from a servant that appears to mean that the hero is not available for marriage (Elinor does not realize at first that the “Mr. Ferrars” who has just gotten married is Robert, not Edward; and Jane does not realize at first the “Mr. Rochester” who died is Rochester’s father, not Rochester himself). And there are a number of _other_ covert textual allusions to S&S in Jane Eyre which are even more remarkable and sly, which I will outline in my book. I think Bronte particularly resonated to the fearless honesty of Marianne Dashwood, and so she, along with Fanny Price and Jane Fairfax, are the primary individual allusive sources for the character of Jane Eyre.

It is no coincidence that early in Jane Eyre, we hear about Jane Eyre’s literary reading (just as we do in Chapter 1 of Northanger Abbey), and in particular we hear how Bessie, the young housemaid in the otherwise unrelentingly cruel Reed household (which Sutherland shows is so similar to the Bertram home at Mansfield Park—and I add that Bessie’s surname is “Lee”, also the surname of the governess at Mansfield Park), “fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure from…the pages of Pamela and ‘Henry, Earl of Moreland.’ ” Although “Henry, Earl of Moreland” was indeed a popular novel written by the Irishman Henry Brooke around the time JA was born, of course Bronte chose to specifically spell out this title because the names are a veiled allusion to _Henry_ Tilney, the hero who marries Catherine _Morland_, and shows that Bronte recognized that JA had secretly alluded to that same earlier novel. Might JA have been particularly struck by Brooke’s hero Henry having been raised in infancy by a local woman the same way as all the Austen children?

And, when Jane is taken from the Reed home to the Lowood School, we read of concern expressed for Jane Eyre’s safety because she will travel fifty miles by coach without any adult escort, just as we read of Eleanor Tilney’s concerned for Catherine Morland’s safety when she travels _seventy_ miles alone from Northanger Abbey, whence (like Jane Eyre) Catherine has been banished by a cruel, domestic tyrant for a crime she did not commit.

And don’t forget that there is a character named “Northangerland” in the “Angria” tales we find in Charlotte Bronte’s juvenilia! Indeed, Northanger Abbey (which is a ruined ancient structure which, like Thornfield Hall, seems to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who turns out to be the wife of the temperamental master of the residence) is another significant allusive source for Jane Eyre!

I leave for last an allusion in Jane Eyre to Emma, which, standing alone, would seem only a coincidence, but when added to the mix of all the above collectively unmistakable allusions, becomes an interesting possibility. Read how Jane Eyre first gets the idea of applying to work as a governess:

“A kind fairy, in my absence, had surely dropped the required suggestion on my pillow; for as I lay down, it came quietly and naturally to my mind.—“Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the ---shire Herald’ “

Is this a tip of the hat to the following passage in Emma to the long charade in Chapter 9 of Emma (and by the way, Rochester puts on a game of charades at Thornfield Hall, and also disguises himself as a gypsy!):

“A piece of paper was found on the table this morning -- (dropt, we suppose, by a fairy) -- containing a very pretty charade, and we have just copied it in."

I hope you will agree with me now that Bronte was indeed pulling Lewes’s leg with both arms when she claimed not to have read any Jane Austen before writing Jane Eyre! Indeed, I conclude with my most ambitious claim of all, which is that the character of Jane Eyre herself is Charlotte Bronte’s imagining of her secret heroine, the benign ghost who secretly haunts Bronte’s first and most famous novel, the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s feverish imagination----- Jane Austen herself!

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Quite interesting and when you think about it absurb that Bronte had not read any Austen since her works were maybe out of print for only a year of two after her death.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Absolutely, and add to the absurdity that Bronte was obviously extremely well read, there are a number of overt literary allusions in Jane Eyre, and an even greater number of thinly veiled ones, including Shakespeare, Milton, etc.

Lewes was earnest lover of literature, but he lacked that wicked sense of irony that both Austen and Bronte had.

Traxy said...

Sounds like you're clutching at straws for the most part, seeing connections where there are none. For instance, with the typhus - it might have nearly killed JA, but it definitely killed a few of CB's sisters, and Lowood is based on a school they were all sent to, and where typhus broke out. Edward is a common name, age and status gap romances aren't exactly unique, and how Jane became a governess? How about because CB was one herself? ;)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Tracy, you dismiss, with one breezy sentence, a long post filled with specific textual references, and seize upon the least significant point I made, a sure sign that you had no substantive rebuttal to make on all my other points.

And if you read my latest post, you will see an additional allusion to Mansfield Park which i found in Jane Eyre.

n But I thank you all the same for taking the time to respond.

Cheers, Arnie


Traxy said...

Not quite and thanks for being patronising! I summarised the overall theme of your admittedly long post and gave a couple of examples as to not make my comment too long.

Let me re-phrase: Your post is interesting (and well-researched, yes, well done - and no, I'm not being sarcastic now) but if it was a court case, it would be dismissed because all the evidence is circumstantial, at best. I brought up governessing, Lowood and typhus because those particular points relate to CB's own life and it sounds really far-fetched to say she got the inspiration from a woman who died 20 years prior to JE's publication rather than from her own life. To say she put in the typhus epidemic and made Jane a governess as an hommage to JA rather than to her own family is insulting, frankly.

I personally can't see any particular similarities between JA's novels and JE, aside from perhaps themes that could just as easily be traced back to the pages of Clarissa, Pamela, The Castle of Otranto or any other popular novels that would have been around at the time.

I sadly haven't read a JA novel for about ten years, so am more brushed up on filmed adaptations. Plan on reading all of them in the near future, though, just because it's been far too long. :) On the other hand, being more than a little obsessed with JE, I have found similarities with it in some really surprising places, some more far-fetched than others. For you as an Austen fan doing a similar thing with JE really comes as no surprise.

Whether or not CB had read JA when she claimed not to ... well ... so what? Can't really see why she would've had a reason to lie about it, does it change anything? They're both great novelists, and hey, we're still talking about them nearly two centuries later. That ought to count for something! :)

Arnie Perlstein said...

"Not quite and thanks for being patronising!"

I merely returned the favor you so kindly bestowed on me. ;)

But am glad to have some more substance to respond to now.

"but if it was a court case, it would be dismissed because all the evidence is circumstantial, at best."

As my summary shows, I am not the first to see all the allusions to Austen in Jane Eyre, I am merely the one who has collected past discoveries, added my own, and put it all in a larger context. It is a circumstantial case where the circumstances strongly point to my conclusion, I claim.

"it sounds really far-fetched to say she got the inspiration from a woman who died 20 years prior to JE's publication rather than from her own life."

You misread what i wrote--of course Bronte would have been interested in Austen's novels and life precisely because they resonated so strongly to her own life experiences, but I never said that Bronte was looking ONLY at Austen's novels and life!

"I personally can't see any particular similarities between JA's novels and JE...I sadly haven't read a JA novel for about ten years, so am more brushed up on filmed adaptations."

There's your problem, Traxy. If you do read all of Austen's novels carefully, and I urge you to do so, and then go back to my post and read the extreme specificity of the allusions which I carefully detailed (for example, I did not say that the name "Edward" was a clear allusion by itself, it was all the specific detail surrounding names that marks the allusion as intentional- the devil is in the little details), then perhaps you will realize that these are not just "memes" floating down through the literary ages, and that you CAN'T just do the same sort of mixing and matching of Jane Eyre with any other novel you choose.

And by the way, Bronte mentions Pamela early in Jane Eyre precisely in order to flag that as ANOTHER allusion she is covertly making! I have not sussed it out, but it looked very promising to me, as Bronte knew Richardson's writing too.

"being more than a little obsessed with JE, I have found similarities with it in some really surprising places, some more far-fetched than others."

And I'd love to hear them (I really mean that), I am sure they are interesting, and perhaps they will connect in strange ways to Austen as well!

"Whether or not CB had read JA when she claimed not to ... well ... so what? Can't really see why she would've had a reason to lie about it, does it change anything?"

It opens up a world of shared meanings that have been declared off limits for 150 years because of Bronte's letters to Lewes. There are a lot of us in the world who love both Jane Eyre and Jane Austen's novels!

Thanks for continuing to talk!

Cheers, ARNIE

Jean | Delightful Repast said...

Arnie, I came over to your blog from your comment on Vic's and my review of the new Jane Eyre at Jane Austen Today,

I look forward to reading much more of your interesting blog. Just wanted to comment briefly today on one thing in this post, where you say "Helen Burns who is dying of typhus." While the rest of the girls who died did so of typhus, Helen Burns did not. She had consumption and was not in the typhus ward with all the other sick girls.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Jean, thank you very much for that correction, I always welcome them when given in such a gracious way! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

Steve Skrainka said...


Since you like puzzles, did it ever occur to you (or anyone else) that Jane's last name is a homonym for "heir", and therefore a clue that Bronte cleverly and deliberately concocted to one of the mysteries that resolve the novel.

Steve Skrainka

Arnie Perlstein said...

Yes, Steve, that is precisely why I wrote the title of this post as I did--I think that Charlotte Bronte intended the reader to see homophones on "air", "heir" and "Eyer"!

And I am not sure if I am the first to understand the pun. When it occurred to me after watching the latest Jane Eyre film adaptation, I Googled and saw that a few others had seen the pun-- but whether they also realized that this was intentional on Bronte's part, I cannot tell.

Thanks for your reply!


Lit~Lass said...

Although I find your evidence on this subject circumstantial, I'll add another similarity. Jane Fairfax and Mrs. (Alice) Fairfax are alike in their reticence to give information on a man of interest to the heroine. I believe CB writes that Mrs Fairfax seemed either unable or unwilling to give Jane much information on Mr Rochester and of course we all know Emma's frustration with Jane's answers about Frank. (It's debatable how much Mrs Fairfax was in on the secret of Bertha, so there's the possible parallel secret.)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Lit-Lass, you are so right, just add that one to the long list in my post!

Yes, it's circumstantial, but when there are 25 circumstances, all aligned like ducks in a row (I don't know if you read my two additional posts in April 2011 about Jane Eyre--check the post listings for them), then it's proof. And I have more stuff too, and some of it is better than all the stuff I have publicly posted!

Anyway, thanks for your post, and please, feel free to point out more if you see it! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

Lit~Lass said...

No, I don't think I've read your other JE posts yet. I'll search for them. (Personally I'd find your blog easier to navigate, and find info on, if you could possibly use topic tags.)
Do I understand correctly that you're going to be publishing a book? Will that have info on your original speculations on S&S (which I can't seem to find here)?

Arnie Perlstein said...

Those two posts both come within a week after this one.

I have never thought to use topic tags, any suggestions on how to do it? How does it help to navigate? I always find my old posts by searching keywords in the search box. Is there a better way? Educate me, please! ;)

Yes, I will be publishing a book, and I will be sure to give details in this blog when that happens.

My book will contain lots of info about the shadow stories of all of Jane Austen's novels.

Cheers, ARNIE

Arnie Perlstein said...

Hi Lit Las, I saw your response re tags, and guess what, I just put tags on my 10 most recent blog posts- thanks for giving me the jog to do it!

I will gradually, over the next month, tag the rest of my blog posts (there are 619 total as of now, I am amazed to see, so it will take a while!)