Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre. A reader's guide to essential criticism - A review

We are very grateful to Palgrave MacMillan for sending us a copy of this book.

Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre
A reader's guide to essential criticism
by Sara Lodge

Palgrave MacMillan
192 Pages
9780230518155
Nine years ago, Palgrave MacMillan published Wuthering Heights by Patsy Stoneman as part of their A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism series. Now, it's Jane Eyre's turn. This time Palgrave commissioned the book to a Victorian scholar, Sara Lodge, on the outskirts of Brontë studies. After reading the book, the intentions were clear. A comprehensive, but not overwhelming, summary of the history and evolution of the Jane Eyre literary criticism from, as much as possible, a strictly objective position. Which probably wouldn't have been possible with a literary scholar already linked to some Eyre-related school of thought as the author.

To summarise the enormous body of criticism that Jane Eyre has generated since its publication in 1847 in 200 pages was not an easy task. To do this in an accessible way without falling into oversimplifications was even harder to achieve. The fact that the final result is not only a good reference book but also a highly readable one evinces the success of Sara Lodge's task.

The book is structured both (more or less) chronologically and by 'common' topics in the Jane Eyre critical approaches. Of course, these two approaches sometimes overlap each other and repetitions often occur. After a short and to-the-point introduction establishing the cornerstones of the book's proposal, the action begins. The first chapter is devoted to the first reviews oscillating between admiration, accusations of coarseness and finally condescension after Gaskell's biography cleaned Charlotte's public image. The second chapter explores the Humanist (analysing Jane Eyre's subjective construction), formalist and Deconstructivist approaches(1). The next chapter looks into one of the most prolific and influential readings of the novel: the feminist and psychoanalytic criticism, not always coincident but usually interconnected. From the early comments of Virginia Woolf to the revolutionary works of Gilbert & Gubar or Elaine Showalter. The analysis based on class issues are explored on chapter four. Particular attention is paid to the groundbreaking Marxist reading of the novel. by Terry Eagleton Chapter Five is postcolonial territory. The subject of race and Empire is discussed from the seminal works of Spivak to the latest works, practically the state of the art of the critical studies of Jane Eyre(2). In Chapter Six, the articles discussed are grouped in the so-called new historicism approaches, here we can find recent works which contextualise the novel among the contemporary trends on phrenology, psychology, Evangelical thought, economics, etc. Finally, chapter Seven examines a current favourite of Eyre criticism, the afterlives and reincarnations of Charlotte Brontë's novel in theatre, sequels, movies, music... The book is completed with a conclusion and a brief guide to further reading.

These two last chapters are probably the weakest of the book. The first one because it obviates interesting bibliography concerning the new discoveries and reevaluation of Charlotte Brontë's figure and its connection with her novel. Furthermore, this is the only chapter in which the opinion, not entirely favourable, of this guide's author can be read between the lines. The final chapter lacks depth and completeness but this is in all probability because there is a lot of work left to be done in this particular field of Brontë studies(3).

Of course, every scholar who reads the book will miss some names and articles, but any selection implies always a renunciation and Ms Lodge's is no exception(4). The success or failure of a book like this should not be judged, in our opinion, according to the amount of names, articles and books which we consider that had to be there and aren't or viceversa. The real measure of success is if the ones chosen reflect correctly the many and mutating faces of Charlotte Brontë's creation over the years. And we rather think this is the case.

Notes:
(1) An extreme but fascinating case is Margot Peters's (Charlotte Brontë: Style in the Novel, 1973) analysis of the adverbs used in the novel and the position in the phrases. Her results: a 40.5/500 adverbs ratio as compared to the 27.5/500 of other Victorian novelists.
(2) After perusing the often contradictory readings of the novel that critics have developed in a century and a half of literary Eyre criticism (progressive/conservative, feminist/patriarchal, chartist/tory, christian/unchristian, critical with imperialism/imperialistic... anything goes, really) we cannot but wonder at Charlotte Brontë's genius who was able to create something so rich and perpetually alive.
(3) And some of the most recent ones, like The Brontës in the World of the Arts edited by Sandra Hagan & Juliette Wells
, published last year are obviously not included.
(4) If we must say something, we rather missed some section devoted to the religious readings of Jane Eyre, i.e. immanence versus transcendence.

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