Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Bluebeard Gothic. Jane Eyre and Its Progeny - A Review

We are very grateful to University of Toronto Press for sending us a review copy of this book.

Bluebeard Gothic
Jane Eyre and Its Progeny
Heta Pyrhönen
University of Toronto Press
ISBN 9781442641242
The influences and legacy of Jane Eyre have been explored from many different perspectives and using all kinds of critical approaches. Its alleged adherence to a particular trope or tropes of stories and how these tropes intersect in its interior have been profusely studied. In the last decades the further spreading of its influence in other novels has also been explored and it's currently an active field of research.

Among the aforementioned influences we can list the Bluebeard myth and the generic conventions of that slippery genre known as Gothic. Their intersection inside the text of Jane Eyre - the Bluebeard Gothic intertext - creates a whole new dimension of meanings and textures to explore. Heta Pyrhönen in Bluebeard Gothic. Jane Eyre and its Progeny attemps such an analysis together with a study of its long shadow over ulterior English literature.

The author argues that although scholarship has dealt in many occasions with the Gothic elements/influences/developments in Jane Eyre, the Bluebeard intertext and particularly the common ground on which both tropes converge (the Bluebeard Gothic) have not been properly studied in Charlotte Brontë's novel. But in the author's opinion, its importance as one of the core elements of the novel have emerged in the subsequent adaptations that such a story has generated(1).

Her critical machinery is Psychoanalytic Criticism. Therefore, the author is not particularly concerned with Charlotte Brontë's conscious intentions (similarly to New Criticism approaches but in a radically different way). Her focus is on the decoding of the text using the tools of Psychoanalysis (particularly Lacanian criticism) and always centering the discussion on the self-imposed boundaries of the Bluebeard Gothic(2). Of course this means that a familiarity with the terminology and a basic understanding of the strategies used is required. This is not a book addressed to a general audience.

After an introduction that clearly exposes the critical coordinates in which this book has to be placed, the first chapter deals with the main subject of the book: Jane Eyre as a Gothic Bluebeard tale. The author starts with the narrative itself(3) to investigate symmetries (Jane's Red Room experience with Rochester's account of his suicide attempt in Jamaica), the physical and mental spaces of the novel and analyses the ways Bluebeard affects the different layers of discourse in Jane Eyre using Lacanian discourse theory. The chapter is dense, fascinating in the hidden associations and superposed layers revealed by Heta Pyrhönen; but also constantly on the verge of the over-semantisation of the original text (a psychoanalytic trademark?).

The following chapters are concerned with the analysis of several novels that in some way or other can be labelled as Jane Eyre progeny always looking for the Bluebeard Gothic common ground. In doing this the author looks for what she calls the Brontë effect of the Jane Eyre legacy:
I am mostly interested in the Brontë effect that this novel has had on the adaptations it has spawned, because I claim that they provide the first-hand critical reception where the workings of this effect are best evident. In anticipation, adaptors tend to seize on what they think are the blind spots, contradictions and discrepancies in Jane Eyre, thus demonstrating the effects it has on them and on their culture. We may in advance wager that these effects are precisely what have turned Jane Eyre into a mnemonic symbol not only in Britain but also worldwide. (p. 14)
The second chapter discusses novels that can be read as testimonies to Jane's narrative of trauma: Anna Leonowen's The Romance of the Harem, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Emma Tennant's Adèle: Jane Eyre's Hidden Story. In order to show how adaptors act as witnesses to their inmediate literary heritage, the author reads their discourse within the (Lacanian) symbolic register(4).

The third chapter analyses a series of novels characterised for being Bluebeard Gothics merging romance and perversity (mainly seen as probably the only contemporary meaning that Bluebeard Gothic can still assume): Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, its sequel Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman (which makes many of the Bluebeard elements present in the original novel much more explicit), Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale and (rather too obviously) D.M. Thomas's Charlotte.

The highly interesting fourth chapter is concerned with two novels that address the Bluebeard Gothic elements from a religious point of view: Jeannette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (from a Christian perspective) and Sarah Waters's Fingersmith (exploring mechanisms of sacrifice and scapegoating). Both writers propose a sort of non-heterosexual exit from Bluebeard's vault which in a way places "lesbian literature in the continuity of British tradition, including Jane Eyre".

The final chapter is, in this reviewer's opinion, the less interesting. It is an opaque and particularly dense chapter devoted to Angela Carter's Bluebeard tales, analysed in light of Harold Bloom's mythicopsychoanalytical theory of literary anxiety. The author concludes that Angela Carter is one of the few authors, if not the only one, who "bids farewell to the tradition associated with Brontë in order to steer the 'Bluebeard' literary legacy into new directions". Probably it is this reviewer's poor knowledge of Angela Carter's opus but we were unable to decipher the keys of such a conclusion.

After reading the book one has the feeling that although the first and last chapters are probably the most scholarly valuable ones by themselves, it is in the other ones where the book finds its place within the current Brontë scholarship linking Pyrhönen's Bluebeard Gothic with Patsy Stoneman's Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre or the most recent A Breath of Fresh Eyre(5). Heta Pyrhönen's book is no doubt destined to be in all the university libraries of any English Literature department worthy of such a name.

Notes

(1) In a (not serious) psychoanalitical reading we could say that even as the scholars have not recognised the Bluebeard Gothic elements submerged in the novel, the intertext has been recovered subconsciously in the many adaptations (confessed or not confessed) of Jane Eyre.
(2) In this field, there are certainly other psychoanalytical readings of Jane Eyre centered on the Oedipal conflict between Jane and Rochester as a personal manifestation of an Oedipal conflict between Charlotte Brontë and her father. The present study does not go so far and limits itself to the analysis of the text of Jane Eyre. It's a credit to the author that she was not tempted by the (too) easy association of Bluebeard Gothic and Patrick Brontë-The Parsonage.
(3) From Jane Eyre, Chapter XI:
Mrs. Fairfax stayed behind a moment to fasten the trap-door; I, by drift of groping, found the outlet from the attic, and proceeded to descend the narrow garret staircase. I lingered in the long passage to which this led, separating the front and back rooms of the third storey: narrow, low, and dim, with only one little window at the far end, and looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard's castle.
(4) Which generates an altogether pedantic and condescendent statement when the author says:
Characterizing adaptations of Jane Eyre in terms of the discourse that governs the rewriting appears to suggest a concomitant aesthetic evaluation: the texts that prize symbolic discourse seem to score lower points than the other two [hysteric and analytic]. To some extent this is true; yet all studied texts certainly have merits.
(5) This reviewer finds many possible future objects of research. The book follows Bluebeard Gothic rewritings of Jane Eyre but can we filter this trope and find out how previous novels (i.e. Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho) have also been used as a precedent which Jane Eyre reformulates and resignifies? And what about how Michael Berkeley's Jane Eyre opera envisions Bluebeard Gothic elements? Such a discussion will involve interesting connections with other operas such as Paul Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-Bleue or Bela Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle.

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