Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saturday, June 25, 2016 12:30 am by M. in , ,    No comments

Jane Eyre's Fairytale Legacy at Home and Abroad
Constructions and Deconstructions of National Identity

Abigail Heiniger
Routledge (February 26, 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-1472468611
In the preface of Abigail  Heiniger's Jane Eyre's Fairytale Legacy at Home and Abroad, the author explains why her research began and how it shifted towards a new unexplored avenue which, in the end, reveal itself more interesting than the initial one:
This study began with an avid interest in Charlotte Brontë's distinctive use of fairy tales and fairy lore, but it evolved into an analysis of the nationalistic stakes inherent in fairy tale readings of Jane Eyre (1847) and her transatlantic progeny. After publishing an article on the amalgamation of ''Beauty and the Beast" with regional Haworth fairy lore, I wrote a paper challenging some common assumptions inherent in Cinderella readings of Brontë's novel. This second article encountered fierce criticism, including a reader who, after a bout of name calling, claimed I had no right to challenge Jane Eyre's status as a Cinderella tale. With this critique, my interest shifted from exploring whether Jane Eyre could be classified as a Cinderella tale to analyzing why readers were invested in this particular reading. This critic was clearly more invested in my article than I had ever been; the emotional response suggested to me that Cinderella readings of Brontë's novel carry personal significance that far exceeds academic interest. Thus, this analysis uses a diverse range of texts to explore the cultural investment in fairy tale readings and reworkings of Brontë's novel.
That first article was published in 2003 and in Brontë Studies in 2006 (The Faery and the Beast, Vol 31 (1) p.23-29) and was lately expanded into an M.A. dissertation in 2007, from which emerged what was to become the main central point of this book: the challenging of the Cinderella reading of Jane Eyre. The realization that this reading has become correlated with a national response to the novel crystallized in her 2013 thesis, Jane Eyre And Her Transatlantic Literary Descendants: The Heroic Female Bildungsroman And Constructions Of National Identity. The present book is a reworking of this final thesis.

The influence of fairy tales (or the fairy lore as Heiniger insists on clearly distinguish) on Jane Eyre has been studied sporadically in the last decades of literary criticism. The author of the present book provides a good account of several previous contributions in the Introduction: Paula Sullivan, Fairy Tale Elements in Jane Eyre, The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 12 (1), pages 61–74, 1978;   Karen E. Rowe, “‘Fairy-born and human-bred’: Jane Eyre’s Education in Romance,” in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, 1983; Maria Tatar's Secrets Beyond The Door (2004), Heta Pyrhönen, Bluebeard Gothic: Jane Eyre and its Progeny (2012)(1)...

The starting point of the research, as we hinted to at the beginning of this review, is to firmly establish the pre-Victorian fairy lore motifs which can be seen in Jane Eyre and their breeding together with some fairy tale more 'conventional' tropes like The Beauty and the Beast in Charlotte Brontë's narrative. Abigail Heiniger develops this idea convincingly, emphasising the 'changeling' characteristics of Jane Eyre (2) and the pre-patriarchal innuendos of local fairy tales. The author tries to trace the possible sources of this knowledge: objective ones like the issues of The Blackwood Magazine or more speculative ones like the Irish fairy-lore through Patrick Brontë or Tabby's tales to the children probably filled with local folklore merged with Christian motives. Being as it is a well-researched part of the study, the conclusions are hardly surprising or new.

The next chapters address the most interesting questions, in our opinion. There follows an exploration of Jane Eyre's European 'progeny' through the analysis of Julia Kavanagh's Nathalie (1851), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856) and Charlotte Brontë's own final novel Villette (1853), These last two works share a notion of international consciousness, of 'Victorian cosmopolitanism' which contrast with the American responses to Jane Eyre. Furthermore, in the words of the author:
A profusion of mythic and supernatural allusions circulate through Nathalie, Villette and Aurora Leigh, but John Milton's Paradise lost 81667) is the touchstone for both of these texts. The new Eve's in Kavanagh, Brontë, and Barrett Browning emerge from a haze of Victorian supernaturl stereotypes, replacing Brontë's changeling with a new mythic paradigm. These reimagined first mothers usher readers into a new world open to diverse possibilities for women, implicitly creating an alternative to Jane Eyre's fairytale retirement in a domestic happily-ever-after.
The analysis of the American Jane Eyre descendants is circumscribed to The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner, Anne of  Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Craft (1853-61?). These novels, particularly the first two, define a new Jane Eyre paradigm heavily influenced by reading it as a Cinderella tale. The author challenges this interpretation and associates its almost dogmatic assumption in US academia with a nationalistic undertone: the self-rise Capitalist ethic of the American Cinderella stories.
The rise tale remains a vague assumption in these interpretations. They are attempting to fit Jane Eyre into the simplified rise of the American Cinderella. Critics' failure to recognize that the simple rise tale is distinctly American suggests they are not aware they are working withing a specific American tradition. (...)
These critical responses that interpret Jane Eyre as a Cinderella tale are a testament to the naturalized power of the American Cinderella's nationalistic message.
At the end, Jane Eyre's Fairytale Legacy at Home and Abroad goes far beyond its initial premise of studying fairy tale motifs and innuendos in Jane Eyre. It explores a quite slippery ground in literary criticism, full of subjective bias and that literary criticism (and Brontë studies in particular) hardly ever dare to go: how particular critical approaches are outfitted to serve ideological or nationalist agendas consciously or, most of the times, unconsciously. Jane Eyre, as Abigail Heiniger shows, is a perfect case for study and Jane Eyre's Fairytale Legacy at Home and Abroad an excellent starting point to explore it(3)

Notes

(1) Nevertheless we miss several important ones like Elizabeth Imlay's Charlotte Brontë and the Mysteries of Love: Myth and Allegory in Jane Eyre (1989) or the very influential, Introduction to Jane Eyre by Angela Carter (London: Virago, 1990)
(2) Although the insistence on reading the changeling nature of Jane Eyre quite literally is, in our opinion, going quite too far.
(3) Expanding the post-colonial approaches of Jane Eyre under this prism could be an interesting follow-up as the author briefly sketches in the conclusion.

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