Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009 12:03 am by Cristina in , ,    2 comments
Our thanks to Penguin for sending us a review copy of this book.
Becoming Jane Eyre
by Sheila Kohler

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (December 29, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0143115979
ISBN-13: 978-0143115977
More Brontë biofiction! And it's still amazing how at first sight the many releases could seem overwhelming and yet, when they are finally in your hands, they are unique and very welcome.

In the case of Becoming Jane Eyre, Sheila Kohler has decided to focus - at least initially - on Charlotte Brontë's stay in Manchester in 1846 looking after her father, who has just been operated on to remove his cataracts. What could seem like a claustrophobic atmosphere - dimmed lighting, hushed noises, hardly any talking and confined, secluded quarters and also in Charlotte's case a persistent toothache - becomes the breeding ground which first sees Jane Eyre.

Sheila Kohler herself explains how her novel was born:
The spark for this novel came from a line in Lyndall Gordon's biography of Charlotte Brontë: "What happened as she sat with Papa in the darkened room in Boundary Street remains in shadow". I have tried to imagine what might have happened during the writing of Jane Eyre in Manchester and Haworth, and how the book changed the lives of the Brontës and all the rest of us.
Sheila Kohler brings a candle into the room and gives the anonymous nurse a nickname and a background while giving Charlotte the ideas for her Jane Eyre. This first 'volume' of the book is perhaps the most static and yet it is probably the best and most fascinating. Kohler explores the origins of everything in Jane Eyre, from the name of our heroine - which sees the light in a beautiful paragraph - to particular events and situations in the novel, all this mingled with Charlotte's and Patrick's reflections on their own lives and choices.

The story - or indeed, the stories - is not told from a unique point of view, and we can see what one given character is thinking at all times. Most of the time, it is Charlotte, but Emily, Anne, Branwell, Patrick and even Tabby and a few key others(1) are the narrators - or thinkers - at some point, which certainly contributes to an unbiased sort of story-telling, very much like real life, where everyone has an opinion and sees things differently from the rest.

Patrick's reflections help give the story the needed family background, while also delving into the choices he has made along the way, and unavoidably leaving some question marks scattered along the way. Charlotte's reflections are the most extensive and they serve to give a personality to her character, while introducing events that may or may not help to shape Jane Eyre. The thoughts of Anne, Emily, Branwell and Tabby are interesting both because they provide us with yet more useful background information - this is subtly done and thus readers new to the Brontë story will follow the tale quite naturally - but even more so because they help to bring Charlotte forward as a character. We realise that she might be the proverbial 'unrealiable narrator' thanks to them.

Emily, however, comes across a bit strangely. Her personality and depiction are alright, but when she speaks... well, we just didn't imagine her speaking quite like that in real life.

It is a story told in 'petit comité', where all secondary - though not less important - characters are tiny satellites serving only to make the story move forward at some point. Many of these are even banished to a world of initials: Monsieur Heger becomes Monsieur H. or Mrs Robinson becomes Mrs R. A touch of irreality that serves, yet again, to bring what really matters, to the foreground.

One of the best things about biofiction is that it allows a different look into the Brontë family. Biofiction brings to Brontë matters, the minds of writers used to thinking of motives and shaping characters, which they put to good use with what's known about the Brontës. But also, fiction allows writers to make decisions and explore themes and subjects in a way that non-fiction - biography - hardly allows. The connections Sheila Kohler has come up with when tracing sources - or hints or prompts, after all it was Charlotte Brontë herself who said that, 'we only suffer reality to suggest, never to dictate' - to events in the novel are quite impressive. Impossible to tell whether the actual Charlotte Brontë made the connection as well, but in the novel and in the context of the Brontës' lives, most of them do work marvellously.

Becoming Jane Eyre begins in Manchester in 1846, but it follows Charlotte Brontë right to the (her) end. and while it doesn't in the least tell each and every thing, for it is told in episodes, it does tell the main story. And while a few things are different from the real story, no change is so important to disfigure the story. On the contrary, the fiction seems to benefit from these changes. Fiction, too, allows for a more poetical kind of writing that non-fiction does. Thus, Kohler writes beautifully sad things such as 'the family tragedies, that now occur one after the other, like beads in a dark necklace of woe'.

One of the most remarkable things about Becoming Jane Eyre is that while most biographical retellings seem to base the plot around a love story, in Becoming Jane Eyre the love story - if love story there is - is hardly a footnote, an epilogue. Or better still: the love story told is the love story between a writer and her writing, and how it can turn into a lifeline at precisely the right moment.

Sheila Kohler cites as her (Brontë) influences a trio of Gs: Gaskell, Gérin and Gordon, though we wonder if she read or had in mind Virginia Woolf at some point. Charlotte once decides that 'she will write out of rage out of a deep sense of her won worth and of the injustice of the world's reception of her words. She will write about something she knows well: her passion', which is of course very reminiscent of what Virginia Woolf wrote(2).

We are not alone praising the book, Amy Tan, Lyndall Gordon or even J.M. Coetzee have done so before - and better, too. Non-Brontëites - surely soon to be Brontëites - will find a treat but Brontëites? Oh, Brontëites will find a treat, food for thought and an interesting new glimpse into this unique family.


(1) The journey into the mind of Mrs Smith while at the opera with the mysterious 'Misses Brown' is truly remarkable, for instance. Sheila Kohler has commented on this:
It is great fun to get into different heads, it seems to me, to see life from very different points of view, all of which are part of my own: the nurse's somewhat coarse sensuality, the father's religiosity, and Charlotte's passion of course. All these different characters express different facets of our common humanity, I hope.
(2) In A Room of One's Own:
She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.
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  1. What a lovely review! Written with such intelligence and so much information. I didn't know the Virginia Woolf quote and yet, you are quite right, her words are so similar to the ones used for Charlotte. Thank you.

  2. I'm a guy and I'm really into love novels. I agree that fictional writing allows for a poetical kind of writing. Fiction is easier when it comes to artistic flow.