Becoming Jane Eyre
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In 1846, while tending to her sick father, Charlotte Brontë sits in a dark corner of their shared room and begins to write a novel about a young governess—a penniless woman desperate to find purpose and acceptance; a woman of hidden passions who falls deeply in love with the dark and brooding man who employs her; a woman who through faith and fortitude achieves her goals and proves her worth to herself and to the world. This is the story of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s classic heroine, but it is also the story of Charlotte herself, as imagined by Sheila Kohler. Using the biographies, letters, and literary works of the entire Brontë family, Kohler has crafted an engrossing and deeply moving vision of a life that melds fact and fiction, suffering and success in equal measure.
The daughter of a poor but respectable village parson, Charlotte knows tragedy from an early age, growing up in isolated North Yorkshire, where she witnesses the deaths of her mother and two of her sisters. Headstrong and smart, Charlotte is the oldest of the four remaining Brontë siblings, each of whom finds a way to deal with the family’s misfortunes: her sisters Emily and Anne harbor literary aspirations of their own, and her brother, Branwell, falls into drinking, drugs, and debt. In Charlotte, Kohler spotlights the frustrations of an ambitious and talented young woman in the oppressive and class-conscious world of the nineteenth century. With no prospect for marriage, no income or inheritance on which to live, and having failed at becoming a teacher and a governess, Charlotte is faced with a future where her only certainties are poverty and insignificance. But rather than crumbling under her own disappointment and the disapproval of others, Kohler’s heroine becomes more determined to achieve success, convinced of her talent as a writer and unafraid to challenge the conventions of society.
Full of exquisite detail, Kohler’s novel brings to life the hopes and dreams of the Brontë family, especially those of the three young women who would each become literary luminaries, producing the novels Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. Kohler is a perceptive and subtle writer, and digs deep into Charlotte Brontë’s psyche as she weighs her responsibilities to her family and to her art; she delivers an intimate and thoughtful account of the years 1846 through 1854, from the inception of Jane Eyre to Charlotte’s own untimely death.
Sheila Kohler is the author of the novels Cracks, Crossways, and The Children of Pithiviers, among others, and she has contributed articles to a wide variety of magazines and literary journals. Born in South Africa, she currently lives in New York City and teaches at Princeton. This is her seventh novel.
Q. Of the biographies that you used in your research, which would you recommend to readers looking for more information on the life of Charlotte Brontë? Beyond Jane Eyre, which of the Brontës’ novels would you recommend to a reader wanting to become more familiar with the sisters’ work?
I would particularly recommend Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life, which was really the inspiration for my book, as well as The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic biography. As for the Brontës’ novels, Villette is one of my great favorites, such a modern novel it seems to me, where Charlotte Brontë describes the loneliness of her life in Belgium with poignancy. Wuthering Heights, too, is a great favorite of mine and such a beautiful description of the passions of childhood. I would also recommend the lesser known Agnes Grey by the youngest Brontë girl. It is a precise and sensitive description of the life of a governess, the humiliations and trials of a young woman in love.
Q. Why did you decide to write a fictional account of the lives of the Brontë family? Do you feel a particular kinship to Charlotte Brontë or any of the other Brontë sisters?
As Fritz von Hardenberg has said, “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” The line in Lyndall Gordon’s book, “What happened as she sat with Papa in that darkened room in Boundary Street remains in shadow,” inspired me to imagine what might have happened when Charlotte sat by her father’s bedside in the dark and began to write her great book.
Like many woman, I believe, I do feel a special bond with the Brontë girls. In my case an aunt (there were three sisters and one boy in my mother’s family) read to my sister, an older girl cousin, and me the first chapter of Jane Eyre shortly after my father had died. I was seven years old and the description of Jane’s experience in the Red Room, where she thinks she sees the ghost of her uncle, made a deep and lasting impression on me. It was perhaps the spark for this book, which starts with a father and daughter in that darkened room.
I also have a daughter, Sasha Troyan, who writes novels, and I am interested in how these pursuits and talents run in families, particularly families of girls. I have three girls of my own: a writer, a painter, and a history professor, and I often share my work with them as the Brontë girls did. Each one of them has been of great help to me with my work.
Q. How long did the research for the novel take? Were there moments in writing the book where your creative impulse went in one direction and the truth of Charlotte Brontë’s life went in the other? Which did you follow?
J. M. Coetzee once said to me when I told him about my project: “Don’t stay too close to the truth.” I think that it is good advice. Certainly, one cannot falsify the facts that are so well known, and I hope I have never done that. However, there is so much one doesn’t know about someone else’s life, even someone so famous, and there I let my imagination work freely. Besides, there is always a selection of facts made. I was particularly interested in the bond between Charlotte and her married professor and also in the relationship between these three sisters, who died so young. My own very dear sister was killed in her thirties and I still miss her. Perhaps writing this book was a way of reaching out to her.
It’s hard to give an exact time for the research of this book: like so many women, I have been reading the Brontës since I was very young—seven, as I said, and I read Villette as a teenager in boarding school and was moved by the feverish atmosphere of that book, too. I read a great number of biographies, of course, and found the letters of the Brontës particularly helpful. While I was writing the book, I went to Haworth with one of my daughters and we walked together across those moors under a threatening sky. It seemed essential to me to see the parsonage and those low gray skies to understand the lives of these amazing women.
Q. In your acknowledgments, you mention Elizabeth Gaskell as one of Charlotte Brontë’s biographers, but she’s also mentioned within the novel as one of George Smith’s other authors. Can you tell us a little about her life and how her work influenced your writing?
Elizabeth Gaskell was, of course, Charlotte Brontë’s first biographer and a close friend, and a writer in her own right. Though her biography, perhaps, stresses Charlotte’s saintly side a little too much for the modern reader (she wanted to refute the Victorian accusations of coarseness), it is still a wonderfully sympathetic and informative biography. I think I was particularly influenced by her not altogether favorable portrait of the father. Since then he has had much more positive press, but I felt some elements of her initial portrait were probably valid or valid for the character in my book.
Q. What power did writing provide Charlotte Brontë? What was the prevailing attitude toward women writers? Were there any other means for women to achieve status/independence or a sense of equality in the nineteenth century?
Writing eventually brought Charlotte Brontë fame and recognition after years of struggle and humiliation as a governess and teacher. Certainly Robert Southey, the poet laureate, considered writing a man’s domain and told Charlotte so in no uncertain terms in his famous letter to her. Many of the women writers of the time felt obliged to choose pseudonyms that hid their sex: George Eliot is another famous example, of course. There were few opportunities open to women at the time: the life of a governess, which Anne Brontë, particularly, chronicles so exactly, must have been humiliating and difficult, though one wonders if the position of nanny in the world we live in now is all that different.
Q. You have a scene in the novel where Charlotte stands outside her father’s door, preparing to tell him about Jane Eyre, but nervous because the novel dares to voice women’s desire for love and fulfillment. Meanwhile Emily is terrified by the prospect of being revealed as the author of Wuthering Heights because of its passion and honesty. How difficult is it to bare one’s soul in print? What fears have you had to overcome as a writer?
It is always dangerous to write the truth. One ends up upsetting someone. If one looks back at the history of literature, many great writers have run into serious trouble because of their works, from early writers like Corneille to Flaubert, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Nabokov. Also, of course, there are the near and dear one is in danger of offending. Certainly, going back for a fiftieth high school reunion in South Africa, I wondered how I would be received by my classmates after writing Cracks, a book about a school reunion with a character named Sheila Kohler in the midst. I have written again and again in more or less veiled terms about my sister’s death, which has sometimes brought opprobrium from my brother-in-law’s relatives. As a writer I feel obliged to write with emotional honesty. Otherwise there seems little point, but I am aware of the risks in this, as I imagine Charlotte Brontë and particularly Emily, who was such a private person, must have been.
Q. How does Becoming Jane Eyre fit in with your other books? What themes do you like to investigate in your writing?
I have often written about power, and how people in power manipulate the weak for their advantage. In this book there is the father, of course, who has lost his position of power to some extent in his weakened state, and the professor with whom Charlotte falls in love in Belgium (this bond, teacher-pupil, is one I have explored often and particularly in Cracks), as well as the people for whom Charlotte was obliged to work as a governess, and the couple at Thorp Green for whom Anne and Branwell Brontë worked. There are the women in Charlotte’s life: her professor’s wife and George Smith’s mother, who attempt to manipulate her. I have described both her attraction to these people in power and her struggle to assert her independence and sense of intrinsic worth, a theme that recurs constantly in books like The Children of Pithiviers and Crossways, and in my first novel, A Perfect Place.
Q. Charlotte’s father wonders, “who would want to read something by an obscure parson’s daughter, living in a remote region of Yorkshire?” (p. 189). What is your answer to this question? What is it about Jane Eyre that has proven to be so timeless?
I’m not sure I can answer this question completely. Something about the work probably escapes us and remains without definition, but certainly much of the book’s appeal lies in the reversal at the heart of so many good stories: the vulnerable position of the poor orphan child, the neglected school girl, and the ignored governess and her ultimate triumph over the blinded Mr. Rochester—through love, yes, but also through Jane Eyre’s determination to preserve her sense of self-worth, her dignity as a human being equal with any other. “Who in the world cares for you? Or who would be injured by what you do?” the bigamous Mr. Rochester asks her, trying to get her to remain with him, and Jane replies, “I care for myself.” It is ultimately a moral triumph and one that uplifts the spirit of any reader.
Q. What emotion, lesson, or other experience would you like readers to take from this novel?As with any book, I would hope to carry the reader away into a strange, mysterious, and different place, one where events are structured satisfyingly into a story, as they are not in life, and at the same time a recognizable and believable place where they could share some of what I have experienced in my own life as well as in Charlotte Brontë’s. I hope to be able to give all readers the sense that our emotions, even with a great distance in time and place, are similar, that we are not alone, that we all experience sorrow and suffering, moments of hope and despair, that we are part of a community and our emotions are shared ones. I would hope that by following for a while in the paths that these courageous women took will give courage to the men and women who might take up this book and find in its pages a distraction from their lives, but also a deeper understanding of the human heart.
- Charlotte makes repeated reference to Angria, the imaginary world that she and her siblings created. At what points in the novel does she do so? From those examples, what do you believe this world means to her? As a child, did you have your own imaginary world or imaginary friend?
- Which men in Charlotte’s life are melded together into the character of Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre’s love? What experience or character trait does each of these men provide? What do all the men in the novel have in common?
- Have you ever read Jane Eyre? If you have, how does it compare with Kohler’s novel? If you haven’t, will you read it now? Have you read any of the other Brontë novels mentioned in the book?
- Why do Charlotte’s father and her siblings dote on Branwell, despite his behavior? Do you believe his addiction is an illness or a moral failing? What is Charlotte’s opinion?
- Kohler sees Jane as the literary representation of the life and personality of Charlotte Brontë. Which character within Becoming Jane Eyre do you find the most appealing?
- What is Charlotte’s father’s first response to the idea of her writing a book? Why? How is this indicative of the era and the biases that Charlotte was struggling against?
- After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte has money for the first time in her life. What is her reaction? What effect does her success have on others?
- The Brontë sisters wrote under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Why? How is the choice of these names significant?
- Have you ever written poetry, kept a diary, or used writing in some other way to express your emotions? What result did this have? Can you imagine sharing this work with the public as Charlotte did?
- Noted Victorian-era critic George Henry Lewes claimed that Jane Eyre was “soul speaking to soul”—did you find this to be true? Did Charlotte’s life connect with your own in any particular way?