Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Revisiting a Classic

The latest fun with Google alerts item: Someone is selling copies of my books on eBay at about three dollars over the cover price, plus postage. I don't get that. You can order copies from the online booksellers for less than the cover price, or you can buy them in just about any bookstore (though you may have to special order or request them) at the cover price. So why would anyone pay more than the cover price on eBay? It doesn't even look like they're autographed copies.

And the latest "my brain is a really funny place" item: Last night's weirdly vivid dream involved me leading a protest at a Victoria's Secret shop over scratchy lace on their garments. A few other shoppers and I decided we weren't going to take the scratchy lace anymore and started attacking the sales staff and visiting corporate executives by running up and rubbing the lacy garments on their faces while declaring that if they considered that an assault, then what were they doing to their customers by providing garments that felt like that and that would be worn on more sensitive areas of the body. I haven't been in a Victoria's Secret in more than a year and I was wearing very soft flannel, so I have no idea where in my subconscious that came from.

It's actually sunny today, but the past week or so of rainy weather and gray days seemed perfectly suited for a particular kind of book, so I dug out a classic to re-read: Jane Eyre. I first read this book (or part of it) when we moved to Germany before I started fifth grade. There was a copy of a "children's version" of it in a selection of old books we got while we were in transit (it's a military thing -- people who are leaving a unit and moving away will often leave behind stuff that may be handy for the next people to come along while they're waiting for their own stuff to get there, and that often includes books). I don't recall whether or not they edited the actual writing, but the children's version only covered the part of the story where Jane was a child, which, now that I know the full story, seems to rather miss the point of the entire book. I got the full edition later, and I think I read the full book sometime in junior high. I have no idea exactly when I last read it. I just know that I have a used paperback copy with a 45-cent cover price, so it's possible that the copy I have is older than I am. At any rate, it's been a long time since I've read it, though I've seen multiple movie productions along the way (Masterpiece Theatre seems to do one every other year), so the elements of the story are familiar to me.

What surprised me in reading it this time around was how good it was. Yeah, I know, it's Good because it's a classic great work of literature and all that, but I'm used to books with that definition of Good being kind of like broccoli (or despised but nutritious vegetable of your choice) -- something that's good for you but not necessarily enjoyable. But this was actually an entertaining book to read, one that might even be publishable if it were written today. I'm used to thinking of Victorian novelists as being a bit florid with the prose, and while Charlotte Bronte does go into the occasional flight of fancy, I was struck in a lot of cases by how vividly she wrote without getting florid. She had a way of using the precise words to give the perfect images in a concise way (and it's funny how off the movie versions seem to be, considering how specifically and precisely she described things). The book was a real page turner, and I found myself having trouble putting it down at times.

There is one huge coincidence that propels the plot -- when she's wandering aimlessly around the country and manages to collapse at the doorstep of the cousins she doesn't know she has -- but that was a common plot convention in that era (like all those entirely unrelated but perfectly identical people who pop up in Dickens's novels). That's the one thing I think a modern editor would take issue with. There would have to be some reason for her to be in the area where she could run into relatives instead of it being purely random chance.

One thing I hadn't recalled and which doesn't seem to make it into the movie versions is how important the theme of faith is to the story. If this book were to be published today (as opposed to being a classic republished), it would mostly likely be marketed as an inspirational book because Jane's faith is what sustains her, she makes her major decisions based on faith, and then she's ultimately rewarded for holding true to the values of her faith, even when that requires sacrifice. Meanwhile, Mr. Rochester finds faith based on her example (it's not a full-on, explicit conversion, like you might find in a lot of inspirational fiction today, but we are dealing with Church of England, so you're not going to get the evangelical kind of born-again conversion). However, it's not quite the treacly "Christians good, everyone else bad" treatment that pops up in the worst inspirational fiction. She manages to blast the hypocrites who talk about how good it is for the soul for the body to be humbled (but who dress their own families in silks). She points out the fallacy of the "your lot in life is where God put you, so who are you to complain about how you're being treated" theology that was used to keep the poor in their place. She even seems to have decidedly mixed feelings about just how good St. John Rivers really was -- his vocation was sincere, but he was incapable of human love and he had the annoying trait of presuming that he had a direct line to God's will, so that if you didn't do what he told you to do, that meant you were sinning against God (I've dated that guy).

I really like Jane as a heroine because while she comes across as meek, she actually sticks to her guns and doesn't let people push her around. She's not kicking vampire ass or swinging a sword, but she's still a very strong person and a survivor, someone who's been through a lot, who's been utterly abandoned and rejected, and yet who hasn't turned bitter with it.

If you haven't read Jane Eyre in years or if you've seen the various movies or miniseries but haven't read the book, I recommend giving it a try. It's just the thing for a rainy (or snowy) winter night.

No comments: