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Archive for December, 2012

It’s been busy around my house, so I’ve had almost no time for blogging. I have been busily considering my reading plans for 2013, though, and am excited about next years blog projects!

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We have said that this was the picture of a natural heart. This, to our view, is the great and crying mischief of the book. Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit, the more dangerous to exhibit from that prestige of principle and self-control which is liable to dazzle the eye too much for it to observe the inefficient and unsound foundation on which it rests. It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength, but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself. No Christian grace is perceptible upon her. She has inherited in fullest measure the worst sin of our fallen nature – the sin of pride. Jane Eyre is proud, and therefore she is ungrateful too. It pleased God to make her an orphan, friendless, and penniless – yet she thanks nobody, and least of all Him. *** It is by her own talents, virtues and courage that she is made to attaining the summit of human happiness, and, as far as Jane Eyre’s own statement is concerned, no one would think that she is owed anything either to God above or to man below. ***

[Elizabeth Rigby, writing in The Quarterly Review, 1848]

I love this quote because it says so much in so few words. Charlotte Bronte rattled cages, by publishing a book about an “orphan, friendless and penniless” who had the audacity to not merely think highly of herself, but to refuse to be grateful to a social order that demeaned her as valueless, not because of a lack of merit, intelligence, ambition, self-sufficiency or honor, but because she was a girl-child orphaned in poverty.

Nearly everyone recognizes the name Charlotte Bronte. Nearly no one can name the woman who wrote this criticism. There is no doubt who won this historical argument.

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Jane Eyre Can I get a little Bronte sister love here, people? Jane Eyre was a reread for me, and, along with Wuthering Heights is one of two Bronte sister classics that I read years ago. I chose this as a reread because I want to read more by the Brontes and I had such a limited memory of this book that I thought it would be a good place to start.

At this point, all I can really say is “wow.” Jane Eyre is a marvel of a book. I am still plugging away at Les Miserables, but I whipped through Jane Eyre in less than a week. I had splurged and bought the Norton Critical Edition, which contains all sorts of excellent extra content – information about Charlotte’s education at the Cowan Bridge School of Clergyman’s Daughters (upon which Lowood was based), some of her letters during the time that she was a governess at Roe Head, and, even, her response to a criticism of Jane Eyre published during her time.

The book opens with an injustice perpetrated upon Jane by her cousin and this aunt, which leads to the cruel incident where she is locked in a room and basically terrorizes herself into a state of hysteria. That incident, terrible though it was, results in a couple of positive changes in Jane’s life – her acquaintance with a doctor and with Bessie, two people who show her some genuine kindness.

From there, the novel moves quickly through her years at Lowood School, spending some brief time on her acquaintanship with Helen Burns, a young woman who dies of tuberculosis, in the same fashion that she lost two sisters at Cowan Bridge School. Lowood School begins as a place of deprivation, and ends as a place of refuge. Jane tells of those years:

During these eight years my life was uniform: but not unhappy, because it was not inactive. I had the means of an excellent education placed within my reach. A fondness for some of my studies and a desire to excel in all, together with a great delight in pleasing my teachers, especially such as I loved, urged me on. I availed myself fully of the advantages offered me. In time I rose to be the first girl of the first class; then I was invested with the office of teacher; which I discharged with zeal for two years; but at the end of that time I altered.

From Lowood School, Jane goes to Thornfield, where she takes her place as a governess to Adele, the ward of Mr. Rochester. So commences the love story of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the mystery of Thornfield Hall. Told in the first person, the reader experiences her falling in love with Mr. Rochester, the anguish of believing that he loves another woman who is unworthy of his regard, and then her experience of learning that her love is returned and that he wishes to marry her. All the while, the strange happenings at Thornfield throw her off balance, confuse her, and make her wonder what is true and what is her imagination.

Jane Eyre can be roughly divided into three sections: the pre-Thornfield period, the Thornfield period and the post-Thornfield period. Charlotte Bronte, a clergyman’s daughter, uses Biblical quotes and allusions to great effect in the novel, and a well-footnoted edition is helpful in understanding the book. The Thornfield period is a gorgeously gothic: mysterious and foreboding. Jane, upon learning that her beloved is married and has deceived her, responds with integrity and self-abnegation, by leaving him. She consistently behaves with integrity and compassion, even to the individuals who have arguably wronged her. The post-Thornfield period is critical in understanding the deeply compassionate and passionate nature of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre is a remarkable novel. I loved basically every word of it, and I highly, highly recommend it. I’m planning on a follow-up post where I discuss some of the additional content in the Norton Critical Edition, including Charlotte’s response to her critics.

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First Line Love

I love first lines of novels! The first line of my next up classic read is:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Any guesses? The winner gets absolutely nothing but the satisfaction of being awesomely well-read with a great memory!

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Anna KareninaI had intended to be done with Anna Karenina by November 15. In the time honored fashion of an +800 page classic, that just didn’t happen. My plan to see the movie also didn’t happen. I probably end up catching it on DVD down the road a bit.

But Anna Karenina. This book is exceedingly frustrating to read. It is well-written, certainly, and I found the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation to be quite readable. The content itself, however, is filled with unlikeable, entitled characters who display few positive character traits. They are idle aristocrats whose lives are filled with an endless round of parties and other diversions, but who seem to actually contribute little of substance to the community. The title character, Anna Karenina herself, becomes less appealing throughout the entire book until, by the end of the book, I regret to say if she didn’t actually throw herself in front of the train, someone might desire to push her (this would’ve been a very different, and probably much more exciting resolution) in front of it. She completely lost me when, not content with diverting the attention of every eligible man within a ten mile radius, she decides to try to make the married husband of an acquaintance become her champion.

There was really only one character that I actually liked: Levin, the Russian landowner whose responsibilities for serf and wife and son weigh heavily upon his soul, and who takes a more scientific and creative approach to the process of growing food. Even Levin, when he spends time in the city, becomes somewhat corrupted by the indolent and extravagant lifestyle that the aristocrats are living. In Levin, it is possible to see the seeds of a more productive, less stagnant, Russian ruling class. Levin is seen by many critics as being semi-autobiographical, which may explain the reason that he is a more sympathetic and appealing character than many of the other characters.

I wanted to feel sorry for Anna Karenina, but she was such a victim of her own bad choices that I just couldn’t, and her ultimate decision to take her life, rather than being poignant or desperate, really came off like the unthinking tantrum of a toddler who holds her breath until she passes out. Her last thoughts are focused on how her suicide will make her lover, Vronsky, sorry that he treated her so badly. And Vronsky, again, seems so shallow and so sadly codependent with the emotional vampire that Anna Karenina ends up being that he, too, seems basically bereft of redeeming qualities.

The comparison of the two relationships – Levin and Kitty versus Anna and Vronsky – was very well-done.

Personally, I enjoyed Tolstoy’s meditations on Russian farming, and nature, and religion significantly more than I enjoyed the psychological destruction of Anna and the two men who were involved with her.

A few quotes that I enjoyed:

Tolstoy on economics:

He knew that he had to hire workers as cheaply as possible, but that he should not put them in bondage by paying them in advance at a cheaper rate than they were worth, though it was very profitable.

Tolstoy on dealing with infidelity:

All that was going to befall her and their son, towards whom his feelings had changed just as it had towards her, ceased to concern him. The only thing that concerned him now was the question of how to shake off in the best, most decent, most convenient for him, and therefore most just way, the mud she had spattered on him in her fall, and to continue on his path of active, honest and useful life.

Tolstoy on love:

When the princess came in five minutes later, she found them perfectly reconciled. Kitty had not only assured him that she loved him, but in answering his question about what she could love him for, had even explained to him what for. She had told him that she loved him because she thoroughly understood him, that she knew what he must love and that all he loved, all of it, was good.

Tolstoy on life:

I’ll get angry in the same with with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray — but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

Tolstoy is a master writer, and I am certainly not sorry that I read Anna Karenina. Even as bleak as parts of it were, I enjoyed it.

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Sir Arthur says:

One of Sherlock Holmes’s defects – if, indeed, one may call it a defect – was that he was exceedingly loathe to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfillment.

The Hounds of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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