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Reading Is Sexy: Jane Eyre and Jane Austen
There are a small number of things I love so much, I can barely bring myself to talk about the depth of my feelings for them. Social Distortion and Mike Ness. Popcorn. Dave. Jane Eyre. It seems too revealing, too intimate for general, social conversation.
But the facts about my relationship with Jane Eyre, I can share.
I read the book in its entirety a few times a year.
I keep a copy on my desk at work so I can read it at lunch, when no one else is in the break room, or I’ve forgotten to bring whatever other book I happen to be reading at the time. I just plop it on the table, let it fall open to a random spot, and pick up the story mid-stream.
I’ve started a collection of copies — dog-eared and battered, illustrated, hardbound, tiny, oversized, and now, in the form of two to Christmas gifts from Dave, versions that are specially typeset and marked with satin ribbon.
My mom and I saw Jane Eyre: The Musical together on Broadway in 2000. We had seats just behind the orchestra pit, and during the song “Brave Enough for Love,” I watched the finale of the show through tears that ran unabashed down my cheeks. It was gorgeous and overwhelming and dramatic and everything a Broadway rendition of a Gothic story should be. When I’m feeling moody, I put on the soundtrack and revel in the feeling of gloomy, windswept English moors, even if I’m listening to it in 90+ humid degrees, smack-dab in the middle of Texas.
When I was a few hours out of my recent surgery, unable to get comfortable, not hungry, not thirsty, not able to sleep, Dave sat by my bed and read to me from a copy of Jane Eyre (a not-very-favorite-copy, in case we lost it at the hospital). From the first line… “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”… I settled into a woozy, warm state.
Until last year, my favorite movie version was the one from 1996, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. But then Masterpiece Theater produced a gorgeous, sexy (!) 4-hour version that’s won my heart. When the bus ride home is more annoying than usual, I watch the movie on my iPod and the people around me disappear.
I wish fervently sometimes that I could wipe my memory of all traces of Jane Eyre, just so I could read it again for the first time and be surprised at the plot twists and the charming conversations Charlotte Bronte put into the mouths of Jane E. and Edward Fairfax Rochester.
It’s an understandable mistake, I suppose, but one I find painfully irritating: For those who have not been caught in the Jane Eyre spell, it’s easy to confuse the Gothic heroine Jane Eyre with the English novelist Jane Austen. They’re both named Jane, they’re both British, and they both wonder around in floor-grazing gowns, speaking proper British English among outdated class customs.
I’m here to tell you, the differences between the two Janes are vast. But the devotion that Austen enthusiasts have to their Jane rivals that of mine to Ms. Eyre. Which, finally, brings me to the point of this blog post.
I’ve never read Jane Austen’s novels. And while I passionately disliked the very well-reviewed book The Jane Austen Book Club, I quite liked the movie (although many critics disagree with my sentiment.) I was inspired by the obvious pleasure the characters in the movie/book found in reading Austen’s novels, and I’ve decided it’s time to rectify this deplorable blind spot in my literary education. Starting today — right now! — I’m going to read all six of Austen’s novels.
I’m starting with Northanger Abbey. It’s the first book Austen wrote, but was the last published — in 1817 along with Persuasian. I like the idea of starting with her first novel, and then I’m moving on to Pride and Prejudice, because I loved the Bollywood movie Bride and Prejudice and because I found a totally badass used copy at Half-Price Books that felt so good in my hands, I couldn’t leave it there.
I’ll let you know how it goes with Northanger Abbey. Here’s what the back of the book says:
A deliciously witty sattire of popular Gothic romances, it is perhaps Austen’s lightest, most delightful excursion intoa young woman’s world. Catherine Morland, an unlikely heroine, forsakes her English village for the pleasures and perils of Bath. There, among a circle of Austen’s wonderfully vain, dissembling, and fashionable characters, she meets a potential suitor, Henry Tilney. But with her imagination fueled by melodramatic novels, Catherine turns a visit to his home, Northanger Abbey, into a hunt for dark family secrets.
And the first sentence is a good one: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”
UPDATE: I tried. I did! Jane Austen is really, really not my thing.
If you’d like to check out Jane Eyre, you can read it for free online at this link. But I recommend finding yourself a used copy that appeals for some reason or other — a lovely cover illustration, interesting notes scribbled in the margins, a nice heft to the book itself — and curling up in a comfy chair.