By Ron Charles
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; C01
BECOMING JANE EYRE
By Sheila Kohler
Penguin. 234 pp. Paperback, $15
I didn't read Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" until I was an adult, but I still reacted with all the whiny complaints of a 14-year-old boy. Unfortunately, I was teaching it to 14-year-old boys at the time, so I had to feign a certain amount of enthusiasm. But a funny thing happened on the way to education: While John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" grew thinner and sillier to me every year, "Jane Eyre" blossomed into one of my favorites. With the plot's smoldering melodrama, the heroine's boundless suffering ("Unjust! Unjust!") and those outrageous villains, it's a captivating book, a chance to luxuriate in your own private fantasies of aggrieved victimhood.
Adaptations of Brontë's work haven't reached the fever pitch of Jane Austen knockoffs, but "Jane Eyre" got zombies in a 1943 Val Lewton horror movie, almost 70 years before the undead crawled into "Pride and Prejudice," and a new film version (sans zombies) is underway, starring Mia Wasikowska with Michael Fassbender as the brooding Mr. Rochester. A fair number of talented writers have transformed Brontë's most famous novel into exceptionally creative and memorable books of their own: Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" (1938) generates almost as much devotion among certain circles as "Jane Eyre" itself; Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" (1966) is one of the classics of 20th-century feminist fiction; Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair" (2001) launched his fantastical career. (Heads up: Fforde starts a new series next week.) And now we have this exquisite fictionalized biography of Brontë called "Becoming Jane Eyre."
If you know "Jane Eyre" and love it, don't deny yourself the pleasure of this intense little companion book. South African-born Sheila Kohler, who now teaches at Princeton, sinks deep into the details of Brontë's life to re-create the atmosphere of her tragic, cloistered family. Parallels between Charlotte and her famous heroine are an irresistible subject of critical inquiry, and even if those parallels are sometimes drawn too baldly in "Becoming Jane Eyre," Kohler's novel remains a stirring exploration of the passions and resentments that inspired this 19th-century classic.
The story begins in a silence so complete that you can hear Charlotte's pencil scratching on paper. She's nursing her stern though needy father, who's recovering from eye surgery that has left him temporarily (they hope) blind. The horror of her mother's long illness and death still hangs over this family, but there's a more recent cause for sadness: Charlotte's novel, "The Professor," has just been rejected, and the poet Robert Southey has written her a condescending note: "Literature cannot and should not be the business of a woman's life." In desperation -- for money, for recognition, for a way out of "solitude, darkness, and despair!" -- Charlotte decides to try once more. "She dares to take up her pencil and write for the first time in her own voice," Kohler says. "She will write out of rage, out of a deep sense of her own worth and of the injustice of the world's reception of her words. She will write about something she knows well: her passion."
The story begins in 1846 and runs until Charlotte's death nine years later, a remarkable period that saw her emerge from obscurity as the daughter of a Yorkshire clergyman to become one of the most celebrated writers of the day. Kohler's method is highly impressionistic, concentrating expansively on some moments while brushing over whole years elsewhere. The brief chapters sometimes concentrate on other characters, allowing Charlotte's perennially dying father (who outlived them all) to give his own anxious testimony, along with her sisters, Anne and Emily, and even a servant, who finds the dreary Brontë family hardly worth the wage.
But this story is always Charlotte's, and it's always quietly hypnotic. We follow her memories of that deadly boarding school we know as Lowood. We see her studying and then teaching in Brussels under the tutelage of a capricious but mesmerizing married man who stole Charlotte's heart and then cast it aside (William Hurt, Timothy Dalton, Orson Welles?). And everywhere, we catch impassioned echoes of "Jane Eyre": "Do you think," Charlotte screams at her choleric teacher, "I don't feel what other people do, that I don't long for the same things as you!"
"Becoming Jane Eyre" is motivated largely by Charlotte's desperate thirst for revenge: "She will vanquish all those arrogant fools, all those hateful asses, who have passed her by without a glance. How they have humiliated her, again and again. . . . Let her employers get down on their fat knees and beg her pardon!" Generations of smart, capable, overlooked women (and men) have responded to that pent-up anger, but Kohler also wants to give Brontë a larger, more noble purpose that makes her a forerunner of the feminist movement: "She would like to reach other women, large numbers of them. She would like to entertain, to startle, to give voice to what they hold in secret in their hearts, to allow them to feel they are part of a larger community of sufferers. She would like to show them all that a woman feels: the boredom of a life confined to tedious domestic tasks."
Kohler shows another side of Charlotte's life, too, the complicated tensions of living in close quarters with talented writers: Emily, Anne and Charlotte had made a pact to publish their works under a single pseudonym, Currer Bell, but the asymmetrical success of their books puts enormous pressure on that agreement. And then, of course, there's the even larger problem of their precocious, shamelessly spoiled brother, who first absorbs all their father's hopes and then inspires all his despair. Kohler depicts him as Heathcliff and the first Mrs. Rochester spun together, a vampiric young man full of charm but driven by addictions that threaten to drag this remarkable family into the flames.
And yet despite everything that befell the Brontës, Charlotte eventually attained some of the wealth and domestic happiness she imagined at the conclusion of "Jane Eyre." If only, Dear Reader, real life would stay frozen at that triumphal moment of "The End." Kohler moves us swiftly and poignantly past that, into the haunting silence that swept over this windblown house when the last of those talented siblings was finally laid to rest.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.