Exploring the many faces of `Jane Eyre'

Critical Eye

August 19, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley

The bride is about a foot tall, has a long, flowing mane the color of cornsilk and wears a placid smile. She is made of porcelain and is draped head to toe in a lace wedding dress and sweeping veil.

The name of the doll on display at the Peabody Library is not Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella but Jane Eyre.

If that strikes you as odd - as stupendously, absurdly, bizarrely misconceived - chances are that you've actually read Charlotte Bronte's classic novel.

Just for starters, the Jane in the novel wore her dark hair in a tight bun. She is fierce, and decidedly mousy-looking. She disdains elaborate attire, dressing instead in a "Quakerish" simplicity. Jane Eyre does indeed contain a wedding scene, but it's not exactly a happily-ever-after moment; as our heroine stands before the altar, she discovers her fiance already is married.

And, what educational expert first decided that the novel's themes of madness, sexual passion and deceit are suitable for preschoolers?

"These objects may have lost their direct relation to the book, but I don't think they should be discarded or written off," says Barbara Heritage, one of the two curators of Eyre Apparent, an intriguing exhibition running through October.

"That's one of the points this exhibition makes. These items tell us something about the context in which the novel is being read, and how that has changed over the decades. Jane Eyre has become many things to many people."

Heritage and the exhibit's other curator, John Buchtel, meticulously gathered about 110 objects and put them on display, ranging from a line of Jane Eyre glassware issued by the Seneca Glass Co., to a set of Jane Eyre playing cards to a commemorative stamp.

There's a comic book version, as well as a rendition by Maurice Sagoff, who distilled the plot into 30 short lines of verse with impressive brevity. An example:

My love behaved

A bit erratic:

Our nuptial day

Brought truth dramatic!

He had a wife,

Mad, in an attic.

There's even an easy-reading version of Jane for elementary-school pupils that considerately defines that puzzling term, "bigamy."

"This exhibit is an attempt to answer the question: What happens to a novel when it becomes a classic?" says Buchtel, the Peabody's curator of rare books.

Make no mistake, Jane Eyre is that rarest of literary achievements. The novel was an instant success when it was published in 1848. Within a few months of its release, it was adapted into a play - the first of what would be more than 50 stage versions and 30 film treatments. (The most recent is a two-part, made-for-television special broadcast this year on Masterpiece Theatre, starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens.)

In 1901, the book's canonical status was affirmed when it became the first volume published in the new World's Classic Series of recognized masterpieces.

No one knows how many copies of Jane Eyre have been sold in the ensuing 159 years, but the answer, surely, is in the millions.

Penguin Publishing, which is just one imprint, said in a 2003 trade catalog that it had sold more than 500,000 copies in the previous 50 years. The novel has been translated into dozens of foreign tongues including Esperanto, an invented language.

But, how to explain the novel's enduring appeal?

Buchtel points out that Frankenstein's monster, another famous figure from about the same era, has not been subjected to similar transformations.

"Everyone agrees on what Mary Shelley's monster looks like," he says, "but not Jane. How does someone so popular remain so mysterious?"

Part of Jane's popularity is precisely her mutability, her status as Everywoman. Each girl who feels unappreciated by adults, every lovestruck teen, every skirt-suited young professional embarking on a forbidding first job, can imagine that the humble governess, in some small measure, resembles herself.

But perhaps what is most extraordinary about Jane Eyre is the unbridled intensity of the narrative.

"I've always been extremely drawn by the direct address to the reader," Heritage says. "Charlotte Bronte constantly keeps bringing us into the present tense. Nothing about her voice is detached."

To enter Jane's world is to be absconded with, instantly appropriated. It is as if Jane, in billowing cape, has grabbed hold of your hand and is striding briskly ahead, saying "come along" when you tarry, while a strong wind pushes at your back.

Fans of the Bronte sisters' books like to debate which is superior - Charlotte's Jane Eyre, or her sister Emily's startlingly original Wuthering Heights. Indeed, nearly every trait that makes Charlotte's book special is magnified in Emily's novel.

Jane Eyre's heroine defies the social convention of female passivity and docility. The protagonists of Wuthering Heights barely acknowledge that social conventions exist.

Charlotte Bronte broke with tradition by creating lovers with imperfections serious enough to jeopardize readers' sympathy. In Wuthering Heights, the lovers are downright despicable.

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