I read a "middling" amount—about fifty or sixty books a year, which is more than most people but far less than really dedicated readers. Most of my reading is nonfiction (like this book, the read I've got going at the moment, which I'm liking a lot), but because I read so little fiction I make a concerted effort to every year read or reread at least one great classic—such as Richard Wright's Native Son or Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
A few words about the latter before I get on with it. I have the original three-volume set of Eugène Vinaver's editing of the Winchester manuscript, which he called The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. It retains the original antique spellings, which makes for a relatively impenetrable reading experience. That version is still available, but in a one-volume paperback as thick as a phone book. Unless you enjoy challenges or aren't a stranger to transitional Medieval English, I'd counsel you to avoid that edition. Fortunately, a modernized version based on the Winchester ms. is available from Oxford World Classics that's far easier to read. Edited by Helen Cooper, it's an intelligent abridgement and converts the text to modern punctuation and spellings (not easy—I tried it once). That one is the edition to read, no question. (Beware—the Kindle edition sold on the same page is not the right one. It's a different edition altogether, and editions are very important here.)
The stories of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table have of course been retold thousands of times, ranging from serious literary attempts at retelling like Scribners' classic The Boy's King Arthur by Sidney Lanier, with N.C. Wyeth's marvelous illustrations (currently available in a Dover reprint which I've not seen, allegedly with all the illustrations chunked together in the middle of the book), to the various Bowdlerizations from the regrettable Disney juggernaut. In between are literally thousands of cultural references in every conceivable medium, from song to stage play to political metaphor to cartoons, to outright satires such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which I successfully lobbied the professor of a class called "Epic and Romance" at Reed College to include in our syllabus; we went to the theater as a class. The professor liked it. Adults can't read the Lanier book, of course, because of its title. But the original, written by a 15th-century brigand from his prison cell, is an amazing book. Malory is one of the great storytellers in English.
As far as my classics program goes, I think I've mentioned before that a few years back I tried to read Moby Dick—and failed. Couldn't get through it. Augh. It worries my middlebrow mindset to find myself defeated by a book, especially one that's supposed to be good for you, but there it is.
So anyway, this year it was Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, a speedy and pleasurable read and a marvelously rich novel, whose only sin could be over-familiarity—not a problem for me, since I'd never read it before and didn't even know the story. (It's particuarly good with this book if you don't know the ending. If you don't, you're lucky—read the book quick before someone spoils it for you.) I find it astonishing that way back in 1847, no less, Charlotte Brontë managed to effectively set out most of the social and sexual (though not the political) program of feminism. The symbolism and psychology of the book is just superbly done. And it's fascinatingly written—it manages to read fluently and with forward propulsion despite extremely ornate and Latinate diction. I have a fairly large vocabulary, but no writer in my adult memory sent me to the dictionary as many times as Ms. Charlotte did. Even so, it's not a hard read, and goes along like a novel ought to—by keeping you avid to know what happens next.
On the (formerly silver) screen
I've now also read a smattering of the (very large) body of Jane Eyre criticism and watched several of the more readily available movie or TV adaptations. And I plan to read a biography of Charlotte if I can identify a good one, all a means of better engaging with the book.
According to Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers, there have been 18 feature-film versions and nine made-for-TV ones. Someone (was it Schnabel?) once said Beethoven's piano sonatas are better music than can be played, and in the same way, I suspect Jane Eyre is a better book than can be filmed—every movie version necessarily has to fall short. My biggest frustration in watching the films is that, in this age of multi-part movies, this story particularly begs for a three-part treatment—the novel is simply too broad to be contained in the two hours of a theatrical release. The first film would cover Jane's early life up until she becomes a teacher at Lowood and abruptly gets it into her head to leave and seek her fortune in the broader world; the second, her time at Thornfield, which would end with her destitute and seemingly doomed on the moors; and the third comprising her sojourn with her cousins and of course the famously bittersweet denouement, and her acceptance of adult love under terms of full equality and mutual interdependence.
Secondly, filmmakers definitely need to read more of the feminist criticism of the book! They all miss the point of the woman in the attic, a crucial part of the symbolic richness of the story.
Third, the movie versions I've seen all seem to misread Jane's character to various degrees. Oddly, child-Jane is usually presented possessed of the requisite spunk and fire, but then adult-Jane is a bit too leached-out and pale-spirited. (This is especially true of the 1943 version, with Orson Welles as Rochester and a young Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited role as Jane's friend Helen Burns, shot in appropriately noirish black-and-white. How did such a plucky, vivid child, well played by Peggy Ann Garner, grow up to be mild, insipid Joan Fontaine?) Brontë's point, to my reading, is that Jane is a woman who refuses to surrender her pride or honor either on account of her social class or her sex—she sees herself from first to last as deserving of respect and esteem as an individual. And, young and inexperienced though she might be, she expects and insists to be a man's equal as a thinking, feeling person. She's consistent in this—she demands her personhood from her elders, her teachers, her social betters, and her prospective lovers—even from her religious cousin, who wants her to subsume her identity and autonomy for a veritable mission from God. (She demurs, by accepting only on her own terms.) Granted, Brontë's method of granting Jane a family and a fortune is a bit Dickensian, with too much of the Deus ex machina about it, but hey, the author was a Victorian—we can't have everything on 20th-century terms.
Finally, I think it's hilarious that "Hollywood"—lumping all movie-makers together under that rubric—just can't seem to cast two physically unattractive people in a story about two physically unattractive people. The imperative of movie stars being good-looking is apparently just too strong a convention to gainsay, in most of the movie versions. (Although Charlotte Gainsbourg in the lifeless 1996 version is appropriately plain.) Kinda funny.
I was seduced by Mia Wasikowska's Jane in Cary Fukunaga's 2011 feature film, and some people weren't. I understand that—director and actress underplay Jane's fire, her pride and independence despite her station, and the prickly wit and intemperate honesty that we know must have been part of what intrigued the worldly and supercilious Rochester.
Photographically—I should be scrupulous and say cinematographically—this most recent adaptation is so gorgeous it's almost distracting. As with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, I could watch this movie just for the "pictures." Director Fukunaga in his commentary talks about scenes actually shot by candlelight (as in the screenshot above) and his pains to get the light of dawn just right, his torture of his focus-pullers and his use of 1.4 T-stops. The results are so frequently ravishing, even for a costume drama, that I sometimes found myself silently wishing for a little relief—even many of the momentary, throwaway images are arrestingly gorgeous. Fukunaga's and DP Adriano Goldman's subdued light and subtle colors echo the director's very uncharacteristic (for modern moviemakers) restraint—he paid for expensive horse-drawn coaches, for example, but shows them only briefly through a window at a distance, and he even greatly underplays the gothic horror aspects of the novel. The famous nocturnal laughter is barely hinted at, and Jane's direct encounters with the woman in the attic are left out. When Jane ventures out of her bedroom eventually to find the first fire, there is (allegedly) a woman standing in the window behind her:
Would you have seen that? I certainly didn't notice when I watched the movie. And I see everything.
The ending of this movie is almost cursory, and frankly inadequate. But then, it's one of the most brutal and enigmatic endings in literature—you really have to at least sense Brontë's deeper programmatic proto-feminist motives for the book's ending to be satisfying. Still, this 2011 release is the best of the movies I've watched or sampled, its only sin being that it's the latest in a long line of Eyre adaptations, likely none of which are perfect. But it's a much better movie than you might think, especially given its generous photographic and visual interest.
Jane in print
Don't watch any of the movies, though, until after you've read the book. The book's the thing with Jane. It's richer than any film version will probably ever be, and not by a little bit. (Think that Beethoven quote again.)
For readers, there are two editions of Jane Eyre I'd recommend, neither one particularly prestigious or rare. For a good, well-crafted reader's copy with pleasing typography and a good introduction, the Everyman's Library hardback from Knopf is as workmanlike as bookmaking gets these days. And for a classic illustrated version, see if you can find the two-volume set (Jane Eyre and its sister Wuthering Heights) published by Viking in 1943. The Fritz Eichenberg illustrations make it well worth the trouble of seeking out these books. (Eichenberg's renditions of the novel's characters are the best-cast of all, you might say.) The set shouldn't be hard to find, although condition is always an issue. Check Abebooks.com too. They were published in a slipcase.
So next year it's Ulysses, and I'm already anxious. Dubliners is one of my favorite books, ever, but I tend to be put off by too much ambition in an artist. I don't know how I'll fare with that one.
At least I'm not aiming at Proust.
"Open Mike," a series of off-topic essays by Yr. Hmbl. Host, appears on Sundays.
P.S. Please, no spoilers in the Comments. I really am serious that for those people who don't already know the story but might want to read the book, it's better not to know the ending.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David Miller: "Among the greatest re-working of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur is T.H.White's The Once and Future King. Don't blame White for the Disneyfication (committed in this case by DisneyCorp itself) to which the first book of the quartet, The Sword in the Stone, was subjected in the making of the animated children's film.
"White's work is wonderful on many levels for many ages. The Sword in the Stone is indeed charming and plays delightfully with notions of time and place and life in early-twentieth century England. By the time we reach book three, The Ill Made Knight, we're deep into the eternal challenges of love and loyalty, and in book four, The Candle in the Wind, we're tackling not only the death of Arthur but the precarious state of humanity on the brink of World War II.
"Eminently readable, it's a volume I return to every ten years or so. It's like revisiting a life-long friend and discovering that both of us have grown in wisdom and sorrow and hopefulness over the intervening decade. It's my desert island book. (And it's an easier read than Proust...which Cathryn has given me in preparation for retirement in a couple of years, when I'll have time for it.)
"I always enjoy your Sunday chats, Mike. Thanks."
Featured Comment by Max Buten: "To help you read Ulysses without getting bogged down, here are two recommendations: First, it is imperative to get the Gabler edition, which corrects 5000 mistakes in the original. Second, The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires is very helpful in explaining what's going on, what's real, what's metaphor, and other mysteries."