Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Jane (Austen) Book Club*

Recently I have been rereading Jane Eyre. I didn’t think I would get as far as I have, but I am now about halfway and still eager to continue. Jane Eyre is another book that I was introduced to in an English class. Although I had been thinking that I should read it again, I thought that if I did pick it up, I would lose interest within the first few chapters, or even the first few pages. Here’s a test for you: Take a book you’ve read because you had to (usually from an English class, at least for me) and read it again when you don’t have to. Do you still like it? Or, if you didn’t like it before, do you like it now? This was probably my main motivation for reading Jane Eyre again--to see if I actually liked it.

And I am pleased to say that, yes, I do like Jane Eyre. In fact, I would say that in some ways Jane Eyre is superior to that other famous Jane of English literature, Jane Austen, which I know is a blasphemous statement to all the hopeless romantics of the world. Sorry about that. I like Jane Austen, but she isn’t perfect.

For one thing, the description in Jane Eyre is much stronger than any comparative text in an Austen novel. Its tone and atmosphere is vivid and distinct. Description has always been one of Austen’s weak points for me. Rather, Austen’s novels thrive on dialogue, and her stories and characters are merely used as illustrations of the specific concepts being discussed, such as pride, prejudice, sense or sensibility.

Perhaps the Austen novel that is the best comparison for Jane Eyre is Emma, which also happens to be my favorite of Austen’s books, because both are essentially well written character studies. It’s no surprise that both novels are named after their main characters. To Austen’s advantage, she has, in Emma Woodhouse, created a character who is not restricted by her need for wealth, which takes the novel’s focus somewhat off marriage. This is, I think, what allows the story to examine a character rather than an issue, just as Jane Eyre does. But these books also show how Austen and Eyre are different. Eyre is much darker in imagery and tone, gothic, and bleak. Austen’s tone is more comedic and, of course, romantic.

But that’s not to say that Jane Eyre isn’t a love story. It is. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester make an intriguing couple, and I enjoy seeing their relationship develop throughout the story. But romance, I must say, is where Austen excels beyond Bronte. No one tells a love story like Austen does, and she has done it time and time again in several novels, not just one.

Each Jane has her strengths and weaknesses, and I admit that I can’t seem to choose one over the other, but the beauty of it is, do I have to?

*I have never read The Jane Austen Book Club, so I couldn’t tell you if you should read it or not, but the movie was pretty good.

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