Friday, August 17, 2012

From Jane Eyre to Shirley

After re-reading Jane Eyre, I decided I should read Shirley since it was right there in my bookcase tempting me. I almost quit sooner than I did a few years ago when I started this second novel of Charlotte Bronte. The foreword warned me accurately that the book sometimes dragged. That foreword had also excited me, however, with the explanation that when she was 15, Charlotte Bronte had heard a favorite teacher at Roe Head boarding school talk about the Luddite Riots in 1812. Charlotte was sufficiently fascinated with this era of English history that she used it as the background for this story.

I liked knowing also that the two main women characters, Caroline and Shirley, were based on real women including her sisters Anne and Emily, who along with their only brother Branwell had died of tuberculosis while Charlotte was writing this novel published in 1849 under her pen name Currer Bell. I am using the author’s given name not out of disrespect or unearned familiarity but to distinguish her from her Bronte siblings.

What almost stalled me in the beginning was the use of dialect that I could not read nor understand easily. For example, here is a quote: “Middling, middling, maister I reckon ‘atm us manufacturing lads I’ th’ north is a deal more intelligent, and knows a deal more nor th’ farming folk I’ th’ south. Trade sharpens wer wits; and them that’s mecyhanics, like me, is forced to think. Ya know, what wi’ looking after machinery and sich like I getten into that way when I see an effect, I look straight out for a cause, and I oft lig hold on’t to purpose; and then I like reading, and I’m curious to knaw what them that reckons to govern us aims to do for us and wi, us: and there’s many ‘cuter nor me; thnere’s many a one among them greasy chaps ‘at smells ‘o oil, and amang them dyers wi’ blue and black skins, that has a long head, and that can tell what a fooil of a law is, as well as ye or old Yorke, and a deal better nor soft uns like Christopher Sykes o’ Whinbury, and a greet hectoring nowts like yond’ Irish Peter, Helstone’s curate.”
As if that was not obtuse enough, then I ran into Charlotte’s frequent use of French, which I guess all educated women of the main characters’ day were somewhat fluent in. I always wanted to study French but did not, so these passages were Greek to me.

But even before I became caught up in Caroline and Shirley’s lives, I kept reading because it was enlightening to me that 200 years ago, the men who worked the looms manually to make cloth were strongly objecting to being replaced by machines. Without unions or any social protection, their families were literally starving. Yet because of England’s war with France and the upheaval in America destroying the market, cloth was piling up unsold and the mill owners were in danger of losing their businesses. Thus, they were compelled to cut labor costs with the use of machines.

As I continued reading, it was obvious that the life choices for women were as controversial in that day as they’ve been in past centuries here. Married women were usually fully employed with the many children produced without birth control, but an unmarried woman of Caroline’s class had no choice other than boredom or governess. The novel was very much about women’s place. I kept feeling the similarities between then and today’s world these two centuries later.

The style of writing, however, was definitely different. I suspect that in homes without radio, television, movies, or Internet, slow-moving 500 page books were very welcome to while away time. (Just as folks used to welcome two-hour sermons when there might be only a once-a-month opportunity or less to hear a speech at a public gathering.)

Probably also the reading public back then welcomed multi-syllable words, which showed off both the writer’s and the reader’s education and created pleasant prideful satisfaction. With my journalism background, I will always choose the shorter word if two words seem to be equally apt. One of Charlotte Bronte’s paragraphs included “lugubrious,” “approbation,” and “acquiescence.” Another paragraph contained “quiescent,” “aspirations,” “apparition,” “personages,” and “countenance.” She used “countenance’ often, where I would say “face.”

I realized when I read Jane Eyre that I could increase my vocabulary if I took time to jot down words I did not know the meaning of and looked them up. But doing that while trying to enjoy the story was not something I wanted to do. I did, however, learn that “beck” in England meant creek, and so I was glad to already know that when I read Shirley. And “wicket” is a small opening or gate. The frequent use in Shirley of “curate,” “vicar,” and “rector” stumped me with the difference and exposed my limited provincial knowledge of only “preacher” or “pastor.” (BTW, I only recently learned from my Irish friend Mary Wilkinson’s blog in Red Room that “potter” is the variant of “putter,” and “amble” can be a noun as well as a verb.)

Although other past reading had made me aware of the rigidity and extreme class consciousness in those days in that part of the world, Bronte made it extremely clear and involved me emotionally in that unpleasantness. With my love for education and respect for teaching, I was angered that the curate, rector, vicar, or whichever Caroline’s uncle guardian was would not approve of her desire to be a governess. I became upset when the retired governess in the novel told Caroline how difficult that position was in those fine snobbish manors. I liked that this novel may have brought about more democratic feelings and may have contributed to breaking down somewhat the smug belief in life-long status based on birth and not on character or achievement. So in that sense maybe we have come a long way, Baby, in 200 years.

I think I read Charlotte’s The Professor at the same time I first read Jane Eyre. Should I go ahead now and read Villette? Although I read Emily’s Wuthering Heights years ago, I’d like to read it again. And I want to read Anne’s Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. That last title seems so familiar that I wonder if I have already read it. I may or may not remember even if I read it now.

In the meantime, while Gerald was gone, I grabbed another novel from the bookcase set before and during the Revolutionary War. In it, I find a Tory family living in a class-conscious society in the New York area with people making marriage choices based on family wealth. Another group resent both England and local wealthy landowners supported by the labor of tenant farmers.

Gerald returned home from Texas Tuesday night. Geri Ann has started her freshman year at University of Georgia, Brianna her senior year at Lincolnwood High School in central Illinois, and Sam his sophomore year at Marion. Elijah and Trent will be starting their sophomore years at college soon. Granddaughters Leslie and Erin have started their new jobs, and everyone else is busy with their old jobs.

No comments: