Retro Reading (My “Blackout” Post)

I imagine most people reading this are aware of #HaleNo and the decision of some book bloggers (especially in YA and romance) not to run reviews of new books for a short period of time. (If not, here’s Sunita’s post on it, with links to more). Since reviews of new books are pretty much non-existent on my blog, my participation isn’t very meaningful, but this post is my expression of solidarity with their action.

I’m horrified by the incident and the way Ms. Hale has been supported by some people eager to cast amateur reviewers/bloggers as bullies and trolls, but I’m deeply grateful to bloggers for the way they have responded. Some blogger have decided, during the blackout, to focus on what brought them to blogging in the first place: a love of books and reading and a desire to discuss them with others. I’ve enjoyed Dear Author‘s posts on topics like who’s in your book-recommending trust circle, favorite book-to-film adaptations, and authors you miss, for instance.

Perhaps my favorite post has been Miss Bates’s, because so much of what she says expresses my reasons for and attitudes to blogging, too:

primarily, Miss Bates reads romance, she doesn’t review romance. She hopes to inspire fellow-readers to share in her thoughts about romance fiction. . . . She wants her blog to be an account of what she’s reading and how she responded to it and less about whether you, her reader, should, or shouldn’t read a book. She wants to, once again, engage with her reading emotionally and intellectually without worrying about spoilers and ratings and release dates.

My disaffection with bookish social media has made me want to refocus on reflecting on individual books as well. I’m tired of kerfuffles.

When I started blogging, I made a decision not to request ARCs or accept review copies because I knew they would make me feel obligated and perhaps lead me to be less honest about my responses (that’s a purely personal concern and I respect, admire, and rely on many bloggers who do read ARCs!). I want to talk about whatever I happen to be reading, however I want. My effort to get back to these basics has been hampered by a very busy and rather stressful fall. I have been tired and distracted and haven’t always used my free-time to read. I had to resort to setting a pomodoro timer for bedtime reading for a few days. It helped, and now I’m reading a couple of newish books that I’m really enjoying.

But today, I’m going to talk about some retro reading–or, actually, listening, because when I’m too tired to focus on the page, I turn to audiobooks. I’ve had a spate of really good luck with 19th-century novels on audio, and I’m going to talk about how I read them in light of my romance-reading experience. (Also, since these are old books, all the spoilers below).

Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

This is a Victorian novel I had never actually read (shh, don’t tell anyone! They’ll take away my PhD). I listened to a big chunk of it–read by Alex Jennings and Jenny Agutter–on a day when I was too sick to get out of bed. So I may have dozed through a bit and I definitely don’t have a worked-out take on it. But I thought a lot, as I listened, about how this novel is in many ways an anti-romance in its depiction of marriage to a rake. Arthur is charming and Helen imagines redeeming him (in explicitly Christian rather than romantic terms). But he remains selfish and self-indulgent and makes her increasingly miserable–going off to London to enjoy himself for weeks, hosting drunken house-parties, flaunting his affair, corrupting their son.

The novel makes very clear how hard it was for a woman–at least one who didn’t have the support of her family–to escape from such a marriage, especially with her child. It reminded me of one reason I love historical marriage of convenience plots: the stakes are so high. If the marriage doesn’t work, it really is a disaster.

The romance between Helen and Gilbert Markham didn’t really convince me: she seemed so much more worldly wise, had so much more experience, and he was kind of a brooding, jealous jerk. I didn’t think he grew up enough to deserve her by the novel’s end–but maybe I’ll have to listen again and I’m open to convincing.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

OK, this has nothing to do with romance. But it was a lot of fun (I read it years ago). The meandering, rather stream-of-consciousness narrative worked very well on audio. I picked this up because listening to Connie Willis’ Bellwether made me want to listen to more of her works on audio, and buying To Say Nothing of the Dog made me want to revisit Jerome. The version I chose was the one narrated by Steven Crossley, who also reads the Willis book. My only qualm was that he read the Romantic nature descriptions, and the incident where the three friends discover the body of a drowned woman, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, and I think these more sentimental passages are sincere. Though I could be wrong; there’s a lot of puncturing of conventional discourse in the narration. I can imagine revisiting this one when I need a good laugh.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

After my success with one sister, and with other 19th-century fiction narrated by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, I decided to pick up Jane Eyre, which has been languishing with my TBL for some time. I’ve read the novel several times, but not since I started reading genre romance regularly, and that is coloring my listening to some extent. (I am only about halfway through).

I think it was Robin who said in a conversation that while there’s lots of love for Pride and Prejudice among romance readers, Jane Eyre is much more an ur-text of the genre. I think that’s right, and I can really see it as I read: the Gothic elements; the commanding, mysterious (older) hero; the isolated and subordinate young woman–all of these appear in different ways in many romance subgenres.

I think Bronte is well aware of the erotic charge of Rochester’s commanding ways, his literal mastery of Jane. But ultimately the novel and Jane resist that pull. Part of Jane likes obedience and submission, wants to please him, but she won’t do it if it means not being true to herself and her conscience. I couldn’t read some of this dialogue without thinking of BDSM romance (probably because someone retweeted Megan Mulry saying Rochester is a Dom) but I think few romances work this way. Usually, the submissive heroine in BDSM romance surrenders to the erotic pull of the master before considering whether he is worthy of her submission (aside from his ability to bring her sexual pleasure). The ethical questions Bronte raises are missing. And the Dom, of course, does not have to be blinded and maimed before getting the girl–I’ve always had mixed feelings about Jane Eyre‘s ending. I’d prefer her to become his equal without his having to be reduced somehow. Perhaps that was impossible for Bronte to imagine; in any case, being “brought low by love” wasn’t low enough for her.

The romance between Jane and Rochester has never been my favorite part of the novel. I’m more interested in Jane’s childhood, and how the tensions between independence/rebellion and submission, isolation and interdependence, judgment and feeling, play out with the Reeds and at Lowood. But their relationship did make me reflect on when and why similar pairings work for me in romance: I can do alpha-ingenue, but not alpha-doormat. Jane is young and powerless, but she is always true to herself and thus essentially unbreakable. Love is never more important than self-respect for her, and she never completely surrenders herself to or subsumes herself in another, even when it is most tempting. And that’s why I love her.

 

 

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52 Responses to Retro Reading (My “Blackout” Post)

  1. It’s the way Jane stands up to St John, more than to Rochester, which really shows her spunk. St John really tried every manipulative trick in the book to try and persuade Jane to marry him, whereas Rochester just said “I love you”. I don’t like the maiming thing either but I guess that was Bronte’s bow to the idea that he needed to suffer a *bit* for attempted bigamy. (No one other than Jean Rhys ever stands up for the poor woman locked in the attic and who dies a horrible death though. Even though she is utterly blameless of anything but being mentally ill.)

    Never read ‘Tenant’ and you’re not convincing me to try 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I agree–I just haven’t gotten to the St. John part in this listen.

      I thought Tenant was really interesting, but I definitely still read Victorian novels with as much a professional interest as for fun, even though I don’t do scholarly work on them anymore.

  2. KeiraSoleore says:

    I found Rochester terrifying when I first read Jane Eyre among other classics the summer I was eight. I could not for the life of me fathom why Jane would find him fascinating, even if it’s like a moth to a candle. I found Three Musketeers wildly romantic, but Jane Eyre? No way!

    Upon re-reading it a few years later, I understood the nuances much better and appreciated the storylines and characters better, but I still didn’t see it as a romance. I understood that theoretically, it was possible for this to be a romance, but it just didn’t feel like a romance to me. The power imbalance is too stark.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I first read, or tried to read, it when I was about 10, and the whole thing scared the pants off me (maybe in part because I only vaguely understood it). When Jane is locked in the room and thinks there’s a ghost! And then the awful school. Forget the madwoman in the attic–I was terrified long before that. And yes, as a child I didn’t understand Rochester’s erotic power and just found him frightening.

      Maybe it’s that childhood experience that has meant the early parts of the novel are the best and most memorable to me. I think Bronte (like Dickens, actually) is incredibly good at capturing the strangeness of childhood memories, the way the perceptions and understanding of the remembering adult are in conflict in some way with how the child experiences and interprets. They both give a sense of how a child sees the world differently, but also how alienated we are, in some ways, from our childhood selves. I find it a very powerful reading experience when a book can capture that.

  3. sonomalass says:

    I read Tenant of Wildfell Hall just a few years ago, trapped by weather on the farm in Scotland. I’d never read the OTHER Brontë, and I was glad I did. Not an uplifting read, but interesting.

    I am going to try to get away from reading ARCs and new releases. That’s hard, because there are quite a few authors whose next book I’m eagerly awaiting. But I haven’t been very good about thoughtful reviews lately, or even comprehensive reading summaries, and I’m more likely to toss a star rating and a quick reaction paragraph up on Amazon because release day has just passed. As Rowena said on Twitter, I want to be a reader who blogs, not a blogger who reads, and I don’t enjoy feeling like a cog in the publishing promo machine (to borrow Sunita’s imagery).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s a pretty radical book for its time, too, if you think about it. I liked reading about a woman who more or less rescued herself from her own mistake.

      Yes, I’ve never thought of myself as “a blogger” and most of what I write isn’t really a review, either, even when I post on a book I’ve just read. I read, and I have opinions, and I want spaces in which to talk to other people about them. I don’t want to feel like a cog, either, and it is very hard not to. And where is the line between being a cog and celebrating books you love and think deserves more attention? I find that tough. For instance, I have never left an Amazon review or wanted to, but I am sure it DOES help authors and that it’s part of the secret algorithm that gets books noticed. Goodreads takes a lot of heat (and of course now they are more intertwined) but Amazon reviews are a huge source of the tension we see, I think, in the sense that they have highlighted the importance of amatuer/consumer reviews for e-only authors, especially. More reviews, and more good reviews, really can help drive sales, so it’s no wonder authors want them and want them on Amazon. In general, no single blogger/Goodreads reviewer/Vine member/etc. has power, but I can see why some authors end up feeling they do–because in the aggregate, reviews are important to them. I value and use consumer reviews, but I think they play a more complicated role in the book world than they do when we’re talking about hotels or toasters or something where the maker is more removed from the product. I don’t know what anyone can do about this, but it’s no surprise there are painful mis-steps that go with this new world (not that that excuses some people’s behavior AT ALL).

  4. willaful says:

    That’s an interesting point about Jerome. I read a great many of his books as a teen — most don’t hold up as well as Three Men — and I always thought his sentimental side was a sincere expression of cultural mores of the time. I’m notorious for taking books at face value, however, and even more so when I was a tenn.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s a pretty common Victorian mode, the sentimental. And while I could imagine him poking fun at gushing nature descriptions, it was pretty hard to imagine he would joke about a “fallen” woman drowning herself after struggling to keep herself and her child alive. At least, I couldn’t like him if he did. I think that the river journey is a little bit of everything in life–a lot is comic, but then there are things like the history passages that are more sincere. The mixture is part of what makes it so engaging: you never know what’s around the next bend.

  5. Ros says:

    The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my favourite Bronte novel. Mostly because it is exactly as you say – the anti-romance. Helen’s first marriage is what you get if you marry the rake, and it puts the lie to so many ‘happy endings’ in romance novels. Although I love to believe in the fairytale of the rake reformed, I want women to know how dangerous it is to presume on that in real life. Anne Bronte is unflinching in the way she works that out, step by chilling step. And I love that the book shows Helen’s strength – her moral strength in not being corrupted by her husband and his friends, as well as her courage in striking out alone with her son. I agree that the romance with Gilbert isn’t as strong, though I do believe in it. Possibly because I watched the TV series (which is really excellent) before I read the book, so I was already persuaded.

    I am much less a fan of Jane Eyre, as a whole, though I like it in parts. Not the same parts as you, though! When I was about ten, there was a TV adaptation on Sunday evenings and of course it began with her childhood and the school scenes – and I hated it! Eventually a friend who is a similar reader to me lent me her copy and told me I only had to read the first part once and then I could get to the Rochester parts which she knew I’d enjoy. And so I did. And I’m glad I did, but it’s never become a book I return to. I agree about the ending and not wanting Rochester to have to be lowered in order to be with her. I’m always profoundly relieved when his sight returns, but even so, I am not all that convinced by their relationship.

    I would be very happy if you continue reading and posting about 19th century novels!

    • Ros says:

      Oh, I just had a thought. I think Helen’s marriage to Arthur is more or less what would happen if Fanny Price accepted Henry Crawford.

      • lawless says:

        There are a lot of things I don’t like about Mansfield Park, but Fanny Price not accepting Henry Crawford’s proposal isn’t one of them. Can you just imagine what a romance editor would say about that these days? “Jane, honey, they must get together. Edmund [I think that’s his name] is a sap. Fanny and Henry is just so much more marketable!”

      • Ros says:

        There are a LOT of people who think Fanny should have accepted Crawford, and even some who argue that’s what Austen originally intended. I more or less think these are people who haven’t understood the book at all.

      • Kathryn says:

        Yes — this is great point about why Fanny’s choice is the correct one in all ways.

        Usually I think about Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre together. Lots of interesting parallels (e.g., the deprived childhoods of both heroines; their insistence on doing the morally right thing at the expense of their own comfort; rejecting a man that on surface would be “good” for them; and the way the West Indies and the slave trade hover in the background).

        I know that Bronte didn’t admire Austen — finding her emotionally and psychologically flat. So I’ve sometimes wondered if she didn’t in part write JE as an exasperated response to MP. JE definitely privileges the emotional and psychologically ramifications of heroine’s choices while MP privileges social and class connections and the social consequences of Fanny’s choices.

        I haven’t read JE in quite some time; but I too preferred the first half of the story over the romance with Rochester. The the first time I read it (in my early teens), I found Rochester just rude and I couldn’t see what Jane saw in him. Later readings made me appreciate what Bronte was trying to do, but I still found the ending itself problematical and over the top.

        I’ve never been able to finish The Tenant, but I admire Bronte’s Vilette, even more than JE. Maybe trying Tenant as an audiobook will work better for me. And although I’ve read Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, I’ve never read Jerome’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. So I should do that one as well.

      • Kathryn says:

        Sigh, I meant Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, not To Say Nothing of the Dog. Why don’t I see these errors before I hit send?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I will, some of the time. I have found that I’m unwilling/unlikely to pick them up in paper at the moment, because it seems like such a big investment of time and I have so much else to read. But I have had really good luck with them on audio (North and South and Middlemarch read by Stevenson were both superb). I have got Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? in my audio stash and I’m thinking of doing the whole Palliser series–I have read the first three, I think, long ago and really liked them all. (I have read all the Barchester Chronicles, once upon a time. I think).

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Also, on Mansfield Park: I agree with Ros. I think one of the interesting things about that novel is that Fanny (unlike all the other ladies) is impervious to Henry’s charm and has no interesst in sacrificing her own happiness to “save” him. It, too, is a novel that challenges the attitudes of genre romance. I don’t think the point is that love can’t be redemptive–but it would have to be Henry’s love for Fanny that saves him rather that her love for him (that is, he’d have to save himself, even if he was inspired to want to do so by love). And he doesn’t have the strength for that. (I thought about this novel when reading Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, because the redemption story didn’t really work for me there, in part because the heroine felt mostly like an instrument for the hero’s salvation). This book, too, taught me something about when a particular romance plot will work for me and when it won’t.

        I think Mansfield Park is a great novel but I don’t find it particularly romantic. This is often true of the romance plots in 19th-century novels because, as Miss Bates says, they are often allegorical/symbolic/about something else. Some times they are allegorical AND romantic (North and South) and sometimes the romance feels flat. And often, the values being worked out in the marriage plot are ones many readers today have little sympathy with.

  6. Miss Bates says:

    Thank you for what you said about Miss Bates. I’m glad what I wrote resonated for you. The reason I could come to these thoughts, these feelings, these conclusions is because of what I’ve learned about blogging from Something More and others, like Sunita’s post that you linked to about. Those bloggers I respect, like, and await a post from avidly helped me work out where I was going, why I wasn’t getting as much out of it as I could, and where I wanted to go. And that is what I’ve learned is the most pleasurable part of online engagement in the romance blogging community: the sharing, even the heated discussions, but the love and importance of books, of stories to help us make sense of things and to give us respite, to give us words to express what are often inchoate thoughts and emotions.

    And now I just have to chime in about JANE EYRE because it is my favourite novel and my favourite romance. I agree with you when you say that it is the ur-romance, even more so than Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. The reason for this, for me, is its focus on the central romance removed from society. Austen’s novels, for me, must always work out the romantic relationship in society, must contend with class and place and privilege. JANE EYRE is strangely devoid of that and that’s what makes it an “ur-romance”: its central couple is isolated, which points to the gothic romances that make the start of the modern romance genre, or at least the little I know of it. (I hope to read many more of those!)

    What I love the most, however, about reading JANE EYRE (Jenny Agutter!! as narrator! She was in WALKABOUT, wasn’t she, years ago?) is that, depending on my mood and life circumstances at reading, I find different things to appreciate in it. (I’ve read it every summer since 2007.) And every year I move a little further away from the “romance” aspect of it and look at it as a “romantic” allegory (not terribly, really, when you think about it and Rochester’s overwrought avowals and Jane’s stance of self-respect and integrity) … it’s a novel very much about NOT succumbing to passions (maybe if romance writers considered this on occasion, we might have more interesting histrom). It’s a morality tale about self-control, but it IS NOT puritanical. I love it when Jane returns to her Aunt’s house and re-acquaints herself with her two female cousins (who serve as cautionary tales for her and prefigure her being caught between Rochester and St. John): between the one succumbing to passions and the other’s control over them, Jane, confronted with romantic love for the first time in her life, learns how to navigate its dangers all the while not denying its pleasures. Passion must be tempered by love and reason: when Jane leaves Rochester, she is at her finest. She never relinquishes her love for him, but she won’t give up her very self for it. (I think this is because, for me, Jane is a Christian and she derives her ethics from her Protestant Christianity but that’s for another long-winded comment. 😉 …

    I’ve often read Jane and Edward as mirror images of development on life’s journey: as living well and still trying to figure it out. The little powerful woman has achieved equanimity: her passions are tempered by love and reason, which she learned by her trial by fire, her childhood (to which you refer so eloquently) of privation. Jane is bereft of love and friendship and things don’t look much better at Lowood … except for Helen. Jane loves and suffers loss and is honed by it. When she arrives at Thornfield, she is emotionally mature, way ahead of the petulant, temperamental, and demanding Rochester. But when Rochester tries to save Bertha, that’s a different Rochester: he is not selfish. He is the man who would lay down his life for another, even one who, albeit innocently, stands between him and the fulfillment of his greatest desire. That he is blinded by it is heart-breaking, but, in my understanding, makes sense. Jane’s example has changed him, made him a better person by tempering his eros with agape. This is why I love JANE EYRE.

    Confession, because it’s good for the reader soul: I’ve never read THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL … but now I want to, which is what I love best about this blogging thing we do.

    • lawless says:

      Miss Bates: I think you have identified both why I prefer Austen to Bronte and why so much of the romance genre leaves me cold. I prefer my romance (pretty much anything, really) in social context, not isolation.

      I appreciate Jane Eyre’s integrity, but I find where it leads her to come too close to the line of morality police. That’s as much if not more my problem with the era than the character, though.

      • Miss Bates says:

        An interesting perspective: you’re making me think about JE. I guess it depends on whether Jane’s morality makes sense for a reader and it does for me, I guess. I understand what you’re saying about the rigidity, I’m assuming, of Victorian society (I’m not sure JE is Victorian: what say you, Liz?). The best handling of that I’ve read is a massive tome of a fascinating if flawed book, Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. I think you’d find it very interesting.

      • lawless says:

        Miss Bates: Jane Eyre was published in 1847; Queen Victoria’s reign began in 1837, so I think it’s safe to characterize Jane Eyre as Victorian. As it happens, I bought The Crimson Petal and the White awhile ago. I didn’t read it from cover to cover — I wound up skimming the second half — but I agree that it handled the mores of the time well. I thought the depiction of how prostitution was an economically superior choice over working one’s fingers to the bone in “honest” labor and how prostitution encouraged dishonesty in order to ensure a regular clientele was well-done. I was less happy with the turns the book took once the main character became a governess. I did not care for the magical realism used in the portrayal of her patron’s wife.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Michel Faber did a TON of research–he partcipated in an academic Victorian studies listserv I was on while he was writing that. (The book isn’t really my thing but I read it with interest). Also, I really miss that listserv. It’s still going but past the glory days of rich discussion. Blogs are not the same.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Re whether Jane Eyre is Victorian: yes, in terms of when it was written, certainly (early Victorian). And I think many of its themes/concerns are “Victorian” as well. But it is set earlier. I couldn’t remember exactly when, but I just got to part where St. John brings Jane a “new publication,” and it’s Scott’s Marmion, which is published in 1808. So there you go. I think the novel is also thematically “Romantic” in a lot of ways–but then so are a lot of Victorian novels; there’s no bright line: the orphan protagonist, the nature description, the whole question of passion vs. reason, the visionary moments, for instance.

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  8. lawless says:

    Not long ago, I read the first third of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and skimmed the rest. I loved the concept, was not as impressed with the execution — not the writing per se, but the pacing, etc. — but that’s largely because it was a book of its time; the length of the book and the moral purity that put me off are period-accurate.

    That is why it baffles me why people cluck about anachronisms when the attitude toward sex, etc. in most historicals is historically implausible if not outright inaccurate and the books also don’t reflect the religious mores of the times. Certainly, much that happens in such books could have happened, but so often? No one had religious scruples or motivations or felt guilt? And yet the one time I tried to bring this up in a discussion at DA, I get dinged for it, but posts decrying the historicity of historical romances that deal with social movements get applauded? I wish we’d face up to the fact that a historical romance written with complete fidelity to the times and its attitudes would be unrelatable and wouldn’t sell.

    Anyway, I thought it was a brave book tackling a near-verboten subject at the time.

    As for Jane Eyre, I’m with Ros: I didn’t enjoy the sections about her growing up and about her days at school. I don’t enjoy unhappy, tedious (to me) sections like that; I don’t like similar passages in Dickens’ novels either. It was the relationship with Rochester (and, to a lesser extent, St. John) that interested me.

    I only read the book once and my dislike of the subject matter of the first half has deterred me from rereading it, but what I do remember is that unlike most, I did see Rochester’s attraction. (Maybe the fact that my father, who I loved dearly, was a gruff, sometimes intimidating person himself made a difference.) Furthermore, while I was angry on Jane’s behalf that he’d concealed the existence of his wife and tried to trick his into a bigamous marriage, I did not feel the same societal pressure as Jane, and if Jane were so sure that her feelings toward Rochester were real and lasting (and vice versa), I didn’t see the point in holding out for marriage on respectable terms just to prove a point.

    After all, to get her happy ending, Rochester’s wife had to die. In a sense, then, Jane has blood on her hands even though she had nothing to do with Bertha’s death, and if she’d agreed to live with Rochester and become his mistress, she might have been able to ameliorate or improve the conditions under which Bertha was held captive. The true culprit in this case are the laws that prevent Rochester from ending his marriage and marrying someone else while still remaining responsible for Bertha’s care.

    So while I appreciate the book’s focus on Jane’s integrity and think her rejection of Rochester after the bigamy comes to light works in the narrative — the whole bit with St. John Rivers provides a nice contrast to Rochester — in my view it caused a lot of unnecessary suffering in the end.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      For me, that is part of the point of the novel, in a way: the suffering caused by social restriction. Rochester, despite his efforts at escape, is just as trapped by his mistaken marriage as Helen Graham in TENANT.

      I think a lot of Victorian novels can feel unsatisfying to readers today, because we want characters to break through the conventions and the authors are more interested in how people survive and suffer within them, generally. (Those who break them usually do a lot of suffering as well).

      And you’re right that the conventions of the contemporary romance genre usually mean that characters blow right past the conventions without a second thought. Unless I’m in the mood for a fairy tale, I find that tiresome. And I think it wastes a lot of the most interesting possibilities for strong internal/external romantic conflicts in historicals, the risks that breaking conventions entail and the reluctance/fear/moral revulsion that might keep people from doing so. (Of course real people did have sex outside marriage, sometimes, but I can’t believe the women, at least, didn’t worry about the consequences). I guess authors feel such a character couldn’t be sympathetic or interesting, but I don’t. I don’t have to share a character’s morality to respect their choices about living it out.

      • lawless says:

        I love Victorian novels; they have that combination of plot and writing ability that hits my sweet spot. But Jane Eyre is just a little too much of a martyr to her principles for me to like her wholeheartedly.

        BTW, it didn’t dawn on me until I was working on a reading meme I do for my Livejournal that I’d read a Peter Lovesey historical mystery — Swing, Swing Together of his Sergeant Cribb series — that references Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and the craze for following the route the men in that book took. I’d assumed that the book was made-up. Since you enjoyed Three Men in a Boat, you might enjoy Swing, Swing Together, which also features a teaching college co-ed who may have witnessed a murder while skinny-dipping in the river on a dare.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Ooh, thanks! I’ve read another Sergeant Cribb, but not that one.

          What Victorian novels do you especially like, if you don’t mind saying? *nosy*

      • lawless says:

        Ha, almost forgot to answer this. I’m a fan of the best of Dickens — Bleak House, Great Expectations; to a lesser extent, David Copperfield (great story but it’s neither as accomplished nor impressive as the former) and A Tale of Two Cities (there’s hardly a character in it who’s not cardboard or a stereotype — Doctor Manette is perhaps the only exception — but it does more to make the French Revolution explicable to those of us for whom it’s not national history).

        I’m also fond of sensation novels, particularly those of Wilkie Collins, though oddly enough his two most popular books (The Moonstone, A Woman in White) are not among my favorites of his. Those would be Annandale and No Name. A Woman in White would come next along with a few others whose names I don’t remember off the top of my head. I read most of them in an ebook collection of Collins’ novels, so the titles tend to blend together. I’d include Lady Audley’s Secret if the writing and characterization were stronger.

        Another I like is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. And while Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray is flawed, it’s also fascinating. Ditto Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

        Do Americans writing in the Victorian era count? If so, I’d add The Scarlet Letter, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and the work of Anna Katherine Green.

        It’s not a novel, but there’s Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and some of his other short stories/novellas.

        Mostly I like the way Victorians write and the subject matter of their writing. It was a time when literary sophistication and experimentation went hand in hand with plot.

  9. lawless says:

    Whoops — Just to add that I’m a fan of romance in society rather in isolation, which may explain why I like Jane Austen’s books more than Jane Eyre, though unlike most Sense and Sensibility is my favorite, with Pride and Prejudice a close second and Emma a close third.

  10. Sunita says:

    I must have been about 12 when the book club my mother subscribed to had matching hardbacks of three Austen novels and two or three Bronte novels (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for sure, maybe another one). I read P&P and then went straight through everything Austen wrote, but I disliked Wuthering Heights and I don’t remember Jane Eyre at all. I’ve never reread it, even when I was reading modern Gothic romances. You make me want to try Tenant of Wildfell Hall, though. At some point in this life I would like to understand what I’m missing about the Brontes. Maybe I’m finally old enough to figure it out. Great post, Liz.

    • Miss Bates says:

      I’ve hated WUTHERING HEIGHTS since I read it about ten years and I’ve even reread it to gain some perspective. But I still hated it: it’s a visceral response that I should explore more fully. But, truth be told, I just don’t want to think about it.

      Oh, I really really hope you do read JANE EYRE again, Sunita: I would love to read your thoughts!

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I am not really a Bronte person–for pure pleasure, I’d always pick Austen over any Bronte (and I pretty much hate Wuthering Heights). But I find Charlotte, in particular, really interesting–I ought to re-read Villette, which I have only read once. And then there’s Shirley, her industrial novel. I think that has a riot, so maybe Sunita should try that one.

        • Miss Bates says:

          I should read VILLETTE again as well, I agree. SHIRLEY is actually a fairly recent read for me: it’s verrrry interesting. I’d love to read what Sunita thinks of it and Emma Barry too, who told me recently she’s a “labour historian.”

      • Sunita says:

        I will get a copy of SHIRLEY. That sounds right up my alley!

      • lawless says:

        I despise the characters and storyline in Wuthering Heights, but consider it exceptionally well-written. I read it over 40 years ago and still vividly remember the storm depicted in the first chapter.

        • Miss Bates says:

          It is brilliantly written. You’re right on; it is grotesque in character and sentiment. My most vivid memory is of the ghost-girl Catherine floating outside window. Still gives me shivers.

      • lawless says:

        I think that was in the first chapter too! Shivers is right.

    • R says:

      I find it strange that the Brontes are so often lumped all together. I find them very distinct. I can’t bear Wuthering Heights at all. I quite like what I’ve read of Charlotte (though I admit, I’ve been meaning to try Villette forever and not got round to it). But I love Tenant of Wildfell Hall more than anything by the others. So, I wouldn’t judge Anne or Charlotte by Emily!

      • Ros says:

        That was me! Pressed send while typing. Not trying to hide my identity. 😉

      • Rohan says:

        I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has never been won over by Wuthering Heights. The last time I reread it (trying to give it another chance!) I found it quite repellent, just as a reading experience. So much nastiness. I have been thinking, though, that professional duty may oblige me to try harder, not to like it, but to understand it.

        I got contacted once by someone who had read my blog a bit and so knew I was a “Victorian” person, and wanted me to recommend a passage from Wuthering Heights to be read at his wedding, as it was his fiancee’s favorite novel. I could hardly think of a less appropriate book to choose a wedding reading from! Which is pretty much what I told him. I refrained from expressing anxiety about his wife-to-be. 🙂

      • willaful says:

        Rohan, I recall hearing that Sting was very wigged out by couples who told him that “Every Step You Take” was their song. 😉

  11. Rohan says:

    I have felt much more on the sidelines of the Halestorm, which doesn’t seem to have much to do (happily) with the books or bloggers I read or the online conversations I’m involved with. I suppose nobody, or no conversation, is immune, but it helps you recognize what a class act someone like Christopher Beha is, for example, who reacted to my negative comments on his What Happened to Sophie Wilder by thanking me for engaging seriously with his work. If you’re going to comment publicly at all on a negative “review” (or reading, as I agree that this is a relevant distinction), that’s how you do it. Getting back to the reasons you do this — love of and interest in books, desire for a space and a community for good conversations about them: that’s a great positive response. I’ve actually been on a “back to blogging” kick myself after finding I was getting stressed and petulant about other kinds of online writing — I needed to just relax and be me as a reader for a while and stop second-guessing my choices and my voice.

    I am a big fan of Tenant of Wildfell Hall, though I kind of grew into it through thinking about the novel more, and then teaching it several times (a great motivator). I have written about it a bit: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/the-quiet-one/ . I used to prefer Jane Eyre, and I suppose I still do purely as a reading experience (like you, I so admire the way Jane stands up for herself: “I care for myself,” she says in response to Rochester’s attempt to beguile her away from her morals — that’s a rock to stand on indeed). But Tenant is a technically more sophisticated novel, I now think. Both Jane and Helen pose a potential challenge for contemporary readers in that success on their terms includes standing staunchly by their religious values (and, in Jane’s case especially, defining them against versions of Christianity that would stifle them and force them into submission to others).

    My favorite thing about Jane Eyre is its dialogue: I think it’s in their conversation that we come to understand why Jane and Rochester are suited. The physical damage and weakness he endures does not undo their passion, but it makes more room for their intellectual union — or, helps us see that it too is crucial.

  12. Miss Bates says:

    In reply to “lawless”: “shiver” Do I remember correctly that there was broken glass on the window sill and the narrator pulled the little creepy ghost-girl’s wrist over it? Or is that just moi scaring myself more?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, to get her to go away. It’s horrific. But such an interesting book. Even though I pretty much hate it.

      • Miss Bates says:

        Phew, thank you. I’m so glad that EmilyB. is responsible for imagining that and not me. It’s peculiar, isn’t it, how the books we love and hate stay with us? I’m quite fascinated by it, but I hate reading it.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Whatever else you say about the Brontes, they all wrote incredibly vivid, memorable scenes of horror. The emotions in all of their books are sometimes over the top (and that’s why I do see them as linked) but they’re intensely real.

        • Miss Bates says:

          I’m not that keen on biographical interpretations, BUT it must’ve meant something that they were brought up so closely and suffered such losses to their family. They share something.

  13. sonomalass says:

    I read a biographical novel about the Brontës while in Yorkshire a few years ago. It gave me context for quite a few things in their novels. Villette was my favorite in student days. I don’t remember reading Shirley. Count me in for a BFB read-along.

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