Johnny Guns, 1847
Somehow I managed to earn multiple degrees in English without ever having read Jane Eyre. Actually, there’s no “somehow” about it: since I specialized in contemporary American pop culture, once I’d completed the required British survey course I had no further occasion to cross paths with an early Victorian novel. But I recently did a sort of internship shadowing an AP Literature teacher, and Jane Eyre was the book the class was working on. So I thought I’d better get up to speed.
And… well, it’s better than Wuthering Heights! It actually reminded me of Downton Abbey a bit, in that I went into that show thinking that since it was a historical drama on PBS it would be stodgy and serious, only to discover that it was really just a soap opera; similarly, I was expecting Jane Eyre to be a ponderous tome, then was surprised to find that it was actually kind of a page‐turner, and then was further surprised to find that it was more than a little pulpy. The sequence leading up to the famous twist is the stuff of a paperback mystery, the boarding school and begging sequences mark the book as a quintessential Victorian novel of social problems, and the rest? It’s every bit as soapy as Downton Abbey: the abused orphan, the dying waif, the marriage interrupted at the altar, the unexpected inheritance, the handicaps suffered and miraculous recoveries. This is not to deny that Jane Eyre could keep an entire English department busy—there is choice material here for the Marxist, the post‐colonialist, the feminist, the queer theorist, the deconstructionist. But that’s the thing: critics have been weighing in on this book for the better part of two centuries, and a million high school students write essays about it every year, and I don’t see much point in trying to add yet another impersonal analysis to that. So I will limit myself to one tangential observation. I had read that Jane Eyre was a smash success from the moment of its publication, but having finally read it and having found it pleasant but not particularly remarkable, I wondered… why? What was it that had earned the book generations of fans? One commentary I found proposed that readers were attracted to the way it “spoke of erotic passion, lower‐caste aspiration, and female rage”. I.e., they liked the soapy parts because they like soap opera, and they liked the political parts because they agreed with the politics. As for the “female rage”…
…well, it probably didn’t hurt Jane Eyre’s standing among a significant segment of its audience from 1847 to the present that the title character is a slight, bookish girl / young woman who also happens to be kind of a badass. She directs scorching tirades at many supporting characters and more than holds her own in contests of barbed banter. Apparently a lot of people like that. The one complaint I have received from a few fans of Ready, Okay! since the publication of the second edition is that they miss “tough Echo”. Nick Montfort described the first edition as a superhero story disguised as a YA novel, and I imagine that Echo was one of the characters he had in mind: prodigiously intelligent, fit in both the American and British senses, and an intimidating presence who held herself apart from the crowd and had an icy putdown for every occasion. Obviously there was a stripe of adolescent wish‐fulfillment involved in her creation. True, she had some serious psychological problems that always made it a close call whether she’d even be able to function, but remember that my hero around the time I was developing her character was Kurt Cobain. Anyway, between the first edition and the second I got to know a lot more people and learned how those with personal histories like Echo’s tend to turn out in the real world, and rewrote her character to be much more true to life. Those looking for authenticity liked the changes. Those looking to be inspired by an outcast teenage superheroine who doesn’t shy away from confrontation, not so much.
Postscript: Since I had to get through this book quickly, I decided that while I was cooking dinner or cleaning my apartment or what have you I would keep making progress by listening to an audiobook version. There are several free ones floating around, but it took me a while to find one I liked. Eventually I settled on this one, narrated by a volunteer named Elizabeth Klett. Normally I find British accents grating, but Klett’s was lovely—a real pleasure to listen to—and as I neared the end of the book I found myself wondering where she hailed from. The answer: New Jersey! Her British accent was all part of the performance! Maybe that’s why I liked it—maybe she created a new variant of British accent by cobbling together the best vowel sounds of the existing dialects or something.