FICTION JANUARY 28, 2010
by Sheila Kohler
Penguin, 232 pp., $15
It is a marker of intimacy when a woman dares to confide a precise takedown of her romantic competition. This is certainly how we feel when Jane Eyre, with a few neat sentences, decimates the woman that Rochester, her beloved, is presumed to marry: “Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite the feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox: I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original.” Brutal!, we would gasp today. There is a palpable relief—and time does little to dim it—at being the ear and not the object of this devastating summation.
The reader’s proximity to Jane’s sense of injury, to her fierceness, has been noted since its first printing. A reviewer in 1847 wrote: “Reality—deep, significant reality, is the great characteristic of the book. It is an autobiography—not, perhaps, in the naked facts and circumstances, but in the actual suffering and experience.… This gives the book its charm: it is soul speaking to soul: it is an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much enduring spirit: suspiria de profundis! [sigh from the depths].” Other than a desire to peek at the “naked facts and circumstances,” which a standard biography satiates—there are many fine examples—how could one possibly get closer to Charlotte Brontë than through the particular vitality of thought that pulses in every page of Jane Eyre? Or to put the question differently: what exactly does Sheila Kohler imagine she can add?
Jane Eyre ends with Jane’s marriage to Rochester—“Reader, I married him”—and then hiccups to the present tense, ten years later, where Jane reports she is “ever together” with her husband. Their hearts beat as one. They talk all day long. They have a baby son. But during those ten elided years Jane must also have written Jane Eyre, and this is the intimate aspect of herself that she never shares: her life as a female writer. Did Rochester stand over Jane’s shoulder as she wrote her autobiography? Was the baby on her knee? Where was the room of her own? Of course the perplexity falls apart because the novel is not Jane’s story but Brontë’s story—and it is the texture of the space and time that Charlotte spent writing Jane Eyre that propels Kohler. And only that: Becoming Jane Eyre is not, as some might hope, a literary biography with poetic license, awaiting its Hollywood adaptation. It is a small daydream of a novel, a glorified collection of vignettes; ethereal, distant, unruffled by the events it relates, utterly unlike its inspiration: if Jane Eyre disappeared overnight, Becoming Jane Eyre would be close to incomprehensible.
Kohler opens on a small room in Manchester, where Charlotte’s father, temporarily blinded while recovering from eye surgery, “wakes to the scratching of a pencil against a page.” Oh, but what a pencil and what a page! Kohler’s novel is too disjointed and spare to accrue its own emotional punch, and so it leans heavily on this shortcut—porn for the Brontë lover, perhaps—the visceral pleasure of being privy to the hesitant, unsure stepping stones leading to the guaranteed climax: publication and vindication, with Jane Eyre an unqualified success. (The most satisfying scene in Kohler’s fantasy comes toward the end, when Charlotte travels to London to throw off her pseudonym, Currer Bell, and reveal herself as the author of Jane Eyre. She stands in front of her harried and distracted young publisher, who ignores her, and patiently waits for him to put two and two together. He does.) In Kohler’s rendering, Brontë’s response to her own writing is mildly pornographic as well. Keeping vigil next to her father’s sickbed, “her mouth is dry, her lips chapped, her bowels blocked.” But once she begins writing, “her bowels, so often obstructed, have moved regularly, as though they were directly connected to the flow of words from her mind onto the page.”
Through Charlotte’s daytime reveries, we leave the claustrophobic recovery room and travel a few years back to Brussels to get a glimpse of Rochester’s prototype, a certain “Monsieur H.” The married headmaster of the ladies’ school where Charlotte was a student and then a teacher, he is the first to recognize and to consider her talent. On walks through the garden they “discussed books, her writing, French literature.” He leaves small gifts on her desk; and once, pressed against her, as Kohler writes in a painful sentence straight out of a bodice-ripper, “she felt his body swelling with a promise she could only guess at.” But when, after briefly rushing home for her aunt’s death, she returns as a teacher, Monsieur H. capriciously ignores her, “freeing himself from her grasp, dusting himself off, as though she were dust.” Charlotte’s life, which for a moment, seemed to be “swelling with a promise,” quickly collapses. She returns to Haworth, and the all-too-familiar narrowness of its quotidian life. From home Charlotte writes letters to her “Master” that are never answered.
The feminist reader has long had an uphill battle attempting to defend Jane’s eager deference to her beloved Rochester, whom she calls “Master”: “I’d give my life to serve you!” this otherwise self-reliant woman gushes. But by making the act of writing—and not the content of the relationship—the focal point of Becoming Jane Eyre, Kohler sidesteps this snake pit. Kohler’s novel is unabashedly a story of female empowerment, in which the omnipotence of the author is her unvarnished and only legacy: for even if Charlotte, and her fictional counterpart, are a touch too subservient for contemporary taste, what does it matter when, with her pen, “[s]he will transform these fallible creatures into objects that will serve her purposes. She will use all those who have snubbed and ignored her”?
The men in Becoming Jane Eyre are unreliable, shallow creatures. Monsieur H. rudely toys with Charlotte’s heart; Branwell Brontë, Charlotte’s brother, is a spoiled drug addict who squanders his education and his life; and Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s dismissive father, does not believe his daughter could have written a novel until she sticks it, along with rave reviews, under his nose. “It is women," Charlotte thinks—gazing at her "brave and beautiful" sisters, her "old and faithful" housekeeper—"who have enabled her to survive.” Anne and Emily Brontë, who died in quick succession at the ages of twenty-nine and thirty, never married; Charlotte married nine months before her death at age thirty-eight, but never gave birth. And so Kohler offers the Brontë sisters’ fiction as their alternate—and immortal and immaculately conceived—progeny.
The problem is that Kohler’s attempt to bring to life the conception of Jane Eyre—through a combination of biography, criticism, and imagination—deflates the act of creative writing. Charlotte Brontë’s free-association, after the name of her heroine “comes to her out of thin air,” ends up sounding like this: “Does it come from…the river she knows well, the beautiful valley of the Ayre? Or is it a name that comes from air, perhaps, or fire? Fire and ire will be in the book: rage at the world as it is. Unfair! Unfair! Ire and eyer: she is the one who now sees in her father’s place. She has become the voyeur, the observer.” No one thinks like this. We are clearly in the company of a deft literary mind, but there is no pretending that it is Brontë’s.
Most disheartening and reductive are the passages in which Kohler overlays the Brontës’ incisive, complicated observations onto anecdotes from domestic life. Kohler has Emily Brontë ruminate: “Surely cruelty and endurance are inherent in nature and not inconsistent with the beauty of its vision. Has she not had to beat with her fists even her own dog, who walks at her side, to stop him from leaving his muddy fur on the beds?” Maybe Emily Brontë’s relationship with her dog did in part inspire a whole view of nature. But drawing a direct line between the dog’s behavior and Emily’s writing will only highlight the absence of the subtle mind that could have made this connection plausible and fascinating—instead of deadened and mildly silly. The unwitting lesson of Kohler’s novel is that the imaginative process—in its excess, its mystery, its particularity—cannot be so easily revived or recreated.