APRIL 21, 2016
TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO TODAY, Maria Brontë gave birth to the first of three famous sisters, the immortal Victorian badass Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte published her best-known novel, Jane Eyre, in 1847, under the pseudonym Currer Bell; it remains one of the most read and adored classics in the English language. This was the first big book my mother made me read when I was a child (I had a cheap, thick paperback that fell apart in the time it took me to finish), and I reread it a few years ago — still loved the book, though I was much madder at Rochester this time around.
I’ve also read three marvelous books in the last year that owe their existence to Jane Eyre — I think it’s fair to say that this one novel has had a rather outsized impact on our literary landscape. One was Jean Rhys’s strange, lovely Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966. The others were more recent — Patricia Park’s Re Jane, newly released in paperback, and Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, which came out last month. Re Jane reimagines Jane Eyre as the half-Korean half-white Jane Re, a young woman who leaves her uncle’s Korean grocery in Queens to become an au pair in Brooklyn for an academic couple and their adopted Chinese daughter. It’s a touching exploration of identity and emerging adulthood that maps Brontë’s classic onto contemporary New York and South Korea. Jane Steele is a historical novel set in 19th–century England, in the days of the rapacious East India Company. Faye’s Jane is a lovable liar and multiple murderer whose story develops with Jane Eyre as her foil. The book is an absolute pleasure, a page-turner with a splendid high prose style that’s deceptively easy to devour.
I talked to Patricia and Lyndsay over email about our darling Janes.
STEPH CHA: Why Jane Eyre? Was that book essential to the initial conception of your book?
LYNDSAY FAYE: Well, from the beginning, Jane Steele was based on a thought exercise. I was rereading Jane Eyre, as I do sometimes — being a big fan of rereading favorites — and young Jane’s defiance over her presumed wickedness seemed to me both marvelous and suddenly rather peculiar. Her aunt, her cousins, her servants, her headmaster — everyone says she’s wrongheaded and she stands there and replies, “No, I have my own moral center and you’re hypocrites.” How likely is that, really? Was it an expression of Brontë’s own defiance? So then I thought, what if a little girl in the identical situation didn’t insist on her goodness but actually agreed with the majority and thus — because she’s willing to commit dark deeds, or at least unconventional and rebellious ones — was considerably less easy to kick around?
Jane Eyre is already a character with a tremendous amount of backbone. I mean, my god, look how she handles Captain Byronic Manchild Whoops-I-Have-an-Attic-Spouse. But she’s a woman who believes in certain conventions. Murder would never enter her mind; lying to get out of a scrape wouldn’t either; becoming a man’s mistress is a horrifying prospect. So for Jane Steele, by making her “bad,” I simply stripped all that away. Her motives are nearly always self-defense or defense of someone weaker than she is, which is a hard position to argue with, but her techniques are rooted in the fact she really believes she’s irredeemable.
PATRICIA PARK: I’m fascinated by the construct of the Victorian orphan. Jane Eyre, like all those other eponymous Dickensian orphans, is called epithets like “wicked” and “mischievous”; her parentlessness makes her of questionable morality and background. I was 12 when I first read Jane Eyre, and it reminded me of when I used to misbehave as a child. My mother would scold me, in her limited English, “You act like orphan!” For her and her generation of Koreans, to be an orphan was to act shamefully, as though you had never received “a good family education.” My mind drew a link between the Korean and Victorian constructs of the orphan, and that’s how I came to Re Jane.
What are the challenges of working with such a beloved novel? Did you consciously control your levels of homage? How do you balance between retelling and reinvention?
PP: In 19th-century novels, heroines tend to be more passive than their modern-day counterparts; as fiercely independent as Jane Eyre is, she is still a product of her times. In early drafts I hewed too closely to the source text — there was a lot of literal/metaphorical waiting around by the phone for Jane. We expect our contemporary protagonists to take action, rather than letting things happen to them. At a certain point in the process, I had to distance myself from Jane Eyre and let my novel tell its own story — along with a rewrite of the iconic line, “Reader, I married him.” But throughout, I tried to stay true to Jane’s self-affirming line: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” Also, I indulged myself with winks and nods to the original — names of companies, streets, that sort of thing.
LF: So first off, I get the question quite often from people whose eyes are a bit wide with awe, “How did you dare to attempt this Jane Eyre as a murderess thing?” And I sort of chuckle and rub their shoulders reassuringly because the fact is, I’d never have had the idea in the first place if I didn’t love Jane Eyre. And I have some experience reworking Victorian authors; my first novel, Dust and Shadow, was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. See, if I’d been looking out for the Brontë 200th birthday anniversary — which I knew nothing about, by the way — and it was opportunism rather than a passion project, then maybe it wouldn’t have worked. But I wasn’t fussed over the novel being beloved because it’s beloved by me, so I knew how I wanted to riff off it.
Additionally, Jane Steele is very tongue-in-cheek. The master of the house where Jane works is named Mr. Thornfield after Thornfield Hall, Jane gets thrown from a horse when they meet, there’s a “don’t go into the cellar” subplot rather than “don’t go into the attic,” etc. So there’s plentiful Easter eggs for fellow fans, but it’s absolutely an original plot and cast of characters, so I’d call it less of a retelling and more of a champagne toast with a wink and a sly smile.
Tell me about your Jane. How would she get along with Jane Eyre?
PP: They’re both living down their parental “sins,” as it were. Jane Eyre is the orphan of a gentlewoman who ran off to marry a poor clergyman — a shameful legacy continually brought up by her relations. Jane Re is the mixed-race orphan of a Korean woman who, as the story’s been told to her, ran off with a GI stationed in Seoul. Korean women with “good family educations” didn’t do that sort of thing; it was a time when ethnic homogeneity was prized. Jane literally wears her mother’s shame on her face — for all in her community to see.
As long as Jane Eyre would take kindly to folks of “color,” I think they’d get along pretty well. Believe it or not, they both share this Korean concept of nunchi — a social awareness, or the ability to read a situation and anticipate how you’re expected to behave. And they’re both rather put upon, so I think they’d have a lot to kvetch about over beers.
LF: Ha, Jane Eyre and Jane Steele would detest each other! The through line is that they’re both remarkable, indomitable women who are unnaturally brave and dare I say uppity for their time. But Jane Steele enjoys erotica and cursing like a sailor, and Jane Eyre apparently would rather eke out a living as a spinster schoolmistress than live in the south of France with her soul mate, so they would certainly each give the other the side-eye. For the record though, I think I’d get on with Charlotte Brontë just fine. She was very retiring, so I’d have to draw her out, but we’re both preacher’s daughters, and while she and her sisters invented a world and a language for it when they were little, I remain forever obsessed with The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. I’d turn her on to Klingon. She’d be completely down.
I read Jane Eyre again recently and though it’s a tremendous book, I was struck by what Brontë manages to get away with! The Gothic melodrama is foie gras – rich and my goodness, the crazy coincidences, the excessive plot. How do you make Jane Eyre work for a modern audience? Patty, can you speak to the challenges of setting this kind of story in contemporary New York? Lyndsay, does historical fiction give you a little more leeway?
LF: Foie gras–rich is spot on. It’s not a perfect novel. I mean, there are no perfect novels.
Well, a couple of things here — the reason I write historical fiction is because it really does give me that leeway. I could buy a box of soap, put the soap away, stand on the box, and shout through a megaphone about feminism and sexuality and race relations and it’d be super boring for everyone, especially in New York City, where doing something like that is just wallpaper. But in historical fiction, I can talk about how we keep making the same tired, wrongheaded arguments all the time, and it’s a bit similar to Shakespeare hedging his bets, being like, “I’m going to make comments about crap aristocracy, but they’ll be Italian. So I won’t get in trouble. Set it out of town, Bill, set it out of town.”
The other aspect is that yes, Charlotte Brontë is florid, but there’s an extra stigma added to that because it’s a novel by a woman, about a woman. Nobody complains when it’s Lord Byron or Walt Whitman.
PP: Indeed — the Gothic dramarama really gets amped up at times, huh? At least Jane Eyre’s not so far gone as Wuthering Heights. For me, it only made sense to set Jane Eyre in New York City because it was the world — for all its microcosms — that I knew. I often wondered how Jane would tackle the problems I faced when growing up; I wondered where her thoughts would wander as she chugged along on the 7 train to and from Flushing. After a while, I realized Re Jane is as much a coming-of-age story of a changing New York City at the turn of the millennium as it is one of Jane Re herself.
As for Bertha Mason — I made her a professor of women’s studies scrambling to get tenure. I’ll never forget what Ha Jin, my MFA thesis advisor, said when he urged me to not make her a full professor: trying to get tenure is enough to make anyone go mad.
I wonder if the tiresome separation of literary and genre fiction is as old as Charlotte Brontë. Lyndsay, having written a gorgeous, delicious murder romp of a Jane Eyre adaptation, how do you engage with genre? How do you classify Jane Eyre? Is it even worth trying?
LF: Oh, you don’t want to ask me this question, because I will never shut up!
So again, you’re speaking with someone whose first novel, Dust and Shadow, was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which means fanfic I got paid money for. I’m tremendously egalitarian as regards writing in general, and genre in particular, because I don’t believe in “guilty” pleasures. Screw that, it’s a pleasure. Own it. Unless you’re into kicking kittens, in which case you need therapy. Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize winner, confesses in his essay collection Maps and Legends that one of the first stories he ever wrote was what he characterizes as a terrible Sherlock Holmes tale (it was probably actually awesome, I don’t care that he was 10). Then he concludes, “All novels are sequels.”
He’s right. Because if you’ve never read anything you loved, you definitely aren’t going to sit down and write a novel. He also remarks that a conscious book marketing decision was made at some point in America and now there’s “literature” and “other stuff.” What a load of bull puckey. Frankenstein is a horror novel (a genre we don’t even shelve anymore). Ada or Ardor is alternate universe sci-fi. Candide is humor. I mean, this is all ridiculous, and it really just serves consumerism, stereotyping, and lazy thinking. Are there varying qualities of say, detective novels? Sure. There are bad ones. But then again, there’s The Big Sleep, which deserves to be on every “literary” list created by thoughtful white dudes with skinny ties. So, essentially, I write books, and sometimes they’re shelved in general fiction, sometimes crime, occasionally historicals if there’s a special shelf. But I’m just as into reading a China Miéville novel as I am into reading Agatha Christie.
As to classifying Jane Eyre, it’s essentially a bildungsroman with a strong Gothic romance streak. But who cares? It’s just a really great book. It was written passionately, by a passionate person. So was A Farewell to Arms. They just happened to be different people. It’s like with food — people ask my husband and I what kind of food we like occasionally. The answer is always, “good food,” because whether it’s Thai, Italian, or Ethiopian, we like the deftly prepared version of literally anything. Isn’t that a better way to live?
I personally think Rochester is one of the most problematic love interests in the literary canon. Without giving too much away, how did you deal with him in your books? What were the challenges in updating that character?
PP: I was never one of those Eyreheads who viewed Rochester as a dreamy Byronic hero. He’s hugely problematic. But it was important to show that Jane and Ed make a connection, at least at first. I had them both come from blue-collar, outer-borough backgrounds; they have conversations about construction and building codes, for Pete’s sake. Hardly sexy stuff, but it’s the first time any male takes a shine to Jane. However, in Re Jane it was important for me to explore what Jane Eyre would look like in a modern era, where women have more options than the handful traditionally scripted for Victorian heroines: marriage, inheritance, immigration, and/or death.
LF: I updated him in two very specific ways. First off, he loves his ward, Sahjara. She’s the daughter of the woman he was in love with, and it always irritated the daylights out of me how poorly Mr. Rochester thought of his ward. She’s a kid, for crying out loud. She’s not her French mother, she’s a French child. So it’s tremendously better for there to be a real parental relationship, to my mind. It’s stronger. It creates plot opportunities.
Second, he’s not the pursuer in the relationship, he’s the pursued. That was extremely deliberate on my part, and maybe one of the most important changes I made. He’s suffering badly from PTSD, and Jane is trying to win him.
Charlotte Brontë was born 200 years ago. You should know better than most — what can we learn from her and her Jane?
LF: We can learn that when you face incredible hardship and face incredible losses in the wake of it (two of Charlotte’s sisters died after having their health ruined by that godforsaken school), you can write a best-selling novel about it instead of a sad song on your harpsichord. We can learn, as she said, “Conventionality is not morality.” We can learn that poor, small, plain people can kick your ass from here to Sunday. Those are all valuable lessons, I think.
PP: As a teen, Charlotte Brontë wrote to the poet laureate Robert Southey seeking advice — think in the vein of the young poet writing letters to Rilke. Southey’s response was hardly encouraging: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” Imagine how devastating that must have been for the young Charlotte — I know I would’ve put down my quill and walked away from writing entirely. Yet still she soldiered on, and 200 years later, here we are: celebrating her bicentenary, and Robert Southey is hardly a name that leaps off anyone’s tongue.
Charlotte Brontë was a pioneer for women writers everywhere; I wonder how she would feel about the progress we’ve made — and the progress still to go — 200 years after her birth.