A Year of Feminist Classics

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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea: Discussion questions

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Hi everyone – Iris asked me to apologise on her behalf for not having been able to post these sooner, but life got unexpectedly busy for her. But it’s never too late, right? Here are some possible discussion topics she and Jodie had planned for this month’s titles, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. As usual, feel free to incorporate as many as you want in a post or comment, to add questions of your own, or to approach the books from a completely different angle. Different perspectives are always welcome.
  • Do you think Jane Eyre is a feminism text? Which aspects of the story do you think could be read as feminist, and which do you think perhaps couldn’t?
  • How does Jane Eyre’s development as a (possibly) proto-feminist character narrative compare to the development of the other female characters in the novel?
  • Do you think any of the male characters can be read along feminist lines? Do you, for example, think that Rochester as presented in Jane Eyre fosters Jane’s growth towards becoming an independent woman? Do you think this is restrained to his treatment of Jane, or does it go for all women?
  • How did reading Wide Sargasso Sea change your perception of Rochester, or possibly even of Jane Eyre as willing to accept Rochester’s role as “victim”?
  • Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea can be read as a feminist text independently from Jane Eyre? Is it even possible to read the two books separate from each other?
  • The following are all quotes from Jane Eyre describing Bertha Mason:

    Edward Fairfax Rochester, of Thornfield Hall, in the county of —, and of Ferndean Manor, in —shir, England, was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, daughter of Jonas Mason, merchant and of Antoinetta his wife, a Creole, at —church, Spanish Town, Jamaica.

    ‘Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family’ idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! – as I found out after I had wed the daughter; for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parents in both points. I had a charming partner – pure, wise, modest: you can fancy I was a happy man. I went through rich scenes! Oh! My experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it!…You shall see what sort of being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human.’

    ‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’

    Did reading Wide Sargasso Sea change or add to your perception of Jane Eyre’s portrayal of Bertha’s ethnicity?

  • How do you feel about intersection of gender and ethnicity in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea? Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea supplements an omission in the original by providing an alternate reading of some of the characters’ lives? How do you feel about the way Jean Rhys went about this? Is her rewriting enough to address some of the gaps in Jane Eyre?
  • Do you think revisionist fiction has an important role to play as a feminist enterprise by addressing some of these gaps in early texts, which were often constrained by their societies and contributed to dehumanising certain groups of women? Do you see revisionism as a tool for questioning dominant narratives, even within feminist, and giving a voice to women who were previously voiceless? Why or why not?

Introduction to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I cannot wait to read and discuss Jane Eyre with all of you. I know this is a book that many love, but also one that some people have major issues with. Personally, I fall into the former category. I read Jane Eyre in high school, but it was a little too spooky for me. Almost two years ago, I became slightly obsessed with the book, and reread it a number of times, during a few months of studying abroad. I am a little nervous, but also very excited, to pick it up again for this project.

Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, 1850.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the third of six children, all of whom were girls except Branwell, who was born in 1817. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth village, the village where the Brontës would write most of their novels. In 1824, Charlotte went to a Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, together with her older sisters Maria and and Elizabeth, as well as her younger sister Emily (who we know for her novel Wuthering Heights). Maria and Elizabeth died at school, leaving Charlotte the eldest child of the Brontë family. The circumstances and Charlotte’s experiences at school were to serve as inspiration for Lowood school in Jane Eyre.

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne (the latter known for her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) started making up stories about fictional kingdoms at a young age. Branwell and Charlotte wrote about a kingdom called Angria, while Emily and Anne wrote about Gondal. Some of these stories still exist, though (I think?) they are believed to have been heavily edited (and several stories thrown away) by Charlotte.

Charlotte and Emily enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels in 1842, but their stay was cut short when their aunt died. Charlotte returned to the boarding school to teach. During her stay she felt lonely and isolated, and became attached to Constantin Heger, who ran the school together with his wife. Her attachment provided inspiration for Charlotte’s novels The Professor (written before Jane Eyre, but published posthumously) and Vilette.

Jane Eyre was written while watching over her father’s operation on his eyes. It was published in May 1846, and was very succesful, even though there was also criticism that her writing was coarse, doubts about the gender of the author, as well as questions about the morality of the novel, to which Charlotte responded with a preface to the second edition of the novel, in which she refutes the attacks on her views of morality and religion.

Jane Eyre was published under the pen name Currer Bell. The fact that Charlotte and her sisters all used pseudonyms when they published their work may in itself be an interesting starting point for the discussion of gender, as their pen names were meant to disguise their gender but retain their initials (C.B. for Currer Bell and Charlotte Brontë).

After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë kept writing. First, she worked on Shirley (published in 1849). However, before publication she suffered the loss of both her brother and her two other sisters. Her third novel, Vilette, was published in 1853.

Charlotte married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nichols in 1854. While pregnant, she became ill, and both she and her unborn child died on 31 March 1855. Charlotte’s father and Elizabeth Gaskell, with whom Charlotte became friends from 1850 onwards, subsequently worked together to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Further reading:

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Brontë and her sisters (I am in no manner an expert on her or her sisters!), I would recommend the fictional account of their lives written by Jude Morgan: The Taste of Sorrow. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography might be interesting, but I have heard that it is very much a sanctification of her life. I have been recommended The Brontës by Juliet Barker as a good biography, as well as The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller as a cultural history of the Brontës as cultural icons.

Jane Eyre

I hardly think it is necessary to introduce Jane Eyre, but in short it is the story of Jane Eyre, and her growth to adulthood. Jane is an orphan who grows up with her aunt and cousins, is subsequently sent away to Lowood school where she experiences the harsh regime that religion can provide (according to Charlotte Brontë, this is not true Christianity), but also finds her first and only friend, Helen Burns. When Jane Eyre finishes her education, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester…

Jane Eyre is available in many versions, in print and online. I will be reading the Oxford World’s classics version, with an introduction by Sally Shuttleworth. I think it would be interesting to compare notes on what the introductions of different versions might tell us about feminism in Jane Eyre. The novel is also available in the public domain, for example here on Project Gutenberg, and here on girlebooks.

Reading Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre can be read as an enjoyable love story (also as a creepy one), but also has a lot to say on the topics of feminism, religion, schooling, etcetera (I know I will have a hard time not being distracted by the love story and the topic of religion myself, eek).  When it comes to feminism, the story of the girl Jane Eyre is interesting, but I also think it would be interesting to look at the portrayal of other women in the story. The former will provide more than enough to discuss, but I think in comparison with Wide Sargasso Sea, the whole cast of female characters will be interesting to look at.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I hope you will feel free to look at the text in any way you want. I look forward to sharing thoughts! Discussion questions will be posted somewhere closer to the middle of March. Feel free to comment or email with suggestions [email: irisonbooks (at) gmail (dot) com].

May: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

In May The Year of Feminist Classics group will be reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Jodie, as my co-host, and I, believe that reading these books together will lead to a nice juxtaposition and complimentary view of feminism in literature, and the position of women from different backgrounds as portrayed by novelists. Today, I will post an introduction to Jane Eyre . The introduction post to Wide Sargasso Sea will follow shortly. I believe this month’s reading can be approached in several manners, and I welcome each and any of them: You can read Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea separately, or in comparison with each other. You could start chronological, and read Brontë’s work before reading Rhys’ interpretation, but you could also read them the other way around, and juxtapose Rhys’ interpretation with Brontë’s earlier portrayal. I am curious to see what you will come up with! In a week or so, I will put up some discussion questions, hopefully covering both books separately and in comparison with each other.

I am looking forward to discussing both books with you in the upcoming weeks! Feel free to contact me with suggestions for discussion topics, or guest posts.