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March 2019



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Wuthering Eyres

Over on the Stuck In A Book blog there was a little poll to discover whether readers preferred Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. I voted for the latter but we Emilys were heavily outnumbered by the Charlottes. Simon himself says that he favours JE although WH is the better book. What is the perennial hold of Jane Eyre on the imagination? Personally I loathe the wretched book, yet every now and then I just have to read it again. I think it makes a difference when you read it. I was given a copy, the very one shown here, when I was really too young for it. These Regent Classics were sold in Woolworths (eheu!) for 2/6d, so we had quite a few of them.

It certainly grabbed my imagination then. The Red Room! Lowood! Mr Brocklehurst! The noises in the night! I found it quite frightening and imagined I could hear mad cackling right outside my bedroom door. Reading it again when I was older I found that Jane was such an irritating child that I began to sympathise with Mrs Reed; Mr Brocklehurst was a cardboard cut-out villain; Jane had a massive ego; Mr Rochester was cruel. I understood Virginia Woolf’s comment on Charlotte Brontë that ‘she writes of herself when she should write of her characters.’ It is probably the most referenced book in English literature. Sometimes it’s just a throwaway line, like Harriet Vane saying to Lord Peter Wimsey, ‘Oh, Mr Rochester’, when he gives her a mink cloak. Sometimes a whole book; The Brontës Went to Woolworths or Tea with Mr Rochester. Reader, I married him is quoted everywhere. There is an assumption that absolutely everybody who reads, has read this book.

This is true even of children’s books and I want to share with you the wonderful running critique of Jane Eyre in Hilary McKay’s The Exiles in Love.

(This is the third Exiles book and let me tell any intellectual snobs out there that Hilary McKay is a very good writer indeed and that her books can be enjoyed by people of all ages.) The four Conroy sisters are all avid readers and Ruth, the eldest at fourteen, is reading Jane Eyre. She writes in her diary, Burnt porridge is not half as bad as she makes out. Then she inconveniently falls in love with the school bus driver so escapes back into JE. Helen Burns is dying at Jane Eyre’s school but Jane hasn’t noticed. Alas for Ruth! ‘Forty pages after Jane hadn’t noticed the illness of poor Helen, Mr Rochester arrived, tumbling from his horse at her undeserving feet and Ruth…was flattened again.’ She is now in love with Mr Rochester. There’s a lot more but I won’t spoil it.

Wuthering Heights is quite another matter. F R Leavis wrote, ‘There is, of course, only one Brontë,’ and he meant Emily. I don’t need Leavis to tell me what to think but I do agree with that judgement. It’s a tremendously powerful novel which is at once gothick and modern. The characters seem doomed in the tradition of classical tragedy and there is a Shakespearean plot device in chapter IX which is the equivalent of the handkerchief in Othello. Jane Eyre is chicklit in comparison.


I am unashamedly a chick lit girl and hence a Jane Eyre girl. I was initially put off by a BBC version of it which I think I watched when I was too young - those grim schooldays did nothing for me. Then a helpful friend pointed out that you only had to read the school stuff once and then you could enjoy the rest of the book. So that's what I did and then promptly fell for Mr Rochester.

I'm afraid that I have never made through more than about a third of Wuthering Heights. It inspires in me a profound desire to slap sense into all the main characters.

I agree about JE being so widely referenced. I had one friend who read it after reading the Eyre Affair (sorry, can't remember where you stand on Jasper Fforde). Anyway, she had the wonderfully surreal experience of realising that she knew the ending - she just didn't know which ending it would be.

For me, though, my absolute favourite Brontë is Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is just the most wonderful book.

Edited at 2008-12-06 10:39 am (UTC)
I read plenty of chicklit: I love Katie Fforde. I'm irritated by Jane and by her author. But as I said, in spite of that I still re-read the book.

They can't help themselves: they are doomed!

I've never got round to Jasper Fforde; I don't like fantasy, which puts me off. The Tenant of is one of those books I read a long time ago and can't remember a thing about. Perhaps I should give it another go.
Yes, they could. Being doomed is no excuse for all that wailing. ;)

I don't read fantasy either, but I loved Jasper Fforde. It's more about books and reading than anything else.

Jasper, incidentally. denies the charge of fantasy, and points out that he's never read any, so why should he expect his readers to?

For myself, I am an Emily man, although her youth and inexperience of the world shine (or should that be shout?) through every line. C., meanwhile, loathes Heights and much prefers Jane.
'her youth and inexperience of the world'
True, but just as true of her sisters, I think.
True of Anne, certainly, but Charlotte lived longer and saw more ... Villette and Shirley are much more mature works than Jane.
I still don't like them!
Which reminds me, speaking of the Brontes and Jasper, this may amuse you:

I like Emily Ealing.

My favourite Bronte skits are Monty Python's semaphore version of Wuthering Heights and The National Theatre of Brent's history of the Brontes.
Ah, but there's fantasy and fantasy; I review SF and fantasy professionally and have read far more volume threes of various 'War Against The Ultimate Evil (More Evil Even That The Ultimate Evil In Book 2)' that I want to remember - or, indeed, can remember. There is an awful lot of crud out there, but then there's some brilliant stuff too.

I find childrens' fantasy frequently more inventive than that aimed at adults. I suppose the one thing most of them have in common is that they're more about doing than being, so if you interest is in deep and realistic depictions of people, it's never going to be your favourite genre.
Fantasy: I tend to think that once you've read Tolkien, you don't need to read any more.
Ah, but that's just one sort of fantasy (and, sadly, the sort of thing most publishers seem determined to try to replicate badly).
I am so shallow that what I really like in books are pretty dresses and good manners. Also nice houses and delicious food. I find that SF and fantasy are all too often lacking in all of these.
You've left out beautiful gardens.
Being a thorough peasant, whenever I read a book full of pretty dresses and nice houses, I'm all too aware that in a similar situation I'd be stuck in the kitchen wearing a fourth-hand brown sack, trying to scrub the dishes from the five-course lunch clean so the nicely-dressed people could eat off them again later...
I haven't actually read Jane Eyre. I've tried to read it several times, but always got bogged down and gave up. I really ought to give it another go sometime.
You are a rarity :-) Do you still get all the literary refs by knowing the story?
I get most of the references, although possibly not all of them, from having read synopses and criticism and Wide Sargasso Sea. And after all, I do basically have a II.1 in Bluffing About Books I Haven't Read ;-)
I'm WH all the way. (Perhaps it's a goth thing ;) ) Jane Eyre just annoyed me; she can be tied up in the same sack as Dorothea from Middlemarch and dropped in the flood at the end of Mill on the Floss... (I do like some Victorian heroines - Marian from The Woman in White is brilliant, and I'm jolly glad she was too ugly to get a man at the end because she was too good for the ones on offer!)
Cheers! I dislike Jane's enormously high opinion of herself. Dorothea is wrong headed but basically Good. Dickens has some frightful women characters whom you could smack for their endless, pointless self sacrifice, but also some good ones like Bella Wilfer.
I prefer Anne! Agnes Grey is a delight from start to finish. I do think Anne has been overshadowed by her sisters, and Branwell, when in fact she was an extremely gifted novelist in her own right.
I really must try her again. Tis the season for nineteenth century novels, I find.
Glad to be reminded of The Exiles - such great books. I too am for WH and also for Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Find Jane too noble for my taste.
The Exiles delight me over and over again. It's so good to find modern books that do this.
So far, Emily is doing well here! It does seem to be a polarising subject.