Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eternal Jane Eyre

I recently watched again the new film version of Jane Eyre directed by Cary Fukunaga. Is it the quintessential Jane Eyre for all time? Hard to say, but it is very fine on a number of fronts. The casting for Jane and Rochester are quite good (Jane is young, small, and plain, but not homely); the cinematography, especially of the moors, is marvelous; they’ve portrayed the brooding gothic manor of Thornfield perfectly; and the costuming is impeccable. The gypsy fortune teller scene is left out (how is this possible?) but the River’s part of the story is interesting and woven in well with the rest, an uncommon achievement. Of the five or so versions of Jane Eyre that I’ve seen, I’d say this is my favorite. Two thumbs up from me.

When this movie came out in March, The New York Times had a nice piece on how Jane Eyre had been filmed at least 18 times for cinema and another 9 times for television. Holy cow. It may be one of the most filmed books ever. Obviously, Jane Eyre has a quality that makes us revisit her again and again, with Janes and Rochesters of all sorts trotting across both the screens of our culture and the mental screens of our minds.

Just wrong for the part
There have been gothic Janes (1943), happy Janes (1934), old Janes (1970), musical stage Janes (2000—I saw it! I liked it!) and even a Katherine Hepburn stage Jane (1937). (Evidently she was awful. The playwright who wrote the stage adaptation demanded she be removed from the cast.) And let’s not forget Zombie Jane (I Walked With a Zombie, 1943, infused with voodoo, supposedly inspired by Jane Eyre. I’ve got to see this. Wonder if it’s on Netflix?)

Happy Jane
The happy Jane version of 1934 (available in bits and pieces on Youtube) bears only a passing resemblance to what Brontë wrote, but it has its amusements. Jane is a buxom, platinum blonde who could double for Jean Harlow. Rochester is an affable English gentleman with intense, longing stares. Thornfield Hall is Georgian palace downstairs and Eastlake Victorian upstairs. And the costuming! No corsets for this Jane, her high-waisted dresses no doubt made her look fashionable in the 1930’s but are entirely wrong for the 1840’s. After spending many hours pouring over fashion plates in Godey’s Lady’s magazine, I confess I admire period flicks that pay attention to detail. In the new Jane Eyre, Rochester wears spiffy silk waistcoasts, (I’d love to see them come back in fashion!) although they could be even bolder in color. And Jane’s dresses hit the mark beautifully. Corsets may be a nasty business, but worn correctly they convey the constrained female reality of the time.

Jane meets Rochester
Over the years, some versions of Jane Eyre have emphasized the gothic horror of the novel, some the tormented Rochester, some the romance, some the proto-feminism, some the perfidy of the aristocratic class, some the oppression of the servants (with new servant characters created!) Each generation accentuated the theme that resonated most with the prevailing sensibility. Or perhaps each generation projected on Jane the meaning it wished. Like all great art, Jane Eyre has a thousand facets in which to see one’s reflection.

Though it might come as a surprise, Jane Eyre was controversial when first published by “Currer Bell,” as can be seen in the pages of Beaufort 1849. It is passages such as this that were startling in 1847:
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (Ch 12)

In Beaufort 1849 Aunt Winnie sniffs this theme out in Jane Eyre before her fingers even touch the book, so of course she doesn’t want her self-willed niece to read it. The last thing Cara needs is encouragement to exercise her faculties or escape from confinement. That she will receive exactly such encouragement from Jasper Wainwright is part of what makes Winnie instinctually dubious about him from the beginning.

Elizabeth Rigby--no fan of Jane
Aunt Winnie’s misgivings reflect a wider strain of criticism of the time. Shortly after Jane Eyre appeared, Elizabeth Rigby, British author and art critic, laid into our poor Jane with a vengeance. “The impression she [the character, Jane] leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman--one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess.”

Ouch. And it gets worse. She accuses little Jane of being unworthy, uninteresting, pedantic, affected and unlovable. She calls her “an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit.” And the very worst accusation: Jane Eyre is anti-Christian, fomenting class warfare and even revolution. “There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment--there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God's word or in God's providence--there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact, has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”

And so Elizabeth Rigby has put her finger on the element that endears the book most to me: Jane’s assertion that she—small, plain and poor as she is—still has a right to be the center of her life, the heroine of her own story. She has the right not only to be “discontented” but to express the truth and object to what is unjust even if that means “murmuring against God’s appointment.” From childhood on, Jane demands to be treated with the consideration and respect due every single person on earth. That this was viewed as heretical, unchristian and subversive doesn’t surprise me. “A proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man” echoes the opening of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and I’m sure this wasn’t a document Elizabeth Rigby was fond of either.

Here is Jane with Rochester, her conventional superior in every way (age, size, wealth, power, position, sex): “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! . . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal — as we are!” (Ch 23)

Jane is profoundly egalitarian in a society that was profoundly elitist. She asserts a worldview that was diametrically opposed to the power structure circumscribing her life. And yet it is her determined voice that echoes unwavering and insistent across a century and a half, while the armada of other, less vulgar books published at the time have sunk into obscurity. It’s no wonder Charlotte Brontë’s creation made Elizabeth Rigby uncomfortable: Jane Eyre challenged the very cornerstone of her civilization. I would say writing it was an act of great courage, although Brontë might not have considered it so. She might have just thought it necessary. She wrote in one of her letters: “Imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised . . . When she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?”

Charlotte Brontë
By the end of Brontë’s short life (she died at thirty-eight) even though Jane Eyre was quite popular, she could have had no indication that her small, plain heroine had made any difference to class structure, political thought, or the course of history. Today British aristocratic privilege is almost eradicated from the earth, its power eviscerated through war and the impossibility of profiting indefinitely from endless empire. Elizabeth Rigby, while she rates an entry in Wikipedia, is remembered primarily for her criticism of Jane Eyre as an acute example of critical judgment blinded by cultural bias.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I hope this is true but I can’t be certain. Clearly, however, history bends towards irony of an acerbic nature. I expect subversive Jane will keep popping up on our screens and stages (this outspoken orphan who will not flinch from the truth) as long as we pretend charity but offer little, as long as we create hierarchies of wealth and power that preclude human worth and dignity, as long as we hide our monsters in the attic and pretend they’re not there. And we won’t even know why Jane, in whatever guise—Gothic or feminist, Harlow or mouse—keeps materializing with her fierce indignation before us.

Perhaps justice is a dish best served poetic.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Congrats to Beaufort, South Carolina on Their New Bicycle Amenities!

I just read in the Beaufort Gazette (doesn’t everyone peruse their website daily?) that the town of Beaufort is in the process of adding sharrows to some of their busier streets. In addition, they’ve recently installed ten bike racks at various places around town. Says Mayor Billy Keyserling:

"Our goal is to make it comfortable and safe for people to move throughout Beaufort, whether they're on foot, in a car, on a bike, in a wheelchair, on a bus or riding a horse-drawn carriage. Roads need to be more than just thoroughfares for cars and trucks."

What an enlightened view.

Though the downtown and historic districts are wonderful for walking, Beaufort is even more fabulous for bicycling.  It’s flat, and, except for a few roads, the traffic is calm and leisurely.  (The horse-drawn carriages certainly help with this.  You want to calm your town’s traffic?  Sprinkle a few carriages here and there and traffic drops to a nineteenth century pace before you can say Edgar Allan Poe.)

I can’t say I’m a big fan of sharrows, painted arrows on the road indicating that the lane is meant to be shared between cars and bicycles. On any road with a speed limit above 25mph, bike lanes are much better.  That way bikes have their space, cars have theirs, and far less conflict is to be had by all.  But at least sharrows remind drivers that bicycles may be present, and in that respect they are better than nothing.

Here in San Francisco I’ve been a hardy urban bicyclist for the last three years.  I bike or walk half my trips, including grocery shopping.  I’d do even more if I weren’t constantly shuttling teens around in carpools.  But bicycling in San Francisco, while enjoyable and rewarding, is rarely a tranquil experience.  Beaufort, on other hand, as one glides under moss hanging from oaks in the sleepy afternoon heat, offers a timeless, limpid serenity. Lovely.  Though I have to admit I’d rather experience this serenity this in temperatures under 90 degrees than over.

Charleston is another great bicycling town with its own brand of bicycle chic, and Hilton Head offers some of the best physically-separated bicycle infrastructure in the country.  They deserve their silver medal as one of the nation’s top bicycle-friendly communities!

Bicycles are one of the most efficient machines human ingenuity has ever devised.  If it weren’t for the fact that they didn’t appear in America until after the Civil War  (although reports of something called a velocipede popped up in Scotland as early as 1839) and also for the fact that Beaufort’s antebellum roads consisted mostly of sand lined with oyster shells--not the best bicycling surface before rubber tires came on the scene, although very pleasant for horses, I imagine--I might have tried to slip one into Beaufort 1849.  Instead, the characters ride on horseback or in carriages, or, when they’re in need of a constitutional, they walk.  As proper antebellum characters should. Ah well.  I can bicycle in Beaufort now.