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Who knew that reading "A Classic" could be interesting? - dorsetgirl
October 19th, 2009
10:40 am
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Who knew that reading "A Classic" could be interesting?

Not me, that’s for sure. I’ve been reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë over the past week or so, along with the members of [info]booklickers, started by the lovely [info]candesgirl. It’s A Classic. Which for many people is an automatic turnoff.



First, a short rant:


Why do schools”teach literature” (aka “do a book”) in a way that’s almost designed to put people off for life? They choose books that are completely inappropriate for the age of the pupils; they make you read it a single chapter at a time and write essays on it; they make you “read round the class” which is nothing more than a masterful way of combining extreme tedium with sharp mental anguish. I mean, what is the point of that? If you try to read at your own speed (a) you can’t concentrate because someone else is droning on ten pages back and (b) the teacher doesn’t like it for some reason and tells you off for “not paying attention”. Excuse me? I’m trying to actually read the fucking book you’re making us read, and you’re complaining about that?


And if you try to follow the text on the page it physically hurts somewhere inside your head because it’s simply not possible to read to yourself at the ploughing-through-treacle speed of someone reading out loud. And simply trying to listen just doesn’t work for someone who doesn’t retain information aurally.


I know from various comments online that it’s not just me. I also know from experience with my own children: both my older boys “did” a book called Holes by Louis Sachar in Year 7 (age 11-12). I borrowed it and found it totally fascinating - horrifying and an utterly compelling page-turner. But both of my boys have said of it “Oh yeah, we did that at school”, with their tone of voice making it clear that they had found it a totally boring waste of time.


For God’s sake, give 12-year-old boys mindless tales of implausible heroics to read - yes, I do thoroughly enjoy Alex Rider, I think they’re excellent books - and give thirteen-year-old girls something pink and fluffy full of twoo wuv and daring amounts of secret hand-holding. Don’t give them the idea that reading books is boring! (Why would you want to do that? I’ve never understood.) And for the first few homeworks, just have them Read.The.Book! (Wow, that’s radical). Let them read at their own pace, and as each person reports in that they’ve finished, put them in little groups to discuss it, giving them a couple of questions to consider.


Peer pressure will then probably do the teacher’s job in making sure that everyone actually does read it, because the teacher sows the idea that this is quite an easy book and that anyone with a reading age of whatever should have no difficulty. When it becomes obvious in the group discussions that most people haven’t actually taken in enough, suggest which chapters they might re-read while looking out for certain points, which then becomes a lesson in how to read a book more intelligently. Which I have to say would have been nice, if perhaps more work for the teacher.


Contrast that with the idea of making kids read a book that’s far too old for them, and full of words and concepts that are way outside of their experience. All that does is put them off that book, and quite possibly the idea of reading at all, for life. Yes, I know that pupils need to have their horizons stretched, but how many boys have actually held a helicopter pilot at gunpoint and parachuted through the roof of the Science Museum? Plenty of scope there, I think, for getting the kids to think about what they would do in the circs - and a few discussions about gravity and the effect of wind direction on parachutes would quite naturally arise as a bonus.



OK, enough ranting. On to the book itself. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The sum total of what I knew about this book before reading it last week was:





There’s a female called Jane Eyre. And a man called Mr Rochester.

He has a mad wife in the attic, and at some point there is a fire.

And the words “Reader, I married him” make an appearance somewhere.

Some people made comments about how odd it seemed to be giving spoiler warnings for a book like Jane Eyre, but I hope my summary above will show just how necessary they still can be, even so long after the book was published. My excitement in reading the book would definitely have been severely diminished by knowing who she married, for example.


I don’t have time to refer back to the text, so there won’t be any clever quotes or anything, just some basic reactions.


I read the book over the course of about five days, while I was away on holiday. I had expected it to be something of a chore - whoever invented the idea that “reading a good book will improve your mind” should be shot - and was prepared to have to force myself to keep reading. The best I had hoped for was that the historical aspects of the book would provide enough background colour for my family history researches to offset the tedium of reading “A Classic”.


I couldn’t have been more wrong; I was fascinated right from the beginning, and utterly gobsmacked by that fact. Why do people persist in saying things like “Oh, you must read it - it’s a classic!” when they could simply say “It’s brilliant! It’s a great story and Jane’s this really strong character, just like a normal person rather than a ‘Victorian heroine’ ?“


Anyway, I loved the book; Jane herself is totally fascinating, and I liked the device of the whole thing basically being a personal memoir, with insight from the older Jane colouring and explaining the cast of mind of the child Jane. Some of the story was familiar in concept - the poor relation, the school virtually indistinguishable from the workhouse, the Victorian male attitude as personified by St John Rivers (and what a cold bastard he was!) - which lightened the load quite a lot. What I hadn’t expected, I suppose, was that there would be A Plot. I loved the little clues about her family, and definitely had an “Oh My God!” moment when one of the Rivers siblings explained to Jane that their Uncle John had died and left all his money to some obscure relation.


Something else I hadn’t expected was that she actually fancied Mr Rochester. I had assumed that the book was about a Victorian middle class arranged marriage; I think I was misled by the fact that he is always referred to very formally as Mr Rochester, but now I realise she does that because she works for him. He is the Master and she merely the governess. The descriptions of the way she would feel when she saw him are very clear - the way her heart pounds, the sick feeling of mingled excitement and terror, the way she would look out for him all the time - and I was quite surprised that a decent young lady of the time would admit to such feelings.


I’m not quite sure whether Adèle was actually the daughter of Mr Rochester. I thought she was from his original explanations, but it doesn’t matter very much. For me the interest of Adèle was the fact that not only had Mr Rochester quite explicitly had an affair with a showgirl in a Victorian novel, but that he told a young lady about it. It’s obvious all the way through the book that Jane is of gentle birth - she would scarcely have been a governess otherwise - and I was very surprised that he would tell her such a thing. (The woman who wrote the introduction to my edition of the book made the point that actually, Charlotte Brontë was not herself a Victorian, being twenty-one by the time Victoria came to the throne).


When the business with St John Rivers started, with him telling Jane she must marry him or accept herself as a total fuckup forever more, I suddenly realised that I had only assumed that it’s Mr Rochester that she marries, and got very worried that she was actually going to surrender to this manipulative master of emotional blackmail. The passages where St John explains why she must marry him, and what a selfish shit she - she! - is being if she doesn’t, are perfectly observed imo. You couldn’t make that up - Charlotte Brontë has seen that attitude in action, definitely.


I suppose one thing which I didn’t quite like was the unlikely coincidence of the people upon whose doorstep she pathetically collapses actually being her relatives and a link to her obscure uncle. It might have been more realistic for the people who took her in to have been just random, and then somehow she met the relatives. But hey, what do I know - this is a Classic and I’m only a fic writer.


I’m running out of time here, so I’ll wrap up, but I thought I’d just briefly mention two other things that interested me and made me want to look up things about the period:


Where Jane talks about great books and poetry no longer being available ‘at the present time’ owtte, I wondered what period the older Jane was supposed to be actually writing in. I got bored halfway through the introduction, so I’ll go back and read that some time.


Also, when Jane sets out her skills for her advertisement, she says something like “such meagre accomplishments were at that time thought quite adequate” which again is interesting; she can only be writing ?twenty? years later, and I’d like to know more about how the world had changed in that time, and why the expectations of a young lady’s education had suddenly increased.


I’ve run out of time, so I’m going to post this quickly now (if LJ plays nice), then I’ll catch up with [info]booklickers itself later, probably this evening or tomorrow.


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