Review: Becoming Jane Eyre

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

After Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s time—time to plunge into the wild world of Jane Eyre fanfiction for my senior thesis. It’s doubly interesting for me because it’s just so odd to see fanfiction divorced from fandom and fannish history. There’s a whole stack of them on my metaphorical desk at the moment (it’s really more of a drawer in my literal cabinets) and a handful on the way from the public library. Becoming Jane Eyre got to me first, so that’s what I started with. It’s technically not a derivative work of Jane Eyre since it’s a “reimagining” of Charlotte Brontë’s life, but based on what it turned out to be, I think it definitely counts.

Becoming Jane Eyre starts in 1846 and follows the Brontë sisters through the creation and publication of their novels, especially Charlotte. As their father’s health declines and their brother falls further and further into alcoholism, it looks like there’s nothing but spinsterhood ahead for the three sisters—unless they can translate their unusual literary talents into a way to support themselves and their family.

There is a small subset—not even a genre—of books and films about authors that take a very specific tact towards the relationship between these authors and their greatest literary works. That tact is to assume that the author was writing from life. Shakespeare in Love is the most visible example in English-speaking cinema (is there a better word for that?), but I was once quite startled to discover that it’s been done in French film with Molière and women writers got the treatment in Becoming Jane. (Which is actually a pretty good movie, but I might be biased because I like to watch Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy make out in period clothing.) A lot of these sort of films and books focus on a love story—Shakespeare in Love’s tag line is literally “Love is the only inspiration”. In The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller posits that this is because we, the audience, are uncomfortable with creative genius; eroticizing them assigns them the fundamental, basic urges that unite mankind and brings them down to our level.

Even thus prepared by Miller for the Brontës to receive this sort of treatment, I was still kind of surprised by how by the book (the book being Jane Eyre) Becoming Jane Eyre is. Even very title creates a link between Charlotte and Jane and then… I’m not really sure how to put this lightly, so here it goes. Not only does Kohler propose that Charlotte was inspired by events in her own life (Molière never explicitly states that the events of the film and his later plays are linked, although it’s pretty clear), but she has Charlotte specifically intend to do this. Not in the sense that “life is so dramatic, I should use this stuff!”, but in the sense that “Bertha shall represent my madness and I shall conquer it through her!”. Again, as I’ve said before, you can make pretty good stories out of dumb premises. But I had to draw the line at Charlotte, feverishly casting about for a name for the headmaster of Jane’s school, glancing at her father and translating Brontë into Brocklehurst, which is just the merest tip of the iceberg. Writing isn’t a particularly exciting task to translate to the page or screen unless your author is working in a frenzy, but the degree to which Charlotte seems motivated by an inner fire divorced from the actual tedious work of writing is hard to take.

And Charlotte herself is hard to take. In Becoming Jane Eyre, Charlotte is not the cutting yet conservative woman I met in The Brontë Myth, but a creature apparently motivated by pure spite and bitterness. At one point, the sisters receive an offer to publish their novels—but only Anne and Emily’s. The two hesitate, as Charlotte’s novel was not accepted, and, naturally, ask their sister whether or not they should go ahead. Charlotte says yes, but, internally, she’s stewing over how cruel they’re being to her for daring to want their novels published when hers can’t, can’t they tell it’s eating her up inside? It was at that point I stopped reading for research and switched into Film Depreciation mode out of self-defense. It’s just ridiculous, not only in terms of the Brontës themselves, but in terms of both authorship and emotional truth. I’m happy I read it, since it provides a perfect example of what Miller was talking about in The Brontë Myth, but you shouldn’t read it unless you’re writing on the Brontës.

Bottom line: Becoming Jane Eyre takes the tired tact of bringing authors down to our level by proposing that the events in their novels were directly inspired by real life and makes it worse by turning Charlotte Brontë in a creature apparently motivated by pure spite and bitterness. It just gets ridiculous. Avoid.

I rented this book from the public library.

9 thoughts on “Review: Becoming Jane Eyre

  1. If you can get hold of a copy of ‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest, she has a lot of interesting things to say about the Brontes in the guise of dialogue between her young characters. She argues (in the form of Karen, the eldest of the sisters having the conversation) about how Charlotte was perhaps overly protective of Emily in particular, and that most of the Brontes’ work was based on their rich role-playing life (I’m not sure to what extent this theory has or has not been debunked – Forest’s novel was published in 1961, but only in the UK).

    It sounds like Kohler was a bit too enamoured of her theory!

    • Interesting! I might pick it up after my thesis is done; there’s plenty more derivative works where that came from.

      Their role-playing fascinates me, but I don’t know enough to discuss that particular theory.

  2. I didn’t like this one much either, I admit. It was the writing style that got on my nerves a lot, the “she did, she thought, she said, she..” etcetera. But as you point out, some of the ways in which CHarlotte decides to use her life in stories, deliberately, put me off too.

  3. The language, style and characterization are so mundane, so mawkish, so soporific that I could not get past page 50. As long as Jane Eyre is on my bookshelf, why would I ever pick up rubbish like this? As long as I have Middlemarch on my bookshelf why would I want to read some fictionalized nonsense about George Eliot. As long as I have
    Dickens on my bookshelf why would I . . . . If I want to know something about the author, in this case Charlotte Bronte, why wouldn’t I look for Lindall Gordon’s book or Rebecca Fraser’s? Oh, right, they aren’t as brief or as easy-to-read.
    .

    • I think there can be good novels—that are necessarily novels and not histories—that can be written about authors; one of my favorite books is Nothing Like the Sun, which focuses on Shakespeare’s love life. So the form itself isn’t in the wrong; Becoming Jane Eyre just really sucks.

  4. Pingback: Review: Here, There Be Dragons | The Literary Omnivore

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