Review: Misreading Jane Eyre

Misreading Jane Eyre by Jerome Beaty

Well, the bulk of my primary reading for my senior thesis is done—as much as I’d love to read Death of a School Girl and Ironskin for this project, I do have to eventually start writing the damned thing. This, of course, only means that the secondary reading needs to get done. While I’ll be using Textual Poachers and The Bronte Myth in my paper to discuss the practice of fanfiction and the modern mythology surrounding the Brontes, I need some theory (specifically reader-response theory, because I’m of the firm mind that fanfiction is the ultimate reader response) to smooth out the corners. Hence, Misreading Jane Eyre, which I knew about in the spring but stupidly didn’t read over the summer.

Misreading Jane Eyre uses Jane Eyre to explore and interrogate the practice of reading. Jerome Beatty, drawing upon the writings of Iser and Bakhtin, goes through the classic text as if he’s never read it before, putting it firmly not only in its historical context, but also its generic context among other novels, such as the governess novel and the Gothic novel. By doing so, Beatty shows the various paths Jane Eyre could have taken, as well as what goes on in the mind of a reader when confronted with a fresh text. Ultimately, Beatty argues, Jane Eyre itself is intertextual, showing the various texts it draws upon converge to create not only it, but the novel.

It’s hard, of course, to review academic texts for a general audience, even one as stunningly intelligent and gorgeous as mine. Their density tends to make them not exactly the funnest of reads, and those that are readable tend to get recognition outside academia. I’ve done it, of course—this is my reading journal—but usually those books have some appeal outside of the academic circle, such as Henry Jenkins’ work on fandom and media studies. Misreading Jane Eyre bills itself as a post formalist approach to the text (which essentially means that it takes into account the shape of the text) but comes out with a focus on reader-response theory (which focuses, naturally enough, on the response the reader has to the text). Obviously, this is hugely important to my paper; the fact that Beatty selected Jane Eyre is really just icing on the cake. Fanfiction, I argue in my senior thesis (and will happily bellow at anyone who dismisses the stuff), is the ultimate reader response. I’m going to make fandom and academia play nice if it’s the last thing I do, people.

Beatty’s thesis is centered around the idea that we when read, our speculations, the novels that it could be, haunt the novel that it is. Our speculation, based on our experience reading other novels in the genre, informs the way we process it. Reading is not merely finding out the story and “getting the right answer”, but what we bring to the novel. Again, you might see where this is important to my thesis, but it’s also something that I’m trying to process at the moment with my experiments in music—I’m starting to think that the only music that truly astonishes me is the kind that repels me when I try to bring myself and the universe of texts I carry around in my head to it, like “Layla” or “Because the Night”. So, despite the fact that I love music, I don’t love it as much as I love the written word, because what I bring to the novel not only enhances my reading experience, but my critical experience. It’s how we get to astonishing, this intertextuality, be it just because I read two novels back to back or because it’s explicit in the mind of the author or because I should really not listen to Ark when I’m reading Orlando.

Theory and how it sets me on fire besides, there’s also something incredibly charming about Beatty’s attempts to read Jane Eyre blind and mimic a new reader of the novel circa 1847, someone who loves to read and is trying to predict what might happen to the erstwhile governess even as they get conflicting messages about what kind of novel Jane Eyre is. Is it Gothic? Is it a governess novel? Is there a supernatural element? Is it grounded in reality? People who adore Jane Eyre would probably get a kick out of this, despite the density and formality of the writing style.

Bottom line: Misreading Jane Eyre is, like many academic texts, dense and formal. But the central thesis—the idea that when we read, our speculations, the novels that could be, haunt the novel that is—is stunning and there’s something charming about watching Beatty try to recreate the reading experience of someone circa 1847 reading it for the first time. If you’d like… but I loved it.

I rented this book from my school library.

2 thoughts on “Review: Misreading Jane Eyre

  1. Now I want to get a copy of this and give myself permission to take however long I need to read it (the best strategy for academic books and me these days). Thanks for bringing it to my attention; I rather suspect I’ll love it too.

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