Do you have a favourite Bronte novel? If not, go read some of their stuff. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
The perceptive Rory at Fourth Street Review suggests that many readers identify strongly with either Jane Eyre (Charlotte) or Wuthering Heights (Emily), but not both. I’ve been a Wuthering Heights girl since I read it 17 years ago, but I’ve broadened my Bronte horizons of late: I read my first Anne book, Agnes Grey last fall, I read Charlotte’s Villette last month, and just recently saw a play based on the Bronte’s lives. I’m still Team Emily, but it’s time for me to give Charlotte her due: Villette is her masterpiece (sorry Jane fans) and she’s the most interesting of the siblings.
I didn’t even get around to reviewing Agnes Grey last year. It definitely had it’s moments, but the biggest impression it left was my wonder at how things were so different in Anne’s time; mostly in terms of the qualifications needed to educate children (be female, be unmarried, have a pulse?) Villette made me wonder about this stuff too, but I also felt the universality of Lucy’s situation. She could be anyone, at any time, not just a 19th century teacher, whereas Agnes was trapped in time. Indeed, if you have ever loved someone more than they love you, you’ll identify with Lucy Snowe.
Villette reminded me of a smaller-scope Middlemarch. Both novels are named for a city and are about the divisions between classes and sexes and have wonderful feminist perspectives. Middlemarch has much more going for it, from politics to academia to satire – so much, in fact, that I’m paralyzed to write a proper review. Villette is more of a character study – a convincing portrait of Lucy and her world. It’s a tragedy, and at times gothic and romantic. It’s odd in its construction – a straightforward narrative most of the time, but then, BAM, there’s a stream of consciousness account of Lucy’s severe depression. Or a delerious description of Lucy tripping out after being drugged. An anti-Catholic rant. A ghost nun. And so on.
Jane Eyre is great, but it just wasn’t this ambitious or this awesome. I made the mistake of finishing Villette over lunch time at work, and spent that afternoon in a state of bewilderment. I may have said “oh no she DIDN’T” aloud. It’s pretty much the opposite of the satisfying “Reader, I married him,” but to me, the ending was more satisfying for being so ambiguous.
Villette was the perfect preparation for seeing A Bronte Burlesque, a production of local theatre company Send in the Girls. Charlotte is the star, and we first meet her on her deathbed, her siblings having all died years earlier. Villette is never mentioned, and not often referenced (it’s all about Jane Eyre) but dying Charlotte, bitter and alone, put me in mind of Lucy Snow immediately.
In real life, Charlotte was newlywed and pregnant at her death, though this is never mentioned in the play. So, the story is manipulated, but what story isn’t? A Bronte Burlesque is confined to the insular world of the four Bronte siblings: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell, the underachiever brother who I didn’t even know about till I saw the play.
It’s about exposing (get it?) the real Charlotte, how her ambition drove her to betray her siblings. She’s successful, but haunted by the past. Emily and Anne are laid bare as well – Anne and her jealousy, Emily and her depravity.
I had always wondered about Emily: how did she write so convincingly about obsession and loss, living such a short and isolated life? This play suggests that there was some Flowers in the Attic action going on up at Haworth, which made me question my teenage obsession with Wuthering Heights for a second before realizing this is a work of fiction about another work of fiction and every interpretation is as valid as the next – icky or not.
The burlesque element was fun, and worked well on a metaphorical level – you know, exposure, identity, femininity -but sometimes I would remember that they were supposed to be related and it got a a little weird. Or a lot weird. Seeing Emily throw herself at her own brother to the strains of Radiohead’s “Creep” was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life. This play was not exactly date night material.
The set, music and costumes were gorgeous. I was entertained and I gained a serious appreciation for Charlotte Bronte. And I simply love the fact that there’s a local theatre company doing something like this with literature and history! I never read biographies, but now I’m on the lookout for a good one – maybe Elizabeth Gaskell’s on Charlotte, or Daphne Du Maurier’s on Branwell.
Tell me, are you Team Emily or Team Charlotte? Is there a Team Anne? Branwell??
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Henry David Thoreau
(A bit of humility before I go into why I’m so good at reading and you’re not: I spent half an hour searching for the above quote. I could remember the jist, but not the actual words or the author. Then I noticed that it is literally the first thing I ever posted on this blog.)
I’m a book snob. I’ve been feeling extra snobby lately, and I blame Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all I hear about on forums, Facebook, and Twitter. But wait – isn’t it a fan fiction of a young adult novel, not to mention very poorly written and edited? Okay, it’s racy, but so are lots of novels, from romance to erotica. That’s nothing new. So, what gives? And why does it bother me?
“Fifty Shades Fever” feels like the culmanation of a bigger trend towards adults reading “young adult” and/or just plain *bad* novels. And I do not mean “so bad it’s good.” I lurk in a few book challenge discussions online (people trying to read 25 or 50 books in one year), and lots of them are reading chick lit after chick lit book. Why bother? What’s the point of a challenge if it’s not challenging?
I realize that these feelings make me a snob of the worse kind. Why do I care what people read? Who am I to decide what’s worthy of a reader’s time? But… I can’t help myself! As the Thoreau quote suggests, there are SO MANY good books. More than anyone will ever read. I’ve been working at the 1,001 books list for FIVE YEARS and I’ve read 10% of it. And I started at around 5%. I get that people are looking for a fun read or escapism, but it’s unfathomable, and even offensive, that people spend so much time reading terrible books!
Of course, like most snobs, I think it’s okay to go slumming as long as it’s done ironically. Some work colleagues are running a fantastic bad book club. I was lucky enough to sit in on a discussion of “Flowers in the Attic”, that classic and horribly overwrought ode to family dysfunction (and incest.) But, most of us read it for the first time as children, not adults. (Which, upon reflection, is pretty messed up – due to all that incest!)
It will probably surprise no one that I’m also a music snob, and in a former (pre-kids) life a clothes and bag snob. What can I say? I appreciate quality. And I’m judging you. Sorry. But, if you must read bad books, at least William Faulkner’s got your back:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”
What do you think? Do you consider yourself a book snob? Why are people freaking out about Fifty Shades and the like?