Law and Conversation

February 21, 2012

Back Stories and Sequels: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre, and P.D. James and Jane Austen, too

From another literature-loving family member comes this link to a hilarious commentary by Sarah Rees Brennan on Charlotte Bronte’s classic 19th-century novel, “Jane Eyre.” It reminded me, of course, of Edan Lepucki’s wonderful essay from The Millions, “Mr. Rochester is A Creep,” which I noted some time ago.

I love Jane Eyre, and will defend her to the death, but Brennan and Lepucki have a point. Years before they wrote their pieces, in 1966, Jean Rhys wrote the back story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, nee Antoinette Cosway and explored Mr. Rochester’s creepy qualities to a degree that I’m certain Bronte never considered. Rhys’s novel is “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” awarded the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.

Rhys’s novel was enthralling, at least in part, I think, because she didn’t try to imitate Charlotte Bronte’s style. The tropical colonial setting she chose for her story of Antoinette’s upbringing was as different as could be from Jane Eyre’s and Mr. Rochester’s England, which went far toward explaining Antoinette’s breakdown, and deserved its own style—not warmed-over Bronte.

Rhys did a great job of taking another author’s characters and putting them into her own story. But not all writers are as effective. A dear and thoughtful friend (thanks, MSH!) gave me P.D. James’s recently published sequel to Jane Austen’s 19th-century “Pride and Prejudice,” “Death Comes to Pemberley,” in which James uses Austen’s characters to continue the story. The book was a mildly fun read and held my interest, but ultimately left me only lukewarm. I think part of the problem was that, unlike Rhys, James strove to imitate Austen’s style. James may be a very fine writer when she tells a story in her own voice (alas, I haven’t read her other novels, though I know James has many, many devoted fans), but let’s face it: Nobody can possibly do Jane Austen the way Jane Austen did Jane Austen.

I’m glad I read James’s book, though: Her treatment got me thinking about the characters and led me to some insights that I might not have reached otherwise. It also gave me a good push to reread P&P after a couple of decades. In fact, as a result of reading James’s novel as well as Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” (my personal Best Book Read in 2010), I’m certain that I enjoyed this reread significantly more than I would have otherwise.

Lawyer literary buffs will be interested to know that James included passages on 19th-century English legal procedure in her book. She worked for years in contemporary British courts, and I’m certain she did her research on past practices. As I wrote earlier, “Jane Eyre” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea” raise a multitude of legal issues, especially about the treatment of women and of the mentally ill in days not so far gone by.

Wouldn’t it be fun to hear Charlotte Bronte’s and Jane Austen’s reactions to Rhys’s and James’s explorations of their characters? Would Bronte see that Mr. Rochester really is a bit creepy? Would Austen  agree with James’s continuation of Lydia’s unqualified dreadfulness? What do you think?

November 2, 2010

Vote today! Suffrage and stories of women’s lives and the law

Yesterday a friend forwarded an e-mail headed “Voting rights for women.”  The e-mail’s text reviewed the imprisonment and deplorable treatment of women who peacefully picketed the White House in November, 1917, carrying signs criticizing President Woodrow Wilson for opposing women’s suffrage, and noted that women in the US didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.  That’s not even a century ago; there are people still alive who can remember 1920. 

The e-mail, which reprints a February 19, 2004 column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Connie Schultz, refers to an award-winning 2004 HBO movie, “Iron Jawed Angels.”  An excerpt:  “It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul [one of the picketers] insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized.”  The Wimminwise blog from The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has more information about the e-mail and its story, including links to the Library of Congress, from which the photos in the e-mail appear to have been taken, and Snopes.com, which checked out the story’s facts and determined them to be true.

I’ve long thought that modern women who protest “I’m not a feminist, but….” should think more carefully about what their lives would be like without those who marched, protested, and engaged in other unladylike behavior that challenged the mainstream thinking of their day and no doubt earned them condemnation from their families and neighbors.  Stories from and about the 19th century are a great way to start thinking about the transformation in the law and women’s lives.

I posted a couple of months ago about Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” the back story of Bertha Rochester.  Rhys’s story highlights the worst-case possibilities for women in loveless marriages not so long ago.  Because women were raised to be supported by their husbands, because whatever property had been theirs became their husbands’ upon marriage, and because, indeed, women lost their legal identities upon marriage until the enactment of laws giving them rights, there wasn’t much married women could do without permission from their husbands.  Divorces were both difficult to obtain and socially unacceptable in 19th century England, and, in any event, it would have been far more difficult for a divorced woman then to support herself than even in today’s challenging economic times. 

Jane Austen’s novels (which Bronte didn’t like) are also windows into the world of middle- and upper-class English women in the 19th century.  Though she wrote her novels with a delightful sense of humor, Austen shows very clearly the limited and bleak choices of those women:  marriage or relying on male relatives who may or may not have been kind or congenial for support.  Working-class women, of course, had equally dreary choices and even harder lives.  Though they could and, indeed, often had to work outside the home to support themselves and their families, their options were domestic service, low-paid manual labor, or prostitution. 

It seems comical today to note that writing was considered unfeminine and inappropriate for women in Charlotte Bronte’s day.  And it’s poetic justice that Robert Southey, England’s Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843, is probably remembered more for his advice to the 20-year-old Charlotte Bronte to leave writing to men, for “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,”  than for any of his poetry.

For literary smiles, check out this YouTube video on Bronte Sisters Power Dolls from FineMoustaches.  And if you’re a US citizen, read Connie Schultz’s column in the Plain Dealer from Sunday, and don’t forget to vote.

UPDATE:  See this subsequent post for more context for Southey’s advice to Charlotte Bronte, courtesy of Dennis Low, whose comment appears below.

September 3, 2010

Jane Eyre and mental illness

Earlier this week I urged readers to read or reread Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  In that post, I referenced two totally delightful articles analyzing the book and Mr. Rochester in particular that I came across while surfing the Bronte Blog

As both articles indicate, Jean Rhys wrote Bertha Rochester’s backstory in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” which won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006 for the year 1966.  Rhys’s sympathetic treatment of the first Mrs. Rochester, whom Bronte portrayed as an inconvenient, crazy hag whose death was a relief for all, highlights how far we’ve come in attitude towards and treatment for the mentally ill since Mr. Rochester locked his wife up in her attic room. 

Present-day advocates for the mentally ill, though, will point out that treatment resources are still woefully inadequate, as I’ve noted in articles such as “Involuntary administration of psychotropic drugs: Does Illinois need new standards?” and “Bill would make involuntary commitment easier” in the January 2003 and August 2007 issues, respectively, of the Illinois Bar Journal.  (In the forthcoming October 2010 issue of the same publication I discuss the recent changes in the standard for involuntary commitment in Illinois’s  Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code and quote University of Chicago clinical professor of law Mark J. Heyrman, whose lucid commentary always gets to the heart of the matter.)  And, of course, mental illness or the hint of it still carries a strong stigma, though, unlike Charlotte Bronte, we no longer generally refer to someone who’s mentally ill as a “lunatic,” a “maniac,” or using the pronoun “it.”  For those who are interested, the website of Mental Health America of Illinois is a good starting point.  

What are your favorite 19th century novels?  How about your favorite novels that deal with mental illness?

August 30, 2010

Read This!

Mondays are Read This! days on which I write about books that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  With so many great books in the world, I can’t imagine ever running out of material!

Today’s recommendation is a classic:  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  I first read it as a 4th grader and loved the passionate story, told so well in a young woman’s voice.  Since then, I’ve reread it many times and branched out to read the rest of the Bronte sisters’ writings.  It’s now been many years since my last rereading of “Jane Eyre,” so I think it’s time to move it up on my list. 

I’m always interested to find out how I feel as an adult about a book that I loved as a child or teenager.  Generally, as in the case of Beverly Cleary’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I find them every bit as good as, if not even better than, I did forty years ago.  I have no doubt that “Jane Eyre” will stand the test of time for me as it has for the rest of the world.

Many well-told stories that are classics, though, including the “Little House” books (which I passionately love), reflect widely held attitudes and prejudices of their times and places that we now rightly find unacceptable.  And, indeed, parents sometimes have problems with their children’s reading books that challenge their ideas of what’s right and proper.  The May 19, 2010 edition of CBC radio’s Q program had an interesting discussion on what to do with children’s books that reflect racism.  But the participants didn’t address the possibility that some books being published today may reflect attitudes that our great-grandchildren will consider unacceptable 100 or more years from now.  They also didn’t seem to recognize that characters in great stories, like real people, are imperfect and multifaceted.  How is it even possible to have a good story–which we all love, from childhood to old age–without different points of view and conflicts?  A great work of literature might even be told from the point of view of a frankly repellent character–and that might be a big part of what makes it great, as Azar Nafisi explains so well in “Reading Lolita In Tehran.”  Indeed, “Jane Eyre” underwent a firestorm of criticism when it was published:  reviewers called Jane herself  “the personification of the unregenerate and undisciplined spirit” and said she had “detestable morality.”  More than 150 years later, we generally love Jane and identify with her passions and morals!  Thinking about whether and why we like or dislike a story’s characters is part of reading critically, a valuable skill that children can begin learning, with the help of parents and good teachers, while still very young.

The Bronte Blog is a comprehensive resource, updated at least daily, for all things Bronte, all the time.  It recently referenced two fun articles on Jane Eyre.  The first, by Edan Lepucki, trashes Mr. Rochester and also swipes at Charlotte and Emily as “deeply weird.”  The latter criticism, IMO, is quite unjustified, so I was delighted to find that the second article agrees with me on that point.  It also rips up the other arguments of the first in a deliciously snarky fashion.

I have some more thoughts on “Jane Eyre” and other literature and the law of that period regarding women and the mentally ill that I’ll be posting later this week.  In the meantime, what books would you like everyone in the world to read?

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