Law and Conversation

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?


  1. Great post, Helen. I’ve never thought of the facet you discuss about what future readers will think of our current characters–so true. As a youth librarian most of my career, I have often stressed the point that what literature does for young readers that we probably don’t focus on enough is that it builds understanding and compassion for the lives of others. Most children are raised with fairly narrow world views, only experiencing what’s around them. Books help them at least viscerally experience the life challenges, values and choices of others. Reading books that don’t reflect their own lifestyle is a wonderful way to help raise compassionate, well-rounded people.

    That said, I wish everyone would read Where the Lilies Bloom by the Cleavers. It was the first book I read that reflected my world and helped me accept it.

    Thanks again, Helen. I will have to look up that Bronte blog.

    Comment by Pat Downs — August 30, 2010 @ 8:54 am | Reply

    • You are so right, Pat, that children (and grownups!) can become more compassionate and well-rounded by reading books that reflect other lifestyles and world views as well as their own. I believe my daughter read “Where the Lilies Bloom” in grade school and was very impressed by it–thanks for the recommendation! The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie speaks eloquently about discovering that it was OK to write about her own world in her TED talk, which I’ve been drafting a post about. Azar Nafisi’s book also highlights how important it is to read fiction and how the likes of “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice” can present threats to totalitarian regimes.

      Comment by helengunnar — August 30, 2010 @ 9:17 am | Reply

  2. […] Eyre, Jean Rhys, Charlotte Bronte, Bronte Blog, 19th century, mental illness, Wide Sargasso Sea Earlier this week I urged readers to read or reread Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  In that post, […]

    Pingback by Jane Eyre and mental illness « Law and Conversation — September 6, 2010 @ 12:09 am | Reply

  3. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Back Stories and Sequels: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre, and P.D. James and Jane Austen, too « Law and Conversation — February 21, 2012 @ 12:01 am | Reply

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