I initially wanted to title this post “Books that Changed My Life,” but soon realized it would probably be more accurate to speak about them as the books that have shaped my life as a keen reader and meant the most to me as the years have passed.
In making this list I was inspired by a book I recently finished, Kate Gross’s memoir Late Fragments, which finishes with a bibliography of books that influenced her during different periods of her life. Gross, who died of colon cancer at age 36 in 2014, divides her reading life into five distinct, whimsically named eras: “With my back to the radiator” (childhood), “The grub years” (adolescence), “Emerging from the cocoon” (early adulthood), “The woman in the arena” (career life) and “End of life book club.”
I’ll do a follow-up post on the key books from my twenties next month, but for now I want to focus on the books that defined my growing-up and teen years.
What Bewick’s Birds was for Jane Eyre, my parents’ book on flower arranging was for me. I couldn’t tell you the title or author, but I think this green fabric covered tome with its glossy pages and lush full-color photographs was the origin of my love of books as physical objects. I must have spent hours paging through the illustrations and breathing in the new-book aroma. I’ve been a book sniffer ever since.
I can’t recall many of the individual picture books my mother read with me when I was little, but one that does stand out in my memory is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, about an eccentric woman who goes about planting lupines. Again, it’s a gorgeous book filled with flowers – you’d think I might have become a botanist!
C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books I ever read by myself, starting at age five. It took me years to get to the allegory-heavy The Last Battle, but I read the other volumes over and over, even after the PBS television movies came out. The Silver Chair was always my favorite, but I’m sure I must have read the first three books 10 or 20 times each.
Richard Adams’s Watership Down was the first book I ever borrowed from the adult section of the public library, at age nine. Crossing the big open lobby of the Silver Spring, Maryland library from the children’s room to the imposing stacks of Adult Fiction was like a rite of passage; when I emerged clutching the fat plastic-covered hardback I felt a little bit like a rebel but mostly just pretty darn proud of myself. I inhaled the several hundred pages of this bunny epic and for years afterwards considered it my favorite book.
Nowadays I don’t like to commit to series, but as a kid I couldn’t get enough of them: after Narnia, I devoured the Babysitter’s Club and Saddle Club books, the Anastasia Krupnik books, and so on. Whenever I found an author I loved I dutifully read everything they’d written. The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, in particular, accompanied me through my early teen years. I think I saw the CBC/PBS television miniseries starring Megan Follows first and read the books afterwards. Bereft once the eight-book cycle was over, I read the much darker Emily trilogy, but it just couldn’t live up to the Anne books.
My first foray into the realm of heavy-duty classics was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield at age 14. I bought a battered secondhand paperback from a library sale and was immediately entranced, from the first line onwards: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” No doubt the idea of discovering my own potential heroism was what drew me in, but I loved everything about this novel: the rich panorama of nineteenth-century life, the vibrant secondary characters, the under-the-surface humor you had to work a little bit to understand, and the sweet second-chance romance. This was the start of my love affair with Victorian literature. I’ve read it three times since then. If ever asked for my favorite book, this is what I name.
It wasn’t my first Hardy novel (that was Far from the Madding Crowd, another all-time favorite), but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is most memorable for the circumstances in which I read it. At age 19 I accompanied my sister, who’d won a singing contest on local radio, to the Season 2 finale of American Idol in Hollywood. If you were a loyal viewer, you might recall that this was the showdown between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, on whom I had a hopeless crush – it later emerged that he’s gay. I read Tess on the flight to Los Angeles. Stranger pairings have been known, I’m sure, but I’ll never forget that disconnect between bleak England (where I hadn’t yet been at that point) and the sunny entertainment capital.
What are some of the books that meant the most to you in your early years?
Today marks a big anniversary: the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a whole cluster of books being published or reissued in time for her 200th birthday, many of which I’ve reviewed with enjoyment; some of which I’ve sampled and left unfinished. I hope you’ll find at least one book on this list that will take your fancy. There could be no better time for going back to Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories and her quiet but full life story.
Short Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier
A mixed bag. Although there are some very good stand-alone stories (from Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth McCracken, as you might expect), ultimately the theme is not strong enough to tie them all together and some seem like pieces the authors had lying around and couldn’t figure out what else to do with. Think about it this way: what story isn’t about romance and the decision to marry?
A few of the tales do put an interesting slant on this age-old storyline by positing a lesbian relationship for the protagonist or offering the possibility of same-sex marriage. Then there are the stories that engage directly with the plot and characters of Jane Eyre, giving Grace Poole’s (Helen Dunmore) or Mr. Rochester’s (Salley Vickers) side of things, putting Jane and Rochester in couples therapy (Francine Prose), or making Jane and Helen Burns part of a post-WWII Orphan Exchange (Audrey Niffenegger). My feeling with these spinoff stories was, I’m afraid, what’s the point? Plus there were a number of others that just felt tedious.
My least favorites were probably by Lionel Shriver (incredibly boring!), Kirsty Gunn (unrealistic, and she gives the name Mr. Rochester to a dog!) and Susan Hill (the title story, but she’s made it about Wallis Simpson – and has the audacity to admit, as if proudly, that she’s never read Jane Eyre!). On the other hand, one particular standout is by Elif Shafak. A Turkish Muslim falls in love with a visiting Dutch student but is so unfamiliar with romantic cues that she doesn’t realize he isn’t equally taken with her.
In Patricia Park’s story, my favorite of all, a Korean girl from Buenos Aires moves to New York City to study English. Park turns Jane Eyre on its head by having Teresa give up on the chance of romance to gain stability by marrying Juan, the St. John Rivers character. I loved getting a glimpse into a world I was entirely ignorant of – who knew there was major Korean settlement in Argentina? This also redoubled my wish to read Park’s novel, Re Jane. She’s working on a second novel set in Buenos Aires, so perhaps it will expand on this story.
The Bookbag reviews
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing
Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair.
Sanctuary by Robert Edric
Branwell Brontë narrates his final year of life, when alcoholism, mental illness and a sense of disgrace hounded him to despair. I felt I never came to understand Branwell’s inner life, beneath the decadence and all the feeling sorry for himself. This gives a sideways look at Charlotte, Emily and Anne, though the sisters are little more than critical voices here; none of them has a distinctive personality.
Mutable Passions: Charlotte Brontë: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent
Dent focuses on a short period in Charlotte Brontë’s life: with all her siblings dead and Villette near completion, a surprise romance with her father’s curate lends a brief taste of happiness. Given her repeated, vociferous denial of feelings for Mr. Nicholls, I had trouble believing that, just 20 pages later, his marriage proposal would provoke rapturous happiness. To put this into perspective, I felt Dent should have referenced the three other marriage proposals Brontë is known to have received. Overwritten and suited to readers of romance novels than to Brontë enthusiasts, this might work well as a play. Dent is better at writing individual scenes and dialogue than at providing context.
I had bad luck with these two novels, which both sounded incredibly promising but I eventually abandoned (along with Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, featured in last month’s Six Books I Abandoned Recently post):
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Jane Steele is not quite Jane Eyre, though her life seems to mirror that of Brontë’s heroine in most particulars. How she differs is in her violent response to would-be sexual abusers. She’s a feminist vigilante wreaking vengeance on her enemies, whether her repulsive cousin or the vindictive master of “Lowan Bridge” (= Cowan Bridge, Brontë’s real-life school + Lowood, Jane Eyre’s). I stopped reading because I didn’t honestly think Faye was doing enough to set her book apart. “Reader, I murdered him” – nice spin-off line, but there wasn’t enough original material here to hold my attention. (Read the first 22%.)
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
There was every reason for me to love this novel – awkward American narrator, Oxford setting, Brontë connections aplenty, snarky literary criticism – but I got bored with it. Perhaps it was the first-person narration: being stuck in sarcastic Samantha Whipple’s head means none of the other characters feel real; they’re just paper dolls, with Orville a poor excuse for a Mr. Rochester substitute. I did laugh out loud a few times at Samantha’s unorthodox responses to classic literature (“Agnes Grey is, without question, the most boring book ever written”), but I gave up when I finally accepted that I had no interest in how the central mystery/treasure hunt played out. (Read the first 56%.)
An Excellent Biography
If I could recommend just one book from the recent flurry of Brontëana, it would be Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman, which I reviewed for For Books’ Sake back in November.
One of the things Harman’s wonderful biography does best is to trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in their fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre (1847) is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. This will help you appreciate afresh the work of a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.” Interesting piece of trivia for you: this and the Janzing novel (above) open with the same scene from Charlotte’s time in Belgium.
Have you read any of these, or other recent Brontë-themed books? What were your thoughts?
Jane Eyre at the National Theatre
On October 3rd I was lucky enough to see a new production of Jane Eyre at London’s National Theatre. Thanks to theatre vouchers I had lying around, I paid all of £8 for my back-row seat, from which I had an excellent view, especially thanks to the pair of mini binoculars. Ten actors and musicians share all the roles. Sometimes a change of dress or hat is all that makes the distinction. For instance, the same actress (Laura Elphinstone) plays Helen Burns, Grace Poole, Adèle Varens, and St. John Rivers. One actor even plays Pilot the dog. His persistent “whoo-whoo” bark and habit of flopping at people’s feet make for charming comedy.
But the play belongs, of course, to Jane, and Madeleine Worrall is perfectly cast: unassuming yet passionate, a little firebrand. I can’t say for certain, but my impression is that she never leaves the stage during the entire production. She plays Jane at all ages: she voices a creepy baby cry when the bundle of cloth representing her infant self appears; other actors help her in and out of various dresses over a simple white shift as she grows up. The addition of a corset and petticoat indicates that she is now an adult, and a wedding dress and veil are the symbols of true love dangled before her eyes and then snatched away.
Set, props and music are all used to great effect. The action takes place on a complex of boardwalks, staircases and ladders, and most of the props are also wood and metal: stools, crates and window frames moved around to model different settings. The multiple levels allow for comings and goings but also for subtle displays of power relations. Objects hanging from the ceiling help to create location – family portraits and ominous red lighting signify Gateshead (the Reed house), simple sacking garments characterize Lowood School, and window frames and bare bulbs that flicker to Bertha’s laughs quite effectively evoke Thornfield Hall.
There is live musical backing at many points, with a piano, guitar, double bass and drums tucked off center under one of the boardwalks. The music ranges from instrumentals that wouldn’t be out of place in Downton Abbey or The Lord of the Rings to pop songs. An opera singer in a red satin dress wanders around singing snatches of folk spirituals and contemporary numbers. I certainly didn’t expect to hear Cee Lo Green’s “Crazy” during an adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel, but somehow it fits brilliantly.
The play is admirably true to the book. The two climactic fire scenes work very well, better than one might expect, and the romantic moments between Jane and Rochester are touchingly believable. I especially liked how journeys are suggested: a huddle of actors stand in the center of the stage and run in place to a percussion backing and a chant of destinations. One coach journey is even interrupted by a ‘piddle break’! Deaths are marked by opening a trap door near the edge of the stage and a character slowly descending some stairs out of sight.
The play started life in Bristol as a two-part adaptation stretching to four hours; for its move to London it has been condensed to just over three hours, but this still feels long, especially towards the end of the first act or in the aftermath of the revelation about Bertha. The St. John material, especially, drags – though that is true of the book as well. My main criticism of the production would be the way it sometimes tries to externalize Jane’s thoughts by having her ‘talk to herself’ via three or four other actors arguing. An angsty monologue à la Hamlet would have done the job just fine. Revealing Jane’s feelings for Rochester through a performance of the song “Mad About the Boy” likewise struck me as unsubtle.That said, Bertha is handled superbly (there’s a surprise as to how this is done; I won’t give it away, though you might work it out if you look at the links below) and the excellent ending repeats the beginning in a very satisfying way.
A big anniversary is coming up: 2016 is the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a cluster of books being published or reissued in advance of her 200th birthday, such as Claire Harman’s biography, which I’ll review for For Books’ Sake, and a novel translated from the Dutch about Emily and Charlotte’s time in Belgium, Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing, which I’ll read for The Bookbag. There could be no better time for going back to her timeless stories, whether through the books themselves or another artistic expression.
When We Are Married by the Twyford & Ruscombe Players
J.B Priestley (1894–1984) is not a very familiar name for me, but my husband assures me he’s well known and loved here in England, if only for the play An Inspector Calls, which he studied at GCSE (it’s still a set text) and saw on stage. When We Are Married, one of the prolific Yorkshire author’s many plays, was first performed in 1938, though it’s set in 1908. I went to see it in our local village hall this past Saturday night.
The premise is simple: three couples (the Helliwells, Parkers and Soppitts) are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, having all been married in the same chapel on the same morning. They even have a photo commemorating the occasion, and today they hope to recreate that shot. Over the years they have done well for themselves: one man is an alderman and another a counsellor; all three are heavily involved in their local chapel.
All is not well in this small Yorkshire village, however. They are disappointed with their newly hired organist, a la-di-da southerner named Gerald Forbes who has been seen stepping out with young ladies at night. The whole play takes place in the drawing room of Alderman Helliwell’s home, and in an early scene the three gentlemen summon Gerald with the intention of dismissing him. However, he has his own surprise: a letter from the parish’s former parson, confessing that he wasn’t properly licensed to perform wedding ceremonies at the time. Consequently, these three pillars of the community are not legally married after all.
The news soon gets out thanks to a sullen cook who was listening behind the door and broadcasts the story at the local pub. In Act II the couples – including Gerald and his secret sweetheart, the Helliwells’ niece – take it in turns to come on stage for private chats. They spend time imagining what could be different in their lives if they really were single. Henpecked Herbert Soppitt gets his own back after years of cowering, while Mrs. Parker finally tells the Counsellor how dull and stingy she’s always found him to be.
The two best characters are Ruby Birtle, the Helliwells’ garrulous maid, and Henry Ormonroyd, a drunken photographer sent by the Yorkshire Argus. He functions like the Fool in this Shakespearean comedy of reversals, and happens to have some of the most profound lines. Will these unlucky couples get their anniversary photograph after all?
This was an enjoyable local production. The simple set was easy to maintain, and the acting – especially the Yorkshire accents – unimpeachable. The audience was in three sections in a rough semicircle around the action; my chair was just five feet behind a chaise longue on set. My only criticism would be that one of the three wives looked 20 years younger than the rest. I’ll certainly venture out for another show by the Twyford & Ruscombe Players.