Search This Blog

Friday, October 19, 2018

An Inflammatory Question: How's That Working For You?



People have many different reasons for reading fiction. Can this diversity of reasons be subsumed under a general heading of intensification — the deepening and/or broadening — of experience? Of escaping the limitations of one’s own experience? Is that escape good or bad? Is it always possible? Bear with me. I’ll get to the inflammatory question, all right.


Some books we read to be with kindred spirits that can be difficult to find for ourselves in daily life. For a young reader, to find a girl or boy in a book who shares our own feelings and desires, someone we understand in the way we so fervently wish to be understood ourselves, can give us hope that we are not doomed to feel like freaks forever. And if that sympathetic character in a book manages to make his or her dreams come true, our own hope is strengthened. The world of possibilities, constrained as it too often seems in schoolroom or home, grows limitless and filled with light. To see oneself in a story of success can be empowering.

The world of possibilities is also made greater, though, when we encounter in our reading characters very unlike ourselves or people we know. Some fictional characters lead lives we would dismiss as easy, if we were to meet them socially, but meeting them in the pages of a book we enter into their private thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams, and we see that their lives are as complicated as lives more familiar to us. In a novel where characters struggle with poverty or physical handicap or terrible illness or political oppression — if we are fortunate enough not to have those challenges ourselves — the imaginative vicarious experience of taking on those characters’ inner lives also gives insights otherwise difficult to obtain in the routine of daily life, encouraging empathy.

And so, whether characters are like us or unlike us, more or less fortunate, people we meet in books can help us grow and expand in empathy and courage. We can try on other selves and have at least some small inkling of how they might feel from the inside.

Slipping the bonds of time and place is another reading pleasure. In the pages of a book, I can be off to places I’ve never seen in real life — the Canadian Arctic, New South Wales, medieval China — and I can dwell for a few hours in my own country as it was a hundred or two hundred years ago. Here, too, as a reader I try on another self and another way of life.




Does this sound familiar? In your own reading life, have you turned to fiction for some of these reasons? I would not reduce escaping our limitations to simple “escape,” as that word is commonly used in the phrase “escape reading.” There is undeniably some commonality, but I would not put reading fiction in the same category of escape with hard drugs or alcoholism -- although Cervantes might argue with me. Either way, though, whether you view escaping limitations as a flight from reality or an enlargement of empathy and possibility, I want to ask now: How is it working out for you these days?

I haven't taken a survey. My “sample size” so far is only two. But I’m wondering….

One writer on the radio and another I talked in person both said that they have noticed, with their most recent novels, audiences at their events not very focused on the books. What people are finding in their books, these writers say, is — and while this is always true to a certain extent for any readers at any time, they both emphasized a different now — only what they bring to them from their own lives. “It isn’t about the book at all!” my writer friend confided, a look of astonishment on her face. “It’s all about how they’re feeling!” The writer on the radio (my writer friend had not heard the interview, either, so the agreement was coincidental) said pretty much the same thing. Her latest book had been characterized by reviewers and other readers in wildly conflicting language that could only explain by her belief that they found in it what they brought to it. If angry, they interpreted the characters as angry; if sad, sad; if amused, etc., etc.

So what I’m wondering now is if we are so deeply caught up in our own emotions these days that we are foisting them off onto the characters we encounter in our reading, and I wonder if, instead of taking on other viewpoints — seeing the world through the eyes of fictional characters — we are investing those characters with our own perspectives. Or seeing them as alien to us, as our “enemies.” 

I don’t want this to be true.

For most of humanity, this world has never been easy. And we need all the help we can get to understand one another. So if we can’t let fiction help us that way, what hope is there for us in books, and why should we even bother to keep reading?

The novel in my hands these days is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. What pages are you turning? Or aren't you?



Thursday, October 18, 2018

Born This Day in 1859


October 18 is the birthday is French philosopher Henri Bergson, who believed, even after the Great War, the one we now call World War I, in the moral evolution of mankind. 

Henri Bergson believed that over the course of history human beings had evolved and were continuing to evolve not only physiologically but also spiritually and morally. Born in 1859, he died in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and I always think he must have died of a broken heart, although he was already quite ill when he went to stand in line for his yellow star, the yellow star Jews were required to wear under Nazi rule as visible identification of their ancestry.

Bergson’s story, however, is more complicated yet. 

Member of the Académie Française since 1915, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927. When he lectured at the Sorbonne, a section of the auditorium had to be roped off for his students, or else Parisian high society would have filled every seat. It is true that his star did not shine as brightly in 1941 as it had in previous decades — a media-stoked “rivalry” between Bergson and Einstein did not do him any favors -- but he remained a European cultural icon. So if the Nazis could only co-opt Bergson…. 

They were eager to make him an exception to their odious racial laws. They went further: they wanted to give him their honors. And remember that Nazi favors, even the smallest, were not to be lightly dismissed: in Germany and the occupied countries at that time, they could mean the difference between life and death. Accepting their recognition, however, would give legitimacy to a loathsome regime, so although Henri Bergson had not been brought up in a religious household and was a member of no synagogue, he refused all exceptional treatment. He was not a man to save his life by turning against others, to profit at their expense by siding with oppressors. He did not hold himself that cheap.

Because we are alive, Bergson had argued throughout his life, which means we are spirit as well as matter, we cannot understand ourselves simply by laws that govern the purely physical world. When we deliberate between courses of action, that very deliberation changes us: “…[T]he self is changing and is consequently modifying…. A dynamic series of states … permeate and strengthen one another, and … lead by a natural evolution to a free act.” In fact, because the self is undergoing modification as it deliberates, saying that we have “two choices” before us oversimplifies the question. 

Most of the time, we react to situations according to our habits, as “conscious automatons." This makes for efficient action — most of the time. Only in circumstances calling for an important choice do we stop to deliberate, and then —
It is at the great and solemn crisis, decisive of our reputation with others, and yet more with ourselves, that we choose in defiance of what is conventionally called a motive, and this absence of any tangible reason is the more striking the deeper our freedom goes.
Henri Bergson had nothing to gain by obeying a racist law and wearing a yellow star. Neither could he claim as a “reason” that his wearing the star would do anything to help his fellow Jews in France. 
We wish to know the reason why we have made up our mind, and we find that we have decided without any reason, and perhaps even against every reason. But, in certain cases, that is the best of reasons.
Quotations above are from Time and Free Will, the English translation of Essai sur les Donnés Immédiates de la Conscience. For more about the life and work of Henry Bergson, follow this link. What he wrote about character is, for me, the elucidation of his choice. Resisting evil was essential to his character.



Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spinning Off From Turner’s Frontier Theory of American History


Only four pages into Wilbur R. Jacobs’s foreword to a modern edition of Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History, I am struck by an implication of his frontier theory for our time in history. I'll have to see how my thinking and questions play out as I continue reading, but I thought going on record with some initial impressions and wonderings would be a place to start.

Turner saw history (I'm going now by what Jacobs writes) as the self-consciousness of society, the latter an evolving organism. The particular biological organism that constituted in Turner's view American society, he argued, evolved from the country’s frontier beginnings and a continually westward-moving frontier, the American frontier offering escape from old bondages -- first the bondages and habits of Europe, later those of the Eastern colonies-become-states. Moving ever-westward also, he believed, unified Americans as Americans, moderating sectional differences that had been so important in the East they left behind. 

One obvious fact (but I will state it anyway) is that Turner’s theory concerned the movement of white American pioneers of European origin. The fates of free or enslaved black peoples and of Native Americans “concentrated" by government policy onto smaller and smaller areas of marginal land were only tangential aspects in his story of the evolving America, rather than part and parcel of it. I state this obvious fact for two reasons. First, it is not only true but important when examining any history or historical theory about our country. Furthermore, however, I see it as the crucially overlooked seed to the implications of his theory that cry out at me as I prepare to read Turner in 2018. -- Implications of his theory, mind you, which I may accept, reject, or seek to modify after reading in in its entirety.

But let us accept for a moment, provisionally, Turner’s thesis about the frontier as that temporary boundary moves progressively west: 

(1) As each successive “frontier” became settled, would it not become a new “section,” with its own settled habits and prejudices and rivalries with other “sections”? 

(2) If Turner were right about sectionalism being left behind on the frontier, what did he imagine would happen when the frontier vanished, when pioneers reached the Pacific Ocean and could go no further to escape the bonds of habit? Is this where we are today?

(3) With the “safety valve” of “free land” [appropriated or conquered] no longer available, would social pressure build to the point of explosion?


After I read this book, I’ll turn to what other historians have said in response to the themes Turner hammered away on over 100 years ago.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Now Is the Time For Northern Michigan Apples

Colorful fruit
Are they wild?
Fall leaf color in northern Michigan is lovely, no denying, but the perfume and flavor of the season come with apples. This year’s crop looks bountiful from where I stand and walk, my two little home trees weighed down with fruit more than matched by what I call wild apples, those at the edges of cherry orchards and along old farm lanes, trees that may not be strictly wild at all but remnants of earlier orchards and homesteads. I hedge on calling them wild because the Artist reported to me a conversation with local farmers who referred to wild apples as “spitters,” i.e., uneatable, but I certainly wouldn’t classify ones I’ve harvested in that category. One apparently wild apple’s taste pleased me so much I hoped to identify it as a specific variety so I could procure a tree of my own — because other people’s trees, I’ve learned, have a sometimes tragic way of disappearing, chopped down or bulldozed for what I can only call mercurial reasons, no one ever having asked my opinion, let alone my permission. Let wary deer feast while they can!

Come, browsing deer
I brought a basket of apples from my home trees to the bookstore (I’ll never get all of them dried or made into sauce this year), initially thinking that a gift apple should accompany each copy sold of Barbara Stark-Nemon’s novel, Hard Cider. My second thought was that any purchase merits an apple, and ultimately I decided that even people wandering in and claiming they have “no time to read” should not leave empty-handed but take at least an apple from their bookstore visit. 


Bookstore bounty
My current reading is a sort of farm and family memoir, Cidermaster of Rio Oscuro, set in northern New Mexico. Author Harvey Frauenglass has set me to dreaming of an old French apple he found listed in a Michigan nursery catalogue, Calville Blanc d’hover, a delicately sweet dessert apple beloved of Louis XIII and Thomas Jefferson and still served, Frauenglass says, “in the finest restaurants of Paris.” I read the description to my husband, the Artist (stressing the idea that this particular apple contains twice the vitamin C of an orange, my enthusiasm amusing him no end), and he immediately proposes a road trip. When I finally locate the nursery online, however, they don’t have the desired cultivar listed at present. And the Artist and I were talking at cross-purposes, anyway: he had in mind buying a peck of apples, while my plan was to buy a tree. Having time to read means making the time, giving a priority to reading. Having time to harvest fruit from a newly planted tree is different. 
The apple has been in the patrimony of the human race longer than any written historical record we have. We can trace the origin of the apple to western Asia, and we have evidence of its wide cultivation by prehistoric people. The apple is as close to being a universal fruit as any we have. Perhaps that’s what makes it a good choice for the object lesson in the Garden of Eden. - from Harvey Frauenglass, Cidermaster of Rio Oscuro
How many years did I wait for apples from the trees I have now, and how many more years will we have in our home to enjoy future harvests? Then there was the second plum tree, the one that died — and the first, I remind myself, that still flowers but stopped bearing after showing early promise.

Apples I have, however, in abundance. Apples at home and apples abroad. The glorious sight of apples, their heady aroma, the juice released as the skin is pierced by knife or teeth. Maybe Eve made the right decision, after all, yielding to the apple’s temptation. And then she and Adam became farmers — and cultivated apples?


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Dark Thoughts

"It was a dark and stormy night...."
Dark Thoughts: what a dreadful title! Who among you would choose to read about dark thoughts? I can hear the sounds of rapidly clicking mice as readers flee in droves without pausing to investigate, since even someone in the grip of “dark thoughts” would hardly need more, would — if thinking clearly — seek out instead bright thoughts, light, messages of hope and optimism, no?

Darkness, though, comes with varying intensity and in different moods. The dark of a star-pricked sky is nothing like that of a cave or the bottom of an old well, and the quiet of natural darkness can bring reassuring comfort when its welcome, repetitious coming follows the relentless clamor of days filled with loud, angry voices of a world too much with us. My usage of the phrase today, however, is neither a metaphorical reference to despair nor literally intended to evoke nighttime darkness enveloping a country farmhouse. My first thought for today’s title would have named its subject directly: Going Dark

Let me start somewhere else, though. Please keep in mind that where I begin is not my subject but only the background for my subject.

Let me begin with the “darkness of the soul” that comes often in the dark of night but can linger through a series of days, especially rainy days when the very heavens seem to cry unceasingly. A parent’s death, followed closely by that of a friend. Most awful, painful revelations  of personal experiences from dear ones. Political horrors invading the privacy of sleep. When a household crisis as mundane as the breakdown of a clothes dryer strikes, it only seems fitting. “What next?” one asks, and there is always a next, it seems, in a season when no one we know and no corner of the globe seems at peace. Oh, there are small bright spots, and there are the brave, sweet souls who share joy and encourage others to hope, but is there anything approaching balance in the world’s moods encroaching on our personal lives from one day to the next?

Okay, that's the background. And then, one gloomy, wet morning “What next?” is answered by another unexpected breakdown. A voice announcing “malicious malware,” followed by a dark and unresponsive screen. As we all were reminded by Monty Python, no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, and yet sometimes it arrives!

The Artist and I were at a coffee shop not too many miles from home, taking a morning errand break, and I was still dressed for floor scrubbing, not having planned to go very far in my home county that morning, much less to “town” for anything, but now a visit to the gurus suddenly becomes Priority #1. On our way into town, more and more worries crowd in. Losing stored files would not be the end of the world, but what of business transactions? Thankful for the many online possibilities I had always eschewed with stubborn determination, I nevertheless thought of half a dozen causes for concern. Not the end of the world, by a long shot, but a big mess. 

“Here’s my prediction,” announced the Artist, doing all he could by driving me to the gurus’ lair and entertaining me along the way. “Someday the invention of the Internet will be seen as the apple in the Garden of Eden, and no one will want to do anything online any more. They'll look back on the Digital Age with horror.” (We love to concoct believable futures we will never live to see tested. One of my own favorite predictions -- "You heard it here first!" we tell one another -- is the eventual future merging of the historical persons of Jesus and Elvis.) The Artist elaborated, we discussed, and then we imagined a “disconnected” world of the future — which is to say, a world similar to the one we had known in years past, a world where “long distance” calls were rare and used only on special occasions, with ordinary correspondence conducted on paper and sent through the postal service. A world of manuscripts literally that, pages covered with handwriting — or, for those with racing minds, sheets of individual paper impressed with typed letters. A world with fifteen minutes of evening television news.

I was reminded of a long-ago evening on our porch with friends who had lived very adventurous lives before settling down to raise their children. Over dinner the wife recounted their return one year from a family vacation. Nearing home at the end of a long journey, they had heard sirens and seen smoke, and her first reaction was one of panic: What if it were their house on fire? But she and her husband and their children were all together, safe in their car, she realized instantly, and so her next surprising response — it surprised her at the time and sent us all into gales of laughter there on the porch as she told the tale — was one of relief, thinking of all their accumulated stuff gone up in smoke, no longer weighing them down. “We could start all over with nothing!” she realized happily, and the thought of having nothing again thrilled her!

Without e-mail, without my blogs, without Facebook, without an electronic keyboard, I thought, I could go dark, and it would not be the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I could disappear from the world online. Perhaps no one would even notice. I could liberate myself!

I'm still here
In former times, disappearance had to be physical. One left one’s country or hid out in the countryside or simply stopped answering one’s telephone and door. I would need to do nothing that drastic. I could continue to open my bookstore for business hours, continue to shop locally for groceries and write letters to friends. I would still have conversations with friends and customers in my bookstore. The Artist and I would not need to alter our winter travel plans. The stack of yellow legal pads we bought last winter and then never filled, perfect for quiet mornings and evenings in the high desert (exactly what we had in mind when buying them), would accompany us again to the West, this time to be filled. And we would still have our books … books on paper, a book tucked into a bag, books beside us on tables … books whose text was fixed when printed, not to be subsequently altered by some evil genius at a distance. 

Going dark, I realized, if that were what lay ahead in my future, might be returning into light, into a slower, saner, more personal way of existence, one to which I am much more suited, anyway. 

Well, the crisis was quickly resolved by the first guru approached. They are amazing, those young techies! So competent, so confident and reassuring. And so now, for the foreseeable future (which, in truth, is always moment-to-moment for any of us, though we so easily forget the contingent nature of our technological reality), my screen and online life continue. Also, we had a sunny afternoon yesterday and are having a sunny morning today, a reminder that even days with 50% chance of precipitation can bring brightly colored hours. 



One value of envisioning a worst-case scenario is seeing how one might cope with it, but another value in yesterday's imagined scenario of darkness was equally important to me. In recent weeks, you see, I had allowed myself to be wound tighter and tighter, “keeping up” with events I could little hope to influence and with many “friends” who find no time to drop by in person or put a note in the mail. Way too much ineffectual “reaching out”! If my blog were to go dark, I realized, there would be few to mourn its passing, so what have I been trying to do with all these years of online “self-expression”? And why do we all fondly imagine we might change each other's opinions by broadcasting our own on a daily basis?

Better -- for me, anyway -- to concentrate here on books, and, as for Facebook, to return to checking in there no oftener than once a day, with frequent holidays from checking in at all. To reading a newspaper maybe three times a week and listening to evening radio news but keeping the radio silent in my car. Because when Sarah and I leave the house in the morning and again when we return home at the end of the day (as well as the time at the bookstore in between), I need to be where I am -- and with her -- and to see the beauty and complexity of the world in front of my eyes. And when our little family threesome is together, we need to focus on each other.






In closing, in the spirit of refocusing on books, here are some sketchy thoughts (no more) about a novel I read this past weekend, Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, set in Kashmir, where the author lived for three years, and published by Viking in 1953, and since I hardly expect to set off a stampede of readers eager for this book from over half a century ago, what I say will be in essence, though not in detail, in the nature of a “spoiler.” As a reader, you think you know early on the outlines of what will happen as a result of Sophia’s many blundering cultural faux pas. She does not belong. She is in the wrong place. She does not and never will fit in, and it was a mistake for her to have come. You foresee devastation ahead for many. You foresee her return to conventional English life, settling down to a safe, conventional marriage. All this seems obvious for most of the novel, the course of the story accelerating in later chapters until the metaphorical train wreck and Sophia’s chastening and repentance seem all but inevitable in the pages remaining. And yet — your expectations are overturned! No one dies! The main character leaves Kashmir, but the dénouement is hardly conventional. What relief! What delight! To reach the last page and be given such a gift, to see that even in the 1950s America a writer of fiction published by a major house could imagine something more for a female character than to have her “saved” by a retreat from adventure!

Old books! I find new books to love, as well, but I could never give up the world of old books. Bill Mauldin’s A Sort of Saga — how my late friend Chris would have delighted in that book! How many happy, book-filled hours we shared in Northport! And I am still here for my loyal customer-friends, as well as for anyone wandering up to Leelanau Township for a first visit. "I'm a lucky man," the Artist said to me not long ago. "Sarah's a lucky dog!" And I'm a lucky woman!







Saturday, October 6, 2018

Shifting Scenes

Changes in the scenery
Fall this year has not brought the usual much-desired, restful slow-down we anticipated. My mother’s death, a couple of stressful trips on expressways around Chicago (“back roads” in that part of the country exist no longer), family revelations, the big street fair in Northport, visitors, another friend’s death, and national political hijinks combined to necessitate our staying in high gear, it seems, through September and into October. There has been a lot of good mixed with the more difficult challenges, but all of it has been intense. Even reading Jane Eyre for our little reading circle (see previous post) was no escape for me this season. Disturbing dreams and disturbed sleep give way at last — none too soon, as the days grow shorter — to faint morning light and the coffee that helps me decide I can cope with life for another day.

Riven!
Last night, in the middle of the night, I finished an odd little book, The Adventures of Ferdinand Tomasso. It was not cheery reading. (This particular copy is from the private library of Suttons Bay author James B. Hendryx, which is its main appeal to me as a bookseller.) I don’t even know if it’s fiction or nonfiction or who the real author might have been, but the story unrolls in Mexico, with Europeans arriving, encountering the natives, storming their cities, and forcing what they call “Christianity” on them with cannons. I read descriptions of murder and slaughter of thousands and can’t help thinking of all the individual lives that count as nothing to the warriors on both sides. For anyone to “win,” thousands had to die, and a civilization had to be brought to its knees. Ambition and greed and power lust.

Former library book

Finishing that book and still wide-awake, I needed an antidote, something familiar, some reminder that life can be, for the fortunate, in certain times and places, ordinary and happy. I might have chosen Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat to re-read but instead plucked another volume from the same shelf, Houseboat Girl, by Lois Lenski.
Patsy sat on the front deck with Blackie and looked ahead. It was good to be on the river again. Life in Mayfield Creek had become dull and monotonous. On the river there was always something new to see. The river was full of bends. The houseboat was always turning corners and coming out on a new stretch. Every bend brought a new landscape, and often there were boats and barges to be seen.

I read for a while, then slept again, until finally it was not an unreasonable hour to get up and make coffee.

Without new landscapes, I muse, sometimes old surroundings can appear new again. That is, what has lost its sparkle or been lost to view because the mind has been otherwise occupied can take on again its own dear, familiar wonder. I look around our dining room, what I sometimes refer to as the “middle kingdom” of our old farmhouse, and feel as if I haven’t seen it with a loving eye for a long time. 

An old round oak table my husband found discarded by the side of the road and brought home with the help of our brother-in-law is where we have meals. Back in the 1970s everyone, especially those who had moved “back to the land,” had to have old heavy round oak tables with massive feet. Now that kind of furniture is no longer in style, country homes taking on much more sophisticated looks, but the table suits our old house and the way we live. Sometimes when we sit after dinner, listening to the radio or reading, a fire (gas) in the fireplace, David says, “This is just how it would have been for Joe and Anna,” the old Bohemian couple (Czech, that is, not Beatnik) who farmed the 80 acres here years ago, kept cows and pigs and chickens. Joe and Anna had the house moved down from its original location up on the hill, where it would have had a stunning view over Lake Michigan. Did they think that in giving up the view they would be out of the wind? The wind swoops downhill to the house, as does the snow! But they no longer had to pump water from their well up the hill, so maybe that was the saving grace. We like being behind rather than on top of the hill: views are taxed, but privacy isn’t, and we like our privacy. We can walk up the drive to see the view. 

An old black wood-burning fireplace (it now burns propane) holds a couple of cast-iron frying pans, a gathering of stones (all houses in this part of Michigan have gatherings of stones somewhere—on windowsills, tables, or wherever), a painted, cast-iron horse, and, since the fireplace is not in use this morning, a vase filled with asters from our meadow. It is aster season now. The asters are deep purple, magenta, and a light pink. The vase came from a friend. Nearby on a counter — because our kitchen is so tiny that counters are arranged to extend outward into the dining room — is a bowl of onions, on another counter a cookie jar. On the walls are paintings by my husband, a framed photograph of shoreline at sunset (gift from the photographer), and a couple of Japanese prints. Two Western saddles rest on stands near two of the walls.

The thing about this room that makes it so comfortable in winter is that it has no exterior walls. An enclosed (but not heated) porch on the west, enclosed (not heated) woodshed on the east, and rooms to north and south embrace the space, though windows through porch and woodshed that admit daylight and doorways to kitchen, “cozy room,” living room, and bath and bedroom keep the room from inducing claustrophobia. On cold evenings, with a fire, no room could feel more sheltered.

Here in the morning, by lamplight, with an illustrated children’s book beside me, I feel calmer than I have in many weeks. 
“On the river nobody likes to hurry,” said Daddy, who had just come in. “That’s the good thing about it.”

We’ll get to wherever we’re going to get, politically and personally. Wherever we are today, we won’t be there forever, and that's true of where we may be tomorrow. None of us will be here forever. Life is short. There are days that demand action, but time comes -- for each of us -- to back away from action, if only for a while. 

We’re here now. We’re here now. I think I will let current events flow without giving them my attention today. 



Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Reading JANE EYRE in 2018 America


Wealth and family connections. Chronic mistreatment of vulnerable children. The despising of the poor by those comfortably well off. Institutional life in place of home life for the poor. Lessons in “humility” and “gratitude” to those warned to keep their “place.” -- But even in that place, flickers of kindness and opportunities to better herself. Leading to — independence, and then, in her new position, an unexpected sense of home and feelings of respect and love. -- But the veil is torn away and reality revealed, followed by the direst poverty, hunger, situational homelessness. Dangers to the homeless are real, while those with homes perceive threats from the homeless. Of course, the story does not end there....

The character of Jane Eyre herself as well as her story were something quite new to English literature. What a difference from the world of Pride and Prejudice we find in Jane Eyre! And I say this as someone who loves the novels of Jane Austen.

But in Jane Austen’s England and the class to which the Bennett daughters were born, a young woman’s only respectable end was marriage. “Independence” was a disgrace, if not a scandal, depending on how it was achieved — or, rather, “independence” was defined only by wealth, and so brought about by the right kind of marriage. Class distinctions were paramount. Servants were invisible. “Sensibility,” the name given to overwrought passion given free rein by the wrong kinds of reading in Sense and Sensibility, could lead to nothing good. 

Then along came the mystery author “Curran Bell” (Charlotte Bronte’s nom de plume), with her passionate little orphan, Jane, with her innate sense of justice. Revolutionary! I ask my women friends, whose life rings truer to yours in its essentials, that of Eliza Bennett or that of Jane Eyre?

Does the child deserve ill treatment? She is dependent on an aunt by marriage who detests her, as do the three children who are her blood first cousins. You would think that tie would mean more, but Jane’s mother was sister to the cousins’ father, so they are cousins by a female relative — and one who, moreover, married beneath her station. The brother could forgive, but his wife could not, and their children have no love for their cousin. The 14-year-old boy is particularly cruel and despicable, telling little Jane that she “ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma’s expense.” Jane’s mother’s sin had been to marry a poor curate, against her family’s wishes. Her punishment was to be disinherited by her grandfather. Jane’s parents dying of typhus (her father contracted the illness while visiting those poorer than himself, in pursuit of his calling), her uncle adopted her — and loved her — but then he also died. Family wealth is not to be shared except under the most careful legal arrangements, and the daughter of a disinherited relative by marriage has no claim on the cousins’ mother beyond the promise made to her dying husband — conveniently set aside in time, the better to suit her own feelings and purposes.

Jane’s background is given quickly in the novel’s beginning. Mr. Rochester’s character and the lively relationship he comes to value in Jane is the focus of most readers and has been mine in previous readings of the novel, but this week I come to it with a different heart, with different heavy thoughts. I see the fictional aunt’s and boy cousin’s heartlessness in the first two chapters against current stories — in 2018 — of girl children accorded lesser value than their male contemporaries. Issues of poverty and wealth add another dimension. Envy, hatred, retribution -- it's all there.

The Bennett family and the mother and daughters in Sense and Sensibility are close to adulthood and their “poverty” relative only to the wealth of antecedent generations. Little Jane Eyre, on the other hand, despised by her own relatives, is daily schooled in “humility,” first in the home of those relatives and afterward in the charity school to which she is sent. She succeeds academically, however, conquers her temper, and after six years as a student is promoted to teaching in the same school. It is independence of a sort, but the scope of the school world does not satisfy her. She wants to see more, to experience more — and, still determinedly independent, she seeks and finds a position as governess. 

When one of Jane Austen’s characters prepares to go out as governess, she is an object of pity to friends and to the author. For Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the position of governess is an achievement — not failure but success. In Pride and Prejudice, only the housekeeper, “Hill,” is given a name. In Mrs. Reed’s house, we know Bessie and and Abbott and Robert; in Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield, even the footman, Sam, is named. Is it a difference in the times or in the eye of an author who sees beyond social conventions? Perhaps something of both. 

Jane Eyre was feared by many in its time. The novel exposed a young woman’s capacity for passion and urged moral equality, not only among various social classes but also between men and women. If Jane is elevated late in the novel by an unexpected inheritance, so is Mr. Rochester brought low by injuries sustained in the fire that destroys Thornfield. Their respective changes in fortune do not make the man the woman’s inferior, however; what is brought about is an equality of fortune to align with the moral equality Jane had claimed from the start — and which Edward Rochester could not help acknowledging and respecting, even at his most desperate.

What if, what if??? we may ask, imagining other paths the story might have taken, but Bronte shaped her novel to the characters she conceived, and so their end is not contrived but, according to the individuals they were and the circumstances of their lives, inevitable. Society is left as it was, except that readers of Jane Eyre have been given a glimpse of different values and possibilities. 

Paul Krugman had an interesting opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times. Here’s part of what he wrote in refutation of the notion that only blue color workers feel “economic anxiety” and are responsible for the current political climate:

…It’s perfectly possible for a man to lead a comfortable, indeed enviable life by any objective standard, yet be consumed with bitterness driven by status anxiety. 

You might think this is impossible, that having a good job and a comfortable life would inoculate someone against envy and hatred. That is, you might think that if you knew nothing of human nature and the world. 

I’ve spent my whole adult life in rarefied academic circles, where everyone has a good income and excellent working conditions. Yet I know many people in that world who are seething with resentment because they aren’t at Harvard or Yale, or who actually are at Harvard or Yale but are seething all the same because they haven’t received a Nobel Prize. 

What is happening in our country today, he says (and I agree) is “not about populism." The power behind it, the money and influence behind it, come from the privileged who don’t want others to share their good fortune.

What has become of Bronte’s vision? Of respect for honest work, of truth spoken across classes, of moral equality between men and women, of the “American dream” for all Americans? What has become of the American dream vision it used to seem most of us shared for our country?



“Whenever I went out, I heard on all sides cordial salutations, and was welcomed with friendly smiles. … At this period of my life, my heart far oftener swelled with thankfulness than sank with dejection: and yet, reader, to tell you all, in the midst of this calm, this useful existence … I used to rush into strange dreams at night….  By nine o’clock the next morning I was punctually opening the school; tranquil, settled, prepared for the steady duties of the day.” - Charlotte Bronte, JANE EYRE

I'm not even separated from my true love, and still it takes that second cup of coffee every morning for me to shake the nightmares of these times.