Jane’s relations

George Richmond’s initial portrait sketch of Charlotte Brontë

As promised, I’m continuing my appreciation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with further discussions, based on aspects of the novel I’ve not noted mentioned elsewhere or viewed quite as aslant. This post aims to examine Jane Eyre’s relations.

I use the term ‘relations’ in a couple of principal senses here: first, in terms of humans (Jane’s relatives, and her relationships with suitors) and, secondly, concerning how Jane appears to structure her narrative, that is, how in terms of patterns she relates her ‘autobiography’.

I’m certain I’m not the first to observe Charlotte’s creation as very like herself in terms of physicality, temperament, interests and even occupation: Jane, like Charlotte, is small and very much ‘a plain Jane’, holds strong opinions, reads similar books and is a sometime governess. What is strikingly different is that Jane is an orphan and an only child, whereas not only did Charlotte’s father outlive her but she herself had three surviving siblings when Jane Eyre was published.

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Upright people and witches

Nighttime
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John Masefield: The Midnight Folk Mammoth 2000 (1927)

“You must be the master in your own house. Don’t let a witch take the charge of Seekings. This is a house where upright people have lived. Let’s have no Endorings nor Jezebellings in Seekings.” — Grandmamma Harker’s message to Kay.

In 1885 orphan Kay Harker finds himself under the guardianship of the insensitive Sir Theopompous and the stern tutelage of an unnamed governess. His former companions, a collection of stuffed toys, have evidently been removed, their place taken by the declension of Latin adjectives for ‘sharp’, and by exercises in French, Divinity and the like.

When freed from lessons he quietly explores and investigates the surroundings of his ancestral home of Seekings, uncovering a nefarious plot to steal some long-lost treasure. He is therefore following family tradition and living up to the family name: the Harker shield displays three oreilles couped proper (that is, three disembodied flesh-coloured ears). So, true to form, Kay eavesdrops, harkening to conversations and learning from what he overhears.

Young Kay (whom we may imagine as around seven) inhabits a magic realist world midway between dreams, imagination and daily life, one inhabited by a combination of guardians and governesses, servants and smugglers, wild animals and witches, knights and toys, ancestors and archvillains.

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Do children never learn?

psammead

Edith Nesbit:
Five Children and It
Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993

E Nesbit does it
again: do children never
learn? Of course they don’t.

When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.

This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain.

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5-Star Books in 5 Words

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Fellow bloggers Imyril and Bookforager recommended this meme (though they didn’t originate it themselves) so I thought it a fun task for a post here. Maybe it’s one which may inspire you to attempt something similar.

1. Choose 5 books which you gave 5 stars [I’ve chosen fantasy titles books, read in 2019, which I rated on Goodreads].
2. Share 5 words that in some way describe why you liked it so much [I’ve used descriptive phrases rather than standalone adjectives].
3. Give no other explanations of those words. Some of the words may only make sense if you’ve read it yourself. [You might guess my reasons for liking these books despite the brevity.]

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“An independent will”

Charlotte Brontë by her brother Branwell, restored detail

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason
Penguin Classics 1996 (1847)

Charlotte Brontë’s breakout novel, first published in three volumes, is now such a well-known classic, its story often summarised, discussed, filmed, retold, that any attempt I now make to précis it is, frankly, redundant. So I shan’t even attempt to do that; what I will do is draw out themes and ideas that have struck me on a first reading, and sincerely hope that I won’t be doing the author an injustice by in any way misrepresenting her.

I shall here pass over any deep psychological analysis of the author’s possible wish-fulfilment in outlining Jane’s supposed ‘autobiography’ (a subtitle proposed by the publishers, not by her), a narrative that borrows freely from people and places that she knew, and from many of her own personal experiences: that’s for specialists to wax lyrically on.

What I shall instead concentrate on in this review is not Jane as a feminist icon — because that’s also beyond my competency — but as an individual with agency, one who asserts her individuality even as she struggles with the love of her life:

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me! I am a free human being with an independent will…

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Thorny text

Though fans of the famed Currer Bell
Were abashed to be told, “He’s a gel,”
They got in such pickles
When she wed Arthur Nicholls:
“Bell, Nicholls, or Brontë? Pray tell!”

There are some books I read straight through, almost without taking breath. They mightn’t necessarily be light fodder but the forward impetus or sheer fluidity of the telling discourages me from anything but an immediate and fleeting reflection.

Then there are others which I cannot help but linger over, when I find myself figuratively reaching for the pause button. This is when I slip the bookmark into the pages, search for a pen, and begin annotating in an exercise book. A choice phrase copied, a tentative genealogy, a reminder of an incident in another piece of fiction, a recurrent theme, an inconsistency — all go into a notebook, one of a dozen or so now dating back fifty years, all now grist for a review, an online commentary, maybe a reassessment.

And so to Jane Eyre.

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Parliament of the Apes

When I last visited Bristol in August of this year I took the opportunity to wander again around the Museum and Art Gallery, always a delight whenever back in the city I spent so much of my life in. As a way to distract from the never-ending crisis that is Brexit it is always a bonus to get a longer and more positive perspective on history and culture.

An unexpected highlight of my unhurried stroll within this temple of the Muses proved to be a temporary display of a large canvas. Entitled Devolved Parliament, it was created in 2009 by the Bristol artist known as Banksy. To the casual visitor the painting of the Commons chamber of the Houses of Parliament filled with chimpanzees may strike them as confusing or whimsical, but as with all this artist’s work there is more to this piece than meets the innocent eye.

This of course makes it an ideal subject for discussion in my series of occasional posts about the stories behind the images and other objets d’art housed in this Bristol building.

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Bookish update

Broadleaf Books, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

Book-related update here, and thankfully it’s a short post.

I’m rattling on towards the end of Jane Eyre and will presently post some commentary and, soon after, a review. Unlike Charlotte Brontë’s later novel Shirley, which took me over a year to polish off, Jane’s story has proved to have more forward impetus. More later.

Meanwhile, though Moby-Dick was published (with the title The Whale) on 18th October 1851 in Britain, it first appeared under its now familiar guise a month later, on 14th November, in the States. I therefore officially retraced my steps from the very start yesterday after having stalled a couple of times a few years ago.

Call me tardy, but at least it was 168 years to the day after its American publication; and 2019 is of course the bicentenary of Herman Melville’s birth.

A fellow passenger on the voyage, Lizzie Ross, has already set off, so I will be following in her wake. I’m not sure how fast I’ll go or how often I’ll report on the journey; as there are around 135 chapters I hope it won’t take a third of a year to complete — maybe a rate of 20-25 chapters a week will see me navigate home before Christmas. Look out for entries from my ship’s log!

Have you read this classic? I know other bloggers have already embarked on this mammoth (should that be Leviathon?) undertaking; is it turning out or has it proved to be what you’d been led to expect?

Measuring the heavens

The Ancient of Days: William Blake

A post I wrote recently for Witch Week explored one aspect of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Theory of Binary Opposites, namely that of the nasty and irredeemably dastardly antagonist. Because the week’s theme was Villains I dealt rather less with the figure on the other side of the continuum, the relatively innocent protagonist.

In fantasy fiction written for younger readers that figure tends to be a person one can identify with: whatever their gender they as youngsters usually have to face up to their morally corrupt binary opposite by mostly using inner resources; and often they have to cope without familial — especially parental — help.

A typical scenario might play out in this way: a notional orphan — one who believes their parents dead, or at least missing — is pivotal in a conflict against an evil regime. They spy another world from a wardrobe, cupboard or similar hidey-hole; they are susceptible to abduction but ultimately prove instrumental in releasing other children from slavery or worse; they exhibit quick-wittedness, or bravery, resourcefulness, loyalty or compassion, or any combination of these; above all they are individuals to admire, cheer on and wish well.

Is this outline possibly ringing bells for you?

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Goldfinch boys

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Most days a flock of goldfinches come to our birdfeeder, close to the kitchen window. Unlike the blue tits, who are snatch-and-flee artists, they are happy to keep on patiently snaffling sunflower seeds. They are a joy to behold, a flash of colour with their red masks and their black and yellow gold wing markings contrasting with beige bodies.

In German the bird is known as a distelfink or ‘thistle-finch’ as it is partial to thistle seeds and teazels. Presumably because of this association with prickly plants the goldfinch is symbolic of Christ’s Passion, especially recalling the crown of thorns.

At present the bird appears in news items because of the recent movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, itself based on a famous painting. This is just one of many good reasons to discuss the songster’s appearance in a miniature portrait, one I usually make a point of viewing in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

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Timeslipping

http://www.greenknowe.co.uk/gallery4.html

Lucy M Boston:
The Children of Green Knowe
Illustrated by Peter Boston
Puffin Books 1975 (1954)

It’s the Christmas holidays and a young pre-teen called Tolly has gone from his boarding school to spend a few weeks at his great-grandmother’s mansion called, mysteriously, Green Noah. Appropriately the countryside is in flood from winter rains, leaving the house like the Ark perched on Mount Ararat. But from the first Tolly will find this the most magical of visits, as does a first-time reader such as myself.

Why does this children’s novel, the first in a series, evoke such admiration and loyalty from its fans? I suspect it’s something to do with the author who, like the aged relative in the tale, is able to invoke the wondering mindset of the young, to evoke the no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality that sensitive youngsters inhabit, and to convey all that to the reader.

That fluid boundary has something to do with the sense of drifting through time that The Children of Green Knowe sets out to create, now intensified by the nostalgia — real or imagined — the reader may feel for a way of life long gone, one which existed in the postwar years but, as with all past eras, is now like a foreign country.

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Pattern seeking

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Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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#WitchWeek2019: When shall we all meet again?

Well, the world has survived another Witch Week. Lizzie and Chris couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone who participated:

  • Laurie of Relevant Obscurity, for her terrific post about that ice-hearted Narnian witch, Jadis, not to mention her perceptive contributions to our discussion of DWJ’s Cart & Cwidder
  • Sari of The View from Sari’s World, whose survey of Shakespearean villains dripped with bloody images
  • Jean of Jean Lee’s World, who introduced us to one of the scariest aunts in fantasy literature
  • people, too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; Tweeted/Facebooked links to our posts; and included pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs
  • our readers across the globe
  • and, finally, a nod of appreciation to Lory of Emerald City Book Review, who 5 years ago started this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction, yet willingly relinquished the chains so that Lizzie and Chris could have a turn — MANY THANKS, LORY!

For anyone who just can’t get enough, here are the links for the Witch Week Master Posts from earlier years.

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, at Lizzie’s blog, when our theme will be …

* GOTHICK *

#WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder

Cart and Cwidder HarperCollins UK edition 2016

When their father, a travelling minstrel is killed, three children involved in rebellion and intrigues inherit a lute-like cwidder with more than musical powers.
— From the first edition of Cart and Cwidder, Macmillan 1975

You’ll by now be aware that Witch Week takes its title from a novel of the same name, ostensibly for children, by Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011. So it seemed apt to have as this year’s novel for discussion Cart & Cwidder, the first volume in a fantasy quartet set in a polity called Dalemark. In fact the very first Witch Week featured The Spellcoats, another Dalemark novel in which the principal villain is actually identified.

Three of us have had a detailed online chat about this — an edited version is offered below — but a number of you have also taken up the challenge of reading it beforehand so that you could join in today’s conversation, and you are very welcome to add your comments below. The participants in the online chat were Laurie Welch (red), Chris Lovegrove (green), and Lizzie Ross (blue). Our comments coalesced around topics such as magic, historical setting, bildungsromans, zeitgeist, and of course villains!

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 5: Sinister Relations

Jean Lee is a blogger, author and massive fan of Diana Wynne Jones.

Jean was an obvious choice, therefore, for inviting to participate in this event as one of DWJ’s books was the principal inspiration for it, and we’re very grateful she responded so enthusiastically!

She has chosen to focus on one of Jones’ most sinister figures, Aunt Maria from Black Maria (1991), published as Aunt Maria in North America.


Firstly, dear readers, I am honored to be here with you during this most magical Witch Week. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite writers for many reasons: her arduous childhood, her steel resolve, her motherly devotion, and her bottomless love for sharing the gift of storytelling with others. While others wrote what she called “Real Books,” books that described real-ish kids in real-ish situations going through all the real-ish problems that kids deal with in real life, Jones stood firm on the position that Real Problems can be solved with Unreal Books. The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a lovely example of a blended family coming together when a magical chemistry set forever alters the “chemistry” of their lives (ba dum CH!). Indeed, Jones has never been one to shy away from the tough conflicts that can arise inside the family unit. Heavens, in Charmed Life Gwendolyn doesn’t just kill her own parents but her kid brother Cat, multiple times. Divorce, too, impacts characters such as young Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and Mig in Black Maria. Polly and Mig both learn who truly cherishes family … and who doesn’t.

Which brings us to the sweet old lady that is Aunt Maria.

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