Monday 29 September 2014

From Jane Eyre to Clarissa Dalloway, beware your classic heroines

This article was originally commissioned by The Guardian, pegged to The Secret Life of Books: Jane Eyre, which will be broadcast on BBC4 on Tuesday 30th September at 8.30pm. Watch it here online until Friday 10th October.

A clip from The Secret Life of Books: Jane Eyre
(c) BBC and Open University
Jane Eyre, sex maniac. This was one disturbing conclusion I came to when rereading Charlotte Bronte’s classic Victorian novel for the BBC4 series The Secret Life of Books. Briefly: Jane Eyre is an unwitty, unpretty orphan who teaches at a country house and gets a social leg-up and a much needed leg-over when she marries her master, the Byronic Mr Rochester, but not before the plot disposes of his mad Creole first wife Bertha and gives Jane financial independence through a last-minute inheritance.

I first read the book as a teenager, adoring it as a thoroughly satisfying story about a disadvantaged nonentity who gets everything she wants by relying on brains, willpower and integrity. Plain Jane doesn’t use sexual wiles to grease her way through the Victorian class system, nor does she flutter and dissemble, pretending to be weaker than she is. She is a lone force who neither bends nor breaks, despite occupying a world in which the best she can hope for is to be mocked, marginalised and exploited. Her outward self-control, contrasted with the searing perceptiveness and passion that the novel’s first person narrative reveals to the reader, make Jane both complex and compelling.

When I reread the book, however, I was shocked by its violence, amorality, bigotry and perversity. Jane/Rochester is not a romance, it’s a sado-masochistic freakfest. When Jane clocks her new master’s brooding glare, two decades of tamped-down sexual frustration explode onto the page. Rochester’s a boorish, sadistic, patronising sexual predator and Jane is an abused child who has been neglected all her life and grown into an enraged masochist fuelled by raw survivalism. She looks down on the uneducated servants in the house, vilifies Bertha as dark and monstrous and sneers basely at the women who flirt openly with Rochester while herself reacting to his every growl with a shudder of naked lust.

Bertha rages in the attic, Rochester thunders up and down the stairs and Jane masturbates in her room. At one of the novel’s crisis points Bertha rips Jane Eyre’s wedding veil, out of all the things she could have laid her hands on, and I begin to suspect that she’s only mad in the American sense of being very angry. These alternative readings of the novel have been explored by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells Bertha’s story, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which creates a Rochester-like figure in the character of Maxim de Winter and teases out his malevolence and untrustworthiness.

I emerged from the pages of Jane Eyre with my early, simplistic admiration for Jane shattered and my esteem for her radical creator Charlotte Bronte massively enhanced. Wondering how my two readings of the same classic could yield such different interpretations, I turned to Samantha Ellis’s How To Be A Heroine, a recent tribute to the great canonical women characters. Ellis’s sensitive and witty analyses reflect the power classic fictional heroines have not only to inspire but also – as in Jane’s Eyre’s case – to endlessly surprise, even horrify.

Some characters have so much influence that they bleed from writers’ pages onto babies’ birth certificates. Katniss, the hero of Suzanne Collins’ rugged and beautifully written Hunger Games trilogy, has inspired girls’ names in the past year. I’m looking forward to lots of little Maleficents being born nine months from now, prompted by Angelina Jolie’s brilliant, stylish, feminist, Bechdel-test-passing, rape-metaphor-having noir fairytale. And what about some Medeas in the maternity ward, after The National Theatre’s recent, brilliant adaptation?

Still, I am wary of unquestioning heroine-worship, particularly when it’s tinged with nostalgia for our formative reading years. We might admire Scarlett O’Hara’s strength but Gone With the Wind is deeply troubling on slavery, race and class. Austen’s Elizabeth Benet has qualities in abundance but her potential is squandered tragically by the boredom and nothingness of her life. Clarissa Dalloway is a terrifying warning about what happens to an intelligent, amenable woman if she doesn’t produce anything for herself but merely goes from place to place being fabulous. The real Woolfian heroine is the yearning shapeshifter of Orlando, Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Wilting Woolf sadly wasn’t a heroine for voracious Vita, but that’s non-novelistic, messy reality for you.

Ultimately, characters cannot be divorced from their fictional context or the real social context of their creation, nor can they be rinsed of their bigotry (or their creators’) and held up facilely as mythic survivor-paragons. For this reason I find the ‘perfect’, cataclysmic ending to Jane Eyre disturbing: the ‘mad’ foreign first wife violently dead, the house burnt down, its patriarch reduced by injury and Jane rejoicing grotesquely to be his grovelling nurse and domestic dominatrix for the rest of her days.