But before I go, I have a confession to make. Last Sunday, I reviewed The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey’s modern day re-telling of the classic, Jane Eyre. In that review I reflected on the urge to re-tell a classic, and the dangers of such an endeavor. And I concluded that though The Flight of Gemma Hardy was interesting, it didn’t hold up to the original. And then I declared my renewed interest in re-reading the original, Jane Eyre. So last Sunday, I picked up my copy of Jane Eyre, which I was certain I had read at least once, if not several times.
Reader, until last week, I had never read Jane Eyre, though I was deeply convinced that, of course, I had. As evidenced in last week’s posting, I could quote lines from the book. Or at least one line. I felt I had a definite sense of Jane Eyre as a character. And yet, as I read the novel this week, all I could think was, “I don’t remember this happening!” Several times I thought to myself that perhaps I had somehow come upon a drastically altered edition of Jane Eyre, in which whole sequences of events had been inserted, it was that surreal. But, no. As vivid as my memories are of certain scenes in Jane Eyre, I feel fairly convinced that I had actually never read the book until last week.
I found it puzzling that I had not actually read Jane Eyre up until this point…I’ve always checked it off on those lists that go around of all the books you should have read. But the really shocking part is that now that I have read it, let me tell you that the version of Jane Eyre I had in my head is much better than the version that exists in the real world. Jane is mildly annoying as a character, by turns priggish and, well, kind of stupid. Really, how does she wind up roaming the roads of a strange town completely penniless and starving? Why didn’t she go to Miss Temple or someone?
And what the hell is up with Rochester? Really? He finds it amusing to convince the woman he’s madly in love with that he’s going to marry someone else? Why exactly was that the proper thing to do? And he cross-dresses as a gypsy to tell Jane’s fortune….why?
Looking back, I think I must have seen a film version of Jane Eyre. It must have been quite a good one, too. And I think I’ve confused Jane Eyre with Wuthering Heights in my head. I am now convinced that Wuthering Heights is the really good novel, though next week I could re-read it again and change my mind. Or maybe I’ve never read it, either. But I feel moved to say something so deeply sacrilege about Jane Eyre that I cringe even when I think it in my head. The novel reads like a rather stilted romance novel. With much less sex, though she does sit on Rochester’s lap. At any rate, I can now say for certain that I have read Jane Eyre, but not that I particularly liked it.
I also have more sympathy for Margot Livesey’s attempt to re-interpret the novel. Her Jane at least gets an education. And goes to Iceland on her own. But now I wonder if Livesey wasn’t trying to tell the better version of Jane Eyre that was in her head? Maybe she, like me, re-read Jane Eyre and realized that whatever she remembered loving about the novel wasn’t actually there and decided she could do it better. I applaud the effort, but have to say, now that I’ve actually read the novel, that it might have been best to have just come up with your own story.