Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The oddest collapse - in which I obsess over Jane Eyre.

Last week Mr Renn was out of town for a Dental Convention and a convenient visit to his sister and her family.  It was not a huge ordeal, unless you were Bunny, then it was cataclysmic.  (Though I think she has recovered by now.) I got behind on my homework a bit, but I can't really blame it on Mr Renn being gone (directly).  It happened because I let my guard down for a moment of guilty pleasure, which turned out to be dangerously addictive for me.  Suddenly I found myself devoting all sorts of ill-afforded spare moments to the pursuit of it, in a manner that felt totally beyond my control.

So what is it that drug-like guilty pleasure of mine?  I entered the gothic spiral of watching Jane Eyre adaptations.  Over and over again.  As many of them as I can get my hands on, which is at least 8.  Anyone who's ever gotten lost in 19th century chick-lit knows how euphoric this stuff is.  There's a reason there are dozens of Jane Austen festivals the world round, where grown women dress in regency attire and play at belonging to a more autocratic class system (but only in the top tiers!), and women the work over brood endlessly over the moody declarations of love made by upper class, usually wealthy men toward the financially strapped girls they flip over (who are always well bred enough to avoid pursuing even men they love for any reason, certainly never for money, despite the necessity that it is.) 

Frankly I find myself in all sorts of delicious internal conflict as I greedily scroll through various versions, skipping to the most reactive parts. On the one hand, I'm smart enough to know that pretty much all of 19th century British literature is necessarily steeped in empiricist apologetics.  There are more examples of "good masters" and "happy, humble servants" than you can shake a stick at.  The female protagonists manage to do very little, besides wait around for men to do most of the "doing".  Until you get into the social criticism of Hardy, Thackeray and Dickens (and a little bit of it from my dear friend Mrs. Gaskell), most of the popular literature seems pretty overwhelmingly, quietly supportive of the status-quo of its time.  There are usually examples of good and bad nobility thrown in the mix, like some sort of admittance that there are bad ones, but look at how beautifully the system works when our nobility is actually noble!

The social critic in me ruffles at all of that.  The aristotelian pattern of telling the stories of the virtuous nobility over and over again, engraining a system of privilege and oppression soul-deep, it feels inescapably problematic.  There's no way to sit with it as a comfortable friend.And yet, I grew up inhaling these novels like they were gasps of air for my drowning self.  British literary folklore strikes a crazy-deep chord for me, and tends to feel more like home to me than any physical place I've ever been.  The way it struggles between civility and desperation, speaks to my own inner conflicts.  The way that social conventions are usually the source of all narrative woes, especially for women, and yet the solution is never found by defying social conventions.  (Though both Hardy and Thackeray will show you people who try it  and ultimately wind up the worse for the attempt).   There is something about the calm and civilized balance of high spirit and sapience in the heroines that feels so honest to me, living in a more laissez-faire time.  I fear that in my culture, that values freedom as its favorite pet, the very real benefits of gentility, civility, and tradition get chucked like a baby in so much bathwater.  

There are the things that appeal to the Anglophile in me: 4pm teatime, using (real) silverware properly, moving things from place to place on trays in a dignified manner, sitting by fires and having conversation, learning penmanship and social dances, and sending and receiving beautifully hand-written correspondences.  Strolling through gardens, wearing clothing restrictive enough to improve posture, wearing hats, owning very few, but impeccably hand-crafted dresses, and even having the time to pursue talents like fine embroidery, music, and art. I hope I'm allowed to find those things attractive while still acknowledging the silent underbelly of the class system that seems to have supported them.

Then, don't get me started on the dysfunctionality of the relationships presented.  I've been watching Edward Fairfax Rochester mistreat Jane Eyre in 8 different flavors, and all of them taste a little abusive.  The way he's allowed to rant and swoon like a crazy person, but Jane's most redeeming quality is her stoicism, it's a pretty odd paradox that's an easy set up for an abusive relationship, were someone to use it as a pattern.  Of course the way it is written everything works out fine (with phenomenal convenience) but the pattern it sets for real-life people is more than a little bit dangerous.

And yet, there I sit, watching the same three passionate fits of Mr. Rochester performed by 8 different actors.  And finding it ridiculously pleasurable.  It was, I think, the first bout of inedible self-indulgence I've made room for in my life since I went back to school.  I suppose I hadn't noticed how starved that part of myself was becoming, until it caught it's chance and took off running.  And suddenly wearing jeans and a t-shirt feels ridiculously sloppy.  Suddenly I feel like using my best dishes.  Suddenly I'm much more reserved in public because I can't think over top of the melodrama that's pacing circles in my head.  Suddenly I've a nearly irresistible urge to see if I can pick up millinery as a hobby.  Suddenly I've started wearing aprons again.  For all it's sociological folly, a cinematic foray into chick-lit is also fun.

And I'd be remiss to ignore all the protofeminism in Jane Eyre itself.  Despite it's utter embodiment of all things gothic, it did revolutionize the inner life of protagonists.  There's just so much of feelings in it.  Lots and lots of feelings. (Which, really, prove really un-cinematic in some film versions)  Always poetic and inflated and dramatic feelings.  It feels like such an indulgence to me.  And yet there's this centered voice in the midst of the piece.  Always searching for a way to balance happiness and love with duty and morality, it can feel at times so much like my own inner voice (which is also, by the way, prone to dramatics).  Besides of which, Jane's assertion that “laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this,” is prescient through the ages. 

I commented to Mr Renn that a novel like this could hardly be written anymore, there are so few universal indomitable social laws left that you'd be hard pressed to hold one of them up as an antagonist.  And yet, if there is a place anywhere that has a strict enough socio-moral code to cause the kind of tension that the Brontes weaved into their moors, it'd be right where I'm living, in happy valley, Utah.  Seeing how restriction actually fosters creativity and story, it makes me suddenly more tolerant of some of my least-favorite Utah-isms, if only for the stories their oppression is bound to catalyze. 

So you see, I'm in a peculiar pickle.  Even my guilty pleasures are laden with meaning, making them both more and less guilty at the same time.  But hey, if anyone wants to start a passionate discussion about who makes for the best Mr Rochester, I'm on it. (And my initial reaction is being torn between Timothy Dalton and Toby Stephens, though Michael Fassbender was really great, his version just kept cutting him off, it moves too fast and ends too abruptly. Should I feel guilty for not choosing Welles?) 

1 comment:, the way of the hummingbird said...

oh dear, reading your post got me watching jane eyre till after 2am. it's contagious!

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