The jacket copy on Sheila Kohler’s latest offering, Becoming Jane Eyre, breathlessly promises that the novel “will appeal to fans of historical fiction and ... the millions of readers who love Jane Eyre”. Count me among those millions. I came to the book late, as a freshman in college, and was immediately taken by the longsuffering Jane’s story, as well her intelligence and charisma. Charlotte Brontë’s evocation of England’s wild moorlands was, of course, an integral part of the story as well. I had never read anything quite like it.
Becoming Jane Eyre is a novel about the writing of a book, an act of creation that, in this case, required the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The life of Charlotte Brontë, and of her two younger writer sisters Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), was unremittingly difficult. Raised by a stern, joyless father whose wife had died years earlier, the family suffered through the deaths of the two oldest sisters, and the gradual dissolution of the only son, Branwell, who gave himself over to opium and drink. Charlotte attended a hellish boarding school and later worked as a governess for a sadistic family.
Material like this should make for a riveting story, but Kohler settles for a merely engaging one. Perhaps cautious of the pitfall of melodrama, she holds the early deaths at a remove, beginning her action years later, as the family has settled into a kind of paralysis. Branwell’s delirious shambling is often seen through Charlotte’s eyes; like her, the reader is disinclined to view the young man as anything other than a spoiled clod undeserving of the sympathy lavished on him by the younger Emily and Anne. The girls, meanwhile, write their novels as a way of escaping their airless existence, send them off to London’s publishers, and hope.
Keeping vigil beside her ailing father as he recovers from surgery in Manchester, Charlotte pens the opening chapters of what will become Jane Eyre; back on the moors, witnessing her brother’s latest depredations, she writes of a mad woman in the attic and a house fire that will set Rochester free. Emily and Anne’s books are accepted for publication; Charlotte’s The Professor is not. Rivalry among the sisters grows acute, and worsens later, when Jane Eyre’s roaring success eclipses the sisters’ work.
Kohler’s writing, at times, echoes the breathless conventions of the writers themselves, and she tends to exclamatory outbursts in the third-person narrative. These are especially common early on: “How she has waited for his letters!” “What a luxury to be able to sit here hour after hour in the muffled light and the silence of the city!” “How could he expect her to make friends with the other teachers—all silly, superficial women without gifts!” This would quickly grow tiresome if overdone, but the narrator stops just short of this point.
More rewarding are her occasional shifts in character viewpoint. The bulk of the chapters are a close third-person from either Charlotte’s point of view or her father’s; these chapters feel reserved, oddly distant, despite their being central to the story. When the perspective shifts, as in an early chapter from a nurse’s perspective, things liven up: “She remembers how she felt when her babies were born. She did not care who saw her naked or even what happened at that moment to the baby, the little tadpole swimming its way into life.” Elsewhere, Anne looks upon Emily and observes silently that her sister “practiced loneliness like a sport”.
Unfortunately, such moments serve mainly to show how lively the narrative might have been were it focused on someone besides Charlotte, who comes across as more than a little dour. But the constantly shifting point of view raises questions of its own. There is little discernible pattern as to what chapter will focus on which character resulting in a random, choppy flow to the novel. This is ironic indeed, considering the vigorous discipline with which the subject of the novel approached her own work.
Perhaps such criticism is unfair. We live in a different age from the one in which Jane Eyre was written, an age in which reflecting upon how stories are told is often implicit in the story itself. Writers are less willing to subject themselves to the “three unities” that Brontë demanded of her work. Becoming Jane Eyre doesn’t make such philosophical concerns overt and doesn’t need to: the story of how a story came to be is meta-fictional enough already. It is also powerfully moving in its final act. Ultimately, this novel is worth the attention of anyone interested in how fiction is written. And of course, anyone who loves Jane Eyre.