Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Becoming Jane Eyre ...

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler (Penguin, $15)

In the mid-1850s, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a letter to his publisher to complain that "America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash -- and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed."

Across the Atlantic ocean, men were just as vehemently opposed to women taking pen in hand, witness a letter the English poet Robert Southey sent to Charlotte Bronte in 1837 that praised her talent but warned, "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life."

Fortunately for the world of books, Bronte promptly dismissed Southey's admonition and went on to pen Jane Eyre, the creating of which so interested novelist Sheila Kohler that she took up her own pen (OK, her own computer) and imagined what might have inspired Bronte to write her classic novel.

The result is the work of historical fiction, Becoming Jane Eyre.

Book Serf: I get the feeling that your choice of the word "scribbling" throughout Becoming Jane Eyre was not accidental. Can you give me the background behind that choice and why you used it more than once in the context of Charlotte, Anne and Emily?

Sheila Kohler: I think the word is often used from the father's point of view and in his mind. I don't think he took his daughters' work very seriously -- indeed, men at that time seldom did. Southey, the poet laureate, of course, told Charlotte that writing was not a business for women. It was only when the father was confronted by the good reviews Charlotte received that he became increasingly the proud papa. Often people do respond more to a review than the book, itself!

BS: In much of the historical fiction I've read it is impossible to escape the author's research. We are bombarded with facts about the era in question. You don't do that. You use period information sparingly. How did you decide what to put in, what to leave out?

SK: I think that we always have to make a choice, obviously. We don't know all, and we can't and write all we know. There were parts of the lives of the Bronte girls that interested me particularly because to some extent they reflected moments from my own: I was particularly interested in Charlotte's relationship with her professor in Belgium and his influence on her work, as I have studied with professors, of course , who have had a profound influence on me, as well as doing a lot of teaching myself.

I was also interested particularly in Charlotte 's relationship with her sisters, and their tragic deaths. I lost a beloved sister myself when she was 39, and I have written a great deal about that. I have three daughters, too, and one of them a novelist, with whom I have often shared my work. They have been a huge help to me as I imagine the Bronte sisters were to one another: that image of them walking around the dining room table in the dark "making up" is such a vivid one.

BS: How faithful were you to the facts as you knew them?

SK: J.M. Coetzee once said to me while talking about writing an historical novel, "Don't stay too close to the truth." I think I found that helpful and liberating. Without falsifying the facts, obviously, I tried to allow myself a certain liberty on the page. In a way one uses these distant lives as a sort of screen, a middle ground which enables one to write one's own life and hopefully the reader, too, to find parts of him or herself in the text.

BS: I finished Becoming Jane Eyre more than a week ago and yet still I hear the echo down a distant corridor in my mind of the "scratching of a pencil against the page." I love that something audible is the first image you conjure. Do you think a reader in, say, 2175 will look back at the sound of the clacking of a keyboard and find it as romantic as we find the sound of pencil on page?

SK: Actually I do write on a computer but I also use pencils often, to tell you the truth, to correct student work. I'm not at all sure why that was the first image except that, of course, Patrick, the father, was blind at that point, in the dark with only his ears and his hands to capture any life around him. I do also have a middle daughter who is deaf -- so sound, words and their function has been very important in our lives.

Who knows why the book starts there, except that I did want to try and fathom how "Jane Eyre" came into life, and that seemed like the first act, the beginning.

BS: This book is, naturally, told from the point of view of a woman or women. One might say it is even for women. A rhetorical question: what is in Becoming Jane Eyre for a man? Similarly, the book takes place long ago. Things have changed dramatically. Women don't have to use pseudonyms to write, for instance. What can a contemporary woman take away from the story of the Brontes and their struggles?

SK: Ah! What good questions you ask! I think that life is very difficult at any period and for men (and we do have Patrick Bronte who starts the book and ends it) and for women, and what I tried to do here was to express that struggle, the bravery of these particular women, but also of all humanity.

I wanted to call the book, No Coward Soul from a poem by Emily Bronte that you may know, one that Emily Dickinson had recited at her death. My wise publisher and editor thought otherwise, and I am grateful, but I suppose I was so impressed by the struggle that these lonely women had in that isolated place and with so little help from the outside world, with so little money and so little power, and yet they went on as long as they could, writing, doing their housework, trying to be good Christians or what they conceived of as good Christians.

I hoped, perhaps, that my words might help others who are struggling onwards in their difficult lives, if only as a momentary respite.

BS: Maybe this is the question I should have asked instead of the previous one: What drew you to the story of the Brontes? You mention in the short interview at the end of your book the quote, "novels come out of the shortcomings of history." Which shortcomings did you identify that you needed to address in Becoming Jane Eyre?

SK: I found a sentence in Lyndall Gordon's biography of Charlotte Bronte where she says that no one knows what happened in that dark room as Charlotte sat by her father's bed, after he had his cataracts removed, and began her great book. It made me want to find out why that situation and that moment in her life brought forth Jane Eyre.

I think novels do come from the questions we might want answered and try to answer on the page. Also, an aunt read me the start of Jane Eyre when I was very young, seven or so, and had just lost my own father and the scene in the red room made a tremendous impression on me. I think some of my desire to write came from that moment at seven when I heard those words read aloud, was equally terrified, fearing the presence of my father's ghost in the room.

BS: You use the phrase early in your novel, "words a woman could not afford to use with a man." We don't have the same sorts of conventions that an Englishman or Englishwoman would have had during the 1840s and 1850s. And yet so much of life is shaped not by what is said but by what can't be said. Can you discuss those conventions, the societal strictures that lead to so much great art?

SK: There are still, of course, many things that we cannot say to one another. There always will be. In a way, perhaps, that is where art comes from, it seems to me, our inability to say things directly to one another, things that are then expressed in other ways on the page.

BS: You're interested in the life of the writer, aren't you? About a woman who is most at home "in her own company." Is that one of the things you wanted to explore in your novel?

SK: Yes, indeed, and thank you for reading my book so carefully. I think I was interested in exploring, too, the links between our lives and our work, such subtle ones. After my first book came out my husband and I went out to dinner and our hostess, who had read the book, politely asked, "How much of it is true?"

My husband and I both answered at once and immediately but he said, "Every word," and I said, "Not one word." In a way we were both right!

BS: Proust (I think) said a work of art is never "finished, only abandoned." Did you finish or abandon Becoming Jane Eyre?

SK: Oh, gosh, I suppose I would say one writes and rewrites and rewrites until one grows too tired of the text to rewrite again -- perhaps that's what Proust meant by abandoned.

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