three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-BecomingJaneEyreSouth Africa-born Princeton professor Sheila Kohler has previously published nine works of fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, winning two O’Henry Prizes and a Willa Cather Prize. Here she ambitiously sets out to uncover the spirited and sensitive author behind the classic heroine Jane Eyre in this fictionalized biography.

The Story: "Literature cannot and should not be the business of a woman’s life," the poet Robert Southey advises Charlotte Brontë in 1846, after her first novel, The Professor, has been rejected. Unwavering, Charlotte, the daughter of a country parson, resolves to pick up her pencil once more, but this new book will be different: She will speak with her own voice. She will express her rage at the indignities and disappointments of her life—unrequited love, isolation, prejudice, and the strictures of Victorian propriety. As Charlotte nurses her ailing father and vies with her equally talented sisters Anne and Emily, she will draw on her own rich history to create her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre.
Penguin. 256 pages. $15. ISBN: 9780143115979

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Becoming Jane Eyre begins and ends with ‘the scratching of a pencil,’ an appreciable detail in a novel that refuses to be distracted from the simple but sophisticated act of literary creation. … With an appreciation for their craft and sympathy for their difficult profession, Kohler’s Becoming Jane Eyre is a tender telling of the Brontë family’s saga and the stories they told." Casey N. Cep

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Kohler illuminates how Charlotte created a character who could act on the emotions she was forced to suppress. Jane says—loudly, brazenly—all the things Charlotte cannot say. … Becoming Jane Eyre, rather than dwelling on a family’s tragedies, shows a spirit’s triumph." Jennifer Kay

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"If you know Jane Eyre and love it, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of this intense little companion book. … Parallels between Charlotte and her famous heroine are an irresistible subject of critical inquiry, and even if those parallels are sometimes drawn too baldly in Becoming Jane Eyre, Kohler’s novel remains a stirring exploration of the passions and resentments that inspired this 19th-century classic." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kohler was wise to pitch the novel in a subdued mode, not vying with the passions unleashed in the Brontë novels or in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s excruciatingly gorgeous fictional evocation of the first Mrs. Rochester’s life. She has written instead a small, uncluttered novel about sibling rivalry and the various meanings of ‘publication’ for women writers in a straitened world where women were supposed to stay private." Christopher Benfey

Newsday 2 of 5 Stars
"It’s all recounted in accomplished literary prose, but the problems are twofold: One, the story is familiar to Brontë enthusiasts; and two, it’s difficult to fashion much drama out of the writing and publication of a novel. In other words, Becoming Jane Eyre is, well, a bit dull." Tom Beer

Critical Summary

Kohler digs deeply into the details of life at Haworth Parsonage to recreate Charlotte’s sheltered existence there, playfully mimicking the Brontës’ own romantic writing style. The critics noted that some of the parallels drawn between Charlotte’s life and that of Jane seem contrived, and some of her hand-wringing sounds uncannily like 21st-century angst, but these were quickly dismissed as minor complaints. Only Newsday found the novel tedious. Other critics considered Becoming Jane Eyre a perceptive meditation on the act of literary creation. Fans of Jane Eyre won’t want to miss this companion piece, but those new to the classic will want to start there.

Supplementary Reading

Jane Eyre | Charlotte Brontë (1847): This beloved classic of the headstrong but penniless orphan who is determined to live on her own terms has captivated readers for over 160 years.