I Hereby Take Umbrage

Some books are yours. That even though you’re content to twiddle your thumbs and indulge in boundless book love in your corner of the vast interwebz, you have to add to the pot-stirring amid the cobwebs around you because there are very objectionable [and unconscionable] things being said about your book, and that won’t do, it just won’t do at all.

Laura Miller’s article, “In Defense of Jane Eyre,” caught my eye this morning. My first reaction, upon reading the title: “I didn’t realize Jane Eyre needed any defending.” My second, upon actually reading the entire thing: “Holy Sebastian Faulks, Batman! Is he serious?”

The gist of it. A few days ago, novelist Sebastian Faulks, in an excerpt from his new book, declared that Jane Eyre is a heroine—not a hero like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, mind you—and that “no one seems to question the distinction: it’s obvious.” He also goes on to say:

Jane Eyre is a resilient woman, of higher moral caliber than Becky Sharp, but her happiness, and her psychological “completion,” seem to depend on her securing the love and companionship of another, Mr. Rochester. All her battles from the orphanage onwards, with whatever doughty and feminist intelligence they are fought, are presented as leading to this one end.

I do not know Becky Sharp, but I have a deep and abiding love for Jane Eyre, borne of a friendship that has lasted more than half of my life. I have nothing against Becky Sharp, who Faulks so extravagantly praises—I am sure she is a very fine person, and I might just like her when I do get to meet her.

I do have a lot against Faulks [and a smidge for Miller the Defender.]

It’s appalling—and amusing, actually—to witness this kind of misinformation in so pedantic an article. That is, I shrieked: “No! Seriously? Did this man even read the goddamned novel?”

Where to begin? The confusing-for-this-day-and-age tone hinting at the moral superiority of the Hero title as opposed to the Heroine title? That Miss Sharp is a far interesting person because, as a hero, she “imprints her qualities on society and by doing so overcomes false or smothering social restrictions.” That Miss Eyre is kind of lame because like “most women in fiction,” she “[clings] at some stage to their feelings for a man as a fixed point or priority; it is at least one known star by which to steer?”

Or just the simple fact that Faulks gets so many things wrong?


Aherm. Yes. Where was I?

Miller makes a lot of valid points and sound retorts against Faulks’ glib condescension. She expresses her bafflement of Faulks’ Hero-Heroine dichotomy, and immediately takes note of Faulks’ “(mis)characterization of Jane.” And Miller proceeds to characterize Jane herself.

And this is where I got all itchy again.

The reason that I find Faulks’ argument so contentious is that I think he’s a careless, misinformed bleep. Now, the reason why I’m whining about Miller’s counter to Faulks is that I don’t fully agree with what she says. In fact, I found some parts of her argument as frustrating as Faulks’—and the saving grace is, of course, that Miller loves Jane Eyre—we simply don’t have the same kind of love.

Yes, that’s the beauty of a great novel—the wide spectrum of passion it evokes in its lovers. I suppose I’m up in arms—more calmly, of course—against some of Miller’s assertions because I don’t feel like she’s a bleep like Faulks: I feel her respect and love for Jane Eyre. This is a civil, albeit dorkily nit-picking-y, discussion.

Miller states that Jane Eyre, “despite its fictional legacy, is not a romance novel.” [A paragraph before, there’s this palpable disdain at the possibility that the new Jane Eyre adaptation will “treat the book as a simple love story.”]

The pivotal moment in Jane Eyre is not the one in which the Byronic Mr. Rochester professes his love for the “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess and asks her to marry him. Rather, that moment comes after Jane learns that she can’t wed the man she loves because he is already married (to a madwoman, whose existence he has concealed from her). Rochester attempts to keep Jane by suggesting they run away to France together, but she refuses. She flees his house and, without family or other protectors, the penniless young woman is soon reduced to beggary, grateful to eat scraps originally intended for pigs.

The episode is only one of a series . . . that describe not Jane’s quest for love but her assertion of her autonomy in a world that regards her as entitled to none. In the past, Jane rebelled against auhotrity figures to defend the legitimacy of her feelings, but when she leaves Rochester, it is her own desires that she defies, this time on behalf of her principles.

Now. I agree with what she so astutely says. But I just can’t fully agree. See, I can’t imagine [01] hinging everything on this episode (it is a significant episode, demmet—but not the end-all and be-all of Jane Eyre), and [02] how much more valuable Miss Eyre’s rejection of Rochester and her defiance of her own desires were than the fact that Miss Eyre and Mr. Rochester got their shit behind them—remember? Reader, I married him. Remember? Jane dismantling all mouse-y characterizations of her, saves the doomed Rochester?

Yes, Miss Eyre is fiercely independent—her resolve is one crucial turning point of the novel, and it is precisely her firm grasp of her principles that turn her into the heroine—oh, sorry, Mr, Faulks—that she is.

But, I have always viewed it thus: Her willingness to relent. Relenting isn’t a terrible thing, it’s not the compromise of one defeated—it’s letting a collusion of her strength and her love, their love. That this would defeat the demons, that this would gah-damned heal the gah-damned blind for cripes’ sake. That Jane—oh, Miss Eyre!—and Rochester lived happily ever after because [01] Miss Eyre stood up against her own desires but [02] also allowed herself to realize that those desires—her love!—need not be in conflict with her principles.

She was The Awesome when she chose to turn her back from Rochester. She was The AwesomeSauce when she allowed herself to return—on her own terms.

Reader! I! Married! Him! The power in this statement, the utter windswept glory of it all, its strength, its assertion: Reader, I married him. Jane doesn’t lose. Jane never loses.

I think Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Why find this distasteful, Miss Miller, Mr. Faulks? Why must “love story” connote a concession? Most importantly, why must calling Jane Eyre a romance novel, a love story, imply a belittling of the novel?

In the name of all the elves in Christendom!—Love is AwesomeSauce!

But ultimately, I am at peace with Miller. Not least because she classily grinds Faulks’ harebrained argument to a pulp. In the penultimate paragraphs, she says:

Of course, Jane does get her man in the end, as every reader of Brontë’s novel hopes she will. Marrying Mr. Rochester makes her happy. Why shouldn’t it? Faulks claims that “a hero can be disappointed or defeated in love and it will not matter, because pairing off is not the goal or completion of the heroic trajectory.” But this amounts to saying that love (as Jane obtains it, in her own terms) shouldn’t matter that much, that it is a less worthy goal than wealth and influence. . .

A paragraph that probably proves that I’ve been yammering away for nothing, disrupting the stasis of my little cobwebby corner.

13 thoughts on “I Hereby Take Umbrage

  1. Fascinating post! I will add that when you meet Becky Sharp, DON’T invite her over for tea. As my mother says, you can’t trust her farther than you can throw her. (If honest equals heroine and cruel means hero–which certainly isn’t how I would normally define these words–then Faulks might be on to something.)

  2. I think Mr. Faulkner concentrated on a sub-plot of the novel. In my opinion the novel is about a strong woman fighting against a very hypocritical society (religious people who act contradictory to their teachings, nannies who are far more educated than their masters, etc.).

    I liked the book but not as much as others though: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=810

  3. There are certainly books that once read are so close to your heart you’ll defend them against all detractors- like yourself Sasha, Jane Eyre is one of these for me!

    Vanity Fair and its anti-heroine Becky Sharp are great fun, a satirical take on how people are and act rather than how we want them to be. I’m not sure why to praise them Faulks chose to criticise Jane Eyre as it’s a very different work. The hero vs heroine idea is an antiquated one I think- as if having romantic love as a priority makes you a lesser person! In fact I’d argue for a woman in the 19th century, the idea of marrying someone you truly loved on your terms is much more radical than marrying someone one for what they can provide.

  4. There’s so much wrong with the Faulks piece that I didn’t even know where to start :S So instead of saying anything I mostly swore at my computer screen, lol. Apart from his misreading of the novel, which you and Miller both addressed so well in your different ways, I also have huge issues with the whole concept of holding Making an Impact on the World above Caring About Personal Connections. Some people while care more about the former, others about the latter. And guess what? Neither are doin it rong, Mr Faulks. Like you said, there’s nothing lesser or unworthy about caring about love.

  5. The more I think about this issue, the more I am stunned by his assumption that it is the quest for money and status instead of the quest for love and honesty that makes something valuable. Yes, this is an antiquated stereotype of gender roles–women thinking about connections and community, men thinking about themselves. That upsets me–but on the other hand, Becky is a character conceived by a Victorian man who chooses to create a woman who, in some ways, crosses gender expectations–which is kind of cool.

  6. Hmmm…if I remember correctly, we’re not necessarily supposed to admire Becky Sharpe.

    And I think you’re right: if he thinks the novel is all about Jane finding her completion in Mr. Rochester, then we OBVIOUSLY did not read the same book! Good job setting both Faulks and Miller straight!

  7. “I think Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Why find this distasteful, Miss Miller, Mr. Faulks? Why must “love story” connote a concession? Most importantly, why must calling Jane Eyre a romance novel, a love story, imply a belittling of the novel?

    In the name of all the elves in Christendom!—Love is AwesomeSauce!”

    I take it “in the name of all the elves in Christendom” has become a favourite phrase of you as well?

    Lovestory seems to be a pretty good keyword to denounce a story of being a worthy read. It is so stupid that that happens. I actually think the love story in the book is part of its strength. Oh yes, there is a lot more to think about in the book, but I kind of feel that often people seem to want to focus on just that to minimize the love story, because that part makes it less “worthy” of being admired. I did find the other themes interesting when I reread Jane Eyre, but um.. I cannot deny the love story really does it for me.

  8. well done – I find it absurd and confusing certain people think love is something to gag about. doesn’t everyone feel it, once in a lifetime? isn’t it one of the most interesting things in life?

    stupid people – I think sometimes people get ruined by analysing literature too much. thank you for this lovely post. Jane Eyre is totally worth the fuss.

  9. The power in this statement, the utter windswept glory of it all, its strength, its assertion

    Yes, this, this!

    I mean, part of me wants to say, whatever, sure, she’s a heroine, Becky’s a hero, fine. If you want to stick to the ridiculous gender roles Nymeth and LifetimeReader describe, and call one “hero” and the other “heroine,” I’m not going to be impressed, but whatever. But then no, because I don’t want you to be implying bad things about Jane Eyre! That love story is one of the best things I’ve ever read!

    Also, Becky sucks. There, I said it. Always hated her.

  10. I think of Jane Eyre not so much as a love story (although of course it is one) but more as a journey of Jane’s enlightenment. What really struck me when I re-read Jane Eyre as an adult was how strong her character was, something I missed when I read it as a teenager when I was more fixated on the love story.

    Faulks seems to be subscribing to very simplistic gender roles and views on masculine/feminine or external/internal storytelling. Frankly, just because someone goes out and does things rather than stay indoors and contemplates doesn’t make them more of a hero.

    I’ve downloaded Faulks’ episode on Heroes and will be watching it tonight and am prepared to do some swearing;P


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