Monday, May 12, 2008

Jane Eyre - Psalms are not interesting

A while ago, I used Jane Eyre as an example of a book where somehow, without reading it, I already knew the story. Now I’ve read it. All week: what I didn’t know.

Today, the books.

“I returned to my book – Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of the sea-fowl...” (Ch 1, p. 6).

What? History of British Birds? The letterpress thereof? An entire page of Jane Eyre, the second page, is spent describing the ten year-old Jane’s reaction to Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’, 1797 edition:

“The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea I believed to be marine phantoms.
The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.
So was the black, horned thing sitting aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.” (Ch 1., p. 6)

On the next page, our narrator Jane (not the ten year-old Jane) mentions Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and John Wesley’s Henry, Earl of Moreland (1781), as well as “old fairy tales and older ballads”. A page later, there’s Oliver Goldsmith’s History of Rome. In Chapter 3, we have a long passage about Gulliver’s Travels.

This is all in addition to more general references to the Bible and The Arabian Nights. A fine passage, where Mr. Brocklehurst asks Jane if she likes the Bible:

“’I like Revelations, and the book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel, and a little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and Chronicles, and Job and Jonah’,” but not the Pslams, because “’Psalms are not interesting,’ I remarked.” (Ch, 4, p. 28) Spot on, Jane! Almost all of these books of the Bible, by the way, have some relation to later events in the story.

Jane meets the key figure of Helen Burns (more on her later) while Helen is reading Johnson’s Rasselas (1759). Jane thinks it “looked dull to my trifling taste: I saw nothing about fairies, nothing about genii; no bright variety seemed spread over the closely printed pages.” (Ch 5, p. 43) Jane scores again!

Note that not a single book is from the 19th century. It turns out this is a clue, and in fact the single appearance of a 19th century book, late in the novel, snaps the whole chronology into place. But there’s something else going on here.

One thing books are made of is other books. The plot and incidents of Jane Eyre contain specific parallels to The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby, and, most obviously, Oliver Twist. There is also a strong strain of anti-Gothic parody, invoking Northanger Abbey, and the long party scene has more than a little Austen in it.

But Jane Eyre isn’t really closely related or influenced by any of these books or writers (maybe by Austen, a bit). The intellectual background of the story, of the character, lies completely in the 18th century. The Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and many others, the preyed-upon but ultimately triumphant maid of Pamela, the telepathy scene, directly borrowed from Defoe’s Moll Flanders. None of this makes Jane Eyre unoriginal; quite the contrary. Books are made of other books. It’s all ingeniously blended together in Charlotte Brontë’s own unique mind to make something entirely new.

What does she make? More on Jane Eyre, all week.

All references to the Norton Critical Edition.


  1. Oh, I am so pleased you have read this because now I'll get to learn so much more about it. I did not pick up on all the links to 18th century texts (besides the Gothic thing but I understood it in a less specific sense) neither did I detect that the novel was so specifically linked to the Bible.

    Of course, hope you liked the book and it didn't waste your time blah blah etc. ;)

  2. You know, I've read Jane Eyre several times and I can't say that I ever noticed all the book references. Brilliant, really. Thanks for picking them out. You have made me want to read Jane Eyre once again!

  3. Waste my time! Oh no no no.

    The book theme does peter out after Jane's schooldays (it's replaced by the related fairy theme, as Jane herself moves into a book). But once you notice the books, they start appearing everywhere.

    I wish I knew how Kings and Chronicles fit in - those are the two that stumped me. Maybe they don't fit in, or are just more story-telling. I don't want to push this too far.

  4. This is why reading other people's reactions to books is so fun - I can't wait to see what else you'll bring us about Jane Eyre this week.
    Like Stefanie, I also missed the references to those other books. The Bible was on my radar when I read it the most recently but I didn't take the time to think too hard on how to fit the references into the story.

    Love the comment about books being made of other books. So true.

  5. Books are also made of other things, and some books are more bookish than others. Some books are made of little else but other books. Most, like Jane Eyre are a blend of imagination, books, and observation. What else goes in this list?

  6. Little Jane's favorite Bible books quote was one of the unexpected favorite bits from the early part of the novel for me, and even though the precocious girl didn't list the Song of Songs as she maybe should have (!), seeing a later character named St John appear as a sequel to Jane's fandom for the Book of Revelations was definitely reward enough. I believe Schiller also gets mentioned once Jane begins learning German, but I don't know what to make of that because Schiller's a Teutonic humiliation for me.

  7. Schiller is actually a clue, or an inside joke. A couple of years ago, I poked into the secondary literature to see if the clue had been used to solve the mystery. As far as I could tell, it has not.

    I need to reread this book & write this stuff up.