Becoming Jane Eyre

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"The year is 1846. In a damp, cold parsonage on the gloomy Yorkshire moors of northern England, a family seems cursed with disaster: a mother and two children dead; a father sick, without fortune, and hardened by the loss of his wife and two eldest children; a son destroyed by alcohol and opiates; and three strong, intelligent young women, reduced to poverty and spinsterhood, with nothing to save them from their fate - nothing, that is, except their remarkable literary talent." So unfolds the story of the Bronte sisters - Charlotte, Emily, and

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Overview

"The year is 1846. In a damp, cold parsonage on the gloomy Yorkshire moors of northern England, a family seems cursed with disaster: a mother and two children dead; a father sick, without fortune, and hardened by the loss of his wife and two eldest children; a son destroyed by alcohol and opiates; and three strong, intelligent young women, reduced to poverty and spinsterhood, with nothing to save them from their fate - nothing, that is, except their remarkable literary talent." So unfolds the story of the Bronte sisters - Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. From Sheila Kohler's extensive research and wonderful imagination comes the life of these three young writers. At its center are Charlotte and the writing of Jane Eyre, and the overlapping narratives of author and heroine - including Charlotte's love affair with a married man. Delicately unraveling the powerful and inextricable connections between one of fiction's most indelible heroines and the remarkable woman who created her, Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre will appeal to fans of historical fiction and, of course, the millions of readers who adore Jane Eyre.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
f you know Jane Eyre and love it, don't deny yourself the pleasure of this intense little companion book. South African-born Sheila Kohler…sinks deep into the details of Bronte's life to re-create the atmosphere of her tragic, cloistered family. 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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
South African Kohler's well-written seventh novel takes the lives of the Brontës: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell and their father, and substitutes imagination for facts. The book opens in 1846 with Charlotte's father recovering from eye surgery in Manchester, England. The narrative follows the internal ragings and musings of Rev. Brontë, the Brontë sisters, the nurse briefly hired to help Charlotte and her father, their own nurse of many years and even the mother of George Smith, the eventual publisher of Jane Eyre. Charlotte's desire for a heroine with more courage than she herself has spills onto the page during the long, lonely hours of her father's convalescence, as she remembers her doomed love for her teacher in Brussels and other hurts and affronts throughout her life. Kohler (Crossways) gives us a more multidimensional, passionate and temperamental Charlotte than most biographies. Too much narration and switching of points of view slows the pace, but connecting the writer with her heroine is intriguing. This novel will likely send fans back to the originals and should inspire those who know “of” the novels to finally read them. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
Kohler (Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, 2007, etc.) crafts a character from the creator of one of English literature's most vital protagonists. With Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte helped create a new kind of fiction by combining Gothic sensibility and a boldly unconventional, audaciously realistic heroine. She presented vivid scenes of madness, cruelty and passion rooted in the lived experiences of women who were expected to be tractable, gentle and-above all, perhaps-quiet. The emotional tumult Bronte depicted spilled beyond the pages of her novel: Readers were captivated while critics were horrified. Kohler offers an imaginative recreation of the woman who created this once-scandalous, now beloved classic. Bronte's life was as filled with tragedy as any Romantic protagonist's. Her mother died when she was a girl, and her two eldest sisters died at the harsh boarding school where Charlotte and Emily were also students. While studying in Belgium, Charlotte fell in love with her married teacher. Her brother Branwell's alcoholism, opium addiction and generally dissolute behavior were a constant source of anxiety and sadness for the whole Bronte family. Envisioning how these experiences shaped Charlotte's work, the author does not try to reproduce her subject's fiery prose. Instead, she maintains a calm tone, quiet enough to catch the sound of pencil scratching on paper. Bronte is an ideal subject for examining the intersection of an author's life and work: Writing was, for her, as natural as breathing, but she lived in an era that generally denied women a voice. Kohler's exploration of this paradox is sensitive, intelligent and engaging. A beautiful complement to Bronte's masterpiece.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In Sheila Kohler's masterful re-creation of Charlotte Brontë's struggles to write her landmark Victorian masterpiece, we are introducted to Charlotte as the dutiful daughter sitting at her frail father's bedside as he recovers from eye surgery. Charlotte cherishes the silence as she conjures up the character who would become the immortal Jane Eyre, giving her ?a sprite's name, a fairy's name, half spirit, half flesh, light in darkness, truth amid hypocrisy, the name of one who sees.?

The unconventional and talented Brontë sisters -- Charlotte, Emily, and Anne -- were budding writers in the 1840s, a time when women's lives were considered unworthy of literary treatment and women were inconceivable as authors. Charlotte has already received harsh rejection letters (?Literature...cannot and should not be the business of a woman's life?). But she was spurred rather than deterred, determined to ?write out of rage, out of a deep sense of her own worth.? The orphaned Jane Eyre, the independent-minded governess at Thornfield Hall who falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester, whose wife rants madly in the attic, is drawn from Charlotte's own most painful emotions: her longing for her dead mother and her older sisters, her bitter experiences in boarding school and as a governess, and her unrequited passion for her married writing teacher.

Kohler's perspective strongly empathizes with the will it takes for Charlotte to clarify her ambition. Her dream is to reach other women: ?to entertain, to startle, to give voice to what they hold in secret in their hearts.? The obstacles are many, the possibilities appear few; therein lies the tale. Becoming Jane Eyre proves a fresh take on the historical novel, a meditation on the creative process, and a gift for those who take Brontë's passionate act of creation into their hearts. --Jane Ciabattari

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410424945
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 4/2/2010
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 401
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Sheila Kohler

Sheila Kohler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She later lived in Paris for fifteen years, where she married, completed her undergraduate degree in Literature at the Sorbonne, and a graduate degree in Psychology at the Institut Catholique. She moved to the U.S. in 1981 and earned an MFA in Writing at Columbia. She currently teaches at Princeton University. Becoming Jane Eyre is her 10th book. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, O Magazine and included in the Best American Short Stories. She has twice won an O’Henry Prize, as well as an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. Her novel Cracks was nominated for an Impac Award, and has been made into a feature film to be distributed by IFC. She has been published in 8 countries.

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Read an Excerpt

Featured Excerpt in Penguin iPhone App

Chapter Two

Professor

That night, she dreams of her professor, Monsieur H. She is sitting on the white sofa, talking to his wife, yet thinking of him so vividly. He has left on an extended voyage. She pictures the thick, black hair, dark eyes, robust body, wide shoulders, and strong legs. He is dressed casually, without any effort at elegance, in his loose old cloak. She says to his wife, who looks pale and is obviously upset by this long absence, "you can replace a husband but not a father," and she sees a small, delicate child standing in the doorway, bent over with grief. The child looks very much like Charlotte herself. She wakes with a start in tears, all her old sorrow returning.

How she had trudged through the damp streets of Brussels, half-crazed with longing, lust, and jealousy, reluctant to return to the school. She lingered there in the dark and the rain to escape black thoughts. She walked to forget her Master and beloved friend who had replaced her father and her brother—her black swan, the first to discover her talent and encourage her art. How she has waited for his letters!

It was his wife whom she and Emily met first when they arrived in Brussels that evening, tired and hungry, having somehow lost a suitcase and their way in the dark cobble-stoned streets, which glistened wet in the lamplight. Finally they came to the green door with the bronze plaque in the wall with the name of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles. The great door was opened by a small, hunched woman who ushered them inside the bright parlor with its black-and-white marble floor, where they were immediately confronted by a picture of family life that surprised and delighted them. Madame H. was there with her own mother, Madame Parent, as she was called, and sitting close by her side in her old-fashioned dress was Madame Parent's sister. Delicious odors wafted in from the kitchens: baking break and bubbling stew.

Charlotte and Emily sat side by side on the elegant white sofa so unlike the old dark horsehair one at home. A fat green stove warmed the room. They admired the paintings in their gold frames, the ornaments on the mantel piece, and the folding doors, which led into the petit salon with its piano and enormous draped window.

As they ate, something heavy but delicious in a brown sauce with fresh bread followed by an apple tart, Madame Parent regaled them with an exciting tale. She had very blue eyes and a small mouth, and maintained she had been a beauty in her youth. She was a good storyteller and seemed delighted to have new listeners. Though Charlotte was not certain of the truth of her story, she was immediately drawn into it. She had fallen in love with a man who had escaped to Brussels penniless, with the Comte d'Artois, the king's brother, during the French Revolution. The old lady told them her husband had been an elegant man, her eyes glistening and a tremor in her voice, who continued to powder his hair, wear knee breeches, and use the formal vous when addressing her.

His sister, she said, a nun of both courage and generosity, had left her convent with a friend, both of them disguised as men. They, also arrived in Brussels, were the ones who had founded this school, which her niece—and here she smiled proudly down at her daughter—now continued to run.

Charlotte, too, admired the ebony haired and dignified Madame H., a woman in her late thirties who sat very upright, her lace collar perfectly flat. What a relief to be in the company of these hospitable women!

But how unlike them was Monsier H., a rude and choleric man. The only jarring note in the scene of harmony and family entente was his sudden entrance and exit. He came into the black-and-white-tiled hall of the house on the rue d'Isabelle in a cloud of cigar smoke. He was obviously in a hurry, had apparently lost something, and seemed in bad humor. Charlotte watched him open a desk lid and rummage about inside, muttering and sputtering under his breath.

Still, there was something familiar about him. He was like a caricature of a man entering and rummaging about in a desk in a hallway, looking cross. Perhaps she had read such a scene in a book?

Madame H. called to him through the open glass doors of the salon, "come, Constantin, dear, and meet our new pupils." He lifted his head, gave her a stern glance, and strode impatiently into the elegant sitting room.

A small, spare, bespectacled man, he entered with a preoccupied air. With his black hair closely cropped, his brow broad and sallow, and his nostrils wide and quivering, Charlotte decided he looked like a beetle. He seemed to her in a childish rage.

Charlotte pitied Madame H. who appeared to be somewhat older than he, though neither of them was yet in their forties. She remembers thinking, What an intensely disagreeable and ugly man, as he bent briefly over her hand with her sister at her side. He hardly took the time to mutter a greeting to his new pupils. Indeed, he seemed to scowl at her particularly and take an instant dislike to both of them.

Madame H. arose to show the sisters to their dormitory. As they walked through the rooms, Charlotte admired the large school buildings. She stopped a moment before the image of the virgin in an alcove with a burning lamp at her feet and found a prayer rising to her lips: God give me the courage to live here and do my duty.

In the dormitory, they were placed at the end of the long row of beds, with extra bed space and a washstand between the beds, providing welcome privacy, and spotless white curtains, which lifted in the breeze.

The next morning they were able to see that the windows overlooked a romantic garden, a haven of quiet and calm in the midst of the city, which would become what she loved more than anything else. She liked to stroll there in the birdsong of early spring mornings or in the calm of the evening, within the shadows of its high walls, its row of pear trees, and its widespread acacia with the fine, feathery leaves, which trembled in the slightest breeze. It made her think of their childhood's imaginary country, Angria, and long for her brother as he had once been. She would have liked to walk with him within such a sheltered garden as this, with its bright blooms, its graveled walks, and its romantic bower nestled in vines.

From the start, in those first few February days, she admired the orderly but generous way Madame H. ran her school: the young girls were not starved or overworked or obliged to walk to church in wet boots, as Charlotte had once been. Lessons were at reasonable hours: from nine to twelve and then again in the afternoon from two until four. The excellent food they had eaten that first evening proved to be a sample of what was to come. No burned porridge here. Exercise, too, was provided: fresh air in the garden. Mens sana in corpore sano.

Or so she thought at first.

She saw him the next morning in the large, sunny classroom where they took their lessons. He taught literature at his wife's school and also at the one for boys next door.

From the moment he entered the classroom, he seemed transformed. The dark beetle had become a black swan, the rarest of birds. Monsieur H. sailed in fast, wings spread, obviously in an altered, expansive mood. He was already talking fast, moving his hands furiously through the bright air, as though he were on urgent business. Now, as he mounted the platform, she noticed the broad chest, the strength of the legs, the smiling mouth, the intensity of the black eyes.

He commanded his pupils to sit up and listen.

"Ecoutez," he trumpeted with authority, and his gaze roamed the room fiercely, searching for an inattentive gaze. He was obviously enjoying himself, the admiring looks of this crowd of young women. When he had their complete attention, he proceeded to read from Racine's Phèdre in a fine, deep, resonant voice. He rendered Hippolyte's lines with such feeling and so much expression that, despite her limited French, she forgot where she was, swept away. When he came to a breathless halt and looked around the classroom and the silent, awestruck pupils, she thought, I am falling in love, falling in love with language, with these sensuous words.

She listened to him as he analyzed what he had read, probing and darting with daring and eloquence. Despite her limited understanding of the language, she was immediately aware of this man's original mind, his deep comprehension of the many layers of the difficult text. She watched him use all his enthusiasm, his strength of mind and body, to claim the attention, and the hearts and minds, of these young women. Suddenly, she became aware, her mouth was open and her breathing shallow.

Then he handed back the girls' homework, his pupils coming up to claim their work. She saw his expression change again and again, withering one pupil with the movement of lip or nostril and elevating the next with the upturn of an eyebrow. Some wept; others beamed, their faces lit with delight. Sometimes he would produce a little gift for a favorite student who had pleased him particularly, bringing forth something, a bonbon or gourmandize from one of his numerous pockets, like a conjuror from a hat.

She knew she wanted to please this man, to see his expression alter, to delight his eyes. She wanted one of his sweet gifts.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    You had me at "Bronte" - a little unfortunately

    Anything that has to do with the Brontes pretty much ensures I will pick it up and read it. And this was not disappointing. It was a very intimate, yet strangely distant account of the Bronte family. Mostly, Charlotte (of course) but also quite a bit about Anne and Emily.

    And while it is fiction, you can imagine how true some of the issues addressed are. Like how Charlotte must have felt insecure and jealous when her two sisters books (Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights) were accepted for publishing while her own first attempt (The Professor) was rejected. And then again, how jealous and slighted Anne and Emily felt when Charlotte's Jane Eyre met with great success and, in turn, set great criticism onto their own works.

    For any Bronte fans, this is a great read. You get more insight into the stories behind well... the stories (how Mr. Rochester is blind like the Bronte father, how Charlotte fell in love with a reserved professor and how their drunken brother became inspiration for both The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights... etc). You don't necessarily feel very close to any of the characters even with how intimate the accounts are, but you feel you know them and their motives and, in course, their writing much better

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    i ENJOYED THE BOOK VERY MUCH

    I WILL RECOMMEND IT TO OTHERS

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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