Well, my yearly moratorium on reading SF has come to an end. Once again, my batting average is about .500: with three books on the roster for the month, I finished one and got about halfway through the second. Of course I’m aware of the irony that my goal was to finish books I never finished in school . . .
If you ever need proof that it pays to enrich your word power, read Jane Eyre. I think my vocabulary is probably somewhat larger than most people’s, but this book was one that challenged it more than anything I’ve read since my teens – including Chaucer and Shakespeare! Examples:
I felt how – if I were his wife, this good man, pure as the deep sunless source, could soon kill me, without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own crystal conscience the faintest stain of crime. Especially I felt this when I made any attempt to propitiate him. No ruth met my ruth.
ruth: pity or compassion. Ha! I’ve always wondered who Ruth was, that want of her would make a man lack mercy. Little did I know that the word actually existed in the English language, even though it’s directly related to the meaning of the biblical name (which is Hebrew for “compassion”). “To rue” is the verb form, which is still in (somewhat) common use, at least in pretentious villain-speak: “You’ll rue the day you ever faced me!”
And speaking of girls’ names, Rochester frequently calls Jane Eyre “Janet,” which, I learned, is a diminutive of Jane or Joan. Jane is a female form of John: like Ruth, a Biblical name, which means “God is merciful.” Considering that mercy, forgiveness, and restoraion are major themes in Jane Eyre, it wouldn’t surprise me that this was a deliberate name choice by Brontë for her title character.
“Oh, dear papa, how quiet and plain all the girls at Lowood look, with their hair combed behind their ears, and their long pinafores, and those little holland pockets outside their frocks – they are almost like poor people’s children!”
holland: linen treated with oil and starch to make it opaque, used in such things as curtains or tags. And, apparently, orphans’ clothing.
Half reclined on a couch appeared Mr. Rochester, his footsupported by the cushion; he was looking at Adele and the dog: the fire shone full on his face. I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair. I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw – yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy: I suppose it was a good figure in the athletic sense of the term – broad chested and thin flanked, though neither tall nor graceful.
physiognomy: the art of determining character from the features of the body or face. Brontë apparently had some measure of belief in this, judging by the number of times she appeals to it in her descriptions of characters’ appearance. There was no shortage of odd superstitions in the 19th century.
“I thought you would be revolted, Jane, when you saw my arm, and my cicatrised visage.”
cicatrix: scar tissue. Rochester lost his sight and his right hand, and his face was burned, while rescuing his servants from the fire that destroyed Thornfield Manor. Hence his concern that Jane might find his disfigured face repulsive. Of course, as she points out, he was never that good-looking to begin with . . .
“Is she original? Is she piquant? I would not exchange this one little English girl for the Grand Turk’s whole seraglio, gazelle-eyes, houri forms, and all!”
seraglio: a harem. At this stage in his life, Rochester had already pretty much had the whole seraglio. And just a little farther on:
“I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved – your harem inmates amongst the rest. I’ll get admitted there, and I’ll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred.”
bashaw: a self-important person. I really have to start using “three-tailed bashaw” in regular conversation.
Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë’s first published novel. She published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell, because of a taboo against female writers. There was no small discussion amongst critics of the day whether the novel had been written by a man or woman: as I recall from my classes, the prevailing opinion was that “Bell” was, indeed, a man. It is hard to believe, reading Brontë’s genteel prose, that Jane Eyre was considered quite coarse at the time. Nonetheless, it was a runaway bestseller, and it wasn’t long before Brontë was free to publish under her own name. The novel is semi-autobiographical: while not an orphan, Charlotte Brontë was the daughter of a clergyman, went to a harsh boarding school, and worked as a schoolteacher and a governess. Unlike Jane, however, she married the clergyman instead of the rich libertine, and he didn’t have a madwoman locked in his attic.
After Jane Eyre, I started to fight against the Philistines with Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. In this classic series of essays, originally published in periodicals before being collected into a single volume in 1869, Arnold is arguing for the pursuit of perfection through culture, which he famously defines as achievable via “sweetness and light” (i.e. beauty and thought). I’m currenty about midway through it, and even though the month is formally over, I intend to at least finish. It’s heavy going: full of allusions to “Philistines,” “Jacobins,” and others. I understand the allusions, but (at least in the case of the Jacobins) lack the historical context to grasp the significance for Arnold’s purposes.
However, reading through Arnold reminds me of how little I enjoyed reading the Victorian essayists. Apart from Jane Eyre, I had no problem finishing the novels in my Victorian prose course: Oliver Twist, Tom Brown’s School Days, and Phantastes – a batting average of about .850. With the essayists, on the other hand, I finished John Henry Newman’s “Tamworth Reading Room” and John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, dropped Thomas Carlyle mid-way, and never started Arnold – thus batting about .650.
Anyhow, another year is over, and as always it was fun and enlightening. But I’m in the mood for some good, escapist reading again.