Books Made of Paper

Sheila Kohler: ‘Becoming Jane Eyre'

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

Sheila Kohler’s Becoming Jane Eyre is an imagining (steeped in research) of what it was like for Charlotte Brontë to write Jane Eyre. Cloaked in Victorian language, Kohler spins a tale that takes us right into the 1800s, as though we were actually there, among the Brontë family. The book actually delves into the minds of several characters, aside from Charlotte, as it captures the lives of the Brontës in the short time between when they started sending out their manuscripts to publishers and when they died, all at young ages—Charlotte living the longest, but only to the age of 38.

The lovely Sheila Kohler, whose South African accent could stop wars

If you enjoyed any of the Brontës’ novels (or have any level of obsession with Downton Abbey), you’ll find it interesting to read about the real life events that inspired (or which Kohler imagines inspired) parts of their books, mainly Jane Eyre. Kohler envisions Charlotte at her father’s sick bed after his eye surgery, diligently writing her to-be acclaimed novel. At the time, the sisters had not yet published their first novels (Charlotte receives a rejection letter the day of her father’s surgery), and Charlotte was in a literal and figurative dark place with little to do but hold her father’s hand and conjure up another world. It was when she returned home to Yorkshire that she had a bit of writer’s block, no longer in a place of solitude and without distraction.

Meanwhile, the other sisters are also hard at work, and it’s Emily and Anne’s novels that find a publisher first. The reviews aren’t complimentary, though, and before they even come out, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre is finished and published with a more prominent London publishing house to wild reviews. You can imagine the tension in the Brontë house among these sisters who, while close, are also writers and let’s be honest, writers have egos.

After Charlotte comes out as the author (they had all used male pseudonyms) and embraces her celebrity, Kohler briefly fills us in on how the story ends, with more death than heartache (though there’s some of that, too). Unfortunately, this story does not have nearly as much drama, passion or romance as the women’s novels. It was their imagination more than anything that took their stories from the poverty and loneliness of their country life to the worlds in which they worked as governesses. I was left wondering, as many have, what we could have been gifted with had any of these women lived longer lives. Luckily there are a couple of Bronte books I haven’t read yet, and there may be a re-read of Jane Eyre in my future…

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