Dear Charlotte Bronte,
I know that everyone loves Jane Austen. “Her wonderful heroines” blah blah blah. For Goodness sakes, there are zombie books based on Austen’s novels, which proves that her work has been revered enough to be blasphemed by the latest fad in “youth” fiction.
But this fan letter is for you, Charlotte Bronte, who gave the world Jane Eyre, the “first heroine in fiction to know that she needs her own identity more than she needs marriage.” [fn 1.] This is a heroine born into the world in 1847. How the hell did you do that? I have been reading biographical materials on your life– it’s splendid when you and your sisters are described as “lonely spinsters”– and I keep wondering how you did that, how you wrote Jane Eyre, living when you did (mid-1800s), where you did (the wilds of Yorkshire), and how you did (with your sisters and your drug-addicted brother).
I assigned myself a writing project born of inspiration from my love of Jane Eyre. I am updatingJE, setting it in Chicago, and exploring the themes of love and power and identity. Sounds great, right? Actually, it’s devastatingly difficult to do. I have 10,000 words, most of which I loathe in a vague sense, but I keep going. I picture you at your desk, hiding from your sick brother (“Branwell was wont to say and do terrible things when he was drunk” [fn 2.]) and willing away jealousy and competitive feelings with your sisters (who are both writers and the sense of competition is my projection) and just writing your heart out.
Charlotte, know this: it’s not the book that comes from my efforts that is a tribute to you; it’s the efforts themselves. Your book and your voice are singular and beloved.
All week long I have been itching to get my hands on that blasted Newsweek article about how the “working woman” wants to be dominated in the bedroom (more on that in a rant-post this evening). I have refused to buy the magazine because I don’t want to give Newsweek my money. I did, however, get a copy from a friend and after 2 paragraphs of the article explaining why my fantasies allegedly involve lots of spanking, I retreated back to Jane Eyre. which although more than 150 years old, rings truer to me than Katie Roiphe’s article.
I loveJane Eyreand had a moment in 2009 when I wanted to name Sadie after her. Turns out, Sadie got the rebellious, feisty, anti-authoritarian spirit of Jane Eyre anyway. “A rose by any other name…” Like Jane, Sadie is passionate, full of appetites, and somewhat untamed. Some of Sadie’s passions may need more directing than Jane’s, since we don’t live on the moors. Sadie’s “passions” recall the spirit of Jane Eyre and, at the very least, give me a fine literary tradition to call upon when I am struggling with how to be patient with them.
I am a huge fan. I have 3 more biographies to read about you this year; I can’t imagine how I could adore you and JE more. I also promise never to put vampires or zombies in my Charlotte-Bronte-inspired stories.
Rest in peace,
FN 1:Eric Jong in the Introduction (p. ix) to the Signet Classic edition (1997).
FN 2: FromThe Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronteby Syrie James (2009).