Jane Eyre’s Crazy Life

I am no bird; and no net ensares me. Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847          

Oh, Jane Eyre, how I love you. Let me count the ways.

1)      I love your rigid, adamantine character. Miss Eyre has her own ideas of proper self-conduct and the four horsemen of the apocalypse couldn’t drag her off the straight and narrow path. She will crawl away from temptation over the freezing moors and starve to death under a shrub rather than violate her own code of ethics. It’s a bit hypocritical that I love this quality in Jane, because I often get frustrated with characters who do the honorable thing even when it’s the thing that causes the most pain for everybody (think Mr. Bates season 1 and 2). However, it’s nice to see a female character who is not tossed around by the inclinations of others. Jane refuses to let male desires rule her life and when she’s refusing she says wonderful things like “I am no bird; and no net ensares me!”

2)      I love your British school girl days. My family lived in England for a year when I was nine. I remember huddling close to my only friend, trying to survive the bleak, cold, foggy weather during “recess.” I can relate to Jane’s school days and I like that they are included in the story. Most earlier literature considers the time right before she gets married to be the only noteworthy part of a woman’s life.

3)      I love your plot twist. We all know what happens in Jane Eyre, right? Stop reading now if you don’t already know the twist. Secret crazy monster wife! Secret crazy monster wife is such a surprise. I have probably read Jane Eyre four times and Mr. Rochester’s insane secret wife still blows my mind.

Jane Eyre, Bertha, crazy wife

4)      I love your moral ambiguity. Gone is the Arthurian proto-type of the noble knight and the valiant maiden struggling against outside forces. The love between Jane and Mr. Rochester has plenty of conflict without the interference of the outside world. The power dynamics between them are unsettling.  She refers to him as her master. He is always trying to trick her into accidentally revealing her true feelings for him. His eventual blindness makes him dependent on her and obligates her to be his nurse. It’s all very strange, which makes Jane Eyre an interesting book to pick up and read again.

5)      I love your mysticism. Jane is constantly having dreams and presentiments. When she and Mr. Rochester first meet they both think they are having an encounter with a creature of the Fae. In my opinion, Charlotte Bronte pulls off these Gothic elements better than any author I have encountered on this list so far, because her language is ornate, precise and original. Jane’s visions are so well described that they are hard not to enjoy and they don’t come off as trite, as Gothic elements sometimes do in the hands of lesser authors.

6)      I love to hate your horrible cousin. St. John makes my top ten list of the most despicable characters in literature. He attempts to use religion to coerce a woman into marrying him. And because marriage inevitably leads to sex, he is also using religion to manipulate his own cousin into having sex with him. So gross. He actually says this “take that space of time to consider my offer: and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God.” Let me translate that into modern English for you: “Jane, let me mansplain something to you real quick. I personally know the will of God way better than you, because, you know, he made me a man, so he must like me more. So, whatever I want is essentially the will of God, including your everlasting devotion and body. Duh. Now, just do what I want, because God and I say so.” This guy makes me want to vomit. However, adamant Jane does not give in! This line of logic does not work on her. She feels that her interpretation of God’s will is just as valid as St. John’s and God wouldn’t want her to marry this tool. Did I mention that he wants her to go be a missionary with him? Which is the worst thing a person can do.  I honestly don’t understand why anyone was ever gullible enough to be a missionary. Missions were and are never about saving souls, they are about establishing an economic foothold for the benefit of corporations and/or the government. The side effect is the spread of disease and destruction of culture. Kids, don’t be missionaries. It’s an incredibly misguided thing to do. There’s a difference between acting “for God” and acting “for The Church.”

7)       I love that I know you so well. Jane Eyre is long, because it provides a detailed portrait of Jane’s inner life. You really get to know and understand the workings of her mind. It’s not the type of novel that you rush through. Instead you spend time getting intimate with the protagonist. That’s not really how novels are written today. Now, authors like mysterious, inscrutable protagonists. There’s something to be said for the Bronte’s Victorian level of detail. By the end of the book, I felt like Jane was an old friend.

You might like Jane Eyre if:

  • you like Wuthering Heights.
  • you like a bit of magic.
  • you like Victorian fiction.
  • you’re an Anglo-phile.

You might not like Jane Eyre if:

  • you can’t handle the length of it. It’s lengthy.


Final thoughts: I really enjoyed rereading Jane Eyre. The strange romance is more intriguing from an adult perspective. This is one of my favorite novels of all time. Most stories about a young person’s religious coming of age put me straight to sleep. To me, the answer to question “How do I reconcile my faith with the realities of my life?” is very simple: Stop torturing yourself and do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. So, when a character feels tormented, because they want something that their religion tells them they can’t have, I get real bored. There are only a few pages, late in Jane Eyre that made me feel this way. Overall, Bronte managed to sell religious dilemmas to this atheist, which is a miracle.


Evangeline, the Cajun Trail of Tears


Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1847

Evangeline is a lengthy, but not quite epic, poem by Longfellow about the Expulsion of the Acadians. During the French and Indian War, the British forcibly exported French colonists from Nova Scotia, Maine and a few other maritime settlements in Canada. Longfellow’s poem follows the story of a pure, young Acadian lady named Evangeline.

Evangeline and her beloved, Gabriel, are separated during the Expulsion. When they arrive somewhere in the 13 colonies, Evangeline starts searching for Gabriel. She spends her life seeking after him, roaming far across the colonies.

The poem is written in the meter of classical Greek poetry, dactylic hexameter. I am not fond of this choice of Longfellow’s. The awkward syntax and lack of rhyme made me hanker after Percy Bysshe Shelley, who could tell story in lovely poetry. Longfellow tells a story, but the poetry is unlovely.

Evangeline is a sentimental poem. It evokes emotions, but it’s a bit saccharine and oversimplified. Longfellow depicts the Acadians as perfect peasants. He supports that classic Victorian idea that the city is vile and corrupting while the country is basically Eden before the Fall. What a whacky idea. There is darkness in human hearts, regardless of the location of the hearts.

Longfellow ignores the complicity of the American colonists in the Expulsion, letting the blame fall entirely on the British.

I also take issue with the idea that Evangeline is made more divine by her self-sacrificing quest to find Gabriel. She gives up her entire life to this search. I don’t think this concept of complete, all-consuming female devotion serves women very well.

That being said, Evangeline is an important poem. It became Longfellow’s most famous work. It also engendered sympathy for the Acadians among the general public, which is quite a feat given the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment at this time. The Acadians don’t appear often in literature. The rarity of the subject matter lends interest.

Evangeline is beloved in Acadia and in Louisiana. There are sculptures of Evangeline and places named after the poem.


“Talk not of wasted affection, affection never was wasted;

If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters, returning

Back to their springs, like the rain, shall fill them full of refreshment;

That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain,

Patience; accomplish thy labor; accomplish thy work of affection!

Sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.

Therefore accomplish thy labor of love, till the heart is made godlike,

Purified, strengthened, perfected, and rendered more worthy of heaven!”

Cheered by the good man’s words, Evangeline labored and waited.

Still in her heart she heard the funeral dirge of the ocean,

But with its sound there was mingled a voice that whispered “Despair not!”

Thus did the poor soul wander in want and cheerless discomfort,

Bleeding barefooted, over the shards and thorns of existence.


You might like Evangeline if:

  • Gambit is your favorite X-man.

You might not like Evangeline if:

  • you didn’t enjoy reading the Illiad or Odyssey in high school.


Final thoughts:

I feel for Evangeline as a victim of patriarchal need for women to suffer for love. Her story is compelling. However, Longfellow’s treatment of his historical subject matter lacks nuance and so does his poetic style.

Everybody Needs to Read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845

If you haven’t read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or you haven’t read it in a long time, you should read it. It will make you feel terrible, but you should read it. It has a happy ending.

I read this book when I was a child and while I really wasn’t able to process or understand the cruelty that Douglass witnessed and endured as a slave, I was inspired by the strength of his character. As an adult, the facts of Douglass’ early life are much more gut-wrenchingly horrific, and his ability to retain a sense of personal worth and dignity are even more admirable.

No rags-to-riches story in the canon of English fiction is more dramatic than the true story of Frederick Douglass’ life. As a child he was separated from his mother. He suspected that his white owner was his father, but this was never acknowledged. He was barely fed and given one shirt per year as clothing. During winter, on “the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.”

Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where the wife of his owner began to teach him to read, until her husband made her stop, because it was illegal to teach slaves to read. With dogged determination and resourcefulness, Douglass secretly continued to teach himself how to read. He read abolitionist tracts. He became more enraged at the cruel injustice of slavery and more determined to be free.

Look, I was going to keep writing, but I don’t actually want to say much about this book. You don’t need to hear it from me, you should hear it from Frederick Douglass himself. The entire purpose of a “slave narrative” is to learn about oppression from the oppressed, instead of getting your information second hand. Besides, Douglass is way more eloquent than I am. Every line in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass agitates my emotions.

I have admired Frederick Douglass for a long time. I think he possibly lived the most admirable life of any American ever.

I didn’t dress up as Frederick Douglass, because that didn’t seem respectful and racial politics are complicated. What I did do was visit the house where he lived in Washington, D.C. which is a historical site now. If you live in or are visiting the D.C. area, you should go to the site and learn about this man. Ironically, his house is very close to a school where I taught. A school in which 98% of students are African American and 14% of students are proficient in reading. Frederick Douglass’ work is not done.

One other thing I must mention, Douglass spoke out vehemently about the false Christianity of the slaveholders. In his experience, religious slaveholders were the most cruel. I probably don’t need to warn any of my readers about the way religion is still used in this country as a justification for hatred, oppression and cruelty towards minorities. But, here’s an excellent quote for good measure:

“Men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

Beware of religious revivalism. It saves no souls.

Here are some  more quotes:

Be faithful, be vigilant, be untiring in your efforts to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free.

It’s easier to build strong children then repair broken men.

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Final thoughts:

Just read it. It’s not very long. It’s in the public domain, so you can get it for free. No excuses, just read it.

Wuthering Heights, a Second and Third Opinion

Catherine Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, 1847

Welcome to a brand new type of post.  When I review classic literature for this blog, I often feel the need to write “but, that’s just my opinion.” I know that while I think Robert Burns descended from heaven and Herman Melville is duller than an anvil, other people have different and equally valid opinions. My friends Sahra and Simone talk about Wuthering Heights a lot. They’re Wuthering Heights fangirls. I wanted to include their thoughts on the book, so we sat down and chatted about it. I recorded and transcribed the conversation. Let me know if you like this type of post. We three ladies have a lot to say about literature. We could just keep on talking.

This post is very long. Click the link below to read the entire post and see all the pictures. The pictures are a collaborative effort too. Simone and her husband Ike visited the Bronte home on their honeymoon and took some amazing pictures on the romantic moors. Moors!

Sydney’s comments are bold.

Sahra’s comments are in italics.

Simone’s comments are in the regular font.

Let’s Begin

What was first about this book? Why was it so popular immediately?

It actually had a mixed critical reception. It’s much more loved now than it was during its time, because people were shocked by. . .

It was sexual.

It made a big splash. It was controversial and controversial kind of equals popular, because everyone was talking about it. I remember when we went to the house, they had displays of the reviews from that time, saying that it would corrupt young women’s minds.

Did she write under a male penname?

The Bronte’s all did. The question of whether they would all be as popular today if they hadn’t written under male pseudonyms, we can never know.

There are a lot of books by Victorians authors that were embraced by Victorians as being examples of who they wanted to be as a society. Dickens, for example, had evil characters, but overall his work is a reflection of the morality of his times. But, I think that Emily Bronte certainly was not embraced in that way. People did not want to hear about the cruel behavior and twisted psychology of her characters. That was very forbidden.

Can you think of books written before this that have anti-heroes?


Byron. Not novels, so much.

Certainly not many, and probably not any female authors.

(Although, now I am thinking that Charlotte Temple certainly qualifies as an anti-hero.)

Byron sort of started that dark, twisted hero deal. And I can see Byronic influence in Wuthering Heights.

heathcliff grief


Would you consider Heathcliff to be a Byronic hero?

I think he qualifies as Byronic, because he has a dark past. I don’t know though, because the Byronic hero tries to do the right thing, but is overcome by his dark mysterious past and his psychological issues and Heathcliff is trying really hard to do the wrong thing and mess up people’s lives.

Continue reading

Around the World with Charles Darwin

charles darwin voyage of the beagle

The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin, 1838

In 1831 an intrepid young naturalist set out aboard the H.M.S. Beagle on a voyage of discovery that would change the whole freaking world. Not kidding. The prospect of reading page after page of field notes about a five year long surveying expedition might not sound entertaining. But, hey, this is Darwin we’re talking about. He’s a young man with a brilliant, penetrating mind, setting out on a dangerous (yes, dangerous!) journey. He’s sacrificing personal comfort, safety and the companionship of friends and family for the sake of Knowledge, that glistening goddess. And not just any type of knowledge: Knowledge of the Natural World. What could be more exciting than that? The natural world is our home; a source of sustenance, wonder, bewilderment and catastrophe. We gotta know all about it. We need to learn science FASTER!

Learn! Science! Faster!

Now that we have an appropriate sense of urgency, we can talk about Darwin’s notes on The Voyage of the Beagle.

The Beagle sailed south from England, bumped off the coast of Africa, stopped at Tenerife, slowly scouted down the east coast of South America, slipped round Cape Horn, journeyed up the west coast of South America, stopped at the Galapagos Islands, continued across the Pacific to New Zealand, Australia, Cape Town, went back to the east side of South Africa and carried on to the Azores and finally home to England. The Beagle apparently stopped at every possible island in its path, which is great because island biogeography is the best!

Darwin took copious notes about the geography, botany, zoology and humanity he encountered.  Reading his observations on these topics gives a glimpse into the mind of the man who developed the Theory of Evolution, which is the biggest, most important concept in biology. So, I will break down for you the 3 habits of Charles Darwin’s highly effective mind that I noticed while reading his notes.

1)      Attention to detail. Darwin, like other naturalists, made meticulous observations and kept detailed notes. In one day he would record observations about the weather, the geological features of the land, the plants he saw including number and variety, the animals he encountered including behavior, and detailed descriptions of the people he encountered: their ways of life, attitude towards him, their clothing, houses, food, stories they had about past geological and biological events in the area, their interactions with natives (if they were European) or with Europeans (if they were native) or with other natives. He would collect plant, animal, mineral and fossil specimens and send them to specialists to examine.

2)      Compare, contrast, compile. Darwin constantly compared new information with what he already knew. How does the emu compare to the ostrich? The palm trees of Africa to the palms of South America? Uplifted land in England to uplifted land in Tierra del Fuego?  The finch bills to the finch bills to the finch bills to the FINCH BILLS!

3)      Synthesis. Every once in a while in his notes, Darwin throws in a little nugget that indicates his search for the overarching, guiding principles that unite all the plants and critters. Why are large, flightless birds found in Africa and South America and formerly in New Zealand? What helps one beast survive a drought while other species die off? The more information he gathers, the better he is able to answer these questions, which makes the two proceeding habits so important. His constant searching, observing and comparing lead to a series of more refined questions about the organizing principles of life. Primarily, Darwin wondered about the distribution of plants and animals. As he circumnavigated the globe gathering information about the types of animals and plants that thrive in different places he started to see the connections between form, function and survival.

That may be an egregious oversimplification of the qualities that made Darwin so great, but scientific thinking is actually pretty simple.

Darwin also includes his subjective reaction to scenery and people. He waxes poetic about lush, tropical scenery and complains frequently about the uniformity of the landscape in some areas of South America. He admires the skill of the gauchos and laments the horrible institution of slavery, but frequently refers to indigenous South Americans and Pacific Islanders as savage, uncivilized, superstitious, mean and degraded. Your sensibilities will be offended by his descriptions of the Tierra del Fuegians. He loves Tahiti for its scenery and because the people are kind, which disposition he attributes to the success of the Christian missionaries in that area. He hated New Zealand. That’s right. Charles Darwin thought that New Zealand was boring and ugly. Obviously, he did not set foot on any of the places where Lord of the Rings was filmed. Darwin found the Maori scary and savage. He did not care for their tattoos.

You might like The Voyage of the Beagle if:

  • you’re a daring young naturalist with a passion for the natural world
  • you like reading travel narratives
  • you’re interested in European imperialism
  • you’re interested in the cultures present in South America and various islands just before the Victorian era started.

You might not like The Voyage of the Beagle if:

  • travelogues bore you
  • you are a Creationist who feels threatened by critical thinking
  • European Imperialism gives you untreatable heartache


Final Thoughts

Reading Darwin’s field notes felt very homey and comforting to me. They sound a lot like a conversation with my relatives, most of whom are naturalists and evolutionary biologists. Obviously, the best part of the narrative is the visit to the Galapagos Islands, where he encountered the finches and their array of bills and noticed the subtle gradations from one bill shape to another. If you’re interested, you could just check out that chapter.

The Sick, Sad World of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838

I read Oliver Twist as rapidly as I read The Hunger Games. That’s how caught up I was in the plot of Oliver Twist. Dickens creates a web of immoral, malicious schemers around his sweet, innocent protagonist. Oliver is a bright light in a dark, sordid world. I was driven to keep reading by a sense that danger lurked behind every lamppost. I needed to know if Oliver would escape the traps laid for him or be irrevocably lost to a life of crime.

I’ve noticed that morally ambiguous characters with complex, ever-changing personalities are popular in contemporary TV, movies and novels. You won’t find that in Oliver Twist. Oliver is completely good and naïve. Bill Sykes the housebreaker is coarse, self-interested and mean. Each character stays true to a relatively simple set of traits. Which is fine, because this is a plot driven novel and the seedy underbelly of London provides ample space for the characters to interact with each other in complex ways.
The only personage who shows any character development is Nancy, literature’s first tart-with-a-heart. I’m pretty sure about that. Oh, wait. Mary Magdalene? Anyway, Nancy starts to lose her loyalty to her little gang of criminals. Unlike the rest of that gang, she starts to act selflessly. Nancy’s attempts to find a semblance of love and morality in her dark, dysfunctional world are more pitiable even than Oscar’s trials as a beleaguered orphan on the streets of London.

Sykes Kills Nancy

Overall, I loved reading Oliver Twist and I heartily recommend it. I did have two problems with it; one major and one minor. The anti-Semitism in this book hit me like a punch in the gut every 50 pages or so. The character Fagin is depicted as a greedy, cowardly, deceitful, hook-nosed Jew worthy of the utmost scorn. Dickens rarely uses Fagin’s name, but refers to him instead as “the Jew.” Dickens describes Fagin as more of an animal than a man.

“The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.”

Doesn’t that just turn your stomach? Worthy of the pages of Mein Kampf. When I came to passages like this, I felt like a terrible person for enjoying other parts of this book.

My other, much less disturbing complaint about Oliver Twist is classism. The implicit reason that Oscar is able to stay good and pure throughout his trials and in spite of his exposure to corrupted people like Sykes and Fagin is the genteel blood secretly coursing through his veins. How silly of Dickens to think that a well-born mother can save a child from perdition when the mother died in childbirth and cannot influence the child. Oh well, if there’s one thing the British gentility are good at, it’s thinking well of themselves.

You might like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like your novels to have plot, tension and a sense of urgency.
  • You don’t mind well-worded if long-winded descriptions of setting and characters interspersed with your urgent, tense plot movement.

You might not like Oliver Twist if:

  • You like a lot of character development in your novels.

Final Thoughts: I love Nancy. The fallen woman, forced by poverty into bad company. Her sad, misguided attempts to find affection and worthiness in her dark world will break your heart. In a good way. The way literature should.