Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jane Eyre's American Daughters

Jane Eyre was published in America in 1848, a year after its publication in England. A few years later, in 1855, Charlotte Bronte died at the age of 38, and two years after that, her friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, published a biography about Bronte which boosted the popularity of both the novel and its author among women on both sides of the ocean. In John Seelye's critical study, Jane Eyre's American Daughters, he examines the young heroines of wildly popular novels published in the 50-75 years after Jane Eyre and claims that in one way or another, the female authors were influenced by Bronte's classic novel as well as Gaskell's portrait of Bronte which would have you believe that Bronte modeled Jane almost entirely after herself.

Susan Warner's 1850 novel The Wide, Wide World doesn't seem very much like Jane Eyre at first glance, with its dripping sentimentalism and strong emphasis on the Christian theme. Indeed, as Seelye points out, it seems like a book Mr. Brocklehurst would have made the young girls at Lowood commit to memory. Suffering is good. The more you suffer in life, that means God loves you so much, so be eager and grateful for suffering. But there are faint echoes of Jane Eyre. Like Jane, Ellen is alone in the world. She's not an orphan, but her mother dies and her father is distant. Eventually, she works as a governess. She doesn't have a temper, as Jane does, but she cries copiously, so one could argue that it's temper turned inward. There's also an older man that the reader is given to understand Ellen will marry eventually. The Wide, Wide World is briefly referenced in Little Women as Jo is sitting in a tree reading it and crying.

Elsie Dinsmore was more influenced by The Wide, Wide World than Jane Eyre. To drive the point home, author Martha Finley has Elsie reading it in one of the sequels (there are 25 of them). Elsie, who made her first appearance in 1867, is pious and a crybaby like Ellen. Her mother is dead, and although I'm sure Finley, a Sunday school teacher didn't mean it, the father is a little ...strange. Elsie resembles his dead young wife so closely that he often comes off like a jealous boyfriend. It's not incest, but there's a creepy feel to readers with 21st century sensibilities. He wants total obedience from Elsie; he wants her to love him more than she loves God/Jesus. Elsie feels guilt and self-reproach that she can't give him that but she's suffering, and that's a plus! Her behavior towards him alternates between acting afraid of him (lots of trembling and crying) and acting like a coquette ("archly" is one of poor style-challenged Finley's favorite adverbs when Elsie is speaking with her father, she's often perched on his knee, they kiss and embrace "tenderly"). It's no surprise that Elsie gets married to Mr. Travilla, her father's best friend.
I wish I could say that I'm getting all of this from Seelye's book, but I actually went through an Elsie phase (my grandmother still had the books from when she was a girl in the 1920s) and read the first three.

In Little Women, the Christian sentimentality is toned way down and filtered through John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The March girls aren't orphans, but dad is off at war in the first part. Meg and Jo work as governesses. Jo has a temper that she's always trying to curb. When Beth dies, suffering makes Jo "better" --she gives up writing lurid thrillers and starts writing wholesome things. She ends up with an older man, Professor Bhaer.

Since it's known that Louisa May Alcott loved Charlotte Bronte's writing, it's so delicious to note that Alcott's thriller Behind A Mask turned Jane Eyre on its ear. It's like the madwoman was sprung from the attic. Conniving Jean Muir (check out that name and those initials!), a 30-something divorced actress has a scheme to marry money, so she disguises herself to look like a 19-year old and takes a governess job. Ultimately, her scheme is revealed, but not before she achieves her aim with the head of the family, an old widower. Too bad Louisa Alcott never met Mae West because they could have shared one of West's witticisms: When I'm good, I'm very good. And when I'm bad, I'm even better.

In Seelye's roundup, the heroines start to get considerably younger. 10-year-old Sara Crewe becomes an orphan and Miss Minchin is definitely from the Mrs. Reed mold. As soon as she realizes that Sara is both an orphan and a pauper, she sends Sara from her fine room up to the attic. Hmmm... Sara even works as a governess of sorts, because she is expected to help the other girls with their lessons, in exchange for her meager room and board. Like most of our heroines, Sara has a temper but she trains herself to hold her anger in because she feels that it makes her more powerful. An older guy figures into the story, but instead of becoming a husband, the "Indian Gentleman" adopts her when he figures out that she's the daughter of his old friend who he inadvertently caused to lose a lot of money.

Rebecca Rowena Randall from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) has a dead father, and since there are seven kids in the family, mom sends Rebecca to her maiden aunts. Aunt Miranda is a little crusty, but she is eventually swayed by Rebecca's charming disposition. Rebecca's temper is generally good. She has a run-in with her classmate, Minnie Smellie, but who wouldn't, with that name? Rebecca is good in school and she gets a teaching position, but has to give it up and go home because her mother is ill. There's an older guy in the picture, but he's just a friend. His name is Adam Ladd, but imaginative Rebecca calls him "Mr. Aladdin" because she sells him a lamp.
Fun fact: "Becky Randall" is a character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Jerusha "Judy" Abbott from the epistolary novel Daddy-Long-Legs has been an orphan at The John Grier Home her entire life. Upon her graduation from high school, she finds out that an anonymous wealthy benefactor is going to send her to college and educate her as a writer, on the strength of a composition she wrote that he found amusing. Judy is proud, feisty and independent. She's determined to correspond with her benefactor (who she christens "Daddy-Long-Legs" -- she catches a glimpse of a tall gentleman leaving the orphanage) and eventually find out who he is. Temper? Judy gets frustrated when he won't respond to her chatty missives and when he brusquely sends orders through his secretary, she seethes and stops writing for a while. Meanwhile, Judy has a college friend named Julia who has a 3o-something tall and wealthy uncle named Jervis Pendleton who takes more than a passing interest in Judy. Hmmm. All of the Jane Eyre influences are there, but in a sunnier presentation.
Sadly, Jean Webster's last year mirrored Charlotte Bronte's -- Bronte died of complications from pregnancy at 38 and Webster died the day after giving birth to her first child at 39. Daddy-Long-Legs was also one of my grandmother's books. It is my oldest movie tie-in book -- there are stills from the 1930s "photoplay" with Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter. Back in 2005, a Korean remake was released; I really want to see it.
Seelye concludes his examination of these American heroines with Anne Shirley from Anne Of Green Gables. Although it's hardly necessary, he defensively points out that as a Canadian she qualifies, being North American. Well, duh. Anne is also an orphan and she goes to work (happily) as a teacher but except for taking exception to comments about her red hair, she doesn't display much temper and gets along well with everyone. For the first time, there is no older man to beguile the heroine. Anne eventually settles down with Gilbert Blythe, her former classmate.
Seelye obviously loves Anne and enjoys wickedly pointing out that the beloved character made her appearance in 1908, a year before the death of Martha Finley, the author of the Elsie Dinsmore books. Seelye actually writes: "Ding dong, the witch is dead." But he also takes a little jab at Lucy Maud Montgomery, saying that she must have had Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm open in her lap when she was writing the first chapter of AOGG. (Actually, the two opening chapters are pretty similar, as are the titles.)
I really enjoyed Seelye's critical study. At times, his reach seems to exceed his grasp, but he never fails to entertain.


Carrie K said...

That does sound entertaining. I'm familiar with some of the books - but I managed to not read almost all of the serials. Too involved w/Cherry Ames and Trixie Belden to read Anne of Green Gables, maybe? who knows. I love that Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre inspired so many authors.

Bybee said...

I read one Trixie Belden and the first five Cherry Ames books.

Tara said...

Oh, you've mentioned a few of my favorites here. I wonder how many times I read my battered copies of The Little Princess and Daddy Long Legs. Good memories.

Anonymous said...