On Episode 9 of Dog-eared and Cracked, we discussed Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, of course, but I had only read it for the first time a couple of years ago, and Jay had never read it. And we both went to a high school that was big on classics.
During the course of our conversation, Jay and I both agreed we were glad we hadn’t been forced to read Jane Eyre when we were teens:
Jay: Here’s what I’ve believed for a while now. I don’t understand why they continue to make kids read things like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare. It’s just too much. And so here’s the thing, is that Shakespeare — I have deep love and respect for him and his plays and sonnets. And as an adult, I can somewhat appreciate him, even though it’s very complex. But it’s adult themes and it’s incredibly complex language, and I’m really skeptical…
Phil: I think that books at the wrong time can really turn you off them. Like, I hated Great Expectations and last year, earlier this year, I thought, let me give this book a try again. I was like, it’s actually funny. Like there are parts of it that are funny that I completely missed, right? Like, it just seemed so kind of dull and boring to me. So I guess in some ways maybe I’m happy we didn’t read [Jane Eyre] in high school because it probably would’ve just sort of turned me off.
I’ve thought about this a fair bit since we published the episode, back in November 2020. On the one hand, I understand the idea of introducing kids to classics. If you are exposed to them when you are young, it can open the door to the lifelong pleasure they can bring. (I’m not going to touch the question of what constitutes a classic and who decides here.) On the other hand, at the wrong time, or in the hands of the wrong teacher, this can be a disaster that turns you off for life. Let’s face it, it’s easier to read most crime novels than it is to pick up Jane Eyre, and without that extra prod, you might just stick to the crime novels. No disrespect to crime novels – I read 23 of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books in a six-month period last year – but it is definitely worth digging into something deeper from time to time.
My friend Joshua Raff recently wrote a great piece for Lithub on coming to Jane Austen later in life. Raff spent his career as a corporate lawyer, but still always found time for books. Austen, though, had eluded him. Then, along came the pandemic, and his family decided to take on Pride and Prejudice as a reading project.
“I was hooked,” he writes. “I put aside the other books I had been reading and devoted myself to Jane. I followed Pride and Prejudice with Emma and then Persuasion in quick succession. Each one was a true page-turner, great storytelling, with the added heft of sharp social commentary in language that is elegant, intricate, and comforting at the same time, a combination that seemed lacking in the other books I had been reading during the pandemic.”
(Speaking of Emma, I watched Clueless for the first time recently. Loved it. Had not realized until I read Raff’s piece that it was based on that Jane Austen book.)
One of the things Raff points out is that even though we associate Jane Austen’s books (and, I will add, those by the Brontë sisters) with female readers, Austen was much more widely read by men early in the 20th century.
Women are used to reading books with male protagonists. Men are less accustomed to this. And it starts in youth. Girls are far more likely to read books with boys as leads than the opposite. (Of course, girls are more likely to read books, period.)
Wondering why he waited so long to read Austen, Raff writes:
It is possible that I put Austen into a box reserved for particularly feminine writers, although I read at least as many novels by women writers as I do by men…
Unlike women readers, who have been forced to cross-identify with male characters for years, men have not had to find commonality with women characters and are simply not good at it, says [William] Deresiewicz. His book, A Jane Austen Education, describes his transformation as both a man and a person once he breached this barrier…
It may be that “men who read,” potential Janeites, are turned off by Austen’s sometimes brutal treatment of her male characters. I for one am mostly embarrassed, occasionally appalled, at the often vain, vapid, supercilious and small-minded men who populate Austen’s books, characters like Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion or Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen spares no one and there are many female characters who fit that description as well. And by necessity, there are a few good men, often matches for the heroines, since the books do end in traditional marriages. But the description of Sir Walter that opens Persuasion was almost enough for me to abandon the book entirely.
Like I said, after we published our Jane Eyre episode, I kept thinking about the question of teaching classics, and the harm of presenting them to kids as something you should read because it is good for you. So I called up Rohan Maitzen, who teaches both Victorian literature and crime fiction at Dalhousie University (I know whose classes I would be taking if I was an English undergrad again) to talk about this. I wound up writing a piece called “Great books shouldn’t be medicinal” about our conversation for the Halifax Examiner, a website I regularly write for.
Maitzen said she didn’t see a problem in introducing classics to kids when they are young. The problem lies with the approach that’s often taken:
Remember that these books were not written as classics. There’s no such thing. These were massive bestsellers. Dickens was such a huge icon of popular culture of his age. The Brontë novelists were a sensation in their time. They made headlines…
[The approach that] you have to read these books because they’re the classics and they’re good for you and they’re important creates a kind of dread, and it disconnects you from the energy that the writers brought in. These are people who are writing at a time when by and large they thought literature was meant to change people, when it was meant to change the world. They weren’t writing aesthetic objects to be admired. I mean, Dickens wanted people to get up and do things differently because they had read his books. They really reach outward. They often address the reader. And they draw you into the story to say, this isn’t just about my characters. This is a reflection on you and the world you live in and the way you behave. And and to me, anyway, that’s an exciting relationship to have with the book.
In our interview, Maitzen told me her undergrad Victorian novel classes are just about always full. There is still a mystique to Victorian novels, even if they come with a lot of baggage, and she said she tries to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the material:
A number of students have a revelation when they read the actual books…. Not only is this exciting reading, but look at the questions and moral problems they’re raising. You win the students over with your enthusiasm and use that to carry them as far as you can go with the intellectual and moral questions.
It is my life’s work, to get people to read these books with appreciation.
In case you think this is overly romantic, I should point out she also told me she hates Dead Poets Society and the whole “charismatic teacher standing on desk” trope.
But getting people to read books with appreciation? I mean, in some small way that’s part of the Dog-eared and Cracked mission too. We want to have fun, talk about books, and maybe you’ll come away with an appreciation for something unexpected.
Maybe even Jane Eyre, if you’ve been avoiding it all your life.