24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: biographies

Abby Reads: The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher

The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece  by John Pfordresher
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, 256 pages
Literary Criticism/Biography

In The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher, the Georgetown University professor posits that Jane Eyre is a largely autobiographical work written in response to an affair that wasn’t in Brontë’s life. I came upon The Secret History of Jane Eyre through an event at the Arlington Public Library in Arlington, VA in September 2017. The library would host Pfordresher in his lecture on the book at the Central Library. I read the book in preparation for the event and was gravely disappointed. Reader, it was absurd.

While I no doubt agree that writers inform their work with their personal lives, claiming that Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre are the same is ludicrous. In my years of English classes — including a Bachelor’s degree in English from Hollins University and, too, a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San José State University for which I further examined literature from a scholarly perspective — I likely fell into the trap of comparing the author to the narrator or main character. I can’t recall a particular time I might have done this, but I am certain it was whipped out of me quickly. Ascribing intent, as Pfordresher does here, in a writer’s work is literary criticism suicide. We can, by all means, suggest that a piece of literature can be read in such-in-such a way or that a piece of literature can be interpreted thusly, but to straight out assert that Jane is Charlotte and vice versa is a leap most educators would not find acceptable in a midterm paper, let alone a published work. I happen to agree.

On top of a rather ridiculous premise, Pfordresher fails to really support his ideas. Though the organization of his work is solid — he chronologically exhibits both events from the novel and events from Brontë’s life side-by-side, lending the only credibility to his claims I was able to find — the evidence is weak at best. The majority of Pfordresher’s evidence relies on speculation and emotional projection. For example, he supposes Jane’s low moods, especially reflected in a cold and barren opening scene, are reflective of Brontë’s feelings of entrapment as she tended to her temporarily-blind father after he had eye surgery. Surely, he asserts, Brontë felt sad and cooped up, and so she wrote Jane the same. While letters from Brontë to friends might suggest these feelings, to then assume these emotions were all-consuming and, what’s more, the basis for her novel is, again, a leap. Self-insertion narratives exist, no doubt, but we cannot make that kind of claim here without more evidence, at least. How many letters have I written to friends about how I’m hankering for a sandwich? And later, how often do I mention a sandwich in my own fictional pursuits? Often enough, I suppose, but this does not mean that my characters are me, nor does it mean I am utterly enthralled with sandwiches. We don’t write just about things we obsess over: we write about the everyday, too, and Pfordresher ignores this fact in his points. Pfordresher may suppose Brontë felt sadness at being bound to her father, but how much is he supposing based on how he expects he would feel in the same situation? The language he uses in this particular example seems to indicate, even, that he is projecting his own experiences onto Brontë, who, according to him, is projecting onto Jane.

Other outlandish assertions include Jane’s love interest, Mr. Rochester, being modeled primarily off of Brontë’s brother and father (along with the man from her affair-that-wasn’t); that Brontë was interested in domineering men (though Pfordresher provided contrary evidence in that she referred to her own husband as “my boy”), thus explaining Mr. Rochester’s character to a greater degree; and that St. John Rivers was not modeled after anyone (which, while I might agree with that, it seems a copout to write an entire book stating that Jane and Charlotte are the same without, again, supporting it in every facet). These are only a few of the big jumps Pfordresher makes, always within the frame of intent, as opposed to possible interpretation.

When I confronted Pfordresher about his premise and evidence at the Arlington Public Library event, I simply stated I wasn’t convinced. He agreed that other critics and readers had pointed out his evidence was insufficient for them, but that he stood by his thesis. I asked for further evidence and his primary source of confidence, he said, was a letter Brontë wrote to George Henry Lewes in which she alluded to the combination of nature, truth, and imagination in her writing. Still, without documentation from Brontë herself stating that Jane is truly herself, this letter means nothing more than that Brontë was perhaps influenced and informed by her own life in her writing.

In terms of prose, Pfordresher has a slow and tedious style with little sentence and vocabulary variation to keep things running. Though it’s fairly readable — and he admitted the book had been rewritten after original criticisms that the first go was too academic for a mainstream audience — it is still not exactly pop literary criticism, leaving the book in this odd place between popular and academic writing. Combined with the barely-there evidence, this style renders the book practically useless. (No personal offense to Professor Pfordresher, and I do mean “practically” here in the sense of the word “practice.”) There is no useful application for this material excerpt, I suppose, as an opportunity to publish material that argues against it, and I suspect it could be done very, very successfully.

Though Pfordresher explained the origins of the book came from a woman who heard his interview with Diane Rehm some years back and requested a text on how Charlotte Brontë came to write Jane Eyre, the book ends up feeling like the result of pressure to publish as a working professor. That is a kettle of fish I really know nothing about, though at first glance I worry that this is often the result of arbitrary publication rules around tenure and careers of teaching. Pfordresher, in his lecture, noted that he had not already drawn his conclusion at the time he started his research, perhaps as a way to placate my concerns over his lack of evidence — if he had been swayed throughout his time working on the book, certainly I could be by what he presented. If the evidence is there, Pfordresher does a poor job at selling it — but, frankly, I don’t think the evidence is there to begin with.

The Secret History of Jane Eyre doesn’t add anything new to the canon of literary criticism, relies on outdated and unreliable sources for evidence, and spends a lot of time turning supposition into fact. It’s not something I can imagine any professor I’ve ever had accepting as an idea for a paper, let alone as the paper itself. Unless you’re interested in preparing a rebuttal (I’ll edit!) to this work, it’s not worth the time. Skip it.

❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Penguin Books, 2005, 832 pages
Biography

I caught the Hamilton bug last June, during which time I swore to myself again and again that I’d listen to something else for a change, just to once again, plug the Hamilton soundtrack into my ears. (The obsession gradually shifted to also include Panic! at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor, but I still listen to Hamilton pretty heavily, discovering new layers every time — but that’s enough about my music habits.) Like pretty much the rest of the country/world, I decided I must read the original biography which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus in the first place. My friends, I was not prepared.

It took several months waiting on four or five different holds lists (hooray for living in a metropolitan area with reciprocal library systems!) before I finally got my digital hands on it in late August. I have never been so grateful to have checked out the digital version of a book, because this thing is massive. Not only is it eight-hundred-thirty-two pages, but the print is pretty small. But I’m never one to back down from a challenge. This little monster took me about three months and some days to read, slowly inching through it by commute and lunch reading. And it’s not because it was boring.

It took me a while to get on the biography train. I’m someone who likes a decent amount of dialogue because it helps switch up the sentence length and, therefore, the pace. And certainly there were genuinely slow parts of the biography during which the passage of time and details about Hamilton’s life were necessary to include, but did not feature any exceptionally exciting moments. Fortunately, Chernow is a master at detail and rich research, which brings the subject and other players to life in a way of which few biographers are capable. This level of detail also allows Chernow to logically draw conclusions and implications for events we cannot necessarily know for sure about. For example, while Hamilton’s exact intent for Burr and Hamilton’s duel are cloudy, Chernow makes a reasonable guess based on his research and what we know of Hamilton himself.

With all of the detail, it’s easy to get lost in Chernow’s depiction of Hamilton. Returning to the length of the book, readers might even expect to eventually get bored — surely there’s only so much to say about a person, right? Chernow again defies the odds with an engaging prose style that, while not quite reading like fiction, does read with an easy flow. Chernow’s intelligent, yet accessible prose makes Alexander Hamilton a win for most readers. Chernow highlights his writing with fascinating anecdotes from Hamilton’s life and heightened drama and stakes, even as he writes of the past.

For readers who enjoy the details of the influences on the subject, Chernow makes more excellent progress. His focus on Eliza (Schuyler) Hamilton is unprecedented, even as he acknowledges the first-hand information on her is limited. This makes the book not just a beautiful tribute to Alexander Hamilton, but of all his family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and achievements.

The biography might have benefited from some illustrations, of course — although Chernow generally does an excellent job of explaining concepts, tools, and so forth of the past with which modern readers might not have familiarity, he often references paintings and other more visual media that might have increased the quality of the book had they been included. It’s reasonable, now, that we might simply use our phones to look up a given piece (I know I did), but when it was published in 2005, most readers did not have such a luxury and, to be sure, not everyone does now. Truly, I did most of my reading of this book underground in a Metro car. My cell service? Basically non-existent.

So, if you’re looking for something challenging in length this year, consider Alexander Hamilton. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 384 pages
Biography

In the extraordinarily patriarchal world of the 1920s, young Henrietta Bingham used her charm and family’s money to influence society both in the United States and abroad. With friends such as those in the Bloomsbury Group, Bingham seduced men and women alike with her charisma but with retrospect drawn from relatives’ memories and Bingham’s own documents (including letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and psychological reports on the subject), a darkness which shadowed Bingham’s life emerges. In Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, Bingham’s grand-niece, Emily, collects the artifacts of her great-aunt’s life in an attempt to gain a better understanding of her family history while bringing to light the great impact Bingham had on her family, friends, acquaintances, and the world beyond.

As a student of history, Emily Bingham’s (I’ll use the author’s first name going forward to avoid confusing her with the subject of the biography) strength is clear. Her historical account of Henrietta and the world around her brings the reader into a detailed sepia world. Deeply disturbed by the loss of her mother before her eyes in a car accident, Henrietta lives a bold and rash life, unafraid to take charge. And while the author often paints this unashamed character as a point of pride, she does not shy away from pointing out the damage Henrietta brought to those around her. Emily’s smart to acknowledge that she is, indeed, related to the subject of the work though she had no memory of contact with Henrietta and the majority of her family viewed her unfavorably up to Henrietta’s death. Emily also notes that the book began as a project for her degree.

Though an interesting character, Henrietta seems to feature less than the title of the biography would suggest. Instead, the effect Henrietta had on the world around her takes the main stage. Relationships with Henrietta, platonic or otherwise, clearly caused the partner and other relevant individuals a good deal of grief. They were so often tied up in themselves and their feelings for Henrietta that they seemed to forget that she, too, was human and not the goddess they made her out to be. Though this is somewhat a reflection on Henrietta herself, the readers are still left with a greater impression of Henrietta’s impact than of Henrietta herself, which serves to perpetuate this vision of Henrietta as greater-than-human.

By the end of this chronicle of Henrietta’s life, I felt somewhat abandoned. Sure, Henrietta’s boom of cultural impact certainly had its ripples beyond her intimate circle, but what of the woman herself? She is left behind in Emily’s narrative, leaving the world with a whimper, so contrary to her life prior. Though certainly Emily could not dictate the events of her great-aunt’s life to provide a more structurally sound narrative that better reflects what we’ve come to expect in fiction and the bioflicks we all seem to love so much, I couldn’t help but feel that, “I read all of this for what, exactly?” Its anticlimactic end is the true show of how this book was more a personal project for Emily which happened to make a decent enough story that it was worth selling, to some publisher, than it was a true work of biography.

But we’re given other bits that perhaps make the time invested worthwhile – the discussion of LGBTQIAA individuals in the early-to-mid twenty-first century gives new insight to the hostile climate to those less familiar with the nuanced challenges of the time. Henrietta’s relationship with her father provides an extraordinarily interesting look into the grief of a widower and his unwillingness to let his daughter into the world. The influence of money alone rears itself as a powerful force in Henrietta’s world. All-in-all, Irrepressible isn’t the most riveting, but to the right reader will have some excellent passages worth the time.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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