Friday, June 17, 2011

Jane Eyre and Alice

Cover of Jane Eyre that belonged to my grandmother. Copyright date, 1890, by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge.

Inscription reads: "To Alice Spritsma from Halsted St. M.E. Church Junior League, Christmas, 1898."

Wedding portrait of John and Alice Helmus, circa 1909.

When my mom died, one of the things that nobody else wanted was a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, that had been given to my grandmother when she was twelve. I had always been fascinated by my maternal grandmother, Alice, because my mom didn’t remember her much, and because she looked so pretty in her wedding picture. My mom looked more like her father, who had huge laughing eyes and a long face. What prettiness my mom did possess was inherited from that lovely, innocent bride who looked at us so sweetly from the sepia-toned wedding portrait.

Although her beauty was visible in the faces of her second-generation descendants, Alice never knew any of them. She had died when my mom, the youngest, was four. My grandfather married the sturdy housekeeper, Jenny, who became the only mother my own mother remembered — and resented. Her father, who she worshiped, died when she was 14, and she was left with step-mother Jenny, who dominated my mother -- her last "baby" -- in ways that my mother could never forget.

It was something of a relief to me that this stocky old woman, whose house smelled like moth balls and whose opinionated ways seemed unkind to a shy, sensitive child, was not my real grandmother. When Mom told us the truth and showed us the wedding portrait, I began to fantasize about Alice. What was she like? Was she as sweet as she was pretty? What would have happened if she had lived? What would my mother have been like if pretty Alice, not sturdy Jenny, had raised her?

Then, I got the copy of Jane Eyre that had been inscribed and given to Alice as a Christmas present from a West Side Chicago church at the end of the 19th century. Alice had once held this book in her hands. Had she read it? What did she think of it? Had she loved this story as passionately as I did?

I remember doing a high-school book report on Jane Eyre but can’t recall if I was truly smitten with the story at that time. A college friend had given me a paperback version that had Charlotte Bronte’s portrait on the cover, and it was this copy I found myself re-reading over and over; certain scenes, that is. My all-time favorite was the garden scene where the seemingly unattainable Rochester comes to declare his love for Jane (after mercilessly wrenching a declaration of love out of her). For me, it was the ultimate romantic moment: impossible, unrequited love becomes attainable, and a hopeless dream becomes tangible.

But the main point of the book is not the realization of a passionate love that seems hopelessly unrequited. It is that Jane is able to maintain her personal integrity throughout the story: while being mistreated as a child (I never re-read that part), while being overlooked by Rochester’s rich visitors because of her lowly societal position, and while being tempted to deny her own basic morals in spite of her passionate love for Rochester. She even refuses a huge sum of inherited money when it would have made her a society woman, choosing rather to share her new wealth with the cousins she has come to love. Finally, she doesn’t deny her heart when tempted to sacrifice it to a cold, lifeless marriage. And she does all of this without anything or anyone to guide her except her own moral compass.

So, when I realized that Alice had held this very book in her hand (and had evidently kept it for years), I knew immediately that I had to have a daughter. Maybe it was because the possibility of Alice having been a kindred spirit suddenly left a gaping hole in my life; perhaps, unlike Jenny, I might have actually had something in common with my real grandmother. Maybe having my own daughter would somehow bridge this gap in my maternal ancestry. But perhaps the urge for a daughter came more from the sudden necessity to pass on a love for Jane Eyre. I felt as if Alice had left me something precious that I now needed to pass on down the female line. What can mothers bequeath to daughters? Beauty? China? Men can transmit the family name, but in four generations, we women have had four different surnames and my daughter’s will some day, most likely, be different than mine. What, besides dishes and genetic material, can we hand down? Stories. Our own stories, good and strong, and others like Jane Eyre, a plain heroine (the first of her kind) who overcame impossible odds, not because she was well-connected, rich or beautiful, but because she remained true to who she was.

When Abigail was born, we gave her the middle name of her great-great-grandmother Sophia, Alice’s mother, so that she could be reminded of her female lineage and, in a small way, bridge the gap that was left there by Alice’s premature death.  And I’ve tried hard to expose her to the best stories, the ones that will help her develop into the woman she was meant to be. At 15 years old, I’m very proud to say, she exhibits an amazingly voracious appetite for books. She didn’t particularly like the BBC version of Jane Eyre when she first saw it, but the compelling Toby Stephens version is what finally drove her to crack the book. She wasn’t disappointed.

Jane Eyre has, in a way, bridged a gap in our female line. And I’m very glad that it’s become a part of Abby’s life. Who knows what difficulties life will present to her? Perhaps having the character of Jane Eyre in her mind and soul will help her to make those choices that will enable her to be her best and truest self.

(Published at in April, 2010).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: "Poetry Speaks"

Mention the word “poetry” and you are likely to get a number of responses ranging from adoration to hatred, with plenty of misconceptions in between. Although poetry was once read, understood, memorized and recited on a regular basis by entire families from the middle class upwards, poetry in the 20th century fell out of general favor largely because of the elements that made it “modern.” It was sequestered into anthologies and studied by unwilling high school students, enjoyed in the realms of academia, but it was definitely no longer a fixture in the family parlor.

Which is a pity. Although it is true that poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” cannot truly be appreciated without extensive footnotes, the 20th century produced a myriad of poets who wrote verse which is both beautiful and, within certain frames of reference, perfectly understandable.

Seeking to communicate this poetry to those who may have not given it a second look after high school, Sourcebooks has published Poetry Speaks Expanded. Featuring 47 of the most famous 20th-century poets (and including – remarkably – a handful from the 19th), it features, for each poet, a photo, a biography, an in-depth but immensely readable critique of the poet’s work, a selection of poems and even, in some cases, a facsimile of verse written in the poet’s own hand.

But the obvious highlight of this anthology presents itself in the form of three CDs which feature recordings of the poets reading their own verse. Poetry was (and is) meant to be a living thing – some have said that the page is a temporary stop but not an end for a poem. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the CDs included in Poetry Speaks Expanded. The poets reading here often change their poems, seemingly on the spot; this is especially apparent when the reader follows along in the book (and every recorded poem can be found in the book, which also contains additional poems not included on the CDs).

Whether or not any poet is ever absolutely finished with a poem, the point remains that poetry is meant to be heard. Just as one cannot conceive of fully enjoying a Cole Porter, John Lennon or Oscar Hammerstein lyric merely by looking at them, so, in a very real sense, one should not imagine that a silent reading of W.B. Yeats, Dorothy Parker or Walt Whitman can produce pleasure equal to hearing their poems read aloud.

And listening to these poems read by their authors is a truly remarkable experience because the verse comes alive in a way that their creators originally intended. Who knew, for example, that Tennyson meant to place such great emphasis on the word “rode” (as in: “into the valley of death RODE the six hundred”) in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” or that Gwendolyn Brook’s “we” of “We Real Cool” was meant to be so understated so has to be a quietly syncopated extra beat in her short, rhythmic poem.

The recordings also illuminate the poets themselves in ways that those already familiar with them might find surprising. Although one may understand that Carl Sandburg was a Midwestern poet seeking to reach the common man, one might not realize that his mother-tongue was Swedish until hearing him speak. While one may associate James Joyce with the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, hearing his rapid-fire delivery of a portion of “Finnegan’s Wake” gives this connection a startling new twist. And while one may realize that Dylan Thomas was Welsh, nothing can prepare the listener for the powerful lyric beauty of his voice. The bitterness in Sylvia Plath’s voice, the drama in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, the weariness in Robert Frost’s – all these add a rich depth towards a comprehension of these poets.

Enlightening from beginning to end, Poetry Speaks Expanded is a remarkable experience, a wonderful and living addition to any poetry library and a tremendous introduction to the beauties of 20th-century verse.

Book Review: "Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen's Life"

The life of Jane Austen reads like one of her novels – in most ways. There are balls, flirtations, close friends, tiresome family members, adverse financial situations which make marriage an apparent necessity and choices which hold out for love despite adverse financial situations. In one major aspect, however, the biography and the novels of Austen diverge: a happy romantic ending. Austen died at the age of 41, having never married.

Nancy Moser, author of "Just Jane," a fictionalized account of Austen’s life, postulates – quite correctly – that when Austen was “unable to find her own Mr. Darcy, she created him.” Poser’s book swells the basic facts of Austen’s life into a first-person, 350-page narrative which dwells on Austen’s evolution as a writer and points out the many obvious connections between the biographical facts of Austen’s life and her fiction.

In utilizing first-person narration, Moser allows the reader into Jane’s head, which is both illuminating and, in this particular case, often very disappointing. While the reader does get a cinematic view of the events of Austen’s life as they unfold, the avid Jane Austen fan would expect something more – Jane Austen’s sparkling voice which, sadly, is not apparent in Moser’s book. Moser herself admits at the book’s end that she “did not attempt to match the unique ‘voice’ of Jane Austen, only to hint at it.” This makes Moser’s choice of first-person narrative quite puzzling; if she wasn’t going to try and approximate Austen’s voice, why in the name of the Regency period did she have Austen narrate the entire book?

As much as a true Jane Austen fan cannot conceive of being bored while reading one of her novels, so one cannot possibly imagine being bored while residing inside of Austen’s head. Unfortunately, while inhabiting the one Moser’s book creates, I often was. There isn’t much here that even remotely sounds like the wonderfully witty writer who was frequently observed to laugh out loud, set aside her needlework and rush across the room for a sheet of paper with which to immortalize whatever clever line had just popped into her head. It strains literary credulity to believe that the same person who was able to write lines such as: “From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do” would, in her private moments, be thinking such dull stuff as “I am free to . . . to be Jane. Day to day, day after day, just Jane.”

Moser has spent considerable time researching her biographical facts, however, and anyone wanting to read a play-by-play account of the plot points of Austen’s life will find plenty of illumination on that score (especially the riveting chapter where she considers the marriage proposal of Harris Biggs-Wither). But in order to hear that inimitable voice, you’ll have to go back to those inimitable novels. Which is always a good idea.

Book Review: "Leaves of Grass, 1860: The 150th Anniversary Facsimilie Edition"

In 1860, when the United States was on the brink of civil war, Walt Whitman produced a book of poems that he hoped would provide a roadmap for preserving the Union. It was “Leaves of Grass,” the third edition.

Reading Whitman is always an exhilarating experience but when reading from this facsimile edition put out by the University of Iowa Press, there’s a touch of something else – a sense of history. The introduction by antebellum historian and Whitman scholar Jason Stacy does an excellent job of situating the collection within its historical framework, showing clearly the issues that Whitman was trying to address and how he proposed to do so.

One of Whitman’s central ideas for preserving the Union was fervent brotherhood as portrayed in “Calamus,” a poem regarding love between men but which gains a deeper political meaning in the 1860 edition:

Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?
By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms? . . .

There shall from me be a new friendship – It shall
be called after my name,
It shall circulate through the States, indifferent of
place . . .
Affection shall solve every one of the problems of
Those who love each other shall be invincible,
They shall finally make America completely
victorious, in my name.
One from Massachusettes shall be comrade to a Missourian,
One from Main or Vermont, and a Carolinian and
an Orgonese, shall be friends triune, more precious
to each other than all the riches of the earth.”

Stacy also points out that Whitman – who numbered the stanzas in the 1860 edition as if they were Bible verses – believed that a new humanistic religion would save the Union and he was establishing himself as its prophet: “I too, following many, and followed by many, inaugurate a Religion.” In the same poem – “Proto-Leaf” – in which this poet-prophet sets the tone and purpose of the entire collection, he (nearly) sings:

“I will make a song for These States, that no one
State may under any circumstances be subjected
to another State.
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by
day and by night between all The States, and
between any two of them.
And I will make a song of the organic bargains of
These States – And a shrill song of curses on
him who would dissever the Union . . .”

The entire collection isn’t all so explicitly focused on its times as are the quotes mentioned above but its poems – some reworked from the previous two editions and 146 new to the third (and unfortunately this is not itemized clearly in the introduction) -- were geared towards saving the Union, whether in a subtle or a direct way. And apart from the collection’s mission (and it’s occasionally strident poetry), some Whitman scholars believe that the third edition is the best: a general improvement over what came before and superior to those editions that followed.

Although the third “Leaves” was a critical success, 19th century America obviously didn’t have the patience to listen to Whitman’s song long enough to find its national salvation. But with the new facsimile edition, it is possible to hold in one’s hands a collection of poems, exactly it appeared 150 years ago, written by a patriotic poet who believed in his ideas so fervently that he thought they could prevent a war.

Book Review: "The Works of Anne Bradstreet"

Anne Bradstreet is generally considered to be the first serious poet of the American colonies and one of its first female writers. Born in England in 1612, Bradstreet was raised and educated in a comfortable English home before traveling to the New World when she was 16 to seek religious freedom: she and her family were Puritans. Her poems, written in New England and distributed among family members, were taken to England in 1650 for publication without Bradstreet’s knowledge. A second edition, with additional poems (and Bradstreet’s blessing) was published during her lifetime and then a third, with still additional poems, was published posthumously.

Finally, a fourth edition was published in 1867 which included previously unpublished Bradstreet writings known as the Andover Collection. The current John Harvard Library edition, a reprint of its definitive 1967 collection, includes all previously published material as well as an updated bibliography and a Bradstreet chronology.

Understanding the initial poems in this collection is greatly enhanced by the foreword and introduction (by Adrienne Rich and Jeanine Hensley, respectively) which explain that Bradstreet was trying to keep her English education alive in the colonial wilderness by writing extremely long, erudite poems having little to do with her surroundings: “The Four Elements,” “Of the Four Humours,” “Of the Four Ages,” “Of the Four Seasons,” and “The Four Monarchies.”

The first edition also included a fairly lengthy poem praising, in great detail, the reign of Queen Elizabeth while it simultaneously questions the unfairness of gender issues:

. . . Now say, have women worth? Or have they none?
Or had they some, but with our Queen is gone?
Nay masculines, you have thus taxed us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex if void of reason,
Know ‘tis a slander now but once was treason.

Apart from several fascinating poems such as this one, many of Bradstreet’s early works, appreciated at the time of their publication, suffer a bit of a disconnect from 21st century readers, especially the lengthy ones previously mentioned. But these writings were apparently essential preparations for the more strikingly personal poems that followed, those that are most often anthologized and known in this century by students of early American literature, such as “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” a poem originally published in the third collection:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold . . .

Another poem from this collection called “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” reveals Bradstreet’s fear of death only because it means parting from her loved ones:

. . . If any worth of virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in they memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms.
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from step-dame’s injury . . .

“In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Anne Bradstreet” shows the tension Bradstreet often felt between her love for life and her Christian beliefs:

. . . More fool then I to look on that was lent
As if mine own, when thus impermanent.
Farewell dear child, thou ne’er shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbling heart’s cheered up with this:
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.

Bradstreet’s theological beliefs are further documented in the Andover Collection (the last section of the current edition) and contains various poems and prose, the first of which, “To My Dear Children,” documents Bradstreet’s spiritual odyssey meant to be read after she had died: “The method I will observe shall be this: I will begin with God’s dealing with me from my childhood to this day.”

“The Words of Anne Bradstreet” places all of Bradstreet’s writings clearly within her biographical framework and as such is the definitive tool for understanding this important colonial poet.

Book Review: "Mr. Darcy's Diary" by Amanda Grange

Mr. Darcy is almost a secondary character in the story that made him one of the most beloved heroes in all of Jane Austen’s novels. Although "Pride and Prejudice" utilizes the device of omniscient narrator, the reader spends most of the book inside the sparkling head of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy’s ultimate destiny; it rarely gets inside of Darcy’s.

Novelist Amanda Grange has sought to remedy this situation by giving voice to the inner thoughts of this stiff but ultimately attractive character in her new book, Mr. Darcy’s Diary. Like Janet Aylmer’s Mr. Darcy’s Story, Mr. Darcy’s Diary stays very close to Austen’s source material and makes sense only as a companion to Pride and Prejudice (unlike Pamela Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman books, which are filled with so many new scenarios that the books are quite able to stand on their own).

While Grange’s book is absolutely delightful on many levels, there is one slight problem and that is Grange’s choice of utilizing a diary as the book’s format. It is often easy to forget that the book is supposed to be a diary, especially when it records long conversations and scenes in toto. But one is quite jarringly reminded of the book’s diary structure in the instances where it records Darcy’s inner feelings. The diary of a wealthy Regency gentlemen – especially one so properly inhibited as Darcy – would have possibly contained laconic entries regarding tenants, horses and social engagements. Even though Darcy was undergoing an emotional roller coaster ride in efforts to stifle his growing attraction to Elizabeth, it strains the limits of literary credulity to imagine him gushing his private feelings into a diary like a 12 year-old girl as he often does in Grange’s book:

"I thought I saw an expression of admiration on Elizabeth’s face as she looked at Wickham. Surely she cannot prefer him to me! What am I saying? . . . I cannot believe I am comparing myself to George Wickham! I must be mad."

Darcy was scarcely allowing these thoughts to pass through his brain; one cannot imagine him giving them permanent voice on the pages of a diary.

But structural problems aside, Grange’s book contains some absolute gems, mostly in regards to dialogue and scenes only implied by Austen but given full voice here. Many of these interchanges also reveal Grange’s acute sense of comic timing, especially during a conversation she creates between Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine (which reveals the foundation of their relationship to perfection) and one between an air-headed heiress and Darcy, who, on the rebound from Elizabeth’s initial refusal, is seeking new social opportunities.

Although Janet Aylmer’s book and Grange’s both follow a similar line, Grange’s book is by far the superior novel. Because Janet Aylmer sticks so closely to the original story, her readers reap slimmer rewards than do those of the more adventurous Grange. For instance, Aylmer describes Darcy’s meeting with the fallen couple, Lydia and Wickham, thus:

"Their conversation informed Darcy that marriage had never been his design. Wickhamn told him that he was obliged to leave the regiment, on account of pressing debts of honour but, despite Miss Bennet’s youth, he had no scruples about laying all the ill-consequences of her flight on her own folly."

There is nothing in the above two sentences which is not fully explained at the end of Austen’s novel. Aylmer has just repositioned the scene – as narrative -- to make it coincide with the sequence of events.

Grange, on the other hand, takes the same interchange and makes it, well, an interchange, breathing life into it thus:

‘My dear Darcy,’ [Wickham] said, looking up at my entrance. ‘How good of you to find time to visit me . . . what brings you here?’

‘You know what brings me.’

‘I confess I am at a loss. You have decided to give me a living, perhaps, and have come to tell me the good news?’

His insolence angered me, but I kept my temper.

‘I have come to tell you what your own conscience should have told you, that you should never have abducted Miss Bennet.’

‘Miss Bennet?’ he asked, feigning astonishment. ‘But I have not seen Miss Bennet. I have been at Brighton, and she remained at Longbourn.’

‘Miss Lydia Bennet.’

‘Ah, Lydia. I did not abduct Lydia. She came with me of her own free will. I was leaving Brighton as my creditors were becoming rather vocal, and Lydia suggested she came with me. I tried to put her off. To be truthful, Darcy, she bores me. . .’

Mr. Darcy may have never kept a diary but the one Amanda Grange has imagined for him is wonderful fun and brings Elizabeth Bennet’s ultimate hero to life in new and entertaining ways.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Emily Dickinson

She has such startling imagery -- duh -- but what I am stunned by are how I can feel her meaning rather than explain it. For instance, the last two stanzas of XLVII that my helpful edition has entitled "The Snake" states this:

"Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tigher breathing,
And zero at the bone."

Zero at the bone? What does that mean exactly? I can't say but I understand. She bypasses the brain and goes straight to the viscera. Or something like that.

Reading her is like being splashed with aftershave (not that I do but maybe I should), like those 1960's aftershave commercials: Slap!! "Thanks, I needed that."