Light Reading Will Save Your Life: Alice Adams’ “Caroline’s Daughters” & Other Bookish Notes

Last week I hurt my neck and shoulder while reading an 800-page book in bed. After aggravating the pain with what I’d thought were therapeutic exercises, I rested, lounged, read shorter books, and lost myself in light reading.

I am cured! Light reading will save your life. Mind you, these are literary light reads.  Over the weekend I read David Lodge’s comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, and then I turned to Caroline’s Daughters, a brilliant, entertaining novel by Alice Adams.

Alice Adams was a well-known, popular San Francisco writer (1926-1999) whose fiction was sometimes published in The New Yorker.  Despite her graceful writing and skillful treatment of serious themes, her books were marketed (you can tell by the covers) to the women’s fiction ghetto. In my opinion, they are literary “pop” fiction, one of my favorite genres (something for everybody). What I find on rereading is great intelligence, a clarity of style, and evocative descriptions of the gentrified neighborhoods and fluidity of class in San Francisco in the ’80’s.

Adams’s Caroline’s Daughters is one of my favorites, a family saga I find unputdownable. Caroline, age 65, wants some distance from her five daughters, one in her 40s, three in their thirties, and the youngest in her twenties. Adams deftly switches the women’s point-of-views from chapter to chapter:  some of the sisters look and sound alike, but they have little in common except innate sexiness. (Adams often uses the word “sexy,” and their sexual relationships are complicated.)

Caroline, who has been married thrice, and is finally happy in her third  marriage, would love to hear less about her daughters’ lives. At the beginning of the novel, she and Ralph have returned to San Francisco after five years in Portugal–a kind of sabbatical to get away from the family. Once  they are home, the family is reunited by a web of friendship, gossip, rivalry, and near-incestous relationships with each other’s men. It wearies Caroline, who just wants to work in her garden, but she continues to nurture.

Sage, 40, is an unsuccessful artist and, in her half-sisters’ view, a throwback to the 1960’s. Sage’s husband, a too-handsome carpenter, is unfaithful and enjoys her failure. But the more badly he behaves, the better her work gets.  Luck can change!

Fiona, a restaurant owner in her thirties, is restless and angry as she watches the popularity of her restaurant fade and has no meaningful relationship with a man.  Jill, 31, is a greedy lawyer-stockbroker with a secret; Liza, 35, is happily married to a psychiatrist and sexually satisfied, but is also a bored mother of three children who wants time to write.   Portia, the youngest, is a bit of an oddball, who house-sits for a living.

This  would be the stuff of soap opera in lesser hands, but  Adams makes it believable, and, in fact you may recognize some of these problems if  you are in your thirties (a challenging time) or older (when it sometimes, though not always, gets better).

Gorgeous writing and mesmerizing plot–some characters are sympathetic, others are not, and you’ll love some, be appalled by others.

THE N.B. COLUMN. Last week I lamented the cancellation of the N.B. column by J.C. (James Campbell) at the TLS. It turns out that N.B. is still there, though by a new columnist, M.C.   J.C. has an inimitable voice, but I also enjoyed M.C.’s column this week: he/she (I’m thinking she, but why?) talks about the Virginia Woolf newsletter, Bloomsbury, and reactions to the Booker Prize shortlist. J.C. wrote the N.B. column for 22 years.

AT THE BAFFLER, Michael Friedrich reviews two books about the meaning of the junk we collect”: Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America by Wendy A. Woolson, and Heart of Junk, a novel  by Luke Geddes. Has anybody read either of these? I’m fascinated by junk and collections, and am thinking about trying one of these books.

The Last Schmooze: The Time of Year for Literary Prizes

Extemplo Libyae magnas it Fama per urbes—
Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum

“At once Rumor goes through the great Libyan cities,
Rumor, an evil than which nothing is swifter.”Virgil’s Aeneid

‘Tis the season for Booker Prize rumors.

“Did you hear they accidentally announced the Booker Prize?” my husband asked.

“Where did you hear that?”

“On the internet.”

“That can’t be right.”

When I typed in “Booker Prize accidentally announced,” there was one hit, a blurb from a site I’d never heard of. “On posting the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist on the Booker Prize website, due to a technical error the author Brandon Taylor was listed as the winner. The judges have not yet met to decide the 2020 winner so this information is incorrect and has now been rectified.”

I found nothing about this at The Guardian or the BBC.  Everybody likes juicy Booker gossip, so wouldn’t this goofy item have been  published widely if it had happened?

I was stewing over the rumor that the judges had already had their final Zoom meeting.  My husband kept teasing me.  “They chose the winner at the same time as the shortlist to avoid a meeting.”

“No!  This is a big prize,” I insisted.

A week later, my husband continues to tease me about the accidental Booker Prize. He claims the only Booker finalist with a waiting list at the library is Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which was declared the winner. “So don’t you think he’s the winner?”


And yet I vaguely remember a forgettable moment in my life: I had been asked to be a judge for some local award. We all had categories, and there were a lot of categories. There were so many categories that almost everybody in town would win.

I did a lot of research before I made my recommendation.

“Hm-mmm. But how about So-and-So? Isn’t he/she your friend?” one of the judges said.

I was confused. “Well, yes, he/she’s excellent. But I do think this other person’s work was brilliant this year.”

“It can’t be true!”

I thought–and apparently I was wrong– it would be nepotism to choose a friend.  I thought–and apparently I was wrong–that ethics forbade me from choosing a friend.  What really got to me– I had done all that homework!

So much rides on the Booker Prize that we want it to rise above politics and errors.  And we want the committee to have one last schmooze, perhaps next month.  (Though sooner or later, why would it matter?)

Covid-19 Unmasked: We’re Really Talking about Climate Change

My new haul of notebooks (50 cents each).

Writing on paper has magical qualities.  Putting the pen to the page has the  preternatural ability to tell us who we are. My brain fuses feelings with thoughts and grief I’d rather not acknowledge.  Screens screen us; paper reveals.

Fall is the time to buy office supplies on sale, so I have written by hand frequently this month.  I bought some composition books (50 cents each).  I’m not writing a diary.  Yet I write about what I don’t want to think or talk about:  Covid-19.  And I recently scrawled a few notes on a  conversation with another Covid-obsessed friend.

“What will we do when we can’t meet outside?”

“Go inside and wear masks.”

“I don’t think this will end, do you?”

“Not in this lifetime. We’re lucky to have made it this far.”

“This isn’t so bad comparatively–if you stay home.”

“If it ends, it will be more climate change events.”

We were being bores, but the shadow of Covid-19 hangs over us. I want to be distracted, and then I find an article about midwestern hotspots, or read about new outbreaks in Italy.

So many factors underlie every conversation about the virus.  When we talk about Covid, we are really talking about climate change.  In the wake of deforestation and urban sprawl, the chance of viruses jumping from wild animals to human beings has increased.

And it’s not just viruses: scientists predict more terrifying weather events. Hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos (inland hurricanes), more floods, more wildfires, and extinction of species.  Did you read about the starving birds dropping dead from the sky in the Southwest?  Now I did cry about that, though in general I’m against crying.

People have not been at their best during the pandemic.  Don’t take me literally on human behavior, which I don’t pretend to understand, but human beings are unpredictable, sometimes helpful in emergencies, other times raging and violent.  We can agree on one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic:   people all over the world hate staying home.

What do we see in the future?  Perhaps more protests against lockdowns, masks, and vaccines, or more protests like the sympathetic Black Lives Matter movement, or unsympathetic events like the motorcycle rally in Sturgis.  Perhaps there will be even more connectivity to electronic devices–people need distractions.

Alas–and I know I’m not supposed to say this– gathering in crowds has the potential to spread the virus.  The truth is, people are in denial.  It only hits home when when large numbers are tested (as they have been at the universities–terrifying), or when someone you know gets sick.

And so we wash, we wear the masks.  Yet I worry about the isolation of people who gathered in libraries (now closed) for a quiet hour, attended yoga classes at community centers, or  took  continuing ed classes. Continuing ed is a regular Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And now I’ll go write something frivolous and bubbly to lighten the mood.  People used to call me effervescent.  Wow, that was a long time ago.   I doubt I’ll recover that quality–“not in this lifetime,” as my curmudgeonly friend and I like to say.

Do You Speak Bear? and Other Musings on Languages

“Don’t worry! I just came to tell you I’m not like other grizzly bears.”

There cannot be, as far as I’m concerned, too many translated books. We would love to read our favorites in the original, but that would require an all-consuming love of languages, not to mention talent, in an age when universities  have targeted language departments for budget cuts.  Spanish is, oddly, the sacrosanct “practical” language: the college presidents may imagine students are conversing with illegal migrant workers, or ordering drinks in Spanish in Cancun (though spring break is canceled next year).

I wonder if the American lack of interest in languages is, to a large extent, because we travel so little. Certainly, this was true when I was growing up. Family travel was expensive: if we felt like a trip, we went to the funny, charming movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” (It’s still one of my favorites.)

When we did travel in those halcyon days of the 20th century, it was likely to be a camping trip in Montana (where we didn’t speak Bear) or camping in Canada (where we still didn’t speak Bear). In fact, I was happier at home studying dead languages (ancient Greek and Latin), which, like Bear, are seldom spoken by humans.

Few stumble into classics of their own accord. (They’d rather speak Bear.)  Literature in translation is the lure. Where would we have been without a Classics in Translation class? How many of us rushed to sign up for Greek or Latin afterwards? We owe it to Richmond Lattimore (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), David Grene (Sophocles’s Oedipus the King), Robert Graves (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries). Today we have other brilliant translators: Betty Rose Nagle (Ovid, Statius), Robert Fagles (Homer and Virgil), and Anne Carson (Euripides).

It turned out we loved the grammar and translation.  We especially loved our summer Ovid class, which tipped the scales in favor of Latin, though we studied both.  Once you’ve read Ovid, there’s no going back. “We’re the Ovidians!” (I wish I had the T-shirt.)

And it’s not just ancient classics, of course. There are so many classics we love in translation. I am a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:  you should see my collection of different translations. (My favorite is the Maude, but I also recommend Rosemary Edmonds.) And then there’s Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian), Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian), Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (German), Balzac’s Cousin Pons (French), and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Japanese). Some of my favorite modern translators are Tina Nunnally, Lydia Davis, Ann Goldstein, Juliet Winter Carpenter, and Lisa C. Hayden.

I still don’t speak Bear, but I am grateful for the many languages that reflect the cultures and literatures of our world.

The Reading-in-Bed Injury

The doctor may warn her about the perils of reading in bed.

Two days ago I woke up with a sore neck, shoulder, and back. Exercise didn’t help, and my only escape from pain was a David Lodge novel. Today I fumed and fussed, wondering if I’d get over this absurd non-sports injury. After looking up sore necks on the internet, I concluded the cause was “reading in bed.” Yes, that is listed as one of the habits that lead to my new tri-pain. And here’s something specific I attribute it to: holding up an 800-page book while I lounge on pillows!

On and off this fall, I’ve been reading The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, reissued last year by Everyman’s Classics. To say it is a big book is an understatement. Years ago I checked out an earlier edition of this book from the library, with an introduction by Angus Wilson rather than John Banville, and made it through 300 pages before I gave up. How can I love Bowen’s novels so much yet be bored by her stories? It’s a conundrum. Some of the stories are brilliant, some of them are too, well, lady-like and somehow distant. Because I love her style, I long to return to her novels.  This month I’ve made it through 412 pages of her stories,but  I am relieved to have a reason to quit. It’s a reading-in-bed injury, by God!

Reading on an e-reader is the obvious solution for reading in bed, but I can’t read on screens all the time. And so I switched to a 400-page John le Carre novel, which I’m loving but which seems to be a a trifle heavy to hold.

Perhaps I need to give up reading in bed. Sitting in chairs rather than lounging?

Natural Painkillers: Exercise or a David Lodge Novel?

A brilliant novel to read when you’re sick!

I got the message early in life that strong women don’t cry. At the dentist’s? Absolutely not. At most, say “Ouch.” At the doctor’s? Well, I did cry when an intern stuck an IV painfully into my wrist because he claimed he couldn’t find other veins (a phlebotomist revealed that I have veins).

Strong women don’t show weakness. That was my mother’s opinion. You cry fountains of tears only in private …  it’s “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

Yesterday, I woke up in pain, with a very sore shoulder and neck. Ouch! It really hurt. Did I sleep at an odd angle? I don’t know. Anyway, I did stretches for the shoulder and neck and then cautiously lifted three-pound weights. I felt somewhat better.

A nice day for biking–if not for the strained muscle!

I woke up today and felt much worse, so I decided bicycling might help.  I was about three miles into the ride when I wondered if I shouldn’t turn around. The pain wasn’t exactly getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better. Well, I soldiered on. I had to go to the store.

In the store, I immediately felt better. But while I stood on the social distance marks in line, the pain came back twice as strong. One advantage of the mask: no one can see you grimace.

And so I went outdoors with my purchases and called my husband.  He sent a message: ON MY WAY! I just sat there and waited, thrilled.

At home, I took Advil, drank tea, and applied a microwaved heat pack to my neck. The latter did nothing.

So I lay there and read my book. And my conclusion? A good, humorous book helps more with the pain than home remedies.  I loved David Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down.

I am a fan of David Lodge’s academic satires, and his third novel, The British Museum Is Falling Down, published in 1965, has a slightly different tone from the later novels. Although the hero, Adam Appleby, is an academic, the novel focuses on the subject of birth control during the 1960s. The hero, Adam Appleby, and his wife, Barbara, are Catholics, and the Church forbids them to use contraception, with the exception of the dreaded rhythm method.  (Those of you who are infertile will also be familiar with taking your temperature and charting your ovulation,)

And so the couple, who must start the day by taking Barbara’s temperature to see if she’s ovulating, feel decidedly unsexy. They already have three children, and are terrified that Barbara is pregnant again.

Lodge interweaves the analysis of serious ’60’s Catholic birth control issues with academic adventures. We follow Adam through a day in his life, which centers around research at the British Museum. In the morning, he is stuck in traffic on his scooter (it turns out to be the Beatles); can’t seem to concentrate while he waits for the library assistant to deliver books  to his desk (in fact, he does no work); attempts to obtain an obscure writer’s unpublished papers from an eccentric old woman; is misunderstood when his phone call is crossed with someone else’s as saying the British Museum is on fire.  And much, much more!

Lodge’s intellectualism is lightened by satire that reminds us happily of Lucky Jim. This is a deftly-written social and historical novel about the issue of birth control in the ’60s, and it is also funny. Wasn’t the Pill on every magazine cover?  Alas, the Church still forbids birth control, though  Catholics I know ignore such unpleasant tenets.

I hope you have an enjoyable weekend and I do recommend that you read David Lodge.  He manages to be brilliant and light all at once!

Where Are All the Book Columns? The End of N.B. at the TLS

You may wonder–even I have wondered–why I subscribe to the TLS. I began in 2012 or 2013 because of the editor Peter Stothard, a classicist, and the classics editor Mary Beard. At that time the TLS published more classics reviews than did most scholarly classics journals.

Over the years, I have also regularly read the N.B. column by J.C. (James Campbell). It is like receiving a witty, quirky letter by a book maniac once a week, and I’m pretty sure even Ursula K. Le Guin once mentioned it at her blog. He writes about buying tatty Penguins at used bookstores in London, the George Gissing Society, why the BBC should adapt a George Gissing novel, French literature, limericks, book covers, poetry magazines, and the casualties of political correctness.

In the new issue, J.C. announced that this week’s column is his last. Fuck’s sake, what’s going on? It’s my favorite thing in the TLS now. Mind you, he did not include my contribution to readers’ findings of mentions of the TLS in novels and poetry (mine was from Penelope Lively or Anita Brookner, I can’t remember), but I enjoyed his column anyway!

There are so few book columns left. There’s still Michael Dirda at The Washington Post, but who else? Any recommendations?  I love columns.  And they’ve even disappeared from women’s magazines.

Bookish Bits and Nuggets: A Comic Norwegian Novel, NYRB Classics, Booker Gossip, & Fairy Tales

I addicted to Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s imprint for literature in translation. I recently inhaled a hilarious Norwegian novel, The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter, by J. S. Drangsholt. Think Nick Hornby crossed with Alison Pearson, infused with a generous shot of academic satire, and you’ve got it.

The narrator, Ingrid Winter, is a harried English professor whose students accuse her of “mindfucking” (Moral:  Never talk about Lacan to undergraduates); a frazzled mother of three who is always the last one to pick up her pre-schooler; and so in love with her dream house that she commits funds they don’t have in a bidding war –and wins!  Can things get worse, and even wittier?  When the head of the department sends Ingrid to a meeting in Russia with two unlikable colleagues, you will laugh hard.  This is light and so much fun.  And I am now reading the sequel.  I wish there were more in the series!

The NYRB Classics Book Club selection of the month is Natalia Ginzburg’s Valentino and Sagittarius,  two “tales of love, hope, and delusion…”, the book jacket says.   I loved her novel Family Lexicon and can’t wait to read this.  I’ve noted it in my Planner, along with about sixty other things to do this month.  Will reading win?

This is the book on the shortlist I want to read.

The headline for a big story in The Guardian is: “Most diverse Booker prize shortlist ever as Hilary Mantel misses out.” Oh, dear:  we personally enjoy the glamour of the stars,  and I would have been satisfied if Hilary Mantel, Colum McCann, or  Anne Tyler had made the list. Four out of six on the shortlist are “people of color,” The Guardian tells us.   And five out of the six are available at the library.  That’s a first.

The one I want to read: Uganda writer Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, a sequel to Nervous Conditions, a charming coming-of-age novel about a girl’s struggle to get an education. I reviewed a small-press edition of Nervous Conditions in the ’90s for a now defunct book journal.  (There used to be so many book journals in another time!)

I am a fan of retold fairy tales, and a Book Riot article introduced us to a list of “9 Under-the-Radar Fairytale and Folktale Retellings.” The only one I’ve read is Theodora Goss, the author of  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its sequels.  Book Riot recommends Goss’s Snow White Learns Witchcraft.  Good title.

I am too fond of bookish gossip…  but do you have any?  I hope you’re “hunkering down,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci says, with lots of good books.

Radishes and Mullets: When It’s Better to Skip a Line of Catullus


All Latinists love the light, often frivolous poet Catullus. We first encountered him in an Age of Cicero class:  the wordy orator and the witty poet were contemporaries in the first century B.C.  The two of them were, more or less, friends: Catullus even wrote a thank-you note to Cicero in the form of a short poem.

Naturally, we are charmed by Catullus’s tender, witty love poems, which reveal a world much like our own. In one poem, he writes about the thousands of kisses he and his girlfriend, Lesbia, will exchange, mixing them up so no disapproving old men can count them. (I have posted my translation of this poem below.)

Tonight I  decided to relax by rereading some of Catullus’s lesser-known poems. I admire his work, but I had forgotten how lewd, really obscene, he can be. And if the commentary of your edition was published in 1894, you may have some difficulty understanding exactly what the poet meant.  Victorians are fond of periphrasis of vulgar phrases.

Poem 15 begins mildly enough.  Catullus genially asks his friend Aurelius to do him a favor:  to leave alone his amores, a castum (chaste or modest) boy. The word amores (the plural of amor) usually refers to a  lover or an object of passion, but here the editor claims he is “a young boy, a favorite of the poet.” As the poem goes on, it seems to me that Catullus could either be the boy’s friend or lover.   At any rate, he wants to protect him from Aurelius’s advances.

It is difficult to interpret this poem as mildly as the Victorian editor does.  In lines 10-13, Catullus writes graphically, “But I fear your penis, dangerous to both good and jaded boys. Shake it wherever you please, as much as you please, whenever it is ready in doorways or abroad. I save this one boy from your harassment, as I think, modestly.”

At the end, Catullus reminds Aurelius of the punishment that awaits him if his infatuation and madness “will have driven forward” (a literal thrusting translation) into this culpam (crime or fault).  The punishment is an act involving radishes and mullets.  The editor, who doesn’t care to mention buggery,  refers us to Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal.  No one tries a periphrasis to translate Juvenal, who mentions an adulterer with a “mullet up his backside.”

Herculaneum fresco

On a lighter note, here is my translation of Catullus’s famous kissing poem, (No. 5).   He addresses Lesbia, his girlfriend,  often thought to be the Roman adulteress, Clodia Metelli.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
Let us count the rumors of old men meaningless.
Suns can rise and set;
For us, when the brief light sets,
one perpetual night must be slept.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand, then a second hundred,
Then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred,
And when we have made thousands of kisses,
we will mix them up, so that we don’t  know the count,
and so no enemy can cast the evil eye,
because he knows the number of our kisses.

A Psychological Bildungsroman: Love and Morals in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”

Jane Eyre isn’t exactly chill,” a friend said when I admitted Jane Eyre had lifted my mood.

Any shade of “chill” I ever attained has been erased by the struggles and weariness of the pandemic.  This month, I fell off the chill charts and climbed to the far edge of the intense Jane Eyre “spectrum.” Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre, is one of the most intense Gothic romances of the 19th century. Charlotte’s Villette is a better book, but Jane Eyre is certainly the most popular.

For most of us,  Jane Eyre proves a role model after we outgrow Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Like Jo in Little Women and Anne (of Green Gables), Jane is intense, intelligent, passionate, ethical, honest, and has moral vision. Jane Eyre is the best of these three books; indeed, it is a perfect book.  Jane argues ethics with an intensity her fictional sisters can’t match. But what Jo and Anne have, and Jane lacks, is humor.

Charlotte Brontë herself had a sense of humor: consider the scintillating remarks of Jane’s dark, witty, worldly suitor, Mr. Rochester. The following exchange is typical.

“I only remind you of your own words, sir:  you said error brought remorse, and you pronounced remorse the poison of existence.”

…”Once more, how do you know?  By what instinct do you pretend to distinguish between a fallen seraph of the abyss and a messenger from the eternal throne–between a guide and a seducer?”

This is my copy: the Heritage Press edition (1974)

Rereading Jane Eyre is the best idea I’ve had in months. It is a book to get lost in–and I began it on a gloomy, rainy day, like the one Jane describes on the first page. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.”

Brontë’s detailed account of Jane’s psychological coming-of-age follows her from an orphan bullied by her sadistic cousin John at Aunt Reed’s house, where Jane has reluctantly been given shelter; to Lowood School, a charity school for girls, where the teachers try hard but the students are starved by the appalling minister, Mr Brocklehurst, until a typhus epidemic kills the majority of students.  After Lowood is reformed, Jane becomes one of the best students, and then teaches there for two years.

But girlhood–even the extended girlhood of teaching at one’s old school–must end eventually, and Jane decides to leave when the head of the school, Miss Temple, gets married. Jane advertises in the paper for a position and becomes the governess at Thornfield Hall.

Jane is a happy governess–unlike the narrator of Agnes Grey, the autobiographical novel by Charlotte’s sister, Anne Bronte. Jane enjoys teaching her flighty charge, Adele, the daughter of a French dancer and possibly an illegitimate byblow of Mr. Rochester’s–and Jane and the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, become close friends.

When Mr. Rochester comes back to Thornfield Hall, there are conversations and parties. Brilliant, witty, and ugly, he is not the typical hero. But he and Jane, a plain, small, thin 18-year-old, spar back and forth and fall in love. Like Mrs. Fairfax, who says Rochester is old enough to be Jane’s father, we wonder if he’s a father figure. And yet this age difference is so common in 19th-century novels:  think of Emma and Knightley, who we assume will be happy when they marry. But then, of course, there are novels by Trollope, such as The Way We Live Now and Phineas Finn, in which an age difference in marriage has a bad psychological effect on a woman (Lady Carbury and her older husband; Laura Kennedy and Mr. Kennedy).

Lithograph by Barnett Freedman, “Jane Eyre” (Heritage Press)

Jane and Rochester believe they will be happy. And then–what could be more Gothic?– their wedding is interrupted at the altar, because someone testifies that Rochester is already married.  Rochester is forced to tell the story of his mad wife Bertha, who is locked up in the attic (from which she occasionally escapes to set Rochester’s room on fire or to rip up Jane’s wedding veil). Rochester’s well-told story is as mesmerizing as the best short stories of the 19th century. But on this reading, I noticed for the first time that Rochester admits Bertha sometimes has “lucid” spells for weeks at a time. It’s a small detail–but it does help us understand why Jean Rhys wrote her novel Wide Sargasso Sea from the point of view of Bertha. (I do not particularly admire Wide Sargasso Sea, but I do admire Rhys’s other novels and her autobiography.)

This time around, I am also appreciating the final part of the novel, when Jane leaves Rochester, starves and faints, and meets St. John, the rigid minister, and his lovely sisters, Diana and Mary. These scenes are very quiet after the excitement of Thornfield Hall. And yet I am fascinated by Jane’s new job, as teacher at a village girls’ school, where many are illiterate.  The idea of “doing good”  instead of being a pampered governess, or a beloved wife at Thornfield Hall, is preeminent.

In Jane Eyre, some characters are obviously  based on Charlotte’s family. Diana and Mary are Charlotte’s sisters, Emily and Anne Bronte. And at Lowood, Jane’s friend and role model, Helen, who dies of consumption, seems to be based on one of Charlotte’s older sisters who died at school. (N.B. I haven’t read a biography of Charlotte in years, so I am a bit fuzzy about this point.)  As for Rochester, he seems far too passionate anr rakish to correspond to any lover in Charlotte’s life, and St. John too fussy for a love object (though handsome).  But Charlotte was madly in love with  a married teacher/headmaster of a school in Brussels where she taught. (He is portrayed as M. Paul in Charlotte’s Villette.) Perhaps Charlotte decided to mix up a little Byron with the headmaster.  Why not?  It’s fiction.

Jane Eyre seems to ask, What is the best direction to take in life?  The ending is unexpected–not at all romantic, in my view, though many find it so. Jane has more determination and fearlessness than most women, as she proves as the Gothic grows more Gothic than Gothic in the final scene.   Jane’s moral decisions make us think we could run away to face poverty, hunger, and loneliness for the sake of goodness.

For Jane, it’s more than that.  Rochester broke moral and actual laws.  A happy ending or a sad ending?  It’s strange.  You decide.