Welcome to Boozy Books Fridays, fellow nerds! We’re here with another delicious pairing of literature and libations, perfect for spending a leisurely day in a hammock with nothing but relaxation and delight. Or, conversely, drinking your sorrows away as you shout, “YOU GO JANE!” when our eponymous heroine stands up for herself and leaves the man who’s totally asking her to betray her values and run away to the Mediterranean. No, Mr. Rochester, I don’t want to go to your beautiful villa and spend my life staring out at the sapphire waters of the sea and never worrying about anything or anyone again! Wait…that might not have sounded as convincing as I was hoping it would be.
As you can see, fine readers, our book of choice today is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the book that has been turned into several movies everyone hates and one mini-series they all love (ok, but some hate). You know…Miss Brontë liked to think she was so different than Jane Austen, but really…doesn’t that scenario sound a lot like Pride and Prejudice? Seriously. Both fandoms are so similar! Now, I admit I am an avid Austenite, so I was never too pleased with Charlotte Brontë’s attitude toward Austen’s novels, but even I can admit that Jane Eyre is an amazing heroine. The book is slightly too melodramatic for my tastes, but Miss Eyre is someone to be admired.
For the three of you on this planet who don’t know the story of Jane Eyre, the novel begins with Jane as a child, suffering under the cloistering and unloving yoke of her Aunt Reid (who is pretty horrible) and her cousins (who might actually be more horrible). Jane is a child prone to strong emotion and fits of passion in a time when such things were…frowned upon, to put it mildly. This is “stiff upper lip” England, after all, and there are reasons that the English make fun of themselves for being staid and seemingly unemotional. Jane, however, is doubly condemned for her passions, because she is not only a girl child, she is a poor orphan, meaning she is stuck in a world where she is relying upon others to care of her (making her “less than a servant”, in the words of Bessie). The injustices of her world weigh heavily upon young Jane, particularly because she cannot understand them.
Things soon get better and worse for Jane, as she is sent off to a charity school run by a religious zealot where she meets childhood friend, Helen Burns, and school superintendent, Miss Temple. In her years at Lowood, Jane learns self-restraint and self-possession, coming to, in the words of amazing female character Peggy Carter, know her worth. But though she has wrapped about her shoulders the mantle of the serene and unaffected, Jane is still a restless spirit, full of passion and imagination, and a sense that she must be doing things instead of allowing the world to pass her by. Thus, when Miss Temple marries and leaves Lowood, Jane advertises, looking for a position, and is ultimately offered one at faraway Thornfield Hall. It is there, at Thornfield, that the heart of the story unfolds as Jane meets and ultimately falls in love with her enigmatic, Byronic (SO BYRONIC) employer, Edward Rochester, and is thrust into the mystery of the Hall itself.
Jane Eyre is a stunning heroine, but she is not as easily accessible as, say, Elizabeth Bennet, who is all sparkling wit and arch humor. Fortunately for the reader, the novel is written in first person, so we are treated to the rich tapestry of Jane’s thoughts and emotions throughout the story. During her time at Lowood, she learns to hide herself away in order to survive in her world, but she continues to be just as passionate as ever. She is self-possessed because she has forced herself to become so, but when Mr. Rochester finally pushes her too far (and, to my ire, never really apologizes for it), all of that fire within her comes raging out. I think that’s why it’s so hard for filmmakers to get her right; from the outside, she can seem like she is floating through the world, and cameras can’t get inside her head. Like Anne Elliot, the heroine of Austen’s Persuasion, it’s what’s going on behind the façade that makes the character worth appreciating. It just takes a little more work (and an actress who can handle the “poor, plain, obscure, and little” speech). Jane is, in her own way, as wild and untamed as Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights fame; she has simply learnt to control it. And, unlike Miss Earnshaw, when the time comes to choose between what is easy/proper and what her heart yearns for, Jane is the one who follows her heart.
What I really love about this novel is just how much of an individual Jane really is. She wants freedom and independence, and is unwilling to give those up even if it would be easier to do so. And she is principled for all her passion; as I wrote earlier, it would be hard to turn down running off to the Mediterranean with the man you love, even if it meant going against your beliefs. Scholars argue that Jane Eyre is a proto-feminist character, as is the novel, and Charlotte Brontë is credited for being ahead of her time for exploring themes of classism, sexuality, and religion in an era when women were meant to have no aspirations higher than settling down with a good husband and having children. So, as much as I can’t agree that Brontë is better than Austen, I definitely have to say that Jane Eyre is a spectacular novel.
Now…what to pair with such a novel? Well, I think something wild is in order, but in the guise of something much more refined. Something that evokes the moors in which Jane loses herself and the mystery of Thornfield Hall itself. In that vein, I’d recommend Elderberry Wine. Sometimes referred to as the “Englishman’s grape”, the elderberry grows wild and is much harder to tame than it would seem. In fact, elderberry wines are notoriously finicky, requiring just the right amount of berry and time to get right. Put a foot out of line and your wine will be unpalatable. Take the time to get it right, however, and you’ll have a rich, flavorful wine. In fact, some winemakers have even been known to add elderberries to their grape wine to kick it up a notch. Now, if the idea of elderberry wine isn’t for you, or perhaps you’d rather go with a beer, try a Lambic, a Belgian brew created by using wild yeasts and bacteria instead of more carefully cultivated brewer’s yeasts. This process gives the beer a rather distinctive flavor, with characteristics (dry, sour, cidery, etc) more commonly used to describe wine. These can also be combined with various fruits, enhancing those wine-like flavors. My favorite has always been a nice framboise.
Well, that’s it for this week’s edition of Boozy Books! Come back tomorrow for a lovely think piece on Shakespeare’s ladies. Either that, or something completely different. Who knows?
Oh, and that mini-series I mentioned earlier? The only one that anyone really seems to like? It was made in 2006. Check it out.