Tag Archives: Jane Eyre

Book Review: “Agnes Grey” by Anne Bronte

A serendipitous confluence of two events led me to read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey this January, one of two novels penned by the youngest of the Bronte siblings. First, my daughter brought a bunch of books home recently that she was finished with and she’d thought I’d enjoy. This novel was among them. Second, I have resolved to read more in this new year. Because I’m a freelance editor, working on between 40 and 50 novels a year, my recreation in off hours is more likely to be doing crossword puzzles or watching television. Anything but reading more novels! I’ve missed losing myself in a good book for pure pleasure, though, so I swiped Agnes Grey off the to-be-read pile and gave it a whirl.

517w-whu7olAt first, I thought this slim book was going to be a Jane Eyre without the romance, without a single moment to relieve the drudgery and bad fortune of its protagonist, a daughter of a clergyman, whose mother was disinherited by her upper class father when she married beneath her station, and whose sister helps the family’s income by drawing. Agnes proposes to provide financial aid by becoming a governess. The book proved to be more than that grim story.

Agnes’s first job is with a family of psychopaths. They’re not described in those terms, but the children seem to take pleasure in tormenting and killing animals, and the parents tolerate the behavior with more satisfaction than rationalization. Good news for Agnes — she doesn’t work out well there, and the family lets her go but promises not to damage her with bad recommendations.

On to the next household, the Murrays, where she spends her days trying to teach the vain and flirty Rosalie and the boyish and bad-talking Matilda. In the course of her stay, she meets Rev. Weston, a new curate at the village church, and, you guessed it, falls for him in the way Victorian governesses do. That is to say, she meets him on walks sometimes or talks to him after church in some complex coded language about the weather, religion, villagers, anything but how they seem to like each other.

Eventually, Rosalie marries a rich aristocrat, as she and her mother wished, Agnes goes back to her home to help her now-widowed mother set up a school, and Rev. Weston reenters the pages near the end of the story. For a spoiler on how things work out, look no further than the opening line of Chapter 38 of Anne’s sister Charlotte’s most famous novel.

As I desired, this book swept me away, and I enjoyed many hours lost in its tale. Here’s the rub, though: through my modern eyes, I viewed some of the characters a little differently than I suspect Anne Bronte wanted me to see them. I suspect she wanted us to identify and sympathize with poor Agnes as she tried to instill lofty and pious thoughts in her charges, as she tried to move Rosalie beyond vanity to an appreciation of the interior world. While I certainly cheered on her efforts, I have to admit that sometimes I wondered if Rosalie wasn’t so obstinate because Agnes did seem at times to demonstrate a “holier than thou” attitude. Rosalie could be thoughtless, selfish, and sometimes even cruel, but she knew what she wanted and she went after it. Unfortunately, what she really wanted was something no woman of her age was allowed to contemplate:

“I shouldn’t greatly object to being Lady Ashby of Ashby Park, if I must marry; if I could be always young, I would be always single. I should like to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have.”

In other words, she wanted to live as independently as a man. These are sentiments, by the way, expressed in a different way in Jane Eyre, Anne’s sister’s great novel, when Jane declares her independence, not wanting to be the mistress of Rochester, even though no one was around to scold her for such an act:

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”

Jane wants to be independent, too. Both she and Rosalie of Agnes Grey yearn for the same thing: to lead their own lives, independent of a man, only enriched by one should they so choose him.

In Agnes Grey, Rosalie’s sister, Matilda, too seems to prefer the activities of men of the era, everything from riding to hunting to cursing a blue streak just as the stable hands did. These are aspirations good Agnes Grey (or Anne Bronte?) doesn’t seem to understand or approve of.

To add to the picture of an over-scrupulous Ms. Grey, there’s her refusal to congratulate a buoyant Rosalie on her wedding day to the above-mentioned Sir Ashby. “I cannot congratulate you,” says stuffy Agnes, “till I know if this change is really for the better.”

Keep in mind that Agnes is supposed to be the good one here.

As it turns out, Rosalie does change, asking Agnes to visit her at Ashby Park, confessing to being lonely since her husband has contrived to keep her in the country rather than in London where she seems to have outshone him. She suggests in a letter to Agnes that her former governess could fill the same position for her own newly born daughter and raise her in a manner that will, essentially, correct the flaws of her frivolous parents. Self-awareness has dawned, and in a far more cheerful manner than Agnes herself is prone to exhibit. So, again, who’s the better woman?

I loved that ambiguity about Agnes Grey, even if Anne Bronte didn’t intend it. It’s fascinating to read the thoughts of a spiritual woman trying to be a good Christian (there’s a moving passage where a villager Agnes visits asks her to read the Bible passage about God being love), surrounded by girls just a few years younger than she is whose contemplations run to material things, yet who are not without redeeming qualities, as Rosalie exhibits.

In fact, one of the more fascinating passages to me in the tale relates how Rosalie conspires to flirt with Rev. Weston to a degree that she seeks him to fall in love with her. She keeps Agnes from any encounters with the clergyman during this little game, and it would seem cruel except for one question: Was Rosalie trying to force Agnes to stop being such a prissy sort and go after the man she wants…just as Rosalie does with the aristocrat she eventually snares?

I’ve written this little review before reading a single syllable of analysis of this novel by literature experts, but I heartily recommend it to fans of Jane Eyre and Victorian literature in general.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She has written a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre called Sloane Hall. It was one of only 14 books featured on a Simon & Schuster blog on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

 

 

 

 

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In communion with Jane’s first readers

This month, I’ve featured many posts about Charlotte Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816). You can find a round-up of those posts here.

Not only was Charlotte Bronte an inspiration to me as a woman writer. Jane Eyre inspired me to write an homage to this well-known tale, a book titled Sloane Hall.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to receive the news that Sloane Hall was one of only 14 Bronte/Eyre-related books featured at “Off the Shelf,” a sight where Simon & Schuster employees highlight favorite backlist books, regardless of publisher (Sloane Hall was first released by Five Star/Cengage, a publisher that produces quality hardcovers for the library trade). You can find the “Off the Shelf” post here — I’m excited to be in the company of such well-known, esteemed authors!

I’ve written before about Sloane Hall and its inspiration, but I wanted to explore a little more the reason I enjoy retellings of familiar stories.

As I said in my previous post about Sloane Hall, imaginative, well-done retellings of well-known stories achieve two goals: they let you see afresh the story you know so well; and, they bring you into communion, for brief moments, with the first audiences for those stories.

Think of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s an imperfect re-imagining of the Odyssey, yes, but it makes the story come alive as you root for Ulysses McGill to find his way home, as you see how the Sirens’ song seduced his fellow travelers to linger, as you watch him overcome mishaps and bad deeds to find the hero within himself. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of this storytelling, it hits you: I’m experiencing this story with the same sense of wonder and excitement that its original readers might have felt! Even though I know the major plot points, I don’t know how it will unfold here in this new version, and I’m eager to find out…just as those first readers and listeners were probably eager to see what happened to Odysseus next.

51LJWn26G5LThat was the effect I was after with Sloane Hall. The plot points of Jane Eyre are so familiar now, even to those who’ve not read the book, thanks to its many film adaptations. And although I knew fans of the original might enjoy anticipating the high and low points of the familiar story even as they made their way through my reconstruction, I wanted to give them more than that. I wanted to give them that “communion” with readers of the original tale, that sense of coming upon climactic moments with an inner gasp shared in the 1800s, as if they hadn’t known what would take place, despite their knowledge of the story.

This was a challenge, and, as I’ve pointed out, I decided one of the best ways to help readers experience the story, as if they’d never read Jane Eyre, was to reverse the genders. The poor and obscure role in Sloane Hall is given to a young man, John, with a tortured past. The larger-than-life part of thundering Mr. Rochester is now played by a woman, not too much older than John, who towers over John in celebrity — she’s a silent film star about to make her first “talkie.” (As an aside, what fun it was to delve into this part of film history–I hope readers come away from the novel with a deeper understanding of that industry’s turmoil during a technological turning point.)

And the lunatic spouse in the attic of Jane Eyre? Not what you might expect, in Sloane Hall, but a secret that still should evoke the feelings of horror, shock, and even sympathy for both characters that the unveiling of Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, might have ignited in the original readers of Jane Eyre.

As I thought about that scene and secret, in fact, I first pondered those reader reactions. What must the first readers of Jane have felt upon the revelation that Rochester was married? Probably overwhelming sympathy for Jane and disgust at Rochester. But then when it was revealed he was shackled to a madwoman? Perhaps some of their sympathy might have turned to him, as well. I tried to use those emotions–of the readers–to construct my own revelation.

When Sloane Hall was released, I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cuppa. But I was thrilled when two Bronte-devoted outlets praised it, recognizing the new story it tells and completely comprehending the effects I was after as I told my own tale. Both the Bronte Blog and the Bronte Studies journal gave Sloane Hall glowing reviews. Here are some snippets, along with one from the site Fresh Fiction:

“Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” —The Bronte Blog (A link to the review is here.)

“An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Carolyne Van Der Meer, Bronte Studies journal, September 2011

“Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Katherine Peterson, Fresh Fiction

Sloane Hall is now available in trade paperback and digitally. I hope fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy experiencing the communion with its original readers I wanted to accomplish, and new readers will become engrossed in this fresh story.

You can find the book at Amazon here.

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Happy Birthday, Charlotte

Two hundred years ago, a novelist was born. She was, by many descriptions, as “plain, poor, and little” as her most famous fictional character, Jane Eyre. But unlike her, she would never be “obscure.” Her imagination and writing skill propelled her into literary stardom.

CBRichmondHer most famous novel, Jane Eyre, keeps her name alive for countless people who’ve never even read the book. Film and TV adaptations appear like clockwork, it seems, introducing new audiences to the honest-to-a-fault contrarian Jane, her rags to riches story, her sweeping Gothic romance with Mr. Rochester.

So, happy birthday, Charlotte Bronte! And thank you, for inspiring many “authoresses” to try to humbly follow in your footsteps.

For those who want to know more about her life, I highly recommend Claire Harman’s recent biography of Charlotte Bronte.

In honor of Bronte’s birthday, I’m including below a round-up of the articles I’ve posted about her and Jane Eyre over the past month:

Two Hundred Years of Charlotte

Podcast – Jane Eyre, Romance Novel Template

Podcast – Jane Eyre, the Rebel

Jane Eyre Poems by Rita Maria Martinez

Podcast – Charlotte Bronte, Feminist Author

Tomorrow…a postscript, how Jane Eyre inspired me to write my own retelling of that tale.

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Podcast: Charlotte Bronte, Feminist Author

In just one day, it will be the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth — April 21, 1816.

Throughout this month, I’ve been featuring posts about Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.

Today, I offer a final podcast about Charlotte Bronte, the feminist author. I know that, to some, anything with “feminist” in the title can be a turn-off, an indicator it’s meant for one audience alone. But I urge you to give this short podcast a listen. If you’re an author, you’ll see how much you might have in common with Bronte. If you’re interested in history, you’ll see how she struggled with the idea that women weren’t allowed to “be all they could be” because of their gender. And you’ll learn why she, along with her sisters, wrote under male pseudonyms, a history many women writers can still appreciate today.

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Jane Eyre Poems by Rita Maria Martinez

Today, as we near the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth (April 21, 1816), I’m featuring an exciting post about a book of poems by  Cuban-American writer Rita Maria Martinez. Published by Aldrich Press in January 2016, Martinez’s The Jane and Bertha in Me is a collection of poems, all in homage to Bronte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre. One of the book’s poems, “St. John Rivers Pops the Question,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The poem “Reading Jane Eyre II” received an honorable mention in AWP’s Intro Journals Project. The book was a semifinalist for the Word Works Washington Prize and a finalist for the Andrews Montoya Poetry Prize. Read and enjoy this write-up from the publisher: MARTINEZ FRONT COVER JAN 4

 

The Jane and Bertha in Me, a new poetry collection by Rita Maria Martinez

“Each poem is a smartly annotated, hauntingly revisionist homage to Jane Eyre. Martinez’s astounding poems are literary, conversational, personal, fun, as she confidently transports her Janes from the moors to Macy’s, from Thornfield Hall to the world of tattoos.” —Denise Duhamel, author of Blowout

Through wildly inventive, beautifully crafted persona poems, Martinez re-imagines Jane Eyre’s cast of characters in contemporary contexts, from Jane as an Avon saleslady to Bertha as a Stepford wife. These lively, fun, poignant poems prove that Jane Eyre’s fictional universe is just as relevant today as it was so many years ago. The Jane and Bertha in Me is a must-read for any lover of Brontë’s work.

Rita Maria Martinez is a Cuban-American poet from Miami, Florida. Her writing has been published in journals including the Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, MiPOesias, and 2River View. She authored the chapbook Jane-in-the-Box, published by March Street Press in 2008. Her poetry also appears in the textbook Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction/ Literary Nonfiction, Poetry and Drama, published by Prentice Hall; and in the anthology Burnt Sugar, Caña Quemada: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish, published by Simon & Schuster.

Martinez has been a featured author at the Miami Book Fair International; at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida; and at the Palabra Pura reading series sponsored by the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University.

“There is some kind of serious magic at work in this wonderful book. Reading it, I feel as if I am waking up in another world where the Gothic sensibility of Jane Eyre joins the surreal of contemporary American culture. The experience is nothing short of intoxicating. I can’t wait to read more of Rita Maria Martinez’s work.” —Nin Andrews, author of Why God is a Woman

The Jane and Bertha in Me gives an unusual twist to the well-known characters from Jane Eyre. These personal poems give us greater insight into the minds of madwoman and governess alike, with beautiful, lush language and empathetic vision. Even casual fans of Brontë’s great book will enjoy this lively re-imagining.” —Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of The Robot Scientist’s Daughter

A Conversation with Poet Rita Maria Martinez

Q: You first became interested in Jane Eyre as a teenager. Can you talk a bit more about why Jane appealed to you at that young age?

A: As a teen, I wanted to live in another era. I used to sing oldies by my high school’s reflection pond on mornings before the bell rang. Reading Jane Eyre felt like I was immersed in an exciting and unique atmosphere, which, for me, was a welcome relief from the grunge culture of the 1990s. I liked the mystery, the lush language, and the romance in the novel. As for Jane’s character, she is an underdog with a lot spunk, a heroine who stands up for herself. I thought leaving Lowood and entering Thornfield, a new environment, was courageous—as was leaving Thornfield. Jane also manages to have strong moral convictions while also being a sexual creature—one who refuses to settle for a passionless marriage.

Q: Bertha gets a good deal of screen-time in this collection. What about Bertha speaks to you as a writer and reader?

A: Bertha is a displaced person, an outsider. I think many readers and writers have felt like outsiders at some point. In my early twenties, I started experiencing debilitating daily headaches and migraines. I went through several physicians. Some thought I was crazy. Some were sexist. Others thought my complaints were imaginary. These attitudes rob patients of their dignity—especially those who battle neurological conditions which are “invisible.” Eventually, I was diagnosed with chronic daily headaches (CDH), a genetic disorder that affects about four percent of the population and is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. At onset, my head hurt nonstop for over two months—that kind of constant pain is enough to test anyone’s sanity. Migraines drive one to seek darkness, silence, and isolation; as a result, I started reflecting on Bertha’s plight. Her daily life at Thornfield was one of isolation accompanied by periods of great suffering—as was Charlotte Brontë’s at times. Brontë mentions her migraines and health concerns in correspondence. Edward Rochester—who is far from being a one-dimensional character—also undergoes a great deal of anguish. He’s certainly not a saint, but, in some aspects is a casualty of the conventions of his society.

Q: Aside from Brontë herself, what other influences are at work in this collection?

A: There are so many! Some include Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking feminist text The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979); the amazing three-volume set of The Letters of Charlotte Brontë edited by Margaret Smith; Jean Rhys’s postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966); Virginia Woolf ’s expanded essays on the female writer’s life in A Room of One’s Own; and Rita Dove’s Mother Love. I’m also a pop culture junkie who watches way too much television—especially the Turner Classic Movie Channel.

Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from the experience of this book?

A: I hope readers will become more empathetic and open-minded toward those in their communities who experience disability or illness of any kind—realizing that neither constitutes moral weakness or failure. I especially hope that all types of patients realize that they deserve to be treated with dignity—that a good physician will take one’s concerns to heart. I hope poems like “The Literature of Prescription” help readers become more vocal about their expectations during doctor visits—and will prompt them to become active, assertive, and informed patients. Most importantly, I experienced a great deal of joy writing many of these poems, and I hope readers will laugh out loud now and then. I hope the poems will spur them to reread or discover Jane Eyre and to encounter other Brontë works and biographies. April will mark the bicentennial of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, a wonderful reason to celebrate the work and life of such an influential author.

The Jane and Bertha in Me by Rita Maria Martinez: January 2016 Aldrich Press, an imprint of Kelsay Books http://www.kelsaybooks.com; 89 pp., Paperback, $17.00 ISBN-13: 978-0692543412 Signed copies available at: http://www.comeonhome.org/ritamartinez

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Podcast – JANE EYRE, the rebel

It’s time for more Jane! Jane Eyre, that is. As I’ve noted before, this month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, on April 21, 1816. So I’m celebrating by doing a lot of blogging about her most famous novel, Jane Eyre (which happens to be my favorite novel).

In my most recent post, I talked about Jane Eyre as a template for romance novels. Today, I feature a short podcast on how the character of Jane is a rebel, a contrarian, a woman who, from an early age, didn’t accept the status quo, pat answers, or conventional wisdom…even rebelling, at a climactic moment, against her own deepest inner desires!

Take a listen…and let me know your thoughts!

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Podcast — JANE EYRE: Romance novel template

As I mentioned already, this month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, on April 21, 1816.

In celebration of this birthday anniversary, I’m posting numerous pieces about Bronte and her most famous novel, Jane Eyre. 

Today, I offer a short podcast on the topic of Jane Eyre as romance novel template. I admit to cringing a little when I use the words “romance novel” in the same breath as “Jane Eyre.” But that’s because romance novels don’t get much respect from the literary crowd.

But they should. The romance novelist works within a formula that readers know implicitly, if not explicitly. And yet, those novelists still need to keep their readers interested, keep them surprised, keep them involved.

Charlotte Bronte wasn’t writing a romance novel, in today’s sense of the phrase, of course, when she penned Jane Eyre. But the story elements she used have become the model for romance novels everywhere.

Take a listen…and tell me what you think!

 

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Two hundred years of Charlotte

Two hundred years ago this month, a famous storyteller was born. Charlotte Bronte entered the world on April 21, 1816, and her novels, particularly Jane Eyre, still entrance readers today. In fact, Jane Eyre regularly appears on “best books” and “most popular books” lists.

It is certainly my favorite novel of all time. I’ve reread it more times than I can remember. And I’ve written an homage to it, Sloane Hall, that attempts to capture its sjaneeyrepirit while telling a new tale.

To celebrate Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday anniversary, I’ll be blogging a lot about her and Jane Eyre this month. Coming up will be podcasts about her most famous novel, a series of posts about all the Jane Eyre film iterations (written by my talented daughter, novelist Hannah Sternberg), poetry by a Pushcart-nominated writer, and more.

But to get the party started…here are some random thoughts from social media friends in answer to two questions:

1. When did you first read JANE EYRE — how old were you?
2. What did you particularly love about the novel (assuming you loved it)?

I think I was 12 or 13. I thought the book was filled with such agony, and made me feel very fortunate that I lived in modern times! A city treasurer

I must have read it before this, but my most memorable early reading was when I was a high school senior in New York State. I had a bit of a reputation for being smart and a good writer with an extensive vocabulary. So we had to take the New York State Regent exams, and my English exam posed an essay question on Jane Eyre for which I felt well-prepared. I did my best to write an outstanding essay. I was told later that I had indeed written a good essay but for one major fault — in my attempt to be alliterative with my three-point essay (surely a trait inherited by my pastor-father’s sermons) I had indicated that Dear Jane finally worked out that “the lover the laugher and the larcen” were all the person upstairs in the attic. I was horrified that I had confused the concepts of arson and larceny and made up a nonexistent word in the process. Forty-seven years later and my ridiculous mistake still haunts me.

My favorite thing about Jane Eyre was/is: “Reader, I married him.” An interpreter for the deaf

English 101 in college. My professor was enamored with the Romantics so I had a whole semester full of Shelley, Keats, Pope, and Ms. Jane thrown in. I would have preferred death by a thousand paper cuts but it was helpful in later life when I wanted to date above my station in life. I mean, how many men did you date that knew what a Billet Doux was? A former Army Ranger

I think my first attempt was around 13 or 14? And the truth was, I wasn’t really keen on it at first, though I loved the Rochester conversations–it wasn’t until I reread it at about 18 that I really got it. What I love is Jane’s insistence on doing things her way, according to her personal moral compass, despite all the forces pressing on her. I think she gets short shrift from some modern commentators who think she was prudish for not becoming Rochester’s mistress–it wasn’t about impressing anyone else or bowing to society, it was about what SHE felt was right, and what SHE needed emotionally from the relationship. A young novelist

1. I was about 22. 2. I loved ( and still love) Charlotte’s creativity and Jane’s self-esteem Italian lecturer at a university

Okay, what are your memories of Jane? The first time you read it? What you love about it? From those who answer, I’ll hold a drawing, and choose one winner — the prize is a copy of Sloane Hall, my own retelling of the famous Bronte novel. To enter, post a response by noon, Monday, April 4, 2016 East Coast US time. Include an email address or way to contact you in order to qualify!

And check this blog throughout the month for more posts about Charlotte and her most famous character, Jane!

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TGIW: Try them, you’ll like them: two authors you might not know

by Libby Sternberg

If you’re in an adventurous mood and want to try a new author, maybe something literary or at least upmarket, may I make a suggestion? I have two favorite authors who, while not obscure, are not household names. I heartily recommend their works. They are: Mark Helprin and Louis Bayard.

soldier of the great warMark Helprin: I discovered this author when I read a review of his novel A Soldier of the Great War that intrigued me. Then I was entranced by his soaring prose. To say he writes prose that sings doesn’t quite capture it. His storytelling is  a Mahleresque symphony that combines light and dark, humor and heartache, whimsy and grit.

If you’re reluctant to dive into his longer novels, however, his short story (almost a novella) “Ellis Island” is a good place to start. Around 70 pages long, it contains all his strongest elements–sepia-toned historical setting, fantastical narrative, humor, orchestral writing, and poignant heartbreak. Listen as he describes a voyage of immigrants in the early 190os:

The sea moderated, and the land sent out signs–not doves, but gulls as white as wave crests, who came to join us days before our landfall, and followed on vibrating wings that seemed unsteady but had been strong enough to carry them, through winter air, across hundreds of miles of sea….a day from port I saw a cloud bank that seemed anchored in place over all of North America. Only on the sea was the sky clear, in patches of the palest blue, and the sea itself was as flat and glassy as oil. Then there was nothing but cold fog and blasts of the whistle. The officers doubled their watches, standing outboard on the flying bridge, listening like hunting dogs or men who are awaiting a miracle. The first time our blasts were answered, they lifted their binoculars and peered out to sea. They closed their eyes like symphony conductors and strained after the sound.

At Ellis Island at last, our protagonist disembarks, only to be smitten by an enchanting beauty in line, a girl he is determined to make his own, no matter what the obstacles. And obstacles abound, including getting through quarantine and off the island into New York.  One of his immigration interrogators asks what he does, and his response is one most authors could sympathize with:

“I write books,'”I said. Little did I know that in America no one ever believes this, as if all the books that appear are written not by living people, but by hairbrushes, watermelons, and branding irons. She looked at me the way one looks at a madman.

ellis-island-english-6.previewEventually, our hero lands in the city and goes from adventure to adventure, trying to find lodging and work. When he’s told that Jews “were not wanted for manual labor,” he determines to give a name he thinks sounds all-American: Whiting Tatoon.

Whiting finds happiness and love and work, settling into the “dreamworld” of America. As for the girl he pined for on Ellis Island….he goes back to find her, and the story ends with him seeing through fresh eyes arrivals of new immigrants . No longer one of that crowd, he observes that the journey “takes from you as much as it gives, and that their difficult voyage was far from over–for the city itself is like wild surf, and lessons are hard to learn when one is breathless in a cold and active sea.”

“Ellis Island” feels breathless when you read it, as much poetry as prose. Helprin’s soaring novel Winter’s Tale is set to be released as a movie next year. I recommend reading his Memoirs from Antproof Case, A Soldier of the Great War, and stories in the collection The Pacific.

mr timothyLouis Bayard: I first discovered Bayard when I picked up his book Mr. Timothy. I was in the middle of writing a retelling of Jane Eyre (Sloane Hall, cough::cough shameless plug), and I was interested in other re-creations of famous tales. Mr. Timothy isn’t a retelling as much as a continuation. In it, Bayard covers the sweet and sad story of Timothy Cratchett — Tiny Tim from Dickens’s Christmas Carol. What a brilliant idea! But as many readers know, not every bit of genius translates into a compelling story. Mr. Timothy delivers, however, in both storytelling and characterization.

In Bayard’s vision, Timothy has lived his life on the generosity of his “Uncle” Scrooge who has continued to subsidize him into adulthood. This has left him without ambition and generally drifting, until a murder mystery presents itself.

But Bayard writes more than just a good mystery. His specialty is plumbing the depths of ennui. His main characters end up confronting some buried sorrow before the story is over, and even if the mystery is solved and the catharsis of discovery endured, sometimes the ensuing flames still consume those they cleanse.

If Mr. Timothy sounds like too far a stretch for you, start out by reading The Pale Blue Eye, a mystery set in 1830 West Point where an old detective sets about solving a murder with the help of a dreamy cadet….Edgar Allan Poe.  The Poe that Bayard paints is youthful and different, already a man apart from his peers. When the detective confronts Poe with various false tales Poe has told of his past, the young writer vows revenge…in his own way:

There comes  a time, I think, in every man’s life when he is forced to see his utter helplessness. He spends his last penny on a drink, or the woman he loves sweeps her plate clean of him, or he learns the man he trusted with everything wishes him only evil. And in that moment, he is bare.

That’s how Poe stood now in the middle of that room, as though every last strip of skin had been peeled away. His bones wobbled inside him.

“I assume you are finished,” he said finally.

“For now. Yes.”

“Then I will bid you good night.”

Dignity, yes, that would be his last redoubt. He would hold his head high as he made his way to the door….Something would make him speak, in a scalded voice.

“You will one day feel what you have done to me.”

pale blue eyeWhat a magnificent back story to come up with for Poe’s haunting writing–that he was trying to make all his readers feel the pain he’d suffered as a callow young man trying to impress, to be loved, and rudely brought back to reality.

Just as you think The Pale Blue Eye’s mystery is solved, Bayard throws in a final scene that will break your heart. It’s a tour de force piece of writing. I now read whatever new mystery he releases: The Black Tower, The School of  Night, and I eagerly await next year’s Roosevelt’s Beast.

Coming soon, I’ll share with you information on a series of books that should appeal to Downton Abbey fans!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. If you buy her books, she can buy books, too.

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No, Cokie, Weiner’s no Harlequin hero

by Libby Sternberg

ImageDisgraceful, offensive, insulting to women…No, I’m not talking about Anthony Weiner’s latest sexual peccadilloes. I’m referring to Cokie Roberts’s comments about same. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe program this past week, the ABC News political commentator had this to say: “(his) tweets… were so pornographic, and, by the way, so bad. They were like some Harlequin novel.”

I know Harlequin novels, Ms. Roberts. And Anthony Weiner’s tweets are no Harlequin novel.

Well, let me edit that—I’ve not actually read Mr. Weiner’s tweets, but if they reflect his actions of assuming false identities to talk pornographically or expose himself to women, they are no Harlequin novel. I should know. I’ve been published by Harlequin and I’m familiar with a lot of their books.

Harlequin publishes a wide range of what is called in the book business “women’s fiction,” stories that deal with family, love, children—tales where the target audience is women looking for a good, satisfying read.

In the romance end of this spectrum, books range from sweet “inspirationals” that contain absolutely no sex or cursing (but do contain Christian faith references) to steamy tomes where sexual attraction pulls hero and heroine together, and the authors are fearless in describing it. Romance authors are talented women who know how to tell a story well, are in touch with women’s concerns, and who work hard to convey the enduring strength of requited –and monogamous—love.

And therein lies the reason for the distinction between Weiner’s tweets and romance authors’ expertise: Weiner is no hero.

Already disgraced by similar actions that in 2011 led to his resignation as a congressman, Weiner now faced the public with his wife Huma Abedin beside him, attempting to convey to the world that he’s reformed and forgiven. A real hero wouldn’t do that to his wife, and romance authors write real heroes.

In romance novels, the formula is simple: hero and heroine meet, fall for each other, can’t be together for some reason, decide they love each other, have a “black moment” where all seems lost, and then a reconciliation and HEA (happily ever after).

Before you laugh into your Dom Perignon Rose 2002, let me point out that this formula might be familiar to those who think of themselves as lovers of Great Lit-rah-chure.

It’s the plot of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for one. And hundreds of other well-respected novels.

Jane Eyre’s template, in fact, offers a useful analytical tool for determining the difference between a Wiener story and a true romance tale, where heroes might be flawed and tortured but redemption and transformation don’t come cheap.

Rochester literally endures a cathartic fire (in which he attempts but fails to save his mad wife) before his redemption is complete, and his Jane returns to him.

Jane herself is the archetype for today’s romance heroines—independent, feisty, strong. They might forgive their Rochester heroes, their alpha-males gone astray, but they respect themselves too much to be degraded by anyone. And in the end, it is that quality that makes them most appealing to the heroes of these tales.

In fact, Bronte’s heroine had no moral scolds to answer to—her immediate family was either dead or estranged—but she demurred when Edward Rochester tempted her to be his mistress after the “black moment” when it’s revealed he already has a wife, albeit a mad one hidden in the attic. Jane refuses, despite compelling arguments from the pitiable Rochester, now tormented by the thought of losing his one true love. Here is how Bronte writes Jane’s inner struggle:

“…soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?

 

Still indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. ….”

The heroines in romance novels are all heiresses to that legacy. No hero would dare ask such a heroine to be his prop in a press conference where he’s admitting to continuing the downward spiral that got him into trouble in the first place.

So, no, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Weiner’s “writing” is no romance novel. Far from it. In a real romance novel, he’d be the lecherous villain the hero and heroine together fight off.

This post originally appeared at Liberty Unyielding. Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, not a romance novel, is After the War.

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