Tag Archives: old Hollywood

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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PERSISTENCE AND REVISED DREAMS

I have eight books published by houses ranging from big Harlequin to little Bancroft, but some books occupy a special place in one’s heart. Sloane Hall is that book for me.

It will be released by Five Star/Cengage in hardcover this fall. Five Star markets primarily to the library trade, and I happen to also read manuscripts (making recommendations to buy or pass) and edit for them.

Selling to them wasn’t a slam-dunk, though. It just meant I’d get a quick read and some good vibes. In fact, selling Sloane Hall to them required a strong sales pitch along with the merits of the book itself. Here’s why:

Although it’s women’s fiction, Sloane Hall is written in first person from a male point of view. It’s set in old Hollywood but inspired by the classic romance Jane Eyre. The genders are reversed, with the protagonist, John Doyle, in the role of servant–a chauffeur–to a silent screen starlet about to make her first talking picture. She’s the Rochester figure. He’s the Eyre one.

I wrote Sloane Hall, oh, maybe eight or so years ago. Yes, it’s a long time. And if you’d told me then that it would take this long to sell it, I would have covered my ears and started humming loudly to drown out such a gloomy prediction! I’d heard stories of other authors taking that long to sell a favorite tale, or going through eight or more revisions of a novel. I just couldn’t imagine it happening to me. I couldn’t believe I’d keep trying that long.

But I couldn’t let Sloane Hall go. I love the Jane Eyre story. I’ve read it so many times that its emotions don’t pop the way they used to. So I wanted to hear the story again, with all the powerful moments fresh. Thus, my desire to reimagine it, to make a drastic, fundamental change that would force the reader — and myself, the author — to view the story as if it had never been told.

My first iteration of this manuscript, in fact, was practically a point-by-point mirroring of the original Bronte tale. My critique partner loved it and the characters. My agent at the time was tepid. And rejections from editors told me it wasn’t heating up their hearts either.

But one editor told me this — the story has to work separately from Jane Eyre. It has to be something on its own. Of course it did– this made perfect sense. If people want to read Jane Eyre, they’ll read…Jane Eyre.

Back to revisions. This time I looked at the characters and asked myself how they differed from Bronte’s. If they were different, how would that affect how they’d act. How would it change the story?

I wrote and wrote, sculpting an altered story, one in which the main characters shared some of the characteristics of Jane and Rochester, but also some flaws that were more pronounced, that led them down different paths.

Again, back to submission, this time with another agent a little reluctant to send out the manuscript since it had been submitted before.

Alas, still no deal. But the rejections! Some of them read like back-cover blurbs. Here are two of my favorites:

“(The) story has all the elements of a perfectly developed read: a colorful cast of characters (Eleanor is incredible!), a good sense of era and setting, and a compelling major plot line that feels complete and yet leaves you wanting to know what happens next.”

Libby Sternberg did a wonderful job of capturing 1920s Hollywood in all its drunken, tragicomic glory. John and Eleanor were very appealing, sympathetic characters, and I loved exotic Marta and mysterious, crabby Julia. . .”

These editors and others passed because of market reasons–not being able to envision the book on their list, mostly. One editor at a major house did want to buy it, but couldn’t get her editorial team’s okay.

One editor, the same one who’d told me before to make sure the book worked without the connection to Jane Eyre, was kind enough to again pass along meaningful advice with her rejection: “This needs to be a big book at a small house,” she said.

And that’s when I woke up. Up until that time, I’d been thinking that Sloane Hall could be my “breakout novel,” the one that moved me up farther, that maybe, just maybe, would get me on a list or two.

But I loved this story so much, it absolutely pained me to think it wouldn’t get published by anybody at all, that it would sit in my documents file collecting cyberdust until maybe I decided to go Kindle with it. By this time, I’d revised it yet again, changing the setting back a couple years into the tumultuous time that Hollywood shifted from silent to sound pictures.

So as I was editing some Five Star manuscripts, I thought: why not submit it to them? I mentioned it to a fellow Five Star editor I know, and she was enormously supportive. Yes, she said, submit it — and I want to be your editor.

As I said, it still wasn’t a slam-dunk. The male point of view was a big hurdle because Five Star’s women’s fiction usually features a strong female protagonist. The editor and I came up with a list of examples of male POV novels that had done well with readers, especially women readers. We came up with the many Internet and social media groups devoted to fans of Jane Eyre. We pointed out the strong female characters in the book, despite its male POV.

And, after holding my breath for a few weeks, I got word that Five Star would buy it. An immense sense of relief as well as joy went through me.

I have printed copies of the book now, and I still love this story. And I’m so glad the earliest version of it isn’t the one being published. I am also so, so grateful to the people who’ve helped me get it to print, including the editor who rejected it twice but with advice that really resonated with me, ultimately spurring me to revise and resubmit . . . and sell.

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SLOANE HALL-FIRST CHAPTERS

I’ve just uploaded the first chapters of Sloane Hall to the home page of my website  — www.LibbysBooks.com. But I’m also making them available here: First two chapters SLOANE HALL.

I’d love to hear your comments after you read them. Email me at Libby488 (at) yahoo (dot) com to let me know what you think, or post your comments below. Romance Reviews Today has called the book “well worth reading,” and I’m anxiously awaiting other reviews!

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JOHNS HOPKINS LECTURER ON SILENT-TO-SOUND

In my novel, Sloane Hall, the main characters wrestle with the challenge of adjusting to the “new” Hollywood of talking pictures. While this was a period of great upheaval, resulting in careers dashed and others being born, the film industry adjusted pretty quickly to the new technology, says Meredith Ward, a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins University Film and Media Studies Program and a Ph.D. candidate in the Northwestern University Screen Cultures program.

Here’s a Q and A with Ms. Ward about her study of that tumultuous and fascinating time:

Meredith Ward

LMS: Most people think of the silent screen actors who lost their jobs when films went from silent to sound. What other positions were lost?

MW: More than positions lost, there were positions gained. Diction coaches, scriptwriters (especially dialogue writers), and new talent were hired to staff a new Hollywood for its new plans. As far as I’m aware, and as far as what I’ve read  in the major accounts – these being Don Crafton’s The Talkies, Jim Lastra’s Sound Technology and the American Cinema, and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity – what’s most remarkable is how well Hollywood took the transition, and how much stayed the same.

LMS: Could you describe the “standing coffins” that housed cameras during the early talkie days and why they were used?

MW: These were referred to as “camera booths” and they were used to house the cameras, which were otherwise far too noisy for sound film sets… There was a lot of debate about how to quiet cameras.

The booths had a window in the front that the camera pointed at. The booth itself was on wheels, so it could be moved around the set. The difficulty of moving them, however, proved to be a real problem. And the shift to sound films caused a revolution in the way films were shot. After a late silent period in which cameras were incredibly mobile, swooping up and down on cranes, tracking in and out on dollies, able to somersault and pivot in films like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, things changed. The camera was locked down to one spot more or less because of its connection to sound equipment. To get around the incredible static quality of the camera set-up required by the booths, Hollywood often shot films with a three-camera set-up. A scene was shot simultaneously by three different cameras. The footage was then spliced together to give a feeling of visual movement. The effect was often unsatisfactory and viewers complained that it felt unnatural after the more fluid movements of the camera.

LMS: Not all silent directors made the transition to talkies as Hollywood started importing stage directors to work with actors who were speaking. Can you give some examples of great directors who lost their jobs, great ones who did make the transition and why they survived?

MW: The directors who survived the best were those who knew how to work with actors. Howard Hawks and George Cukor both really came into their own after the sound tradition. Cukor was famous for his work with actors, particularly his female stars. An interesting example of someone who began well before the sound shift but whose work absolutely thrived after it would be Ernst Lubitsch. Guys along that line, whose work was very verbally-oriented, might be a good avenue to pursue if you’re interested in this question. Some directors who definitely did not thrive included the silent comedians. Keaton’s career tanked in the sound era, Chaplin’s waned, and Harold Lloyd’s disappeared entirely. But again, this is not as big an aspect of either my own research or the texts I’ve read!

LMS: The Jazz Singer uses two kinds of lighting  — a quieter incandescent lighting for the sound sequences. Can you talk a bit about this change, too, and how it affected the industry?

MW: The original lighting used for motion pictures was designed to do just the task of lighting a silent film set: they illuminated the scene completely and strongly, but they had one major flaw. They hissed, popped, and crackled fairly loudly. This, of course, was in no way acceptable when the shift to sound cinema occurred. So Hollywood turned to incandescent lighting. These lights were much quieter, which solved that one problem, but they unfortunately also caused a host of other problems. Instead of being loud, they were instead very, very hot. This caused problems on the movie sets because the actors would, simply put, overheat. Makeup would run under the intense lighting, causing a notably un-Hollywood and unglamorous effect. The amount of incandescent light necessary to mimic the intensity of the original arc lights produced intense heat that, for a time, made sets unlivable.

LMS:  Did studios see the shift to sound as a way of purging highly-paid actors and directors from their stables?

MW: I believe this is mostly a myth. It’s true that certain actors like John Gilbert did disappear with the sound shift. And in certain cases, these disappearances were welcome. So yes, in certain cases it was a way of getting rid of an actor whose ego and whose salary had both gotten a bit out of hand. But as a general rule, it would have served the industry best to hold on to those stars who could complete the sound transition. Sound pictures were a real risk for motion pictures. Coming, as they did, on the heels of the Depression, Hollywood was taking a chance in taking on sound. One way that it secured its own safety as an industry was in the continuity of its stars across the gap. The studios were particularly proud of their stars who did make it across the sound shift and considered them prize ponies. Their presence ensured a continuity of audience, since stars had a truly enormous pull on audiences and were one of the very top reasons that a given spectator would return to the theater again and again. They (silent actors who made the shift to sound) also helped to put to rest the claim that was sometimes made that they were less talented than theatrical actors. The idea that they could “do it all” was very important for the studios in making the claim that motion pictures were a new art, and not just a new technology.

LMS: Around the time The Jazz Singer was released, Murnau’s silent Sunrise was released. Why should audiences–outside of film students, that is!–watch this movie today?

MW: Sunrise is one of the movies that I know of that can consistently make men cry. I don’t know whether it’s the theme of wronging a woman only to have her forgive you so completely, but it’s enormously popular with men and it seems to be quite consistently moving to them. In terms of the film itself, it is incredibly beautiful. It is a moving and universal human tale. And it’s one of only a handful of films that F.W. Murnau made before he died in an unfortunate auto accident. Murnau is one of those iconic Hollywood figures — the young genius whose career was cut too short by tragedy, a bit like Irving Thalberg. Sunrise also serves as an interesting segue in F.W. Murnau’s career. It is, essentially, a German film that happened to be made in Hollywood. It has elements of German Expressionism left in it, and cinematographically it’s stunning. It also had a synchronized soundtrack, which, although we don’t think of that as being particularly notable now, was a major step toward complete sound films. While not everyone was on board with the idea of “talkies,” many folks in the know supported synchronized music because it was considered to be the height of artistry: a perfect fusion of sound and image, dictated by the producers and creating the maximum possible dramatic effect.

LMS: How accurate is the 1952 musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain, which tells the story of two silent actors making their first talkie, at portraying the challenges of early talking pictures?

MW: Singin’ in the Rain captures many of the jokes that would have circulated in Hollywood about the sound transition. It showcases a whole host of concerns that were active at the time, if not real-life events. Actors did have a very difficult time learning to speak properly for the camera. Diction coaches were called in to help to craft appealing tones from actors’ voices. Being a diction coach during the sound shift was a great gig. And, yes, certain actors (Clara Bow being among them) had dialects and accents that didn’t play well. The placement of the microphone was a real concern, as well (here, echoes of the situations in Singin’ in the Rain when they have to place the mic in a bush, a corsage, etc.) but these situations were not as extreme as they are depicted in the film — of course, because it’s a comedy. But yes, there are accounts in the original Academy documents I’ve been looking at that have sound technicians complaining that directors don’t understand how sound technology works, and directors insisting on truly bizarre microphone placements on set so they don’t get in the way of the picture.

LMS: When did the “tyranny of the sound technician” start to end?

MW: There was a period for the first three years during which traditional Hollywood personnel fought pretty rancorously with the sound techs. This had a lot to do with the fact that sound technology was the product of scientific electro-acoustics laboratories and not Hollywood. There were a few major initiatives that helped to quell the rancor, but these are highly specific and probably wouldn’t be too interesting to a general audience. They’re also the subject of the second chapter of my dissertation, which I haven’t published yet! But suffice it to say that by 1930, Hollywood was back to functioning more or less as it did before, which, given the upsets caused by the change, is really quite amazing. As Don Crafton points out in The Talkies, it also serves as a real testament to the stability of Hollywood. The resolution came about largely by studios intervening and encouraging film directors and sound technicians to discuss their problems on mutual ground and come to an understanding of one another’s needs and problems.

Meredith went on to add: Some of this comes from my own research, but for these answers I am definitely indebted to the scholars who have already written on the topic. For my own dissertation, Donald Crafton’s The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, Jim Lastra’s Sound Technology and the American Cinema, and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity have been my bibles as well as the foundation and jumping-off point for my own research. Many of the answers given come from knowledge gleaned from their texts. My own dissertation research focuses on the question of noise in American cinema, and as a result I have done a significant amount of original research at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Some of the answers, then, come from that. My research on Hollywood’s transition to sound is going toward my dissertation: Insurgent Sounds: Noise, Audiences, and American Cinema Culture. My first chapter, “Songs of the Sonic Body: Noise, the Audience, and Early Moving Pictures” will be published this fall in Propelled by Media: Rethinking American Studies Part I: Cinema and Americanization, edited by Kingsley Bolton and Jan Olsson.

____

Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available in hardcover for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others. It will be available on Kindle within the year.

Check out other posts on my blog for more related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

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JANE EYRE ON FILM

A decade doesn’t go by without a new film version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic romance, Jane Eyre. Test your knowledge of the various film versions with this quiz:

1. What actress played a young Jane in the Jane Eyre film released three years after she won an Academy Award for her performance in a film co-starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel?

2. What composer/conductor wrote the music for an American television version of Jane Eyre before becoming famous for music he composed for many more movies, particularly a series that started in 1977?

3. What “brave new” British author famous for a futuristic novel helped co-write the screenplay for the 1944 Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine film version of Jane Eyre?

4. What now-famous actress played an uncredited role in the 1944 film version?

5. The first talkie of Jane Eyre starred what actor as Rochester who went on to play a famous monster maker?

6. A BBC miniseries of Jane practically transcribed the book word-for-word to the screen and starred what actor who might have preferred his off-camera drink shaken, not stirred? 

7. Robert Stevenson directed the 1944 film version, coaxing lovely performances from the child actors playing the young Jane and Helen Burns. What well-known child-friendly film did he go on to direct starring Julie Andrews?

8. A 1918 silent version of Charlotte Bronte’s book featured a change in the story — Rochester doesn’t realize his first wife, Bertha, is still alive, until her brother brings her on the scene and attempts to blackmail Rochester before his wedding to Jane. What was the name of this version?

9. Another early version of Jane handled the first-wife angle by having Rochester in the process of annulling his marriage to Bertha, when Jane discovers it’s not yet final and flees the scene. Which version was this?

10. Finally, another musical question — the composer of the score for the 1944 Jane Eyre went on to score a famous Hitchcock movie where one scene’s music is remembered as much as the scene itself. What was the movie?

Bonus question: How many silent iterations of Jane Eyre were made?

Answers:

1. Anna Paquin played young Jane in the 1996 William Hurt/Charlotte Gainsbourg version of Jane Eyre directed by Franco Zefferelli. Paquin had won the Academy Award for her role in the 1993 movie The Piano starring Holly Hunter.
2. John Williams, who wrote the music for the Star Wars movies among many others, was a relative unknown when he composed the score for the 1971 American television version of Jane starring George C. Scott and Susannah York.
3. Aldous Huxley, author of the novel Brave New World, was one of the screenwriters for the 1944 film version of Jane Eyre.
4. Elizabeth Taylor played young Jane’s friend Helen Burns in the 1944 film, but she received no screen credit for the role.
5. Colin Clive played Rochester in the 1934 talkie of Jane Eyre. He went on to play Dr. Frankenstein.
6. A 1983 BBC version starred James Bond-portrayer Timothy Dalton as Rochester.
7. Robert Stevenson went on to direct Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the lead roles.
8. The 1918 silent was called Woman and Wife.
9. The 1934 first talking version of Jane Eyre featured a storyline where Rochester was annulling his marriage to mad Bertha, who comes upon his wedding preparations in one scene and thinks he’s marrying her again.
10. Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the score for the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version of Jane, also wrote the music for Hitchcock’s Psycho. The screeching violins of its shower scene make up perhaps one of the most recognized pieces of movie music.
Bonus: There were eight silent versions of Jane made.

Hope you enjoyed the quiz.

____

Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available in hardcover for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others. It will be available on Kindle within the year.

Check out other posts on my blog for more related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

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WHEN JANE MET ROCHESTER

Recently on my old blog, I hosted a discussion of favorite scenes from Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the inspiration for my own September release, Sloane Hall, which is set in old Hollywood as films shifted from silent to sound.

A favorite Eyre scene for a bunch of folks was when Jane first encountered Rochester, not knowing who he was, on a walk near Thornfield Hall.

Here’s how I handled that scene in Sloane Hall, when chauffeur John Doyle encounters his starlet employer for the first time, not knowing who she is:

In a refreshed state of mind, I decided one Thursday afternoon to set out on a dirt road just north of the house, one that led away from the fields and into more barren land. I’d traveled nearly five miles by my reckoning and just made my way to the crest of a hill when I saw a tiny ball of fur in the middle of the road, trying to scamper to the side with no success.

Pushing my hat back on my head, I bent forward to help the poor creature. It was a baby rabbit with a leg cramped tight against its body, and it wouldn’t last long. Not in this land with sun and wind and other creatures aiming to hurt it. I felt the need to do something, so I took my hat off to scoop it up and into the brush where it could at least rest peacefully before death surely claimed it. Before I had a chance to touch its downy back and soothe its fright, I was put into a fright myself.

Heehaw, heehaw! A motorcar horn split the air, as out of place in that barren region as a snow-draped Christmas tree. I jumped back, just in time to save myself from being run over by a spitting new Duesenberg J, its long nose jutting down the road like a ramrod.

“What the . . .?” My head twitched as I saw the large wheels crush the animal into the earth. Damn that driver! Damn him to hell!

My gaze turned up to the vehicle, careening into a ditch while its driver cursed with a vocabulary I thought only my fellow reform-school inmates had mastered.

My hands clenched into fists. I marched toward the car, ready to give that driver more than just a piece of my mind. Out here on this sun-baked road, I could pound that rascal’s head into the ground, and no one would know but me and God. And I was sure, at that moment, that He was on my side.

But that feeling faded as I took long strides toward the car and . . . damn. Damn if the driver wasn’t beautiful. Soft and pretty like the small thing she’d destroyed.

A porcelain doll. A translucent face, too pale for California’s savage sun, and eyes as piercing as old Milqueton’s but blue instead of brown. Blue ice. Or blue flame, I suppose, depending on your perspective. Now they burned with anger, and her small rosebud of a mouth pursed in annoyance. Her hair was blond — white blond, like blinding sun–in one of those new short, wavy styles all the girls were favoring, and she wore a long-sleeved dress–something yellow and silky that gave the impression she had nothing on underneath. I was beaten back by all that, by the softness and the beauty. . .

. . . Opening the door, she jumped onto the road, but the car was leaning at an angle that made the distance from running board to ground farther than she’d counted on. Her knees buckled for an instant and she herself would have fallen had I not stretched out my hand to catch her arm.

Here was Eve herself. Soft skin, even though she herself was thin and bony, and sweet scent. . .

. . . I had to steady her with both my hands, while she latched onto my arms with her slender fingers. It was then that she looked me in the eyes and laughed. Here was the apple. That laugh. A silvery sound that rippled into the empty space like birds trilling in the distance, jangling my nerves. . .

“Dear boy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

(For more about Sloane Hall, be sure to check out other posts on this blog. Or to pre-order the book, go to amazon.com or bn.com!)

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WHEN ROCHESTER LOVED JANE

Sometimes I wonder if I was what is now called a “reluctant reader” as a child. I remember my father reading to my sister and me from Golden Books, the thin volumes one could purchase at drugstores and the like, and enjoying the stories. But once in school, reading was often as much chore as pleasure. I didn’t devour books the way my mother and sister did (and she still does–reading a book a week). I read them for class assignments.

Some exceptions stand out in memory like goldfinches among sparrows. The prosaic Trixie Belden stories hooked me as a preteen. And the poetic Great Gatsby made me swoon a few years later.

Somewhere in that time I discovered the great love of my reading life — Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I read and reread that book many times.

Today I think of Jane Eyre as the classic romance novel. Don’t cringe, purists. Bronte’s novel follows the romance novel story arc to a tee. Just because it’s artfully written and the story is magnificently told doesn’t mean it can’t be classified as romance.

Romance novels follow this formula:

  • girl meets boy (or vice versa)
  • it’s obvious they’re meant to be together
  • circumstances intrude
  • they ultimately confess their love
  • they plan to be together
  • the Black Moment occurs — something happens that rends them asunder, seemingly for all time
  • they reunite after the crisis passes
  • the HEA — happily-ever-after–tops things off.

If you look at each of these elements in the context of Jane Eyre, you see just how skillfully Bronte told her story.

Girl meets boy — was there ever a better first meeting scene than when Jane encounters Rochester on the road to Thornfield?

And the Black Moment — Bronte tears the reader’s heart out, placing this moment at the very pinnacle of what should be the lovers’ happiest time — their wedding day. Now that I’m an author myself, I have to smile and shake my head in awe at that stroke of genius. Charlotte, you sly fox, how clever you are, how well you knew your readers!

Today’s readers, however, would have little patience with a romance where the first third of the book is backstory. Yet Jane Eyre begins with page after page after page of young Jane’s early life and growth to adulthood. As a reader, I enjoyed that portion of the story, feeling with Jane the injustices that befell her, grieving with her when her dear friend died, admiring her feisty contrarian spirit, and rooting for her as she struggled to survive and ultimately break away.

In fact, when I read the book the very first time, I had no idea where it was going, thinking perhaps it might just be a poor-girl-makes-good, rags to riches tale. I had no idea of the great love story that was about to commence.

To this day, though, I recall the scene that really enraptured me, that had me aching for Jane and her love of Rochester.

It occurs when Rochester demands that Jane attend his house party with Adele, and there she overhears the cruel ridicule uttered by Blanche and her mother about governesses. After Jane leaves the gathering, Rochester catches up with her, asking her how she is doing after noticing her downcast mood.

“. . . What is the matter?”
“Nothing at all, sir.”
“Did you take any cold that night you half drowned me?”
“Not the least.”
“Return to the drawing-room: you are deserting too early.”
“I am tired, sir.”
He looked at me for a minute.
“And a little depressed,” he said. “What about? Tell me.”
“Nothing–nothing, sir. I am not depressed.”
“But I affirm that you are: so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes. . . If I had time, and was not in mortal dread of some prating prig of a servant passing, I would know what all this means. Well, tonight I excuse you. . .Now go, and send Sophie for Adele. Good-night, my — ” He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.

In that spare scene of dialogue — with speaker “tags” missing, feeling like a page from a play — Bronte communicates Jane’s yearning and Rochester’s desire to comfort her. He notices the unshed tears in her eyes. He wants to use an endearment when wishing her farewell but stops himself. At that moment, you know he loves her, and it’s just a matter of time before our sweet Jane realizes it herself.

Bronte allows the reader to discover Rochester’s love before Jane does. In on this happy secret, we eagerly turn pages anticipating the moment when our dear friend Jane will understand that her love is not unrequited. And, after allowing us to rejoice with her, letting us in on wedding preparations, even while throwing in a few ominous signs that obstacles still await (but surely nothing they can’t overcome, we think in our naivete!), Bronte dashes us all — Jane, Rochester, readers — against the rocks of heartbreak.

Charlotte, you sly, sly fox.

These emotional benchmarks–the sympathy for young Jane’s plight, the yearning for her love to be returned, the heartache of betrayal, the joy of reunion — are the moments that lingered with me over the years and had me returning to reread this perfectly told tale. Those moments were what ignited in me a desire to write a story that I hoped would capture those high points. In a way, writing my book, Sloane Hall, was a selfish endeavor as I strove to recreate the emotional roller-coaster ride of Bronte’s original tale.

Tell me what you loved most about Jane Eyre. . .I’d like to know. I originally ran this post on my old blog, and it generated a lively discussion of favorite scenes.

For more about my novel, Sloane Hall, see this post.

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