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Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Dangerous World of English Literature


In preparation for starting another book, I've decided to indulge myself re-reading some of my favorites. I started last night with The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: surrealism at its most entertaining. The story takes place in an alternate England of the mid-1980s where literature is the obsession that drives a nation. Protagonist Thursday Next, a literatec (literary detective), is hot on the trail of arch-villain Acheron Hades who has wickedly stolen Jane Eyre right out of her novel! This is a world where Shakespearean and Marlovian adherents duke it out on street corners, manuscripts are held hostage and family pets are more than likely genetically re-engineered dodos named Pickwick. In the world of The Eyre Affair, people live -- and are shot dead -- for literature.

I adore almost everything about Jane Eyre (except for some of the movies based on it, especially the most recent!) and the Brontës (except for that poor excuse, Branwell). My first dose came with the Classics Illustrated comic version (these may have been early versions of Cliff's Notes) belonging to one of my older sisters. Why should it have been so thrilling? Is it a testament to Charlotte's genius that I could be mesmerized by a mere outline of the story and some really, really bad art? What other explanation is there for my living and breathing Jane Eyre and being terrified at the notion of any attic until I was well through my adolescence -- this despite the fact that I actually never read the book until the summer I was fifteen. Or is this phenomenon merely predictive of one's becoming an English lit major and talking funny the rest of her life? (Some people claim they can actually hear my semicolons!)

I don't know for sure, but my fixation with Jane and her various dilemmas and odd quirks cannot possibly have been good for me. My teens were not normal: I lived in a different century. I my big crush was a fictional hero. I studied the speech and manners of all the characters until I could have passed for one of them.  This obsession (along with its counterpart, Pride and Prejudice) served me well in later years as a writer of historical romance, but I know my classmates at Kellogg High thought I was downright weird. They were right. Later, when I finally had my first literature classroom and introduced my 11th graders to Jane Eyre, they proved undeserving of the honor: they mocked the dialogue, questioned the period's moral scruples and called the work Jane Air-Head. I decided then -- and stuck to it for almost a year -- to never teach anything I cared about.

In the years to come and thanks to numerous mentors (thank you, Don Graves and Jane Hansen), it became clear that every student needed the freedom to follow their own obsessions in their reading and writing choices and learn what they could from them. I found out I couldn't make them care about what I loved. I could only create environments where it was all right to care about just about anything. That insight saved my teaching and possibly my students.


  1. Your Jayne Eyre was my Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan and Jane? The next step beyond Dick and Jane. Thanks be to God for Classic Comix and broken TV's, pre- cable and video games, or I would never have resorted to reading.

  2. I can re-read JE, though. Does Tarzan bear re-reading? :) You're right about technology, though. If we'd had Tetris we'd have turned into cross-eyed, antisocial troglodytes. Almost did anyway!