When Memory Meets Imagination
The excellent new film Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska in the title role, is one of more than a dozen cinematic versions of the classic novel by Charlotte Bronte. That’s a lot of visual interpretation, and the great Gothic romance has been the subject of much more literary criticism. But perhaps no treatment of the old story has shone as much light on its origins as has another novel, Sheila Kohler’s Becoming Jane Eyre.
The joy of reading Becoming Jane Eyre runs much deeper than the simple game of discovering to what degree the novel’s events and characters are thinly disguised recreations from Charlotte’s brief life. Rather, Kohler’s genius lies in the illuminating way in which she imagines Charlotte using her considerable skills to make art out of her many disappointments. Tim O’Brien has written that stories come from the place where memory and imagination converge. Kohler vividly depicts Charlotte discovering that place, and in so doing she puts the creative process at the center of the action.
Charlotte herself states the central theme of Kohler’s book, late in the story, when Jane Eyre has become an instant bestseller and its author the toast London literary society. “People want to find out who she really is,” thinks Charlotte. “What they really want to know is whether she has written her own story into her novel; how much of it is true? How could she answer such a question? She doesn’t know the answer herself.”
For a writer, Becoming Jane Eyre is nothing less than a tutorial, not only in the means of manufacturing plot from the raw material of our lives, but also in the more subtle art of creating compelling characters, chiefly by careful and insightful observation of real people. Here, for example, is Kohler describing how Charlotte, on her first meeting with the domineering mother of her publisher, sizes up the woman, doubtless storing the details of this first impression for later use: “She likes the mother’s lively brown eyes, her clear cheek, the way she offered her warm hand so promptly on greeting her. She likes her decided bearing, her strong profile seen in the half light of the opera box. A handsome woman and certainly, this evening, all amiability, all graciousness. She likes the way she scolds her son jokingly, takes him to task as though he were still a boy, the way he calls her ‘Old Lady.’ ”Continued on the next page