I am delighted to say, dear readers, that on this dreariest of fall equinoxes, our beloved and laborious catalog (the thirteenth) is now filtering through the postal system, commencing its arduous journey to your very fingertips. Yes, it may encounter sun, rain, heat, or gloom of night, but fortunately each is housed in its own mylar sleeve to ensure no fatal incidents in travel…for how much longer will we have the ability to rely on our trusted couriers to fulfill that promise?
Before I get too political, let me get to the real point. Now that our catalog is out there in the ether, I finally have some time to say some wonderful things about Rare Book School’s Assistant Director and Curator of Collections, Barbara Heritage. For, as none of you know, I attended her talk on the reception of Jane Eyre at the first of the fall’s Book History Colloquium at Columbia last Thursday. Not only is Barbara a wonderful speaker, but her passion for reading and book collecting gave me the same inspiring fervor that I felt during my week at RBS. She finished up the Q&A session with an emphatic and heartfelt statement that will forever stay in my mind; it went something like this, so pay no attention to the quotation marks: “to truly love and know a book, you can’t have just one copy of it. You will always need to know what else is out there.” And after listening to her speak for an hour, it is obvious that Barbara truly loves Jane Eyre.
As most people (I think) do, I have always thrown Charlotte Brontë and her sisters in the same category as other Romantic writers whose stories portray beautiful yet pathetic heroines always saved at the last minute by daring handsome men of landed gentry (I’m looking at you, Jane Austen). What is this crap, teaching young girls the lesson: “Have no fear, sweet darling, even if you are poor and stupid, you are beautiful! You skin, it sparkles like diamonds, and your man, he will come for you well before you are past the age of childbirth.” What if you aren’t beautiful and weak, what then, huh?
Enter Jane [Eyre] (Damn you again, Jane Austen for forcing me to be explicit). She’s smart. But, she’s plain. She’s an extremely hard worker. But, she’s ugly. She’s fearless and not weak. But, unfortunately, her skin doesn’t sparkle like diamonds. In short: she’s a girl with an abusive childhood who finds herself in the care of the rude and selfish Rochester, with whom she falls in love only to suddenly find he’s already married to a “lunatic nymphomaniac with vampiric tendencies” (thank you, Barbara). Oh and then after all of that? She still marries him and cares for him even though he’s practically a blind paraplegic. Here is a story that doesn’t follow the general plot of the Romantic novels all girls have grown up reading and loving.
Immediately, I have a new respect for Charlotte Brontë. The fact that she and her sisters posed as men, wrote endlessly to publishers to get their stories and poems printed, faced rejection at almost every turn, yet never gave up their will to write something different from the status quo of the day is inspiration enough. Couple that with a woman speaking from her heart about a novel to which she has devoted years of her life, and I now want to go out and buy every copy of Jane Eyre that I can find! Well, I probably won’t do that, but I will definitely re-read it from a new perspective.
And I might re-read another book, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which I’ve been dying to try to pull into this post but couldn’t quite figure out how until now. A story set in 1985 England, but where books are not just words on paper, but living creatures, where “mortals” (for lack of a better word) can find themselves entering the plots of any written book, speaking with characters, and, in some cases, changing the story line entirely. It’s much lighter and much easier to read than most books published before 1900, maybe because it was published in 2002. But now, after Barbara’s talk, I wonder how large of a Brontë fan Fforde is, and if any of his inspiration stems from the passage that Barbara read to us from E. C. S. Gaskell’s The Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë in which Charlotte writes to Mr. George Smith:
You should be very thankful that books cannot “talk to each other as well as to their reader.” Conceive the state of your warehouse if such were the case. The confusion of tongues at Babel, or a congregation of Irvingites in full exercise of their miraculous gift, would offer but a feeble type of it. Terrible, too, would be the quarreling. [You]…would all have to go in several times in the day to part or silence the disputes. …Still I like the notion of a mystic whispering amongst the lettered leaves, and perhaps at night, when London is asleep and Cornhill desert, when all your clerks and men are away, and the warehouse is shut up, such a whispering may be heard–by those who have ears to hear.
Since first reading The Eyre Affair, I have entertained the idea that all books and their characters are somehow connected with each other, like that collective conscience all of those conspiracy theorists are talking about nowadays. And it is our duty as bibliophiles, as Barbara Heritage has done, to keep that conversation going, never allowing the whispering to cease.
photo credit: RTPOT