A Case of Envy

I stood in a great big white room surrounded by art and poetry and instead of admiring the work, I  shook with a terrible case of envy.

I was twelve, I think, and was here with my family in a gallery with glass walls that looked out onto the big glass and graphite grey city to celebrate my brother’s success. He had placed in a state-wide competition for writing. There was a ceremony, there was a certificate, there was money, and I was proud.

Until I was angry.

Only a year ago I had been invited to enter this same competition, to send my work off to the great Readers of Things and have them judge my fifth grade poetic work about how America is one big quilt of cultures. And I still remember looking into my teacher’s face and shaking my head, “No.” And she asked if I was sure, that it was a good poem, that I should try it and again I said “No.”

But lo and behold, here I stood more than a year later at a ceremony for the same competition with the same subject matter limited to the same grade level, READING MY OWN WORK.

Of course it wasn’t really my work. It written by some other girl, someone a year younger than me from some other school in a different part of the state-but we had done the same thing. It was nearly the same poem, word for word, with quilts and beauty and America and yay…It was the title that had caught my eye in the first place. But the difference between ME and HER, and it’s a very, very important one, was that she had entered the competition and then she had won. I had done neither.

I was…I don’t know what I was really…I was 1) Oddly comforted that her work wasn’t unique, then 2) Interested to know how many times these people had received the same poem and bestowed a prize on its writer 3) Bemused as to why they bothered with the competition if they received the same damn work year after year 5) In a sort of existential limbo where I wondered about the nature of originality and 6) I was mad/envious. This was my poem, this was my place, this was my glory she was basking in, whoever she was (I’m not even sure she was there for the ceremony). This was supposed to be mine.

But it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, it would not be, I could not claim any prize or conciliatory prize, I had no ground here.

I burdened my mother with my mood. She empathized with me and apologized, and finally asked me why I hadn’t entered when I had the chance.

“Because I thought it was stupid,” I said bordering on tears.

“Well,” she said. “You can’t do anything about that now, honey, that’s how you felt about it. None of us could have told you otherwise. We couldn’t have told you ‘you should do this because you’ll be angry if you don’t’.” She looked down into my face and smiled that “my child is hurting, but learning something as well and it’s sad” type smile. “We didn’t know and you didn’t know, right?” She shook the hand I had put in hers as both reassurance and reinforcement.

I sulkily said “right” and frowned for the rest of the afternoon with this weighing on my mind. That was my place, I could have been here, had a prize, a certificate, a check. It could have been me. It should have been me.

When my brother received his prize, I did my best to smile and clap through this feeling of sadness, failure, frustration and indignation. My brother had done beautifully, he had earned a prize he deserved, he had claimed a place in the world of writing, a world most people didn’t acknowledge he had talent for, and he had gotten time in the spotlight. But I had not.

To this day, the memory makes my face set in some ugly expression, like remembering the taste of rotted food that I ate voluntarily. Because of it, I have entered competitions in hopes of proving my worthiness. I have developed a chip on my shoulder for others who succeed.  And I dream of the day I when I will succeed where I didn’t years and years and years ago.

And even as I write all these ugly sentiments down, I try to discover the moral of the story. I try to figure out where Mother Goose would shake her head and say I went wrong. I think it’s all summed up thusly:

“…you can’t practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it.”
– Aunt Jet, Practical Magic 1998

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Wrong: Thoughts on The Autobiography of Jane Eyre

It all started when I saw the sub-titled screen captures and realized the woman with her face in the camera was supposed to be Jane Eyre. Thoughts piled up, one on top of the other more quickly than my mind could organize them. But the general idea was that these images were wrong. I have since spent the last week researching and trying to determine the best way to communicate those thoughts here. After much word-writing, I decided the best way to present them would be in the form of a list detailing my complaints and the reason for them.

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, or AoJe, is a YouTube web series that modernizes Charlotte Bronte’s work Jane Eyre. For a modernization to be successful, I understand there are things that must change. Those things, however, should not be qualities key to the character of the heroin/hero. AoJE did just that. They changed Jane Eyre so much that she is unrecognizable to anyone who has read and understood the book. Continue below for my complaints and concerns.

1. The entire concept, or Jane with her face in a camera

I rejected this out of hand. It is as inappropriate and out of place as Ghandi driving a Porsche, George Washington being a fascist, or Caligula obeying the senate…this is wrong.
Jane Eyre is not one for the spotlight. Jane Eyre is not one to ask that people sit down and listen to her life story or one who asks for approval. This is not false modesty, this is not pouting…Jane did not want to be the center of attention. And who, after growing up with Jane’s Aunt Reed or after surviving an education at Lowood, would throw themselves on the mercy of YouTube?

So, Jane keeps to herself until questioned.

What Jane did want was to be cared for and to be loved. When she did fall in love and had that love reciprocated, she wanted her actions and words to matter to ONE person (Rochester). What Blanche Ingram thought, what Mrs. Fairfax thought, what the rest of society thought did not matter.

2. Jane as an indecisive, timid, apologetic creature with low self-esteem.

I look up to the character of Jane Eyre. In a world of female characters that rely on their fear or someone’s will besides their own to dictate their next move, Jane Eyre has ballast. She meets fear with a quiet, direct gaze and the knowledge that, no matter what happens in the next moment, no matter how extreme, she knows where she stands. Her will-power, her self-control, and her self-respect are all beautiful and admirable qualities. However, this web series removes Jane Eyre’s gall and replaces it with timidity. Is this a necessary step for modernization? No. But it is a necessary step if you are trying to make Jane Eyre a victim.

Moreover, timidity in general is not a theme in Jane Eyre. No character is timid or afraid to take what their heart wants. Jane listens to both her heart and mind and acts in complete obeisance to both, even to her own detriment. Rochester is determined to get what he wants, even if it damns him and Jane in the process. Even St. John Rivers is strong enough to quash a passion he sees as inferior to his calling. Does he shake? Yes. Does he blush? Yes. But does he give in? No. Even Blanche Ingram is bold enough to pursue Rochester’s fortune without guilt.

Jane Eyre is in no way a story about timidity and fear. Even the “villains” are strong-willed.

3. Jane Eyre starting a video blog because she wants to be more like the “confident” Elizabeth Bennet.

This is insulting for two different reasons. Firstly, Jane Eyre is not short on confidence. Jane is part of a lower class than Rochester and his circle of acquaintances, she is not considered beautiful, but she is not in need of confidence and she does not allow herself to be subjugated. This is exemplified in her famous poor, obscure, plain and little speech to Rochester. Secondly, Charlotte Bronte’s feelings on Jane Austen makes the above reason for Jane Eyre vlogging particularly ridiculous

Allow me to cite Charlotte Bronte’s letters to George Lewes for her feelings on Austen.

 

  • Her [Austen’s]business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death- this Miss Austen ignores; she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible ( not senseless) woman…
  • Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say you would rather  have written “Pride and Prejudice” or “Tom Jones’” than any of the Waverly Novels? I had not seen “Pride and Prejudice” till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with near borders and delicate flowers- but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy- no open country- no fresh air- no blue hill- no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in they elegant but confined houses.
  • Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.”
  •  “Can there be a great Artist without poetry? What I call-what I will bend to as a great Artist, there cannot be destitute of the divine gift. But by poetry I am sure you understand something different to what I do- as you do by ‘sentiment” .It is poetry, as I comprehend the word which elevates that masculine George Sand and makes out of something coarse, something godlike…Miss Austen being as you say without “sentiment” without poetry, may be – is sensible, real ( or real than true) but she cannot be great.”

Taking all this into consideration, why in the world would Charlotte Bronte’s Jane EVER look to Austen’s Bennet for inspiration or guidance? Both the authors and their creations are as different from one another as frost from fire.

The Root of the Problem: the Creators of AoJE Want Jane Eyre to be an Austen Character.

The inspiration for The Autobiography of Jane Eyre was the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series that modernizes and serializes Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen’s work and characters lends itself to this medium. Like Charlotte Bronte said, Austen’s work is about shrewd observation and YouTube is mostly observation laced with opinion. Also, Austen’s work, for all its drama, is essentially satire.

In comparison, Jane Eyre is not about satire. It is not about drama. Jane Eyre is a gothic novel. It covers abuse, neglect, love death, deceit, the concept of the soul, the influence of the supernatural on nature and humanity, nature as a reflection of humanity, the role of human law and convention as opposed to individual morality…I could go on for days. By trying to soften all that, by trying to make it light-hearted and brightly-coloured, by trying to make it a Jane Austen work, which is what AoJE did, you ruin everything that makes not only Charlotte’s, but all of the Brontes’ passionate and poetical work important.

If you want light-hearted fun, you have come to the wrong place.

On Modernization: Jane Eyre Would Probably Have a Tumblr Account.

In the end, I believe the creators of AoJE got one thing right. Out of every social media outlet, I think Tumblr would be the one Jane would use. It is simpler and more straight-forward than Pinterest or Instagram, is not as cliquey and competitive as We Heart It, it requires little to no writing, and is mostly focused on the art of the image which is how Jane prefers to express herself. Do I agree with the content that the creators of the web series include? Not a bit.

And when it comes to the creation of a web series, I can imagine a successful modernization, but it would have to embrace the gothic quality of the story,  the fact that Jane is a product of her inborn nature twisted by a childhood of abuse, and present an image of the world seen by the modern woman who would be Jane. If it were well done, I believe it could be very powerful…But is it too deep for the YouTube wading pool?

Dear Reader, if you have made it this far in the post, I thank you for taking the time and reading it. It may have been biased and passionate, but I think it was warranted. While I can’t discredit the people of AoJE for taking on this project, I can say they did it poorly. No, not even poorly, plain out wrong. They didn’t capture the essence of the novel or its characters. Instead, they have gave us a weak Austen-esque woman with Jane’s name claiming to tell her story.

Writing the Plot: When What You Want Doesn’t Matter

“When authors write best, or at least, when they wrote most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master, which will have its own way, putting  out of view all behests but its own, dictating words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new moulding characters, giving unthought- of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones. Is this not so? And should we try to counteract this influence? Can we indeed counteract it?”- Charlotte Bronte

I write in my head. When there’s no pen or pencil around, no keyboard, I write in my head. My glassy eyes are unfocused and unblinking as I compose sentences in my mind, rearranging their placement, dreaming new dialogue, building new scenes and I generally don’t realize that I’ve fallen into the pit until Mum tilts her head to find my eyes and asks if I’m okay. And all this is fine until I sit down to type it out in a word processor and everything I built is blown away like ashes.

“Uh-uh,” someone says in my head, “start over.”

And I pout and say, “But-”

and they shake their head and say, “I don’t like it. It’s no good. Now write.”

And I say “But-”

And they calmly shake their head and say “Write. Put your fingers over the keys and start typing.”

and I say, “But what are we doing, what’s going to happen?”

and they press their lips together and stay silent, keeping all the content from me.

And when I fold my arms and stomp

they fold their arms and slowly lean back like Alice’s caterpillar and regard me coolly

And when I strain my ears for what I’m supposed to say

they arch their eyebrows in amusement

“You don’t get it yet, do you?” They say with a smile on their lips. “No type, no story. No write, no create. You don’t get any sneak previews. You don’t need to see where you’re going to get there. Your eyes have nothing to do with this trip, doll. No ears either. No maps, no compass, no flashlight, no plans. Now, walk your fingers across those keys, or we aren’t going anywhere.”

And we stare at each other.

And I start picking up pieces of what I constructed prior to their interruption and paste them crudely to the page, but they don’t stick. I get more frustrated as they fall, and they cross their legs and watch it all from their perch.

I throw it all on the floor in a wet messy heap and cry.

And they chew a straw and stare down at it and then ask if I’m finished yet. Because the train hasn’t left the station, but home is waiting and supper is cold.

And I stomp to my desk and stick my hands over they keys, shoot them a look meant to knock them off their mushroom, and then type. Blindly.

But instead up stumbling into marshes, I walk around ponds. Instead of falling off hills, I walk off them into trees and the scenery paints itself as I go along. And Someone fades into the back, legs crossed reading a book in the dark while I work and walk, not making  a sound but keeping out an eye for when I try to work out the plot.

“Reach for the …

“Reach for the fire from heaven boldly and without apology.”

These days, it’s a funny thing to think that someone can give you a quote that has nothing to do with car insurance. Or, in fact, that someone can give you something, something like a quote, intangible and available to everyone,  at all. But the quote above is indeed a gift, one given to me by my mother in support my author-ly aspirations.

My mother is an Earl Grey Woman. Subtle, quiet, refined. She sent me this quote one night after we had discussed a struggle I was having with writing and my world changed the moment I read it. Like a taste of Earl Grey after an argument, the quote quieted me and I imagined many things were possible, all of them waiting for me to reach out and touch the flame.

The purpose of this blog is to share with you my inspirations and irritations as I embark on the journey to published author-hood. With my first novel on the way and plenty of poetry and short stories always coming to mind, I’m certain there will be much to share.

I will share the things that remind me why I love to write, the things that remind me to write what I love, and the things that inspire me to build greater fires.

My mother has given me a gift that reminds me to reach for the fire.

I am reaching. I am claiming. I am on fire.