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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

 

Misremembering the Brontes

Like many people, I hadn't heard of Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight until it started to be mentioned in film reviews. This is probably because I'm thirty-one rather than fourteen, though I did notice a friend of mine being given it as a thirtieth birthday present with the recommendation that it was a perfect book to relax with. Based on reviews and extracts, it doesn't sound like my kind of novel, so unless I get interested enough in the cultural phenomenon to pick it up from the library I'll be in no position to say much about the book itself - but reading discussions of it - I'd particularly recommend this one from Salon - something stands out. Meyer, apparently, is a big fan of certain classics, particularly Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Their heroes influenced hers - and, interestingly, hers is frequently described as 'perfect' (though a more jaundiced reviewer describes him as 'one of modern fiction's best candidates for a restraining order' - which adds up to the conclusion that he's a particularly effective version of the masterful hero that works so well in female fantasies and so seldom in real life; the guy who's kept Mills and Boon going all those years.

Which is a topical segue into the subject I'd really like to discuss, which is this: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear to be among the most misremembered books in history.

It's a curious thing that both books are seen as great love stories, when the former spends vast amounts of time away from the romance - notably, it begins and ends elsewhere - and the latter ends with the 'hero' dying in sin and insanity. Both of these 'love stories' are in fact deeply problematic.

The word most commonly applied to Wuthering Heights is 'passion'. The Cathy-Heathcliff relationship is seen as a lifelong love, wild as the moors, that endures all life can throw at it. More accurate, perhaps, would be to say that it's a lifelong obsession on Heathcliff's part that survives all that Cathy can throw at it - and that, for fans of the masterful man, Heathcliff is very much the underdog. The break in their relationship comes where Cathy chooses to marry another man, primarily for his money, which she justifies thus:

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath - a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind - not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

Catherine isn't saying this to declare herself: she's saying it to justify her abandonment of Heathcliff's love. She remarks that 'it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him.' Catherine's logic is convoluted and narcissistic: believing Heathcliff to be 'more myself than I am', it's inconceivable to her that he might have needs or desires of his own that are separate from, or in conflict with, hers. To please herself cannot be a betrayal of Heathcliff if he, too, is herself. He doesn't even need to know how she feels; she knows how she feels, and that's all that's necessary. This sense of two-in-one, which sounds so romantic taken out of context, is in fact an absolute objectification of the man she claims to love: not being separate from her in her own mind, she treats him as entirely without rights. Nelly calls her a 'wicked, unprincipled girl' for this, and it's hard not to see her point.

And Heathcliff takes it. Physically large he may be, but his powers are weak when put to the test. He's violent, but only towards women (though not Catherine), children and animals; in his one physical confrontation with a man, Edgar Linton punches him in the throat and Heathcliff runs away blustering. He simply isn't as big as he talks; Linton, whom he regards as a weakling, bests him in a physical conflict - and if we're considering virility as well as strength, it's worth noting that the child Heathcliff fathers, Linton Heathcliff, is sickly and frail, while Linton fathers a healthy and beautiful daughter. Such force as Heathcliff does exert on other men following his return from exile is largely financial rather than muscular - and he never, ever stands up to Catherine. He schemes furiously against everyone he perceives as standing between him and her, but the plain fact is that Catherine married another man of her own free will, and Heathcliff blames everyone but her. He's remembered as masterful, but Cathy has Heathcliff by the balls.

(It's also worth pointing out that the moors, while present, are not heavily described. Wuthering Heights is a novel of domestic scenes, of quarrels and conflicts indoors; the moors' main effect on the plot is to enforce isolation from the rest of the world and from other households, allowing emotional hothouses to thrive and grow rampant.)

Wuthering Heights, in short, is not in fact a love story. Heathcliff's thwarted rage at Catherine's desertion drives a great deal of the story, but that's only romantic if we believe what the characters say about themselves - take their statements as facts, rather than as the self-justifications of ruthless people. Primarily it's a story of conflict between large personalities trapped in a small space, a tale of family dynasty rather than two people, and in this tense environment, affectionate love is something that struggles.

Jane Eyre is another tricky customer. The famous love story in fact only occupies the central phase of the book; much of the action is entirely Rochester-less. Jane's struggles with her aunt, her travails at Lowood, have very little to do with the Rochester storyline, except to impress on her a need for independence and self-sustenance that later will stand her in good stead. A lot of people forget about St John RIvers, too, Jane's later implacable suitor who tries to persuade her to marry him and lead a missionary's life that will, he knows, destroy her - even though St John's final letter, in which he declares that he's dying and looks forward to Heaven, is what ends the book. Jane's primary relationship throughout, the only one that lasts, is with her own integrity: as she says, 'I care for myself'. No narcissist like Catherine, Jane is instead aware that she is accountable for her own actions, and the emotional arc of the novel concerns her fraught relationship with independence and self-sacrifice. Rochester is part of it, but not the whole story; as Jane herself declares, if the price of love is her self-respect, then she can do without love.

The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep to the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles given me when I was sane, and not mad - as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would they be worth? They have a worth - so I have always believed - and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane - quite insane, with my veins running fire and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

This is passionate language, but her passion is for principle more than for a man. Love is dismissed precisely because it is so overwhelming; because it unseats the judgement and overwhelms the emotions, it is not to be relied upon.

Even prior to this temptation, though, Jane is notably hard-headed in her dealings with Rochester. His attempts to buy her fine clothes are an 'annoyance and a degradation' because she doesn't want to be dressed up like a toy: 'I thought his smile was such as sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched,' and she isn't having it. Jane knows perfectly well that he's had affairs in the past and tired of those women; to 'be your English Celine Varens' isn't something she's prepared to risk. Becoming engaged to him, she is 'flinty' in her refusal to accept sweet nothings, certain that he's unlikely to respect or stay interested in a woman who falls for his line of talk: 'a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgement, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste less.' She views this as keeping him 'in reasonable check', to the relief of the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax - and one can hardly blame her for this. Rochester himself owns that 'To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out that they have neither souls nor hearts - when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility, coarseness and ill-temper' - and while Rochester believes that Jane can never display any such vices, Jane herself reckons that this is infatuation talking, and that once the first flush has worn off he will lose interest in a woman who hasn't conducted herself carefully in the meantime.

Jane, in short, is aware that their social discrepancy puts all the power on his side, and recognises that she must continually assert herself if she isn't to be overwhelmed and then lost. The Salon article I linked to above remarks that in the stories descended from Jane Eyre, 'The chief point of this story is that the couple aren't equals, that his love rescues her from herself by elevating her to a class she could not otherwise join.' But this isn't entirely accurate in this instance. Jane is impoverished, but a lady by birth: marrying Rochester doesn't so much elevate her to a class she couldn't otherwise join as return her to a class from which she has been exiled; a legacy finally enables her to marry him on equal terms, indeed. Power is delicately balanced, but rather than surrendering herself to love, Jane treads a fine tightrope to prevent either her own emotions or his social power from entrapping her.

The Bronte sisters are remembered as great romantics, and if we capitalise the R, that's true: they were Romantic novelists, interested in the internal and the extreme. But love is a fraught business in their stories, and their heroes are questionable. Neither Heathcliff nor Rochester really likes women; both make something of an exception for their beloved, but are quick to scorn those they can impress or intimidate, and are only tender towards women whose force of personality exceeds their own. In the light of this, it's curious to see them as the grandfathers of your template masterful hero; both of them talk a good game, but if we look at their actions, they're not as all-fired tough as you think. The Strong Man Mastered By Love is, of course, essential to the alpha romance hero, but in fact, neither Heathcliff nor Rochester are strong in asserting their will against others. Heathcliff, as I've said, takes his temper out on those frailer than himself, but tends not to win conflicts with his contemporaries; Rochester fails to resist his family's pressure to marry a stranger and deals very poorly with the situation he finds himself in, fleeing abroad, hiding the truth and generally taking the easiest option wherever he can. There are other ways of defining manhood than the ability to win conflicts, of course, and the capacity to love certainly impresses women, but neither Heathcliff's nor Rochester's love is, to use an old-fashioned word, disinterested. Neither man loves the woman's good; each views love possessively rather than as a desire to see the beloved happy - else why does Heathcliff turn so vengeful, or Rochester try to trick Jane into an illegal marriage?

To be intensely desired is seductive, but dangerous when not associated with the desire to preserve and benefit that lies at the root of true love. Both of these men represent the dangerous type of love - which may be part of the appeal to a woman who's temporarily tired of the kind of love that helps with the dishes. But the Bronte romances are not, so to speak, defanged versions: their heroes are depicted as genuinely dangerous, as life-ruiners driven by selfishness, rather than as idealised lovers whose 'badness' is cosmetic and ineffective. There's something sleazy about genuine badness, which both these novels capture, with Heathcliff's loan-sharking and alcoholism-fostering, with Rochester's affairs and lies and callousness towards every mistress or wife who fails to please him. It's possible, of course, to love a man despite his faults, which is certainly what Jane does - and what real people do too, men and women both, because we're none of us perfect - but the Brontes are unusually frank about what those faults are, and clear that love for such men can never be unconnected with power play - and that it such relationships can be fatal to women who don't have the resilience to play for power hard and skillfully. Heathcliff's wife makes the mistake of assuming that love is the answer, for instance, and finds to her cost that it wasn't.

And yet, and yet. Somehow, many, many readers seem to lose sight of these faults. They remember 'I am Heathcliff' and not its context; they remember the proposal under the horse-chestnut and not the haggles about money and flattery that follow it. The rhetoric of love, spoken by the lovers themselves, overwhelms recollection of the details. This may just be a variant of the Sanjuro Effect, the tendency to perceive a character's charisma and notice little else to the degree that you've actively misunderstood the point - or possibly a tendency to fall in love with a character on not-too-close reading followed by the usual state of love being blind.

Readers do sometimes rewrite books in their heads to smooth off the uncomfortable bits, and the Brontes seem unusually prone to that. It's a curious thing, nonetheless.

Comments:
YES, THANK YOU!

Ok, done shouting. I went to an all-girls high school (U.S.), and the Brontes figured heavily into the required reading list. Listening to classmates swoon about how dreamy it all was only made me roll my eyes and wonder if we were reading the same books.
 
That's interesting. Can you remember what they said about why it was so dreamy? I'm speculating about why the books get misremembered, so it would be good to hear some examples...
 
Did you ever run across Adrienne Rich's essay "Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman"? (PDF of a sloppy scan here) She gives it a feminist reading (it's from '79), and makes some good points about Eyre's refusal to accept love without integrity.

And why is this what we remember? Not sure, though it's likely the same reason Pride and Prejudice is remembered as a love story, when actually the moral and economic dimensions of the story are more what Austen's interested in.

To throw out one off-the-wall possibility: Life's hard, and the prospect of someone who will Take Care Of It For Us is a mighty tempting one. But this expresses itself in gendered ways: men looking for a Macho Sue that they can just follow, woman for a Heathcliff/Rochester/Darcy who'll sweep them away.
 
I read Jane Eyre when I was about thirteen, and I loved it -- especially the beginning, where Jane is an unhappy, intelligent child. I loved stories about unhappy and intelligent children when I was a kid. Jane Eyre was in the same category as Ender's Game.

The scenes between Jane and Rochester appealed to me as well because they dispensed so quickly with the proprieties and moved immediately to honest if sometimes sarcastic, discussions of life and philosophy and how to be a good person and whether or not it even mattered if you were. At the time I was very intolerant of small talk, and I fantasized about a relationship built on this kind of thrillingly deep conversation.

Mr. Rochester comes across in these conversations as a man sunk deep in depression, a man who hates himself, who has completely failed to live up the ideals he once held and has consequently abandoned his ideals. He's cynical, angry, and tired of living. Jane gets to him, with her own firmly defended ideals and integrity. The more he admires her the more he loathes himself, because he can't pretend he doesn't have any principles when she's around; she forces him to admit that he's failed to live up to them.

But Jane's a sucker for deep conversations and soul-baring honesty too, and she feels sorry for Mr. Rochester, and she can sense his respect for her in honesty (about some things) and his willingness to speak to her as an equal. So she falls in love with him, this brilliant, broken man, and once she knows all his sins and faults, and forgives him and loves him anyway, then he can finally forgive himself.

Rochester "masterful"? Rochester rescuing Jane? That's not at all what I get out of their romance. Rochester is a monster and knows it, and Jane redeems him.

As for St. John, well, he's a saint and not a sinner, but Jane chooses Rochester over him because -- well, there is more celebration in heaven for one sinner who repents, and all that. Rochester may not be as soon a person as St. John, but he tries so much harder at it.

I loved and still loved Jane Eyre, in case you can't tell. I identify strongly with Jane. My heart breaks for Mr. Rochester. The story moves me deeply.

So after I read and loved that, at the age of 13 or so, I read and detested Wuthering Heights. What a lot of selfish, shallow, petty people. What jerks! How can I possibly care what happens to them? The whole thing is a soap opera; all of their misery is of their own making, and they deserve every ounce of it.

Maybe I would take a more nuanced view if I re-read it now -- I haven't seen high school. But to me there is no comparison between the two books at all, for all their authors were sisters. Has anyone ever really been attracted to Heathcliffe? I can't believe it. He's no Rochester -- he has no regrets, never has enough self-awareness to hate himself. I can't see him as the masterful hero either. He's just an asshole, that's all.

Anyway, Twilight's Edward is neither one of these. The closest he has ever come to Rochester's kind of sin is a period where he killed humans -- but only criminals. (Buffy and Angel match the Jane and Rochester more closely -- Angel is ashamed of what he is, and Buffy's love redeems him.) But he's not a jerk like Heathcliffe either. In fact he comes across like a high school boy who doesn't know what to do with all this lust he's feeling. Okay, its bloodlust as well as the regular kind of lust, but still basically, teenager in lust is his vibe. He doesn't have enough personality, really, to ever be as threatening or masterful as all of these people imply with all of their stuff about how he supposedly stalks Bella.

I keep saying that Twilight reminds me of a John Cusack movie (especially "Say Anything"), but maybe I should compare it to, oh, the American Pie movies. I haven't actually seen those, but they're about some high school kids trying to lose their virginity and being sweetly awkward about it, right?

Yeah. That's what Twilight is about too.
 
Hmm. Someone wanna copyedit that comment?
 
I'd agree that the characters of Wuthering Heights are on the whole bad people - many of them, anyway - but I fail to see why that's a reason to discount the book. Do we have to like all the characters we read about? The book is all the more interesting for its harshness, to my mind. The conflicts and power plays are magnified because they're played out between people who are ruthless and uncompromising, which creates a great sense of both drama and ambivalence.

As to their problems being of their own creation - well, yes; that's because action is tied to character, which is a virtue in a book rather than a fault. If their problems had nothing to do with their actions, it would be rather dull.

Though yes, thirteen is probably too young for it.

I'm always frightened for young women who go for the 'brilliant, broken' myth of love, though. Broken is broken; it isn't a sign of special sensitivity, it's just damage. Broken people can't look after themselves, and if they can't even do that, there's no way they'll treat you like you deserve. A desire to play fix-it is a dangerous reason to have a romance, and it won't pan out like a romantic's dreams. Staying in situations where you hope that love will cure the guy is how a lot of people get hurt.

The bottom line is that if someone can't save themselves, no one else can do it for them. I've seen this with friends of mine who've suffered from depression - men particularly; the excellent I Don't Want To Talk About It remarks that the commonest reason men finally seek medical help with their depression is that their wives have threatened to leave if they don't. A wife hanging in there, hoping that her love will save him, is actually enabling the depression; she has to let go of the idea that she can save him if she's going to do him any good. Same thing with husbands whose wives are depressed, or families whose children are. Love is a blessing and support when someone's trying to fix themselves, but love on its own fixes nothing once the damage is deep enough. You have to heal your own wounds, and for that, you need to be self-motivated. Nothing else lasts.

Having said that, I like Jane Eyre a lot too - I like both the books - but I think I interpret it differently.
 
Thanks for the article, Claud - fascinating. It rather reminds me of a point Carol Shields makes in her biography of Jane Austen: that for a woman living in a world where marriage is the closet she can get to a career or a vocation, the moment of her marriage is perhaps her one moment of public self-affirmation: in saying 'I do', she is able to say 'I am':

Her attachment to her subject matter, as book after book rolled under her pen, may puzzle contemporary readers too, though we read her presumed narrowness in the question of subject matter differently today, seeing the idea of marriage in an enlarged metaphorical sense: a homecoming, a bold glance at the wider world of connection and commitment.

In choosing who to marry, and under what circumstances, Shields remarks, a heroine asserts 'a sense of control over her own existence'.

I think this is one reason why it's an oversimplification to regard the novels of the Brontes and Jane Austen primarily as love stories, even though most love stories look to them: written at a time when marriage was a woman's sole opportunity for self-identification, they were necessarily focused on marriage as a means of considering the wider questions of identity and morality that a female novelist of equal quality today could confidently focus on a wider range of experiences.
 
Ah, here's the quote I was looking for:

The young often read Austen's novels as love stories. Later, more knowing readers respond to their intricate structures, their narrative drive, their quiet insistence that we keep turning over the page, even though we know the ending, which is invariably one of reconciliation and a projection of future happiness in the form of marriage. But what did marriage mean in the context of these novels? Not a mere exchange of vows repeated in church. Marriage reached beyond its iterative moment of rhetoric and gestured, eloquently and also innocently, toward the only pledge a young woman was capable of giving. She had one chance in her life to say 'I do,' and these words rhyme psychologically with the phrase: I am, I exist.
 
It reminds me of the way people read Tolkien after reading endless streams of generic fantasy product, and don't realize the originality or the intent of The Lord of the Rings. Maybe girls who've read all those governess-and-master romances first are conditioned to only see more of the same in Jane Eyre.

Or maybe it's the movies that people are actually remembering: it's a lot easier to film the external love story than to film Jane's interior life, and easier to remember the visuals.

I'd never call St.John Rivers a saint: he's, in his own way, as selfish as Rochester. And he's just as sure that he knows best for Jane as well as for himself. That, to me, gets to the point of the whole novel. Bronte keeps stressing Jane's outwardly low status; she's female, young, poor, plain, without powerful connections. Yet she's still able to withstand all the people who are male or older or richer or well-born, or all of the above, and form and act on her own judgment. Which, as you say, is more than Rochester manages to do.

(It also reminds me of the girl in a Wodehouse story who also didn't care for the masterful-male type: In givng Sacheverell the air at their recent interview, her conscience told her that she had acted rightly. He had behaved like a domineering sheik of the desert: and a dislike for domineering sheiks of the desert had always been an integral part of her spiritual makeup.
Just like Jane. And good for her, I say.)

I was really surprised when my daughter's all-girl high school didn't require either Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. They were options in some courses, but not core-curriculum, as they say. I didn't think you could, or should, grow up female in an English-speaking country without having read both of them.

The word of the day is "unkyt," or the state of a usually faithful reader who hasn't kept up with this blog.
 
I know it's not necessary for the characters to be likable for a book to be good, and I can, these days, recognize other kinds of literary merit. Musical language, keen observation, poetic irony, high drama, tragic flaws. I trying to convey my original reaction, but I do realize there are reasons why people love Wuthering Heights. (Including, for sure, a lot of teenage girls. In fact, you may know this -- Bella is re-reading Wuthering Heights through much of Twilight, and actually draws some comparisons herself. She likes the book.)

But since you were relating Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to Twilight, and pondering the attractions of each of their dangerous heroes, I figured there was insight to be had from remembering how I saw Rochester and Heathcliffe when I was the age that the most fanatical Twilight readers are. I wasn't attracted to their masterfulness or their ability to sweep anyone off their feet. I was repelled by Heathcliffe's selfishness and in love with Rochester's vulnerability.

How would thirteen-year-old me feel about Edward Cullen? I don't think I'd feel attracted to his masterfulness either, because that's just not the vibe I get from him. I think I'd probably identify a bit with Bella's thwarted lust, though. If you read them, you'll see that Bella wants nothing more than to have sex with Edward and puts the moves on him at every opportunity. And though he wants her even more, is driven wild by the very smell of her, he won't go all the way. That's a story most teenagers can identify with, on some level, I'll bet. The Twilight characters are kind of funny about it, and there's a little high school comedy-of-manners business, and a romantic rival for Edward who happens to be werewolf (and with him Bella gets the be the one putting the breaks on the relationship), and the whole thing is very entertaining on an American Pie kind of level. Meanwhile, for extra fun, some other vampires are trying to kill Bella, so we get some fight scenes.

(...And then the last book gets all weird as they finally give into their frustrated lust and then have to deal with the terrifying ordeal of pregnancy. Lots of horror movies and books have pregnancy in them, most famously Rosemary's Baby, because how can you not be scared when you're pregnant? You're vulnerable and your whole life is about to change, you're taking on huge responsibility and giving hostages to the future... But the last book is a whole other thing, and I can see how people would be upset with the direction it takes, though I'm not.)

Anyway, I don't think all of these teenage girls love Twilight for its masterful hero, nor do I think they love Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights for theirs -- I certainly didn't. I think the three stories are in fact very, very different, and are loved for different reasons.


(Also -- an aside -- while it's true that a relationship with a broken person probably isn't a very healthy one, that doesn't mean it doesn't make a good love story. I'd go so far as to say that most of the great love stories do not actually depict very healthy relationships.)

-Mary
 
I'd go so far as to say that most of the great love stories do not actually depict very healthy relationships.

That comment reminds me of something a theater teacher once told me (paraphrased):

"The audience doesn't want to see the characters in comfort; the audience wants to see the characters in peril."

Conflict is drama. What can be then divined and transferred to the printed page (or to the stage) is very important.

And thank you, Kit, for divining these meanings from classic works and sharing it with the class.
 
"The audience doesn't want to see the characters in comfort; the audience wants to see the characters in peril."

The question is, what part of the audience wants to see the peril resolved by the efforts of the characters, and what part wants to see the peril destroy the characters?

I confess I'm a classic sucker for the former.

captcha: surerste: being more sure about something than everyone else.
 
The question is, what part of the audience wants to see the peril resolved by the efforts of the characters, and what part wants to see the peril destroy the characters?

Fair enough.
 
I read Jane Eyre the first time when I was around 11 (my mother read it to me, the last book we did this for), and then again in school at 13. I read Wuthering Heights in school at 14 or 15. I was just plain not competent to understand more of the story than what was on or just below the surface, and, had I not reread them later, I would have continued remembering them as plots about romances, mostly. (WH much, much, much more than JE.)

I don't think there's anything wrong with reading books you cannot entirely understand at the time, but it does lead to weird responses to Heathcliff, especially: obsession is attractive, until you realise what it is.

I'm always frightened for young women who go for the 'brilliant, broken' myth of love, though. Broken is broken; it isn't a sign of special sensitivity, it's just damage.

It's a danger, too, for people who style themselves as artists (read widely), who believe that great art can only come out of great pain and work on wallowing in their pain.
 
It's a danger, too, for people who style themselves as artists (read widely), who believe that great art can only come out of great pain and work on wallowing in their pain.

It's been my experience that I'm generally most productive when I'm happy. Things that hurt me come out in my fiction, because they're part of my experience, but you don't need to seek out or magnify pain; life will always knock you about without your helping it.

A corollary I've noticed is that some people work on having 'artistic temperament'. Hearing stories of artistic starts behaving badly, some people seem to think that if they're equally arrogant, uncompromising, self-centred or anti-social, it somehow makes them more artistic.

In my experience, it's generally the less talented people who do that; if you've got talent, you work that rather than your moods. Even if you do have talent, I find it unimpressive. There are sometimes conflicts to be had: I spent an entertainingly long time last week haggling with my editor over a single word, and it took about six e-mails to settle on one we both liked, for instance - but the wrangle was entirely amiable. By the end we were negotiating in poker terms ('I'll see your 'isolated' and raise you a 'secluded'), because there was no need to make it personal. And actually, the work was better for the negotiation. But one question people sometimes as me is 'how do you stop editors interfering with your work', as if there's a natural enmity between artists and everyone who lays a finger on their work. I just don't see it that way; there's never an excuse for being unprofessional.
 
as if there's a natural enmity between artists and everyone who lays a finger on their work

The first time I ever worked with an editor, I remember my reaction to her suggestions:

"How dare she suggest for even one minute that... oh. Hey. Wait, that's much better, isn't it? I can run with this!"

Eye-opening experience. I have much more respect for editors now.

Captcha: "dooda": Camptown Racetrack Five Miles Long.
 
there was no need to make it personal.

Is there a point, somewhere along the process of writing a work of fiction, where it becomes impersonal? You start with something completely out of your own head, and you end up working with editors and publishers and all to create an external product. When does the thing take on its independent existence?

word: "bagwirks." The factory where they make all those adorable, artistic, expensive, purses and satchels and cases and messenger bags that one's teen daughter just Has To Have.
 
I haven't read Jane Eyre, but after reading Kit's post and the comments, I'm starting to think I should. My only experience with the Bronte sisters has been Wuthering Heights, which I've liked enough to reread several times.

When I was younger and read it in high school, I believed it was a wonderful romance about undying passion. I didn't think Heathcliff was "dreamy" exactly, but I identified with both lovers and appreciated how deeply they seemed to feel and experience life. So much of my life seemed to consist of people telling me NOT to feel anything deeply, which I resented.

Later, when I took English in university I read it again and still believed it was a romance, but somehow it wasn't as epic as I'd first thought. I was reminded of details that I'd conveniently forgotten since high school: Hey wait, Heathcliff actually hangs Isabella's pet dog! That's horrible!

I've read it a few times after that, and I still love the book, but now I think Heathcliff should've been locked up and Catherine should have been spanked more as a child. Now I see it as a tale about how two passionate, selfish and narcissistic people can ruin the lives of everyone they touch, and how much that brokenness, left unchecked, can sow tragedy through generations.

Personally I think the book is much more interesting now than when I thought it was a small-r romance.

(PS: I didn't think Heathcliff was spelled with an "e" though, and in fact, having just checked, that's not the way it's spelled in my book. Is this a difference between U.K. and U.S. editions?)

Captcha: Ingsly, an adverb used to describe songs or poems which make extensive use of words ending in "ing".
 
Is there a point, somewhere along the process of writing a work of fiction, where it becomes impersonal?

No. It's always what I wrote; working with editors is an in-depth way of getting feedback, but if an editor wants a sentence or a paragraph rewritten, it's still me who writes it. I just write a new version. Some authors accept editorial inserts, but I'm particular about it, and generally when my editors suggest an alternative word or phrase, I abandon my original word, reject theirs, and posit a third word that satisfies both our requirements. It's always out of my head; I simply take on opinions from other people's as well.

If I leave a book for years, I no longer know it by heart, so it can feel a bit more distant if I reread it, but the book doesn't ever get an independent existence in my own mind. How other people relate to it is always going to be outside my control, but that's not really my area; I'm better off focusing my attention on the next project than on worrying about what people think of the last. So in a multitude of households, my book may be being read aloud to an admiring crowd, getting read aloud to a mocking crowd, sitting unread on a shelf, being used to prop up a table leg, being studied as the foundation of a new world religion, or being torn up to line the budgie cage - but none of that is really my problem. Independent people are interacting with my stuff in whatever way they choose, but it doesn't mean the book becomes impersonal, because that's all taking place in their personal lives rather than mine; what happens in someone else's personal life, especially a stranger's is not going to affect what I find personal or impersonal.
 
I didn't think Heathcliff was spelled with an "e" though, and in fact, having just checked, that's not the way it's spelled in my book. Is this a difference between U.K. and U.S. editions?

Good grief, no, it's simply a shaming mistake on my part! All the more remarkable because I actually copy-typed some text for this post with the book right in front of me. I've corrected it in the post; all I can do is hang my head and thank you for pointing it out so tactfully. I don't know how on earth I managed that.
 
Please don't worry, Kit - we love you anyway! :)

Captcha: "Nomyonm" - a happy sound made while eating chocolate cheesecake.
 
At least Jane Eyre has an antidote in the form of Wide Sargasso Sea.
 
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