It takes guts for one author to try and imagine the creative process of another, especially of a work so widely known and loved, but that is what Sheila Kohler succeeds in doing in her latest novel, Becoming Jane Eyre. Covering the time from Charlotte Bronte’s conception of her best known work, while sitting at the bedside of her perpetually ill father, through Jane Eyre‘s eventual triumphant publication and beyond, Kohler’s novel examines what it means to be a writer, what it means, in fact, to live a dual existence – to be both in the material world, and inside one’s imagination. For the Bronte sisters, hobbled by spinsterhood and poverty, and who had been informed that “Literature cannot… and should not be the business of a woman’s life,” one can’t help but understand that without escaping to the page, without such duplicity, they would have had no life at all.
Kohler, wisely, does not attempt to mimic Charlotte’s denser prose but keeps her narrative crisp and elegant, and episodic in form, skimming the catalogue of personal tragedies endured before a brief happy respite at the end of a too short life. Year and after year the sisters do what they can to counter their brother Bramwell’s dissipated excesses and faithfully serve a father as tough and sociable as a gristly old bone who, naturally, outlives them all. He reminded me of Bougton from Marilynne Robinson’s Home, another clergyman unable to value his daughter as much as his son, and as quick to forgive his own trespasses as to ruminate on the trespasses of others.
A familiarity with the Brontes output is necessary to fully enjoy Becoming Jane Eyre. Here is poor, quiet Anne, sitting in the shadows of her mouthier, more contentious sisters, just as her books tend to sit in their shadow on the shelf, though she seems the easier sister to live with (and her prose is often easier to digest too). And here the sensual, risky, instinctive Emily, unwilling to leave the wildness of the moors for the delights of London, with her hand on the collar of her trusty dog as she strides into pubs to drag Bramwell home. And here, of course, the cooler-headed, persistent Charlotte, doggedly turning heartbreak into art.
“What could they possibly have to write about?” their father thinks as though literature depended on an abundance of experiences rather than a mere one or two, oh so deeply felt. Thankfully, for them and for us, neither Charlotte nor her sisters paid heed to his reservations. And “What does she know about the human heart, and love?” he ponders afresh, weighing the published Jane Eyre in his hands; but it appears that both she, and Kohler, know a great deal. (Full disclosure note: I’ve met and worked with Kohler in literary workshops).