My freshman year of college, I was assigned to read Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, in an English class. We had a brief lecture on it – the professor obviously didn’t like the book, and as I had not gotten my hands on a copy yet and there were not going to be any assignments, I didn’t read it. I gathered there was a scene about a ‘red room’ that was supposed to be scary. That was all I knew.
Fast forward a few years, when I was well out of college and no longer cramming down long reading lists of material, had seen a mediocre film version, and had learned to love Pride and Prejudice, I actually read the book.
It was a transformative experience.
(Spell check is telling me transformative is not a word, but I already looked it up, and Oxford Dictionary says it is, and means what I mean. Spell check loses this round.)
Oh, how I relished that book. I read it over, and over, and over again. I was carrying my first child, (and after that, nursing him), and camped out on the couch a lot. I thought I was done reading it; I could read something else. But the bookcase was next to the couch, and the book was conveniently stored right there – and picking it up again was always so inviting.
The language! The dialogue! The emotion! It just kept working for me.
I moved on to other 19th century British classics – things like Middlemarch and Dr. Thorne and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I love so many of them – they are like old friends now. I can’t imagine my life without these books.
But to be honest, I used to feel a little silly about this obsession with 19th century England. Why spend so much time on these books? There’s real life happening out there, and I’m just reading this old, wordy tome that I’ve read dozens of times before. I recall looking up a graduate studies program in 19th century British literature – because I felt obscurely that I ought to do something with this passionate love for Bronte and her contemporaries. But does one really need another critical essay on Bronte? I think there are probably enough of them already.
It wasn’t until I actually started writing a real novel that I began to understand what I had been doing. I had been soaking – in language, in plot, in style, in detail. I wrote a contemporary novel. Sometimes my characters started talking like they were in Austenland, and I had to get them back out again. But I had to start with a familiar world, and reading and re-reading some of the most enduring plots in English literature gave me the tools to actually shape a story.
I wrote two more novels, (Two of these are self-published – the third is still hanging out on Google Docs, in need of some love to get it out into the world.) I had also been reading Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey and some of Alexander McCall Smith’s books. And then I read P. D. James book, Death Comes to Pemberley, a mystery based on Pride and Prejudice.
Then I had an idea.
I knew Jane Eyre. I loved Jane Eyre. I had been drinking in the diction and style of the time period for years, for the pure joy of it all. I had loved mysteries ever since I devoured a watered down Reader’s Digest version of Sherlock Holmes in high school. (One must start somewhere.) I needed a change in my writing life, so I tried my hand at a first chapter and shared it with my husband. He said it was good. (And he never really likes my stuff. He’d rather be reading about wizards or frigates. Bless him.) I wrote about four chapters – and fizzled. I was tired; I have a lot of kids; it was hard to concentrate. But I felt I had something, so I posted what I had on fanfiction.net. https://www.fanfiction.net/s/12303773/1/Mrs-Rochester-Mystery-Hour-of-Fatality I got a handful of positive comments! I was getting page views! It was enough to keep me writing.
It’s been a busy couple of years. I’m finding it tricky to keep track of the sequence of events at this point, but I’m fairly certain our family has grown by two more children since I started this book. Finding the mental space to develop 1) a novel, 2) a historical novel, and 3) a mystery novel, (really, what was I thinking?) has been a challenge. But this week, I finished writing the last chapter. (If you are looking for it on fanfiction, I haven’t posted it yet. It’s not quite typed up. But it’s on paper, which is kind of the big thing on my end.)
I was so excited to be finally, FINALLY, done with the rough draft of this book! There were so many times when I thought I would never get here!
And now I’m kind of sad about it.
But if nothing else, I am glad, that the many, many hours I have spent living and re-living Jane’s fictional life, actually led me to something. And it was something that I could share with other people, and they could enjoy it too. I hope to publish this book someday, somehow. I hope lots and lots of people read it. But I was thinking the other day – suppose I do publish it, and a handful of sweet, kind-hearted readers leave some middling reviews, and nothing much else happens. Am I still glad I wrote it? That I made the vision for this book into a reality?
Yes, yes I am. As Charlotte Bronte herself wrote,
“I have a rosy sky and a green flower Eden in my brain; but without, I am perfectly aware, lies at my feet a rough track to travel.”
I’m grateful to have both her flowery Eden, and my own. It makes the rough track a little easier.