Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Q&A with John Pfordresher

John Pfordresher, photo by Corinn Weiler
John Pfordresher is the author of the new book The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece. His other books include Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imagination. He is a professor of English at Georgetown University, and he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how did you research it?

A: There’s a story here. I participated in a panel discussion about Jane Eyre for the NPR syndicated radio program “The Diane Rehm Show” several years ago.

Subsequently a young literary agent e-mailed me asking if I would be interested in writing a book about how Brontë was able to write what she termed “my favorite novel.”

This seemed to me an interesting project because I’ve been for many years fascinated by the creative process, the “how” great writing emerges. So we wrote up a book proposal and W. W. Norton generously accepted it.

The answer to “how” seemed to me, insofar as it’s possible to scrutinize the creative process, to be a biographical question.

And so I learned all I could about Charlotte Brontë through the major biographies from the classic account of Elizabeth Gaskell up to recent accounts by Winifred Gérin, Juliet Barker, and Claire Harmon, as well as reading all of Brontë’s letters and other writings, both the juvenilia as well as her other published fiction.

I soon discovered that Brontë was extremely secretive about this book, both the writing of it and its relationship to her own life, and that this was one of the motives for her choosing a pseudonym for the author’s name when the book was published. Which leads to the next question…

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Charlotte Bronte and her fictional creation, Jane Eyre?

A: Despite Brontë’s vigorous denials, there is a remarkably close relationship between herself and her heroine. This was necessitated by her simultaneous wish to make the novel as realistic as possible, and her acknowledgement that her own life experience had been strictly limited.

In pursuing the aim, as she wrote, of taking “Nature and Truth as my sole guides,” she had necessarily to draw upon her own past life. She didn’t know much else.

My book thus has been able to make a series of connections between what can be known about Charlotte Brontë, both the things she observed and did, and also the intensely vivid fantasy life which she had cultivated since early adolescence, and the resulting novel.

Jane Eyre, all of the evidence suggests, is a product of Brontë’s ability to transform her past self into a strongly realized fictional heroine.

Q: You describe the various men who influenced Bronte’s creation of Mr. Rochester. What were some of the most important influences?

A: Without a doubt the most important male influence in the creation of Mr. Rochester was Brontë’s French teacher M. Constantin Georges Romain Heger, whom she met in 1842.

Brontë’s passionate love for him, balked by the fact that he was a married man, older than she, and troubled when she began to express her feelings for him, drove her first to write, upon her return to England, unwelcome letters to him, and when he ceased replying, caused Brontë to transform him into aspects of the first-person narrator and protagonist of her first novel The Professor, into aspects of Mr. Rochester, and later and far more obviously into M. Paul Emanuel in her final novel Villette.

All three novels can be read as transformed versions of Charlotte’s silenced love-letters, efforts to communicate through idealized fantasy with the man who would not reply and who becomes the peculiarly attractive male protagonist in her fictions.

I found also very significant and interesting the powerful influence which her father had upon Brontë and my book suggests that some of the crucial characteristics of Mr. Rochester come from Patrick Brontë.

Q: What accounts for the ongoing interest in Jane Eyre?

A: In our time, it’s certain that what offended some Victorian readers about Jane as protagonist has come to be strongly attractive.

Her first-person female voice, a rarity at the time the novel appeared, presents readers with a strong-willed woman vigorously asserting her right to be herself, who is frank in attacking those who would denigrate and constrain her, who is fiercely loyal to her chosen friends, who claims her own value despite the fact that she has no money or social standing, is not attractive in any stereotypical way – she is small, pale, and reserved, and who will face almost any danger to insist upon living as she chooses.

Jane is keenly aware of her sexuality, though she is reserved about this with others, finds herself drawn to Mr. Rochester who is also strikingly different from the pretty boys of the era, and the increasingly passionate relationship between them is one of two independent spirits who discover a kinship in their “souls” which is stronger than ordinary romantic attraction.

In all of this Jane as a character speaks to modern readers as one of their own, and so the novel enjoys if anything even greater popularity and esteem now than it did when it first appeared as a run-away best seller in the fall of 1847.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm considering writing a second, similar book about Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

I'd like to examine that remarkable writer's efforts to use, and yet at the same time conceal some of the most painful memories of his youth, as well as the love-affair he was secretly pursuing as he wrote the novel, and it will explore the many different ways that, much as with his earlier first-person novel David Copperfield, Dickens chose to expose in a very public way things about his past which he otherwise assiduously concealed.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: An excerpt from my book my book on Jane Eyre will appear in the website LitHub on the day of publication, 27 June. I’ll be presenting it and signing copies at the Politics and Prose book shop in Washington, D.C., on July 6th, and at the 92nd Street “Y” on the 13th of July.

And I will give a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution in the middle of October on one or two aspects of the complicated relationship between Charlotte Brontë and her equally extraordinary sister Emily.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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