Cover image for Becoming Jane Eyre
Becoming Jane Eyre
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Books, 2009.
Physical Description:
234, 13 p. ; 20 cm.
General Note:
Includes reading group guide.


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Kohler (Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, 2007, etc.) crafts a character from the creator of one of English literature's most vital protagonists. With Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bront" helped create a new kind of fiction by combining Gothic sensibility and a boldly unconventional, audaciously realistic heroine. She presented vivid scenes of madness, cruelty and passion rooted in the lived experiences of women who were expected to be tractable, gentle and--above all, perhaps--quiet. The emotional tumult Bront" depicted spilled beyond the pages of her novel: Readers were captivated while critics were horrified. Kohler offers an imaginative recreation of the woman who created this once-scandalous, now beloved classic. Bront"'s life was as filled with tragedy as any Romantic protagonist's. Her mother died when she was a girl, and her two eldest sisters died at the harsh boarding school where Charlotte and Emily were also students. While studying in Belgium, Charlotte fell in love with her married teacher. Her brother Branwell's alcoholism, opium addiction and generally dissolute behavior were a constant source of anxiety and sadness for the whole Bront" family. Envisioning how these experiences shaped Charlotte's work, the author does not try to reproduce her subject's fiery prose. Instead, she maintains a calm tone, quiet enough to catch the sound of pencil scratching on paper. Bront" is an ideal subject for examining the intersection of an author's life and work: Writing was, for her, as natural as breathing, but she lived in an era that generally denied women a voice. Kohler's exploration of this paradox is sensitive, intelligent and engaging. A beautiful complement to Bront"'s masterpiece. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


A beautifully imagined tale of the Brontë sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre. Sheila Kohler's memoir Once We Were Sisters is now available.

The year is 1846. In a cold parsonage on the gloomy Yorkshire moors, a family seems cursed with disaster. A mother and two children dead. A father sick, without fortune, and hardened by the loss of his two most beloved family members. A son destroyed by alcohol and opiates. And three strong, intelligent young women, reduced to poverty and spinsterhood, with nothing to save them from their fate. Nothing, that is, except their remarkable literary talent.

So unfolds the story of the Brontë sisters. At its center are Charlotte and the writing of Jane Eyre . Delicately unraveling the connections between one of fiction's most indelible heroines and the remarkable woman who created her, Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre will appeal to fans of historical fiction and, of course, the millions of readers who adore Jane Eyre , as well as biographies about the Brontës like Claire Harman's Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart .

Author Notes

Sheila Kohler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She later lived in Paris for fifteen years, where she married, completed her undergraduate degree in Literature at the Sorbonne, and a graduate degree in Psychology at the Institut Catholique. She moved to the U.S. in 1981 and earned an MFA in Writing at Columbia. She currently teaches at Princeton University. Becoming Jane Eyre is her 10th book. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, O Magazine and included in the Best American Short Stories. She has twice won an O'Henry Prize, as well as an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. Her novel Cracks was nominated for an Impac Award, and has been made into a feature film to be distributed by IFC. She has been published in 8 countries.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

South African Kohler's well-written seventh novel takes the lives of the Bront's: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell and their father, and substitutes imagination for facts. The book opens in 1846 with Charlotte's father recovering from eye surgery in Manchester, England. The narrative follows the internal ragings and musings of Rev. Bronte, the Bronte sisters, the nurse briefly hired to help Charlotte and her father, their own nurse of many years and even the mother of George Smith, the eventual publisher of Jane Eyre. Charlotte's desire for a heroine with more courage than she herself has spills onto the page during the long, lonely hours of her father's convalescence, as she remembers her doomed love for her teacher in Brussels and other hurts and affronts throughout her life. Kohler (Crossways) gives us a more multidimensional, passionate and temperamental Charlotte than most biographies. Too much narration and switching of points of view slows the pace, but connecting the writer with her heroine is intriguing. This novel will likely send fans back to the originals and should inspire those who know "of" the novels to finally read them. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

New York Review of Books Review

"IT is moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath," Charlotte Brontë wrote of her sister Emily's novel, "Wuthering Heights." The Brontës brought a new emotional weather to the English novel - stormy, blasted and passionate. "I never saw a Moor," Emily Dickinson wrote, as though speaking for the whole far-flung Brontë cult. "Yet know I how the Heather looks." "Becoming Jane Eyre," Sheila Kohler's muted and gently probing 10th work of fiction, opens during the summer of 1846 amid the "charmless, suffocating streets" of industrial Manchester. The 69-year-old Rev. Patrick Brontë has come from his rural parsonage on the Yorkshire moors to have a cataract removed. He is attended by a hired nurse who raids the kitchen late at night and "gnaws . . . ravenously" at a lamb bone, "grinding on a delicious piece of gristle with her good back teeth." Less intrusive is his prim daughter Charlotte, who receives a rejection letter for her first novel on the very day her father submits to surgery, "excruciatingly conscious of the knife's work in that delicate place." Charlotte is 30, single, with two unemployed and unmarried younger sisters with rejected novels of their own, "a shiftless, dissipated wreck" of a brother far gone to gin and opium, and an aging father reduced to "a blind mouth." "What is she to write about now, in the silence of this darkened room?" The spark for Kohler's novel was a line from Lyndall Gordon's biography, "Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life": "What happened as she sat with Papa in that darkened room in Boundary Street remains in shadow." Gordon proposed that the crucial breached "boundary" was the adoption of an androgynous pseudonym, Currer Bell, which allowed Brontë to project herself beyond the confines of proper domestic womanhood. For Kohler, however, liberation comes with the sudden invention of Brontë's fictional alter ego, Jane Eyre, the dauntless and self-reliant heroine, both "ire and eyer," of her second novel. "Sitting by her blinded, silenced father, she dares to take up her pencil and write for the first time in her own voice." "Becoming Jane Eyre" is narrated in a continual present, the tense of "becoming." Short chapters take us back through remembered moments in Charlotte's life, spots of time that, disguised and transformed, make their way into "Jane Eyre." From her days as a governess, she invents a bully for the opening pages of the novel. From her difficult period in Brussels, when she fell in love with a married teacher whom she addressed abjectly as "Master," she draws the contours of "the bigamous Mr. Rochester." A visit to a "house with battlements" yields a housekeeper's story of "a madwoman . . . confined up here during the 18th century," the inspiration for the bestial Creole heiress whom Rochester has locked in his attic. Some parallels between novel and biography seem more of a reach: "An orphan is not so far from a middle child." "Becoming Jane Eyre" is divided into three parts, rather grandly called "volumes." The first, centered on the operation in Manchester, is claustrophobic, with comic relief provided by that peckish nurse. The second opens more broadly into the world of Haworth Parsonage, where tough-minded Emily offers a fresh view of her sister. Why, she wonders, is Charlotte "so preoccupied with her own small problems of love when her brother's are so much more serious?" The third section, which follows Charlotte to London after the triumphant publication of "Jane Eyre," is full of satisfying recognitions. When Charlotte, the plain country girl, reveals herself as the writer behind the pseudonym Currer Bell, her stupefied young publisher echoes Lincoln encountering Harriet Beecher Stowe. "Can this be, is it possible that this little woman is the author of 'Jane Eyre'?" "Becoming Jane Eyre" is driven by interesting questions. How exactly does a fictional character take shape in a writer's imagination? What impact can an invented character have on a writer's life? Kohler believes that writing "Jane Eyre" was therapeutic for Charlotte, a release from "stifled rage." "She writes, hardly seeing the words. Her toothache is better, and since she has been writing her bowels, so often obstructed, have moved regularly." BUT the Brontës seem diminished in "Becoming Jane Eyre." One wearies of their incessant questions and exclamations, meant to reproduce their thoughts but sounding a bit too much like 21st-century anxieties. "Can she own these words," Charlotte wonders, "which speak of the longings of a woman for fulfillment, for love, for the same rights as a man?" Kohler was wise to pitch the novel in a subdued mode, not vying with the passions unleashed in the Brontë novels or in "Wide Sargasso Sea," Jean Rhys's excruciatingly gorgeous fictional evocation of the first Mrs. Rochester's life. She has written instead a small, uncluttered novel about sibling rivalry and the various meanings of "publication" for women writers in a straitened world where women were supposed to stay private. Christopher Benfey's most recent book is "A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade."



Featured Excerpt in Penguin iPhone App Chapter Two Professor That night, she dreams of her professor, Monsieur H. She is sitting on the white sofa, talking to his wife, yet thinking of him so vividly. He has left on an extended voyage. She pictures the thick, black hair, dark eyes, robust body, wide shoulders, and strong legs. He is dressed casually, without any effort at elegance, in his loose old cloak. She says to his wife, who looks pale and is obviously upset by this long absence, "you can replace a husband but not a father," and she sees a small, delicate child standing in the doorway, bent over with grief. The child looks very much like Charlotte herself. She wakes with a start in tears, all her old sorrow returning. How she had trudged through the damp streets of Brussels, half-crazed with longing, lust, and jealousy, reluctant to return to the school. She lingered there in the dark and the rain to escape black thoughts. She walked to forget her Master and beloved friend who had replaced her father and her brother--her black swan, the first to discover her talent and encourage her art. How she has waited for his letters! It was his wife whom she and Emily met first when they arrived in Brussels that evening, tired and hungry, having somehow lost a suitcase and their way in the dark cobble-stoned streets, which glistened wet in the lamplight. Finally they came to the green door with the bronze plaque in the wall with the name of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles. The great door was opened by a small, hunched woman who ushered them inside the bright parlor with its black-and-white marble floor, where they were immediately confronted by a picture of family life that surprised and delighted them. Madame H. was there with her own mother, Madame Parent, as she was called, and sitting close by her side in her old-fashioned dress was Madame Parent's sister. Delicious odors wafted in from the kitchens: baking break and bubbling stew. Charlotte and Emily sat side by side on the elegant white sofa so unlike the old dark horsehair one at home. A fat green stove warmed the room. They admired the paintings in their gold frames, the ornaments on the mantel piece, and the folding doors, which led into the petit salon with its piano and enormous draped window. As they ate, something heavy but delicious in a brown sauce with fresh bread followed by an apple tart, Madame Parent regaled them with an exciting tale. She had very blue eyes and a small mouth, and maintained she had been a beauty in her youth. She was a good storyteller and seemed delighted to have new listeners. Though Charlotte was not certain of the truth of her story, she was immediately drawn into it. She had fallen in love with a man who had escaped to Brussels penniless, with the Comte d'Artois, the king's brother, during the French Revolution. The old lady told them her husband had been an elegant man, her eyes glistening and a tremor in her voice, who continued to powder his hair, wear knee breeches, and use the formal vous when addressing her. His sister, she said, a nun of both courage and generosity, had left her convent with a friend, both of them disguised as men. They, also arrived in Brussels, were the ones who had founded this school, which her niece--and here she smiled proudly down at her daughter--now continued to run. Charlotte, too, admired the ebony haired and dignified Madame H., a woman in her late thirties who sat very upright, her lace collar perfectly flat. What a relief to be in the company of these hospitable women! But how unlike them was Monsier H., a rude and choleric man. The only jarring note in the scene of harmony and family entente was his sudden entrance and exit. He came into the black-and-white-tiled hall of the house on the rue d'Isabelle in a cloud of cigar smoke. He was obviously in a hurry, had apparently lost something, and seemed in bad humor. Charlotte watched him open a desk lid and rummage about inside, muttering and sputtering under his breath. Still, there was something familiar about him. He was like a caricature of a man entering and rummaging about in a desk in a hallway, looking cross. Perhaps she had read such a scene in a book? Madame H. called to him through the open glass doors of the salon, "come, Constantin, dear, and meet our new pupils." He lifted his head, gave her a stern glance, and strode impatiently into the elegant sitting room. A small, spare, bespectacled man, he entered with a preoccupied air. With his black hair closely cropped, his brow broad and sallow, and his nostrils wide and quivering, Charlotte decided he looked like a beetle. He seemed to her in a childish rage. Charlotte pitied Madame H. who appeared to be somewhat older than he, though neither of them was yet in their forties. She remembers thinking, What an intensely disagreeable and ugly man , as he bent briefly over her hand with her sister at her side. He hardly took the time to mutter a greeting to his new pupils. Indeed, he seemed to scowl at her particularly and take an instant dislike to both of them. Madame H. arose to show the sisters to their dormitory. As they walked through the rooms, Charlotte admired the large school buildings. She stopped a moment before the image of the virgin in an alcove with a burning lamp at her feet and found a prayer rising to her lips: God give me the courage to live here and do my duty . In the dormitory, they were placed at the end of the long row of beds, with extra bed space and a washstand between the beds, providing welcome privacy, and spotless white curtains, which lifted in the breeze. The next morning they were able to see that the windows overlooked a romantic garden, a haven of quiet and calm in the midst of the city, which would become what she loved more than anything else. She liked to stroll there in the birdsong of early spring mornings or in the calm of the evening, within the shadows of its high walls, its row of pear trees, and its widespread acacia with the fine, feathery leaves, which trembled in the slightest breeze. It made her think of their childhood's imaginary country, Angria, and long for her brother as he had once been. She would have liked to walk with him within such a sheltered garden as this, with its bright blooms, its graveled walks, and its romantic bower nestled in vines. From the start, in those first few February days, she admired the orderly but generous way Madame H. ran her school: the young girls were not starved or overworked or obliged to walk to church in wet boots, as Charlotte had once been. Lessons were at reasonable hours: from nine to twelve and then again in the afternoon from two until four. The excellent food they had eaten that first evening proved to be a sample of what was to come. No burned porridge here. Exercise, too, was provided: fresh air in the garden. Mens sana in corpore sano. Or so she thought at first. She saw him the next morning in the large, sunny classroom where they took their lessons. He taught literature at his wife's school and also at the one for boys next door. From the moment he entered the classroom, he seemed transformed. The dark beetle had become a black swan, the rarest of birds. Monsieur H. sailed in fast, wings spread, obviously in an altered, expansive mood. He was already talking fast, moving his hands furiously through the bright air, as though he were on urgent business. Now, as he mounted the platform, she noticed the broad chest, the strength of the legs, the smiling mouth, the intensity of the black eyes. He commanded his pupils to sit up and listen. "Ecoutez," he trumpeted with authority, and his gaze roamed the room fiercely, searching for an inattentive gaze. He was obviously enjoying himself, the admiring looks of this crowd of young women. When he had their complete attention, he proceeded to read from Racine's Phèdre in a fine, deep, resonant voice. He rendered Hippolyte's lines with such feeling and so much expression that, despite her limited French, she forgot where she was, swept away. When he came to a breathless halt and looked around the classroom and the silent, awestruck pupils, she thought, I am falling in love, falling in love with language, with these sensuous words. She listened to him as he analyzed what he had read, probing and darting with daring and eloquence. Despite her limited understanding of the language, she was immediately aware of this man's original mind, his deep comprehension of the many layers of the difficult text. She watched him use all his enthusiasm, his strength of mind and body, to claim the attention, and the hearts and minds, of these young women. Suddenly, she became aware, her mouth was open and her breathing shallow. Then he handed back the girls' homework, his pupils coming up to claim their work. She saw his expression change again and again, withering one pupil with the movement of lip or nostril and elevating the next with the upturn of an eyebrow. Some wept; others beamed, their faces lit with delight. Sometimes he would produce a little gift for a favorite student who had pleased him particularly, bringing forth something, a bonbon or gourmandize from one of his numerous pockets, like a conjuror from a hat. She knew she wanted to please this man, to see his expression alter, to delight his eyes. She wanted one of his sweet gifts. Excerpted from Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.