Category Archives: Jane Eyre 2014

An interview with Christina Calvit

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre’s adaptor, Christina Calvit, is a Lifeline ensemble member and has written numerous award-winning scripts, including the previous version of Jane Eyre. She revamped the script for this new production, and answered some questions for us about her work.

Q: When did you first read Jane Eyre? What got you involved in this adaptation that first time around?

A: I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager. When we did the show back in 1991, it was purely because Meryl Friedman (the director at that time) and I loved the story. In this current production, there are other things that interested us as well… but back then we just thought it was a great book that deserved to be on stage.

Q: I’m curious about how you begin an adaptation. With books of fair length like this one, hundreds of pages, there are so many words, scenes, characters: in the face of making a 100-page script, many may seem like distractions. How do you find the story you really want to tell from a book? What was particularly clear – or challenging – about Jane Eyre?

A: There is usually something thematic that catches at me…for Jane Eyre it was a persistence of childhood trauma. Then I look at the book through that prism and see what pops out. And I normally don’t deconstruct a book in my work, so I look at the way the story is told and try to include what’s necessary to that. And I look at the dialogue to try and find the very best. The hard thing with Jane Eyre is that there are so many, many great scenes. So much great back and forth, especially between Rochester and Jane. It’s hard to choose.

Q: In this show, Jane’s past before arriving at Thornfield is told to us in a rather uncommon way. What brought you to this approach for the people of Jane’s past?

A: The first third of the book is all about Jane’s youth. It’s interesting that Bronte devotes so much space to it. You could make it happen in real time (and some of the movie and TV adaptations do), but I wanted to heighten those experiences and make them more important symbolically. So the show opens with a nightmare mash up of people from Jane’s past: Aunt Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, the headmaster of Lowood school, and Helen, her best friend at Lowood. They are the inner voices that have shaped her idea of her own self-worth and guide her choices, for good or bad. And they follow her for much of the play.

Q: What are you most excited about for this particular production? Do you have words for fans of the book who might be wondering what they will find in our show?

A: I like the nontraditional casting and staging—exploding the book a bit out of its period. It’s an epic story that people come back to again and again, so it obviously speaks to us beyond the 1840’s. The cast is amazing and the design is like nothing we’ve ever done at Lifeline before. It’s a different kind of Jane Eyre. I’m hoping people will enjoy what they’ve always loved about the story and also see it in a new and deeper way.

Q: What’s next?

A: I’m off to shoot a commercial in Austin for Vitamix! Everyone should have one!

Thanks, Christina!

Autobiography

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

“Speak I must,” says Jane.

Who is listening to this story? Jane Eyre is subtitled An Autobiography, with Bronte’s pen name of Currer Bell credited as the editor. Jane frequently refers to the reader directly, in the manner of one expecting or assuming kinship:

“I will tell you, Reader, what they are.”
“Reader, here an illustration.”
and once,
“(oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!)”

Now we have two things: an awareness that this book is presented as an autobiography, having for its fictional frame a (mostly) realistic life; and a sense that its narrator seeks a voice in kind with our hearing, purposefully helping and entreating a real audience.

Linda Peterson describes Victorian and pre-Victorian placement of women outside the field of self-analysis and discovery by compiling a list of religious admonitions, concerns about a woman’s mental and spiritual weakness which may be so significant as to make it impossible for her to safely continue a thorough analysis of anything, especially a Biblical text, without guidance:

“Victorian women did not have the authority to speak the language of biblical types. By Pauline injunction, they had been admonished to ‘learn in silence with all subjection.’ ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ St. Paul had written, ‘nor to usurp authority over the man’ (I Tim. 2.11—12). By ecclesiastical decree, they were denied ordination in the Church of England during the whole of the nineteenth century, prohibited from interpreting the Scriptures to a congregation in most Dissenting sects, and banned from Methodist pulpits by the Convention of 1803. John Wesley’s comments to Sarah Crosby, a woman who felt the call to preach, are instructive: ‘Even in public you may properly enough intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can; therefore never rake a text; never speak in continued discourse without some break, about four or five minutes.’” (Peterson 131-2)

Peterson goes on to define Jane Eyre as a subversion of the further belief that female writing could be both factual and analytical or self-aware. Brontë used the novel as a perhaps satirical means of delineating “between when a woman may apply types and when she may not, between what aspects of a woman’s life are accessible to typological interpretation and what aspects are beyond (or beneath) interpretation” (133).

Harriet Martineau, novelist and philosopher who wrote about feminine roles and sociological frames, and who wrote her own Autobiography to be published after her death in 1877, met Charlotte Brontë later in the latter’s life. Friends of Martineau who knew her life history, upon reading Jane Eyre, told Martineau they suspected she must have consulted in the writing, so close was Martineau’s accounted early life to that of the fictional Jane (and, perhaps by another degree, to Brontë). The events which Jane encountered early in her youth and adolescence might explain Jane’s later choices according to Peterson’s view of Martineau, since she “chooses to trace in the Autobiography the forces that contribute to the growth of a mind—and these forces, while including the internal, consist in greater proportion of the observable and external” (150). The autobiography, for Martineau and perhaps for Brontë, serves as a way of laying out the events of a life and considering them as instruments or guides in a continued development, the causes leading to the mind and situation of the narrator, the autobiographer – the person at the heart of the story who now has the voice to tell it.

“But in the world outside the novel, Brontë assumes no such enlightenment. Jane Eyre’s autobiography makes its way into the world through the offices of a man, Currer Bell, who appears on the title page as the editor and who, according to Victorian convention, selects and arranges what a woman has to say about her life.” (135)

Is this why Jane tells her story so earnestly to a “reader”? Is it a “chick flick” of a book – or play – intended for female audiences to commiserate and nod along with, or take encouragement from? But Jane’s struggle to find listeners bridges gender divides, and falls along lines of authority of all sorts: age, institutional roles, religious and familial tradition. For our part now, knowing the Jane speaks directly to us as readers and, in Lifeline’s production, perhaps to us as viewers, there is an implicit need for a listener who will add another dimension to this conversation. That understanding of a need may place a heavier burden on us as observers, since we appreciate that extra relationship. Watching Jane’s life and the outcome of her repeated attempts to find a listener or kindred spirit, what do we see? According to Carla Kaplan, writing about the complications of reading Jane Eyre as a feminist conversation:

“…A ‘true conversation,’ in which neither partner dominates, controls, coerces, or instrumentalizes the other, in which the partners ‘do not talk at cross purposes,’ is an object of Jane’s narrative desire to the very extent that it is not a feature of her everyday lived experience.”

So, it seems, the fictional world of Jane is not letting her voice resound. Are we to fill that void by giving her an outlet, an audience which will receive her story and use it? Kaplan goes on to ask, “does assuming that the text ‘desires me’ re-perform the essentialism against which this novel strains by assuming that because we can identify with Jane we must be the listener/lover she desires?” Later, we will ask this question of some of our Lifeline collaborators, to see what about Jane’s story impels them to help her tell it. And what about Jane’s story, Brontë’s story, we hope our own audiences will find to consider about us and themselves, and perhaps about the world we inhabit.

Further reading and quoted:

Kaplan, Carla. “Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Women’s Narration.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 30(1). Autumn 1996. pp. 5-31

Peterson, Linda H. “Chapter 5. Martineau’s Autobiography: The Feminine Debate Over Self-Interpretation.” from Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Education in Jane’s time

Note: This is a guest posting from Autumn McConnico, production dramaturg for our fall MainStage production of Jane Eyre.

“Isn’t she original?”

Jane Eyre. A short portrait of her faculties. She draws in charcoal, colors, and sketches. She debates over philosophy, religion, repentance, duty, and doubt with quite a few characters in the path of her novel. She tells her own story.

If we take her as a product of her period, how unique was Jane Eyre in the education and opportunity she received?

Today let’s talk about Jane’s education. At Lifeline, we have chosen to explore the childhood and early formative experiences – and characters – in Jane’s life as a presence in a way which I won’t tell for you here. You’ll recognize them when you see them. But as a fictional autobiography, JE gives us a large part of a young woman’s life to depict, and much of the earliest parts describe her education. Let us look at one of those early portions of Jane’s life though the lens of history. What was education like for Victorian girls, especially poor orphans?

Public education as we describe it in the United States (since the English term means something quite different) did not come about until well after the 1847 publication of Jane Eyre. Even the idea that all people should be educated took time to gain traction. Meanwhile, education for the poor was best found in parish schools and institutions providing tuition grants (“subscriptions”) by richer donors around the areas. Young orphans or poorer children with protectors motivated to educate them could perhaps depend on these subscriptions if a school with such a program were nearby, and these institutions might be more willing to accept poor pupils in order to expand their ranks – since after all, students could be asked to perform chores at the school. Charlotte herself attended the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan’s Bridge, in Lancashire starting in 1824, with a tuition starting at 14 pounds (compared to the 15 pounds for Jane Eyre’s Lowood Institution). From the Clergy Daughter’s educational report from 1842, quoted in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte:

“The system of education comprehends history, geography, the use of the globes, grammar, writing, and arithmetic, all kinds of needlework, and the nicer kinds of household work – such as getting up fine linen, ironing, &c. If accomplishments are required, an additional charge of 3L. a year is made for music or drawing, each.”

Charlotte and Jane’s educations may have been the exception in the field of female study. Anne Clough, visitor to girls’ schools in the mid-1800s, observed: “A few dry facts are taught, but the life and spirit are too often left out and there is a monotony in girls’ education which is very dulling to the intellect”. Analytical work may be pursued little if at all, and even historical facts and mathematics would make up the vast minority of time compared to calisthenics, sewing, and maybe music and language drilling. Indeed, spiritual and biological general views had for a while held that women lacked the ability to combine a strong memory for facts with a logical faculty for reasoning their causes, chronology, and implications – a slowly fading sense which made emergence of female authors of autobiography or analytical fiction stand out, something we will explore more. According to Clough, Girls’ schools intentionally “accentuating the differences between the sexes” and were valued for improving social graces and displayable qualities, the all-important “accomplishments.” And all the time, conditions of the school, high physical demands and less consistent sanitary conditions, could present further obstacles for students’ deep education.

Cowan’s Bridge was known for poorly managed kitchens, and not all Bronte sisters survived the school before their father removed them from it. Certainly Charlotte admitted to allowing parallels in school life of the novel, as in many other aspects, between her own world and Jane’s. Bronte even tentatively recanted some of her harsher portrayals of Lowood’s conditions – for health of emotion and of body both – because of the condemningly easy connection to her childhood school. From Gaskell again:

“Miss Bronte more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood … if she had though the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan’s Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it”

Yet Bronte depicted these realities as well as the learning that Jane did get away with. Perhaps she was lucky in her chance to learn French and drawing, reading the works that she did, at a charity school.