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New podcast asks whether the novel 'Jane Eyre' is relevant for readers today

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I have a book to recommend. It questions everything you think you know about women, about marriage, class, justice, rage. All right. I got to come clean and tell you that is how I would introduce this book if this were 1847 and if I were doing a sit-down with the author Charlotte Bronte about the novel she'd just published, an immediate runaway success, "Jane Eyre."

Well, since it is 2021, not 1847, we are instead going to talk about a podcast, "On Eyre." That is E-Y-R-E. It takes on "Jane Eyre" chapter by chapter, exploring themes of power and desire in the book and asking, do they still feel relevant? Like, yeah, it's a classic, but is this a book that should be passed down to the next generation of readers?

Well, the hosts join us now. Lauren Sandler and Vanessa Zoltan, welcome to you both.

LAUREN SANDLER: Hi.

VANESSA ZOLTAN: Thank you.

KELLY: I got to note it is such a pleasure to get to talk about a book and not have to do spoiler alerts (laughter). I'm going to say if you haven't read it by now, more than 170 years after publication, I think the statute of limitations kicks in. So we're just going to dig in right here.

And I want to start with a question that's kind of central here. You know, I'm kidding about how I would introduce Charlotte Bronte if she came on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, but, of course, she wouldn't have because she wrote under a male pseudonym back in the 1840s, which tells us a lot about what a different world she was writing in. This book was so revolutionary for its time. Is it still? Vanessa, you take that one first.

ZOLTAN: Yeah. I mean, first of all, I just want to say that she really opted to try to have an androgynous pseudonym with Currer Bell. I do think Charlotte Bronte wanted to leave the gender question open-ended, but you're absolutely right that she hid behind that androgynous name.

It is absolutely still a revolutionary novel. It is also still an incredibly problematic novel. And as revolutionary as it was for its time, it also was conservative for its time in a lot of key ways. So I think it's a both-and answer. It is revolutionary in 2021, and it was conservative in 1840.

KELLY: Well, and you also invite other writers to come along for the ride with you on that, for example, when you dig in on the racial stereotypes in this book. And I'll just explain Rochester, the guy, the love interest, the hero, whatever - (laughter) however we want to describe him - the man with whom Jane Eyre falls in love. He's married. His wife, Bertha, the woman in the attic, it is never explicit what her racial heritage is. But we do know he has married this woman, Bertha, in Jamaica. And there's this idea that the Caribbean infects you, which is, obviously, deeply uncomfortable to read in 2021.

So you brought in Marlon James, the contemporary Jamaican writer, to weigh in and get in the conversation. Let's listen to a piece of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ON EYRE")

MARLON JAMES: You know, as a Black guy, a gay guy, a person from a former British colony, man, if I start going after books for [expletive] that's offensive, there would be no English literature. My problem isn't that these books carry on. My problem is that critical thinking has stopped.

KELLY: He's getting at this question - if you start going after stuff that was written in the 1800s that strikes us as offensive now, you're not going to have much left to read. How did you both grapple with that, Lauren?

SANDLER: You know, we have an interview in every single episode where we want to report something out further. We do research in every single episode where we want to look into the systems that are in play here that, whether we investigate them or not, are still shaping us. And so I think that it's really incumbent upon us to be doing that work as readers.

I also think that if we were to let go of the literature of the past, we're losing so much. To simply exist within the current moment is not, I think, to live as deeply and fully. And it's actually not to do the rigorous work about figuring out who we are and what has made us.

KELLY: But when you talk about having to do the rigorous work, is there still a place just to read this book and enjoy it and love it, which is the way a lot of readers over many, many generations now have come to it?

SANDLER: Absolutely. For me, there is no greater pleasure than curling up in bed with a novel. It has been my solace and my joy my entire life. But what we are doing on this podcast is something a little bit different.

KELLY: Can we talk about another problematic aspect to people coming to this book in 2021? It is about an 18-year-old governess...

SANDLER: (Laughter).

KELLY: You know where I'm going.

ZOLTAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

KELLY: ...Who falls in love with her late-30-something-year-old boss, her married...

ZOLTAN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Thirty-something-year-old boss. And many of us who read "Jane Eyre" back when we were teenagers - it was a great romance. It was a great love story. That's what I would have remembered about it from coming to it in my early teens. How are we supposed to relate to that part of it now?

ZOLTAN: I absolutely think that this book, when given to young people, needs to be read under the supervision of an older person and be like, and this is why it's creepy.

KELLY: (Laughter).

ZOLTAN: Look at this moment where he withholds her wages. If a boss...

KELLY: Yeah.

ZOLTAN: ...Does that, get in touch with me immediately. But of course, it's written romantically. This is not about reality. Charlotte Bronte did not have this romantic experience. She didn't marry until she was 36 years old. She married a guy she kind of liked, her father's mentee. And she died because of pregnancy at 38 with an ectopic pregnancy. So this was absolutely her writing the fanfiction version of her own life.

SANDLER: And yet, if I may, when I read this book, I think grooming. I think massive manipulation.

ZOLTAN: (Laughter)

SANDLER: I think this is the ultimate #MeToo narrative. And Bronte writes their flirtation and their love so effectively that we can't help but feel it. But, man, once you get outside those pages, it's just like, oh, my God, this guy is the worst employer ever. He's a total narcissist. He is doing something that would get, like, any labor attorney to just, like, start smacking those lips. This is a bad, bad situation.

ZOLTAN: (Laughter).

SANDLER: So I must say I am not a fan of Rochester. I am not a fan of this dynamic. But, man, you read some of those scenes, and they just feel like everything.

KELLY: So I think we've landed at the heart of it, which is I can hear how much fun you two have had talking about the book. I can hear you both kind of love the book. I can hear you find it deeply problematic. Should it remain central to the canon, or is it time to replace it, have the next generation read something else? Vanessa?

ZOLTAN: So here's the thing. Whether or not you read it, I just believe it's shaped you. You don't get to Nora Ephron without "Jane Eyre," so I think its DNA is in us whether or not we read it. And so I think we should be reading the source texts for our DNA and understand where it comes from so that we can deprogram ourselves from some of those things that you were talking about, right? It's not hot when your boss is trying to manipulate you, and to a large extent, we've been brainwashed into kind of thinking it is. And by dealing with the source material, I think that we can really come to terms with the ways that we want to change it.

And so if we are going to not just look at "Jane Eyre" but look at the things that it has inspired for so long, I just don't think we can take away this book because I want to read all of the stuff that it has inspired for the rest of my life.

KELLY: That is Vanessa Zoltan and Lauren Sandler. They are co-hosts of "On Eyre," as in "Jane Eyre." It's the third season of the podcast "Hot & Bothered." Thank you.

ZOLTAN: Thank you so much.

SANDLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC MOULIN'S "HUMPTY DUMPTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.