Jane Eyre 3: “Plain Jane” and the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Ideal of Beauty, Complexion to Corsets

Jane Eyre is, despite the fairy tale connections we mentioned in the first post, no beautiful princess.  How many times does Jane, the ever-self-deprecating first person narrator, point out her lack of physical beauty? As we’ll discuss later, Jane’s beauty is far more than the skin-deep variety, but, as we journey with Jane, it may be helpful to get a good idea of what “plain” meant in the mid-nineteenth-century, both to visualize Jane and to understand her perceptions of men, women, and herself.

A Gentleman’s Look

In the early nineteenth-century, men often cultivated a slim, boyish profile. As with the ladies, fashion  assisted individuals in their quest to fit the period’s ideals. Tall hats helped with the desired ramrod male profile, even for men who didn’t need height help (Abraham Lincoln clearly didn’t need enhancement in the height department).

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Jane Eyre 2: Genre and Gender Revulsion and Consequent Critical Disdain for Jane Eyre

My ragged high school edition of Jane Eyre had a rather critical editor whose introduction seems to me a series of backhanded compliments, pretty much extolling Charlotte Bronte’s achievements and popularity, while, at the same time, expressing bafflement over them in light of the novel’s apparent inadequacies, including a perceived lack of humor. Though there is an iconoclastic trend among academics who enjoy knocking the “greats” off their pedestals and picking through the broken pieces of their shattered marble busts, it seems Charlotte Bronte gets more than her fair share from both critics in her own era and our own. From mid-nineteenth-century culture mavens to Harold Bloom, everybody seems to want to take a swipe at Jane and her creator. But why?  And why do we love them both anyway?

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Jane Eyre 1: “Once Upon a Time in Thornfield…” Reading Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ as a Fairy Tale

When I began my re-read of Jane Eyre for our Hogwarts Professor Book Club, I chose to use the edition I used in high school (though I have, of course, read Charlotte Bronte’s classic often since then, I’ve not used this edition so much). I found that part of my joy in re-visiting this, one of my all-time favorites, came from also revisiting the person who made those notes in the margins over 20 years ago. Some of those notes were for an essay I wrote about the fairy-tale elements of the novel. The essay itself is, I fear, long ago nibbled up by attic mice to make little mousie beds (or in one of those boxes I don’t plan to open myself but expect my children to excavate), but reading the notes has given me pause to resurrect the concept for our discussion here. What about Jane Eyre makes it a fairy tale? After all, it is often considered a herald of the modern autobiographical novel, hardly the stuff of princesses and dragons, and yet, at its core lie some of the most resonant elements of fairy tale literature.

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Magic in Latin: ‘The Hex in Dactylic Hexameter’

As a closet Latin teacher, I haven’t enjoyed an article as much I have ‘The Magic of Latin’ in a very long time. It’s by David Baker at his seriously funny Survival of the Fittest weBlog. I provide a piece below as teaser but beg you to read the whole thing:

Think of it. Right now you can’t so much as sharpen a number 2 pencil with French or Spanish, but at Hogwarts you can use Latin to blast through to your locker even with an army of trolls standing in the way. And that’s just in the first year. Once the Hogwarts model becomes more widely adopted in grades 7 through 12, enrollments are going to soar for even the homework-heavy AP classes. If he were around, Caesar himself might sign up.
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HogPro Book Club Re-boot: Jane Eyre On Tap!

A few months ago, we announced that we’d be doing a Hogwarts Professor Book Club to create opportunities for good conversation on books old and new. We haven’t forgotten about it, of course, but, with our Headmaster’s world tour and two exciting movie releases, well, we just sort of did that thing we often do with a book: we let some other projects pile up on top of it. Now, as winter settles in around us, we’re dusting off the books we neglected, finding where we left off, and  curling up by the fire with a big cup of tea (I’m with C.S. Lewis—books and teacups are never big enough). So we will be re-launching our book club just in time for Christmas break. Details after the jump!

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