A Broken Idol


IT is a dangerous experiment to re-read a favorite book — especially if it be a novel — after the lapse, say, of five or ten years. One is apt to find a broken idol on one’s bands. That is my own case at the presfent moment, and the idol, whose pieces do not seem to me worth saving and cementing together again, is Jane Eyre. Nothing of the old charm is left, except here and there a fleeting touch of passion, — a quality so rare in literature that even a touch of it is not to be disregarded. Greatly to my surprise, the book as a whole strikes me as supremely tiresome. From beginning to end there is not a breath of fresh air or a glimpse of natural life in it. At every turn one stumbles over antiquated stage properties, and detects the creak of rusty and worn-out machinery. That “ demoniac laugh,” which echoes through the house at midnight, is a sound that was heard in mouldy castles on the Rhine a century or two before Charlotte Brontë was born ; the inconsequential “ uncle,” who dies in a foreign land just in the nick of time to leave a fortune to the starving heroine, has been dying and coming to life again ever since 1500 ; and the hero, who disguises himself as a monk or a gypsy, and, unrecognized, holds a protracted conversation with the heroine, belongs to a numerous family of heroes who have always done that puerile and impossible thing. This whole episode is in the very worst manner of the worst romantic school. As a piece of English prose the work will not stand examination. Yet, in the year of grace 1847, Jane Eyre took England by storm. Thackeray sat up all night reading it; Dickens wept over it; learned scholars, mighty statesmen, and hard-hearted critics swelled the chorus of its praise. In the twinkling of an eye an obscure young woman in a dismal little parsonage down in Yorkshire became a London lioness of the very largest proportions. Neither Mr. Richardson’s Pamela nor Miss Fanny Burney’s Evelina ever wrought more havoc among the jeunesse dorée of the town than did Charlotte Brontë’s plain governess, with her hair primly brushed down over the brows. An interesting pallor, disconnected with any other personal charm, was instantly all the rage in current fiction. In suburban boarding schools, young ladies (with short upper lips) nibbled their slate pencils, and longed to be morbid governesses that they might melt glacial Mr. Rochesters. It appears to me that the only really sane persons in England at the moment were the six publishers who declined the manuscript before Messrs. Smith and Elder got hold of it. These gentlemen may not have been sane, but they were lucky. I know that Jane Eyre is still read and admired, — so potent is tradition ; but if Jane Eyre could be given to the world tomorrow for the first time, I doubt if it would thrill two continents. How did it manage to do so fifty-odd years ago ? Perhaps meretricious taste has its bacillus, like the bubonic plague, and from time to time becomes epidemic. This theory would help Mr. Howells to account for the phenomenal prevalence just now of “ the historical novel,” and is sympathetically placed at his service.