Freshwomens’ English Class 10: Spoken Word Book Reviews: Adventures in the “Bronteverse”

Nimen hao,

In the last few weeks we have practiced reviewing Western (superhero) movies, Chinese modern art, and mainstream Western and Chinese pop music. Today we’re going to talk about spoken word book reviewing, and next week we’ll talk about reviewing Chinese television.

Let’s start.

First a quick reminder of the guidance on structuring a book review, as some of you have chosen to review about for your assessed review (last week of this semester, Wednesday January 9th for Class One; Thursday January 10th for Class Two and Class Three).

Book reviews  (fiction)

You should introduce and conclude your talk. The body of the review can take different forms, and does not need to address all of these elements: rather you can you them as suggestions for your own particular focus

  • Introduction (can include title, author, date of publication)
  • Story, plot, genre, style, characters, narrative voice
  • Social, historical themes and significance; why these are of interest to you/your group/s (for example, young Chinese students), or to your listeners
  • Comparison with other books
  • Conclusion: you will have given your opinions and reasons throughout, now summarize them and make a conclusion (it may be quite short).

Remember also the general criteria for a good spoken word review (you can revise these by re-reading class 6 “How to prepare a spoken word review,” which I sent to you again this week).

Of particular importance: timing. You only have three minutes, so practice speaking your review beforehand to make sure it fits into three minutes (we’ll listen to your practice in week 15, the week before the assessment. That’s Wednesday January 2nd for Class One, and Thursday January 3rd for Class Two and Class Three).

Listening to the reviewers

Today we’ll read and listen to some examples of spoken word book reviews, including reviews of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Each of these books takes characters that you may have already met in your English literature reading. Rhys takes the character “Bertha” from Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), gives her back her original name “Antoinette Cosway” (for a time) and makes her the central character of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).


Let’s just remind ourselves of the plots and relevant characters from Charlotte Bronte’s novel (we’ll talk about Rhys’s novel in the second session of today’s class).

Class discussion one

I think some or perhaps many of you may have had to read Jane Eyre for study, or watched a film, tv. or even opera or dance version of the story. Let’s first try to summarize what happened in the novel Jane Eyre. After that we’ll read a few mini-reviews, and then talk about Mr. Rochester’s wife. Who is the character Bertha? What is her story within the novel?

OK, if we didn’t complete the picture together in discuss, I will finish summarizing the relevant aspects of the plot for Jane Eyre (summary to be presented in class).

The novel tells the story of an orphan called Jane Eyre who went to work as a governess in a far-away house. She falls in love with Mr. Rochester, the master of the house, but is horrified when she finds out he is already married to a madwoman. She leaves, believing that by marrying him she would be his mistress, not his wife. When she goes away, she becomes sick and almost dies. The Rivers find her and let her live with them. There, she becomes a teacher and finds out that they are her cousins. She is content until St. John Rivers wants her to marry him and be a missionary. She realizes that he does not really love her and thinks she is simply useful, so she says no. However, he persists and she is almost persuaded that it is her duty to marry him when she hears Rochester crying her name. She feels that something has happened to him, and quickly goes back to see him. His wife had set their house on fire. Mr. Rochester was blinded by the fire while trying to rescue his wife. Mrs. Rochester died in the fire. Now that his wife is dead, Jane is happy to marry him. The

y get married and have a son. The novel is a bildungsroman – a story that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the central character .

Did anyone notice how long it took me to read that synopsis? If I were reviewing this book for my three minute-long assessment presentation would I want to say all of that? Why or why not?

Let’s think a little further about how much can usefully be said in a short time by reading the following reviews of Jane Eyre. Note, in these reviews the speakers were asked to talk about what Jane Eyre means to them personally (they are not just giving a general review of the book).

Two short reviews

Esther Freud (author of Hideous Kinky)

I was 14 or 15 and living on the top floor of a communal house in a small village in Sussex when I first read Jane Eyre. It was the most romantic book I’d come across, and it ignited in me the idea – surely already smouldering – that there was someone out there who would see the grand heroine that was really me, and not the “small, plain” person I presented. I had a bedroom with a balcony that looked out over a large terraced garden, and I used to lean over it and see if I could catch sight of the current object of my affections, a married man who lived on the ground floor, with whom I was carrying on a romance of epic proportions, fuelled only by an occasional glance in my direction, the offer of a lift to the next village and, once, the soulful handing over of a flower. I found out later that he was in fact having an affair with the woman who rented two rooms on either side of the front door, and although in that instance – and, sadly, in many others – my intuition was out, it was Jane Eyre’s psychic ability to know when she was being called to that has stayed with me most profoundly. When I next read the book, and recently, while listening to Rachel Joyce’s luminous adaptation on the radio, I was struck by the extraordinary directness with which Rochester and Jane communicate. It thrills me, as it must have thrilled readers in 1847, how their talk transcends convention – cutting through politeness, forcing an intimacy that leaves them reeling, altered.

“Your smile did not strike my heart for nothing,” Rochester tells Jane when she saves him from the fire, and then, noticing she is shivering with cold and shock, he tells her she must go. But she can’t go. He still has hold of her hand. It is this yearning, this connection, this idea that there is something out there bigger than us, that makes so many readers – me among them – respond to Brontë’s masterpiece so powerfully.

Sarah Waters (author of Fingersmith)

I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, but have returned to it many times since; it is one of those novels that, with each rereading, only seems to grow richer. My favourite lines come just over halfway through, when Jane is engaged in one of her many wrangles with the teasing Mr Rochester. “Do you think,” she asks him, “because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” The lines capture part of the appeal that the book has always had for me: the small, unglamorous, passionate figure staking her claim to equality, insisting on her right to feel, to act, to matter.

Meanwhile, however, up on “the fateful third storey” of Thornfield Hall, the inconvenient first wife gives her “goblin ha! ha!” … What I love most about Jane Eyre is the way it combines vastly different narrative registers, with mad Bertha Rochester prowling just below the realist surface and occasionally erupting though it to start a fire, bite a shoulder or rend a wedding veil. With her, Brontë created the sort of gothic icon – like Dracula or Mr Hyde – that it is now hard to imagine the world ever having been without. Just like Jane herself, Bertha lives on in many forms – and gets her own story, of course, in another inspiring novel, Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre, a brilliant bit of post-colonial revisionism Wide Sargasso Sea.

Class discussion Two: reviewing the reviews

OK, so the two reviewers both talk about their personal engagement with Jane Eyre. That’s one way of reviewing a text and foregrounding your personal perspective (and experience) in a thoughtful way, focusing on just one or two main ideas.

  • Can you tell me what Sarah Waters’ and Esther Freud’s perspectives differ? What are the different aspects of the novel each of them focused on?
  • Did you notice how long each of their talks last for? So if they were presenting for our assessment, how much more could they say?
  • What aspects of the criteria for successful reviewing do these reviews demonstrate (i.e, unity, coherence, support …)?


Historical Chinese (Cantonese) perspectives on Jane Eyre

Let’s finish the first session by consider how bringing a Chinese perspective to bear on this text might give a particular point of view (all ideas here stolen from the formerly great newspaper the South China Morning Post).

The novel has been translated into Chinese multiple times, is taught in Chinese schools and has been adapted into a long-running stage play and a Chinese opera. There are even popular historical romance manga inspired by governesses such as “Jayne Eyre”.

The first Chinese translation of Jane Eyre was published in Shanghai in 1925. It was an abridged version by Zhou Shoujuan, a popular writer from the “mandarin ducks and butterfly” school (frivolous love literature with flowery prose), who reduced the novel to a simple love story. In the 1930s there were a flurry of new full length translations. While these were well liked, Brontë’s novel did not win the same regard as those by other Western novelists, such as Ibsen, Dickens, Tolstoy or Balzac.

A film version of the novel was dubbed secretly into Chinese during the Cultural Revolution and was eventually screened publicly in 1979. Qi says, “At this time, China was opening to the outside world, and there was a frenzied reading of Chinese and Western classics that had been banned. Books, like Bronte’s romantic novels, that had been dismissed as “petty-bourgeois” and trivial now acquired serious importance. Jane Eyre’s realist style appealed and still appeals to Chinese readers.

It also fit certain themes popular at the time. “Jane Eyre was seen as an anti-repression heroine representative of the proletariat class,” says Lucy Liu Yangliu, an English master’s student at HKU. “The book’s famous quote – ‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!’ – was also in line with communists’ feminist side, ….”

But for Olivia Xu Lingyi, who also grew up in China and is studying English at HKU, these readings can be reductive.

“The heroine was celebrated as a paragon figure for young women, with her uncompromising conviction of her self-autonomy,” she says. “I’m now ambivalent about the fact that the novel was introduced to me as an affirmative story about a young lady’s pursuit of independence and freedom. Jane’s complexities and charms extend beyond those orthodox virtues; they also lie in her rage, her bitterness and, of course, her famous dark sides.”

Contemporary “neo-Victorian” fiction, including “governess manga”, picks up on many of emmathe themes found in Jane Eyre. Dr Elizabeth Ho at HKU has written about the historical romance manga Emma by Kaoru Mori, which represents London in 1895. “The governess motif is popular because it deals explicitly with issues of class, sexuality, labour, gender and the cultural memory of canonical English literary texts such as Jane Eyre …,” she says. “The governess occupies a liminal space in the Victorian household – she is neither family nor servant – and is often young and unmarried. The anxieties of being around the ‘single woman’ who is seeking some kind of upward mobility are pertinent then and now.”

Class Discussion Three

  • Does reading Jane Eyre in contemporary times differ from its reading in the19th century in England? In China in the Republican era (1920s-30s), Maoist (1948+) and early Reform (1978+) eras? How, or how not?
  • Do the class, sexuality, labour, and gender aspects of Jayne Eyre resonate for young Chinese women today? If so, how? (What does this fictional Governess represent for, or about, young Chinese women today?)

The Madwoman in the Attic: “Bertha Rochester”

Bronte’s Bertha Rochester is represented as follows: a “clothed hyena”, a “tigress”, a “figure”, “some strange wild animal”, a “goblin”, a “vampire”, a “demon”, even, simply and inhumanly, “it”. The author even gives her a classic villainess’s evil laugh – Jane hears it echoing around Thornfield Hall in the dead of night, “demoniac” and “strange”.

She does bad things, like setting fire to Mr Rochester’s bed, wrestling him,  ripping up Jane’s wedding veil and attacking her brother. “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart, …”

Rochester’s heart is totally closed against her. He locks her in the attic and blames her for her madness, saying her mother was mad and drunk and she “copied her parent in both points”. He’s so nasty to Bertha that even Jane says “Sir, you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate – with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

Perhaps this furious woman’s anger has a point. Why should her husband lock her in an attic, while he flirts with other women right in her own house? Jean Rhys may have had this character’s justifiable anger in mind as she wrote the Wide Sargasso Sea.

A little about Jean Rhys


Rhys’s “Antoinette Cosway”

Jean Rhys’s novel describes the background to Mr Rochester’s marriage from the point-of-view of his wife Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. Antoinette’s story is told from the time of her youth in Jamaica, to her unhappy marriage to a certain unnamed English gentleman, who renames her Bertha, declares her mad, and takes her to England. Antoinette is caught in an oppressive patriarchal society in which she neither fully belongs to Europe nor Jamaica. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the power of relationships between men and women and develops postcolonial themes, such as racism, displacement, and assimilation. 

Part One takes place in Coulibri, Jamaica, and is narrated by young Antoinette. Since the abolition of slavery caused her family to become very poor, Antoinette’s mother, Annette, must remarry to a wealthy Englishman ,Mr. Mason. Angry at the returning prosperity of their oppressors, freed slaves burn down Annette’s house, killing Antoinette’s younger brother. Antoinette tries to keep her family’s ruined plantation going and take care of her mother who became mentally unwell and an alcoholic after her first husband abandoned her. When she worsens after her son died in the fire Mr Mason sends her away to live with a couple who torment her until she dies, and Antoinette does not see her again.

Part Two alternates between the points of view of Antoinette and her husband during wssjdfilmtheir honeymoon in Dominica. Mutual suspicions develop between the couple because of Daniel, who claims he is Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother, impugns Antoinette’s reputation and mental state and demands money to keep quiet. Antoinette’s old nurse Christophine distrusts Antionette’s English husband who apparently believes the stories about Antoinette and her family. He begins to call her “Bertha” and flaunts his romantic affairs in front of her to cause her pain. The bitter disappointment of her failing marriage unbalance her mental and emotional state. She flees to Christophine and pleads for an obeah love potion to reignite her husband’s love, which Christophine reluctantly gives her. Antoinette uses the potion on her husband, but it acts like a poison instead of an aphrodisiac. Subsequently he refuses Christophine’s offer of help for his wife and takes her to England.

Part Three is told from the perspective of Antoinette. She is largely confined to “the attic” of Thornfield Hall and referred to only as Bertha by her husband. The story traces her relationship with Grace Poole, the servant who is tasked with guarding her, as well as her disintegrating life with the Englishman, as he hides her from the world. He makes empty promises to come to her more but sees less of her. He pursues other women and eventually, the young governess. Antoinette pins her hopes of freedom on her stepbrother Richard who, however, will not interfere with her husband, so she attacks him with a stolen knife. She dreams of flames engulfing the house and her freedom from the life she has there, and believes it is her destiny to fulfill the vision. Waking from her dream she escapes her room, and sets the fire.

Doing Comparative Reviews: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Like the above reviews of Jane Eyre (Sarah Waters, Esther Freud) one way of doing a comparative review would be to discuss the texts from a personal point of view, as below.

I first read both of these texts as an undergraduate English literature student, and was glad to have been taught them together, rather than separately. Teaching in the late 1980s, my Australian professors were focused on post-colonial and feminist perspectives and encouraged us to read Jane Eyre through the lens of Wide Sargasso Sea, to think of the novels in terms of the legacies of the slave trade, the agency of female desire and limits of racist masculinity. 

I‘m grateful for that education. For me the governess’s progress from rags to riches and from longing to consummated love comes at too great an expense. Rochester and Jane’s eventual comfort is built on wealth inherited from the plantation slave trade. So if there is a Cinderella-like fairy tale ending, it comes at the expense of slavery: their freedom and happiness is literally built on the unfreedom and misery of enslaved people.

The price paid for their represented happiness is all the worse for the manner in which Bronte’s story neglects it, as if it doesn’t matter and only surfaces in the gothic (and therefore non-realist) horror of “Bertha”, the “madwoman in the attic”. The young governess is in love with a man whose most notable behaviour is what modern audiences might think of a domestic abuse (imprisoning and emotionally torturing his wife). Neglecting these aspects for the enjoyment of Bronte’s romance is like all the Downton Abbey and royal wedding fantasies that imagine a freedom from, not equality with, the common people. As if freedom is privilege without fraternity/sorority and equality.

If Jane Eyre is really a fairy story for adolescent girls, Wide Sargasso Sea is a tale for adults full of complex characters,  embedded in the conflicts of post-emancipation society. Antoinette is both heroic and tragic, a victim of racist patriarchy as much as she is herself a racist white woman from a family whose former wealth was clearly built on plantation slave labour. Her English husband is a racist misogynist who takes his self-loathing out on his wife and is ultimately responsible for the descent into madness that he blames on her mixed race.

In Rhys’s telling, this Rochester is not a fairy tale prince that adolescent girls might fall in love with: His victory is represented as Pyrrhic, built on his own moral cowardice, slave inherited wealth and abuse and neglect of his wife. The one reasonable and honorable character in the novel is neither Antoinette nor her husband but Christophine who clearly sees through her husband’s faults and tries to save Antoinette.

Rhys wrote her novel over many years, after a lifetime of mixed race liminality and a series of romantic relationships and misadventures. It is the work of a sophisticated mind reflecting on a complex past, giving satisfyingly conflicted and ambivalent character narratives. Bronte wrote her novel as a relatively young women suffering from unrequited romantic and class-oppressed longing, with little regard for the colonial oppression on which her governess’s bildungsroman was based. Re-reading these novels after some thirty years I’m still grateful to those professors for teaching me to read in a postcolonial and feminist way. Maybe in the holidays I might go and read another of Rhys’s novels, like Quartet, Voyage in the Dark, or Good Morning Midnight.

There are in fact many ways of comparing Rhys’s novel with Bronte’s novel (this is just one example). Did you notice the particular focus and themes? Did the review have unity and coherence? Was it well supported? How long did it take me to read it?

Class Discussion 4

  • Can you think of two texts (for example, two novels, a novel and a play, a novel and a film, etc.) that you could use to draft a comparative review?
  • Tell us why it would be interesting to make that comparison and what particular aspects you would focus on.




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