Tag Archives: Back to the Classics Challenge

Classics Reading Challenge: The first blogger?

Review: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
(translated and edited by Ivan Morris)

(A keeper? Yes, yes, yes.)

Such a strange book. About a thousand years ago, the woman we remember as “Sei Shonagon” (Sei was her family name; Shonagon was a rank or job title – so it’s a little bit like knowing her only as “Assistant Director Johnson”) worked as a lady in waiting to the Empress – well, one of the Empresses – of Japan. (Emperors of the time routinely had several wives, plus various ladies of lower status.) “Her” empress gave Sei Shonagon a supply of blank paper, and she used it to record her experiences and opinions, things she saw and did and thought and said.

Notice all the parenthetical explanations I had to stick into that first paragraph? Well, let’s get the most annoying flaw of this book out of the way right now: Sei Shonagon lived in an alien world. Many of the details of her daily life make no sense at all to us, without explanations. And, in the Ivan Morris edition, we certainly get explanations. Footnote after footnote…many of them are interesting in themselves, all of them are informative, but there are So. Many. Of. Them – a total of 584 footnotes for 264 pages.

Actually, if you don’t already know something about Heian Japan, you should probably start by reading through the Appendices, which will introduce you to the basics of Sei’s world. The drawings of houses and clothes – so important to her, and so different from what we’re familiar with – are particularly useful.

By this time, you’re probably wondering if it’s worth your time to bother with the Pillow Book. Yes, it is. Not every writer can make you care about ancient gossip and scandals; Sei Shonagon can. (Maybe it helps that, to her, all of this involved cutting edge fashion and life-or-death politics.)

More than anything, reading the Pillow Book is like reading a really good blog, one where you never know what the next post will focus on. There are lists – often funny – of things she finds offensive or beautiful or embarrassing.  There are odd little incidents involving people she knows and likes or dislikes. She gives us vivid short stories, probably fictional, about the adventures of young men at court, or tells us how the court ladies built a snow mountain and made bets about when it would melt away – and then tried to manipulate the results.

And, just when we’re overcome by the strangeness of her world, she gives us something universal: “Adorable Things:….One picks up a pretty baby and holds him for a while…he clings to one’s neck and then falls asleep.”

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Classics challenge: Such a bad girl

Review – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

A keeper? Yes, no question about it

That Jane Eyre! Such a stubborn, uncooperative girl. She never, never does what her betters want. Why, you’d think an orphaned, penniless baby would just quietly die before her fool of an uncle could rescue her. Not Jane! And then he had the selfishness to die right after making his wife promise to raise the brat.

Well, she did her best for ten years, but no amount of scolding and beating could make Jane pretty and cheerful. So, when the little witch dared to fight back just because her cousin John threw a book at her, Aunt Reed did the only thing possible: she protected her own darling children by sending Jane away to school.

And any decent child would have died within six months of arriving at that particular school – but not Jane. No, she made friends, she learned as much as she could, she wound up teaching there, until she chose to look for a better job. She has the arrogance to keep making her own decisions, too.

Why, when her employer, Mr. Rochester, comes home to deal with some business matters, she tells him to his face that he’s not handsome. A decent girl would have quit on the spot when he explains that her pupil, his ward, may possibly be his daughter – and her mother was a French call girl. Not Jane. And when someone sets fire to his bed in the middle of the night, she just runs into the room and sloshes water everywhere until the fire is out.

When Mr. Rochester brings a whole houseful of guests home to see if it bothers her to watch him courting rich, obnoxious Blanche Ingram, she goes right on acting calm and quiet. And finally, when he tells her (all right, he’s making this up) that he has found a new job for her so that she can be out of the house before he marries Miss Ingram, the minx stands there and tells him that he doesn’t love Miss Ingram, who isn’t good enough for him – but she, Jane, loves him.

Happy ending? Well, no. Halfway through the wedding, a stranger announces that the marriage cannot proceed because Mr. Rochester is already married. True, his wife has been dangerously insane for years – but that just means that no matter how rich he is, he can’t get a divorce under the laws of the time, no matter how many other men she’s slept with.

So he tries desperately to persuade Jane that he’s not really married, law or no law. The wicked girl is tempted to run off with him, too – but at the last minute, she has the gall to decide that what’s best for her matters. And making herself a social outcast totally dependent on Mr. Rochester won’t be good for her. Instead of obediently heading for the south of France with Mr. Rochester, she vanishes.

Does she starve appropriately to death in a ditch? Well, no. Once again she lands on her feet, finds friends and work and relatives and at last a fortune. In spite of being horribly plain, she even finds a man who wants to marry her – her virtuous cousin, St. John Rivers, who carefully explains that she is not suited for love, but he needs a wife to help him when he goes to India as a missionary. What more could she want?

By this time, that should be an easy question to answer. Jane wants what will make Jane happy. A few days’ travel and she learns that Mr. Rochester is now a widower, blind and one-handed from the injuries he suffered making sure everyone got out safely when his dangerous wife set fire to the house. It’s a simple choice: St. John Rivers, tall and handsome and pure of heart (well, a bit arrogant and cold, but terribly pure), or Edward Rochester, ugly without even considering his injuries, sarcastic, morally tainted, and passionately eager for her.

Jane and her Edward live happily ever after. Sometimes insisting on getting what you want works.

(And a personal note: I first read Jane Eyre when I was fourteen or fifteen, and Jane’s defiance has been a very useful model for me over the years. Sure, in my teens I thought the story was the most romantic thing ever – and maybe the next time I read it, without plans to analyze it, I’ll be blown away by the romance again. But what matters here is that Jane is the girl who refuses to be squashed.)