Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

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Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: The lives of the Brontës told though the imagined voices of the Brontës, this is a promising premise that sadly failed to deliver. Disappointing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Corsair
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1849010863

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There is no denying that the Brontë family lived an interesting life. While some authors' lives are shrouded in mystery, with their characters far better known than they themselves are, that's not really the case with the Brontës. Various biographers have, over the years, provided a clear picture of 19th century Yorkshire life thanks to a wealth of original letters and diaries preserved from the time. This makes Kohler's choice of topic slightly odd. Rather than an attempt to imagine the unknown lives of the sisters, it is a cobbling together of facts and assumptions that have been in the public arena for some time. For anyone who knows anything about the Brontës, it really is nothing new, and that's a shame.

The book, despite its misleading title, is about more than the writing and subsequent publication of Jane Eyre. Spanning the period of 1846 to 1854, with various recollections of school days and time abroad, the book does perhaps cover the most exciting eight years of the sisters' lives, culminating in the untimely death of all three, plus brother Bramwell. This is also not a book just about Charlotte, with Anne and Emily and their works (Agnes Grey, The Tennant of Wildfell Hall Wuthering Heights) featuring heavily too, along with references to Charlotte's other books, the previous (but unpublished) The Professor and the subsequent Shirley and Villette'.

What was most puzzling about the book was the voice, or rather voices, it was told in. Written in the third person, it jumps around to show different points of view, from the predictable musings of the girls to the less expected ones of the father and his nurse. Unfortunately, these are not sufficiently distinctive and it can be hard to tell who is in the spotlight as each chapter begins: even a simple name before the first paragraph each time would have been helpful.

The use of the present tense is equally distracting and doesn't seem to fit. It reads very much like a contemporary attempt at 19th century writing. Many times, set phrases are repeated as if the author believes she has cleverly crafted something and wants to get her money's worth, but at no point could it be confused with a genuine work of that time period.

The target audience is hard to pin down. Certainly anyone who has not read the sisters' work would have little interest in it the way it is delivered, even if all the ingredients (torturous love affairs, rejection, deception, success, setbacks and family conflicts) should have been enough. Meanwhile, anyone with a vested interested in the family would most likely know it all already, and I don't feel this new way of telling it adds anything. So who might find it attractive? I could see it being more of a hit in the American market, drawing as it does on life in merry old England – perhaps those who have read (or seen) Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights but not explored further, and who won't be concerned if it seems like a Yank take on Yorkshire rather than the real thing.

I feel awfully catty saying so, but all the way through I was thinking it read like a GCSE English Lit assignment, write a story imagining what life was like for the Brontës. It was well researched but it didn't really add anything that's not been said before. I really wanted to like this book. We have plenty of Brontë books on the shelf, both by them and about them, and I was expecting this one would join the piles, but I'm not really sure it deserves a place. For me, the lack of new ideas or perspectives, and the dubious choice of tense, were just too much. The story of the Brontës should be a gripping one... but the way Kohler tells it, it's just not and I struggled to get through it.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying a copy of this title.

There are many, many books about the Brontës, and we'd like to point you in the direction of just two, Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon and Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius by Dudley Green.

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Buy Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler at


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