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What Would Jane Read? Episode 23: LFL #1277, Greenville, SC

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What Would Jane Read? Episode 23
...in Which Action Figure Jane Austen Visits
a Modern American School and Learns About
English Sisters Who Wrote in Victorian England

ACTION FIGURE JANE AUSTEN and I were cruising through Greenville, South Carolina, searching for an elusive Little Free Library from our list, #1277. The address was on Woodruff Road, but we drove the designated block more than once, and no little book box was in evidence. I nearly gave up, suggesting that we move on to the next Little Free Library on the list, but Jane wouldn't hear of it. She didn't care how many miles we had to drive; she was determined to locate #1277. "Distance is nothing when one has a motive," she reminded me. Jane always did admit to having a stubborn nature. " There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others," she said in Pride and Prejudice.

Jane's persistence paid off. We turned off Woodruff Road and onto the campus of the Langston Charter Middle School, where we quickly solved the mystery. The Little Free Library is listed as being on Woodruff Road only because that is the school's official address. But only the entrance to the school's driveway is on Woodruff. We found the Little Free Library well inside the campus, beside the doors to the school's main building, some distance from Woodruff Road.

Jane remarked right away on the book box's handsome color scheme: wine, cream, and cornflower blue. And we both liked the fact that the library has two levels. The collection contained some excellent choices. Unfortunately, the lower shelf was not well filled, so Jane and I left more books there than is our usual practice. Both of us hate seeing a Little Free Library with a lot of empty space on its shelves.

Because the box wasn't as full as we would like, Jane decided not to take a book home. But if she had wanted to, the book she would have selected was Jennifer Vandever's debut novel, The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire, and Good PR. Vandever's irreverent book centers on Sara Frost, a timid Charlotte Brontë scholar at a fictional New York university. Sara is dragging her feet on both her engagement and her thesis, rooting around for Charlotte's vanished letters of unrequited love, when her fiancé runs off to Paris. Sara finds salvation in Byrne Eammons, a narcissistic film producer who wants to spice up Charlotte's sad, short life for the entertainment of modern moviegoers. As the story plays out, Sara slowly finds her voice, determined not to suffer the fate of the "silent Victorian" she studies. As Victorian romance runs up against pop psychology and banal reality, currents of love and longing unite past and present in this wickedly clever novel.

We modern readers tend to lump 19th-century English novelists together. But Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were not quite contemporaries. Charlotte was just a baby in July 1817 when Jane passed away at the age of 41 from an illness. (She had made light of her condition as "rheumatism" when, in fact, various modern doctors have speculated that it may have been Addison's disease, Hodgkin's lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis, or a form of typhus.) So Jane never knew about the books of Charlotte Brontë and Charlotte's writing sisters, Emily and Ann, until she returned to life in Action Figure form.

It would seem that Jane's writing had much in common with that of Charlotte and her sisters. Both Jane and the Brontës wrote about love and relationships in the context of English social class and conventions. But in many ways, notions of romance in Jane's time were much different from those in Charlotte's Victorian era. At some point during the century, the calm, wise, and rational realism that characterized Jane's depictions of relationships gave way to a more impassioned, wild, and melodramatic view of love.

When critic George Henry Lewes wrote to Charlotte about her book Jane Eyre, he praised the novel, but he also criticized its moments of melodrama and suggested that Charlotte could learn something from Jane Austen's more balanced, naturalistic style. Charlotte, who had not read Austen's work, found a copy of Pride and Prejudice and read it. She was not impressed. She though Jane's writing was too restrained, comparable to "a carefully fence, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers—but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy—no open country—no fresh air.... " She concluded, "I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses." Years later, after reading more of Jane's work, she admitted, "She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well," but continued to insist, "The Passions are perfectly unknown to her."

Action Figure Jane has not yet read any of the works of Charlotte and her sisters, but now she is intrigued (albeit a little insulted). She would like to formulate a response to Charlotte's criticism, and hopes to make her own comparison when she finds Jane Eyre or another Brontë work in some future Little Free Library along our travels.

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#22 - Lexington, VA - #2321
#21 - Wilmington, DE - #2966
#19 - Quinton, VA - #11989
#18 Wheaton, IL - not numbered
#17 Homewood, IL - #14784
#16 Lafayette, IN - #5514
#15 Taylors, SC - #12893
#14 Greenville, SC - #1368
#13 Baltimore, MD - #9459
#12 Baltimore, MD - #1521
#11 Kings Mountain, NC - #5009
#10 Spartanburg, SC - #12365
#9 Alexandria, VA - #10924
#8 Simpsonville, SC - #9761
#7 Alexandria, VA - not numbered
#6 Alexandria, VA - #4289
#5 Kannapolis, NC - #7277
#4 Newark, DE - #5837
#3 Arlington, VA - #10419
#2 Alexandria, VA - #5491
#1 Alexandria, VA (my own LFL) - #9136

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