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‘Plain Girl’, by Arthur Miller – review

Plain GirlPlain Girl by Arthur Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first came across this book while looking for my next read on the train, I was immediately hooked on by the simple no-nonsense title of Plain Girl and incredulously surprised by the famous name of Arthur Miller, a celebrity playwright who had once married Marylin Monroe in his prime. Such an incongruous admixture of the images sprang in my mind like phantasms from a presumed association between the Dolorous and the Gorgeous, the Lonely and the Lovely, the Unlucky and the Lucky, all compactness in this beautifully elliptical and deeply heartfelt story about a plain girl whose jewel of beauty was wrapped in a dull, grey, crude titular epithet.

Janice Sessions, an intelligent young Jewish woman living in New York City, seems to share the sentiments of the introverts whose quiet modes of behaviors and shyness often make them unnoticed, if not obscure, among vociferous, glamorous crowds. Think Maupassant, who at the hour of his death confides in his close friend, “I coveted everything and enjoyed nothing.” And Charlotte Bronte, who always thinks she is deprived of beauty and fortune, which prevents her from a delight of love as a prerogative of beautiful fortunate women. And then the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein whose deformity puts him in a cruel shackle of absolute loneliness with an outcry of “I see inside but dare not to go inside!” They are the concerted echoes of estrangement – whether voluntarily or involuntarily imagined or devised – from lonely souls roaming around, wandering about in a search of happiness in life that can culminate in the union of loves, both Eros and Psyche, the spiritualization of sensuality in totality. This Janice is in want of, this is the source of her existential distress, noogenic frustration that keeps her away from anything miraculous and wonderful every happening to her.

In fact, I wonder if Miller writes this story of a plain girl on the thematics of existential frustration in which his protagonist is made to believe what she really isn’t, whereas her extraordinariness of resilient spirit against endless disappointment and distress renders her all the more distinguished from her peers whose ordinary femininity looks banal and trifle without stories to tell. Such emotional distress may arise from an existential vacuum caused by a collective value, such as in this story the disillusioned tenets of political and social ideologies ultimately culminating in World War II and the aftermath thereof. And Miller so elegantly and dexterously accounts for a woman’s solitary quest for the meaning of life, a sense of purpose in life as a woman of true value against epochal tides of world crisis. The apex of Miller’s literary finesse manifests in every sentence delicately nuanced sentiment wrapped in his elliptical expressions and laconic use of plain words, defying every streak of intricately baroque literature that does not communicate straightforwardly to the hearts of readers.

This book is not to discuss woman’s liberation or to lecture about the superiority of spiritual beauty over physical beauty that so many of you would quickly respond with stock answers. Janice’s doubt about her value of being loved and her preoccupied consciousness to her appearance makes her all the more palpable and realistic to those of you who find a kindred spirit in her and feel that you are not alone in loneliness and that what you think you are may not be the truth. Janice doesn’t need the glamour spell to transform herself into beauty because Janice is not a plain girl, nor has been, and will never be. The same goes for you.

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When I was little

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Anne Shirley and Matthew Cuthbert from “Anne of Green Gables”

Thus declared Oxford-graduated Dyer as if American writers had been his only sovereign muses, and no one else. Maybe his temperament and literary taste were congenial to economic wits and individualism of American writing.

In my case, the very first novel that I fell head over heels was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Then came The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which was a birthday present from my father. Thenceforth, Anne Of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery spread thru my mind and lingered in my heart.

I still love all of the aforesaid books, and I think it’s the standard of taste and reason that makes us drawn to our preferences. For this reason, I am always drawn to writers whose writing styles are evocative of sentiments as well as intelligent of reason, so riveting and impressive that a sense of emulation springs forth from the well of my mind.

 

 

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Jane Eyre (1983 BBC TV Mini-Series)

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Jane Eyre, the Timeless Classic

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (under the pen name of “Currer Belle” to discombobulate her biological determinism) is neither a romantic novel about a lonely young woman falling for her rich master nor a proto-feminist literature subtly championing women’s economic independence and choice to select their lovers on their own. It is a story of a resilient and noble spirit armed with education, clothed in canopy of humanity, and adorned with reflective beauty of the mind that transforms physical plainness into comeliness. That’s what makes our heroine Jane Eyre timelessly unforgettable, undeniably attractive; perchance, that’s why this novel has been made into a series of film versions for television and cinema resurrecting the ambience of the period and bringing the hauntingly impassioned characters into life. Of all the dramatized adaptations of Jane Eyre, this 1983 BBC mini-series version merits itself in the movie firmament as the magisterial translation of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel, wonderfully delivered by a cracking screenplay, a brilliant cast of performers, and a truthful setting of the story, resembling none other than themselves all together in this riveting panoply of Bronte’s dazzling creation.

Dramatized by Alexander Baron, this TV series is composed of eleven episodes that faithfully capture the epochal moments of the passionate heroine Jane Eyre from the moments she was cruelly castigated by her callous aunt and her equally sordid cousins to her eight years of boarding school experience, to the fateful encounter with the brooding but vulnerable Mr. Rochester, and to the consequential events packed full of surprises and serendipity worth every reward to the lonely Jane. The gem of this BBC miniseries is that each of the episodes is treated as a small story – that is, a story embedded in a whole story as if it were a short story itself – so you can skip the early years of Jane and jump into her employment as governess for Adele, the only daughter of Mr. Rochester at Thornfield without feeling adrift from the previous story that will defenestrate you to the middle of nowhere in the whole story. Of course, for those of us who have read and re-read the novel since the time immemorial, it’s a foregone conclusion, but even if you haven’t, take heart and play it fast forward to meet the grown Jane (although she’s only nineteen years old.) in her tantalizing suspenseful moments with Mr. Rochester and even St. John Rivers.

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Zelah Clarke as Jane Eyre and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester

At the heart of the drama lies the commendable performance of the characters: Jane Eyre, played by Zelah Clarke, Edward Rochester aka “Mr. Rochester”, by Timothy Dalton, and St. John Rivers, by Andrew Bicknell invest the drama with the beautifully nuanced dialogues and gestures, which are never outlandishly displayed, vying for individual attentions, but harmoniously concerted that impart the gusto and the verisimilitude to the story. In fact, the appearances, gestures, and diction of these three characters are exactly what I have always imagined them to be in my mind’s eye. Clarke’s rendition of Jane Eyre is the finesse itself that would make Charlotte Bronte happy with her performance as well as physiognomy. Jane is a passionate soul, but conservative, if not conventional. She is an intelligent woman who loves her gruff but deeply hurt and lonely Edward Rochester as her equal despite a sea of age difference and his petulant past. Unlike other Jane Eyres played previously and posteriorly, Clarke’s Jane epitomizes the heroine of oddly beautiful enigma personified: the plain but pretty, expressive but demure, passionate but docile, sensitive but strong, patient but yearning… Which is befittingly summarized by St. John Rivers, wonderfully and unforgettably played by Andrew Bicknell: “She has rather an unusual face…The grace and harmony of beauty are wanting in her features, she is not at all handsome…” I have seen other film versions of Jane Eyre, but none other than this Clarke’s Jane Eyre has won my approval in terms of all things regarding the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s original novel.

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Andrew Bicknell as St. John Rivers

That goes the same for Timothy Dalton’s irrepressible Edward Rochester and Andrew Bicknell’s stoical but misguided St. John Rivers. On a personal note, Bicknell seems to nail the role down as handsome and intelligent St. John Rivers, who prioritizes his religious duties as a parson over his human feelings and emotions for his beautiful and kind-hearted admirer Rosemund Oliver in arbitrary belief that stoicism is the grist for the mill of vocation as a man of cloth. He believes that it is his calling to be a missionary in India and that it behooves him to abnegate sensuous delights to which a man is naturally inclined with all his might. Watching Bicknell playing the character makes me wonder if the casting director or the screenwriter had the uncanny ability to conjure up the spirit of Charlotte Bronte and ask of her the fitting image of the character prior to the production of the drama. The tall, imposing manly figure of St. John Rivers with beautiful Grecian facial features and golden hair is just as the description created by Bronte in the novel as if she had seen Andrew Bicknell in the peculiar alchemy of literature that enabled her to look into the future and to see her character incarnate.

All in all, this 1983 BBC miniseries of Jane Eyre will arrest your full attention to the every scene of the episodes without infelicity and pomposity that classical period dramas sometimes tend to produce on account of obsolete diction and outlandish gestures that look incongruously emphatic to our modern senses and sensibilities. This is a quaintly gorgeous drama without the ostentatious glamor of television drama exhibiting luminous Vanity Fair; it shows that just simple good scripts based on the loyal adaptation of the original novel and excellent performance of the fine cast that seems to be destined for the roles can translate the imaginative world of the author into the visual firmament of television drama this beautifully and impressively in a way that makes you feel the emotions of the characters by passing over to their inner worlds.

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