Thirty-Four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre

by Joan Givner,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0921586671

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Jane's Rapture
by Nikki Abraham

How and with what awareness do fiction writers transform the stuff of their everyday lives into art? Does knowing a writer's biography and sources enhance the work of art, diminish it or make no difference at all? As someone who has spent much of her career investigating the lives of fiction writers (biographies of Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche), analyzing works of fiction (as Professor of English at the University of Regina), and writing fiction (four previous volumes of stories), Joan Givner would appear to be in a unique position to cast light on these questions.

Thirty-Four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre successfully alternates between the short-story and essay genres. The rhythm that is created, and the slight sense of disjunction that ensues from moving back-and-forth between various realities, are pleasantly diverting. The book as a whole has an autobiographical cast to it (Givner does state here that "all biography is really autobiography"), and the author (or a thinly veiled alter ego) takes a leading role in both essays and stories. But in a comparative evaluation, the essay writing is livelier and more muscular, the supporting cast more intriguing, and the facts and observations original. The accounts of Givner's pursuit of material for her biography of Katherine Anne Porter, in particular, make for a compelling read.

Givner's writing tends to the expository and this may be one reason that the stories don't work as well as the essays. Readers tire of being told about characters, of having events interpreted for them. Consciousness of the storyteller becomes burdensome and a hindrance with the result that the characters seem rather like puppets manipulated by the author.

Perhaps this explicit authorial control is why some of the story plots seem predictable or inorganic. They lack the life-force, messy and ragged and disturbing, that ought to be there. This is unfortunate, as there is much to admire in Givner's writing: imagination, humour, insight, and even the occasional flash of the poetic.

Certain secondary characters do achieve a life of their own: Neville, the country doctor, incorrigible rebel, and wag; Simon, the young ballet dancer who has seduced an older man away from his wife and daughter; and Rifka, the university student whose life is damaged by the disappearance of her self-destructive older sister.

Perhaps it was a mistake to read the preface first wherein the author makes clear her feminist critical perspective. The universal application of feminist critique to literature is far from accepted practice, and the statement that "language itself is a patriarchal construct" is highly questionable, even if it could be proven, which it cannot. Givner declares it, however, as a generally accepted fact.

Had her academic-feminist perspective been confined to the preface where it could be safely forgotten or ignored, all might have been well. But it keeps intruding and giving rise to far-fetched statements. I wonder what Alice Munro would think of Givner's interpretation of her story, "Carried Away"-namely, that "the question that preoccupies Munro" is "[h]ow does a woman of letters survive in an age of advanced technology?" There is nothing more tiresome than orthodoxy unquestioningly upheld and through which the world in all its complexity must be put like a precious silk blouse through a wringer-washer.

Givner tells us that the book is about motherhood, that "piece after piece probes the mother-daughter bond, its passion and rapture (or rupture)". If this is indeed so, the motherhood in question is of the inadequate, cold, controlling type, not the generously nurturing kind. The rejecting mother is everywhere here, and the sweet, ineffectual father relegated to the distant background. In this context, talk of the evil patriarchy is odd, to say the least. And unnecessary. The reader does not require such signposting by the writer regarding the circumstances that led to the writing of the book, why it is organized as it is, what it is about, and how to read it.

As for the questions raised by the book-I'm not sure that much light was thrown on any writer's creative process save Givner's own, for which I was, strangely, glad. Could it be simply because questions are always more interesting than answers? 

Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.


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