Sheila Kohler’s Becoming Jane Eyre is tuned into the End-of-the-Aughts zeitgeist. Remakes of film versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are in the pipeline, as is another film based on the four Bronte siblings—prodigious Gothic/Romantic authors Charlotte, Emily ( Wuthering Heights) and Anne ( Agnes Grey), and dissolute brother Branwell. Why this renewed interest in Brontes? Does it tie into the current rage for vampires—for the doomed romantic love that can only be achieved beyond death?
Over dinner on a recent winter night, novelist Sheila Kohler, fresh from a week teaching her writing classes at Princeton, is a captivating combination of elegance and warmth. She writes fiction that is dark, erotic, and sophisticated, with an uncanny sense of the sinister.
“One always selects and reimagines events through the prism of one's own life and probably my sister's death was one of the reasons I was drawn to Charlotte Brontë's story, with the tragic deaths of her two beloved sisters.”
On the night we dine together Kohler is a week away from the publication of her seventh novel, Becoming Jane Eyre, in which she "inhabits" the character of Charlotte Bronte as she struggles to birth the immortal Jane E, the orphan governess to Mr. Rochester, he of the mad wife in the attic. Early reviews had called the book “exquisite,” and “a beautiful complement to Bronte’s masterpiece.”
“I do think that some of this interest in the Brontës follows on the success of all the Jane Austen films and books inspired by her life and work,” Kohler says. “The connection with the vampire series (though I have neither read or seen the films) comes, perhaps, from our guilt at our sexual desires, our need to camouflage our desire for the other sex, causing them to become the ones who prey on us, the ones who drag us reluctantly to their beds; the ones who humiliate us and remain ultimately out of reach, adulterous or drugged and drunken, or simply resisting the urge to drink our blood.”
Kohler developed a passion for the tragic Brontës while growing up in Johannesburg. “When I was seven years old my father died. Shortly afterwards an aunt (my mother was one of three girls and a boy like the Brontë family) read me and my sister and a cousin the first chapters of Jane Eyre. The scene in the red room where Jane is shut up and has a sort of fit, thinking she has seen her uncle's ghost, made a tremendous impression on me. Later I read the whole book, of course. In fact I've read it again and again all through my life, and read it differently. I read Villette, too, as a teenager and was taken with the feverish atmosphere, the description of loneliness and loss as the heroine walks through the streets of Brussels.”
There’s another reason for Kohler’s connection to Charlotte Brontë. "When my sister died a violent death 25 years ago in apartheid South Africa, my writing took a new turn,” she has written. (Her sister died in a car crash with her husband at the wheel in what may have been an aborted suicide attempt on his part, a tragedy Kohler weaves into her 2004 novel, Crossways.) “I was driven to explore the reasons for violence within intimate relationships, in particular, the abuse of power and privilege. Since then I have published six novels, three collections of short stories, and several others not yet collected, all of which focus in some way on this theme. They represent my attempt to delve into the mysteries of hate and anger, and of love and compassion, as well."
In 2007, with her sixth novel, Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness, Kohler shifted her focus away from contemporary times to the eighteenth century, writing a historical novel set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Her new novel continues this new creative path.
“I felt I had mined my own life again and again, and particularly my sister's tragic death,” she says. “I wanted to reach outside of myself and I did so with great pleasure—although, of course, one always selects and reimagines events through the prism of one's own life and probably my sister's death was one of the reasons I was drawn to Charlotte Brontë's story, with the tragic deaths of her two beloved sisters.”
Kohler’s fascination with the abuse of power remains. “All through the book, Charlotte attempts to maintain her independence, financial and moral,” she says, “and her integrity in the face of great odds; with her dominating father, of course, at Cowan Bridge where the girls were so miserably treated; with her employers, the Hegers in Brussels where she fell in love, as well as in the families where she was a governess and so put upon and humiliated; and even in her relationship with her sisters, where there is a struggle for power, as there is so often in a family, a balance which shifts as events change as they do so frequently in life; and finally there is the struggle with her publisher George Smith and her husband Arthur Bell Nichols whom she decides to marry against her father's desires.”
Kohler has had novels optioned off and on over the years. The first feature film based on her work (her 1999 novel Cracks) opened at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Jordan Scott was making her directorial debut (her father Ridley Scott is an executive producer). The novel is a searing account of a long-buried secret brought to light at the 40-year reunion of a group of women who attended a South African boarding school together; it’s been compared to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but this time the savagery is among girls. For the film, the location was shifted from South Africa to England, and the time period pushed from the late 1950s to the 1930s.
Kohler—who laughingly acknowledges that as the author she was the “least important” person in the process—says she was “terrified it might be awful” at the film’s opening night. She was seated directly behind Ridley Scott. When the film was finished, she realized he was standing over her, waiting for a reaction. “I was speechless,” she recalls. “Happily my husband said, ‘You must be very proud of your daughter.’”
“It was very beautiful, though very different from the book in many ways,” Kohler says. “I felt Jordan had made excellent cinematic decisions all the way through (starting at the beginning of the story and going forward without flashbacks). The beautiful Eva Green was seductive and fascinating.”
Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.