Madness, Death, and Poetry: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Hennezel’s The Art of Growing Old, Kumin’s Always Beginning

Dear Reader:

Back after a break to wrap up an enormous project (done! yes!) and go camping for awhile.

So, here’s what I’ve been up to in the meanwhile.

169) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (hard copy)

I read this for the Feminist Classics Challenge (it is coupled with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea this month but I have not made it through that yet).  I had read Jane Eyre many times as a child, but notably, I was always reading the version I had which was from some sort of condensed series.

So, I was surprised to see it picked for the Classics Challenge as I didn’t remember it being particularly feminist in its sensibilities.  I was stunned to finally read it in the full version and many decades later – it is an amazing book for its time (1846).  Jane is orphaned and stuck with a relative by marriage who doesn’t want her.  Nonetheless, she refuses to give in to her aunt’s expectations (she wants a quiet, very grateful, submissive child) and remains stubborn, strong, and opinionated.

Ultimately, Jane ends up at a school for girls, which though (especially in the beginning) very harsh, teaches her well (if I remember right the condensed version picked up when Jane is leaving the school for her position with Mr. Rochester’s ward).  She goes on to be a governess for the enchanting Adele.  Throughout, we hear Jane’s inner dialogue and learn how she is determined to make her own way in a time when those opportunities were extremely limited for women.

Of course, famously, she and Mr. Rochester fall in love, but what I didn’t remember (and what I suspect was left out of the condensed version) is how Jane insists on keeping her independence even under marriage.  She refuses Mr. Rochester’s expensive gifts and insists that after their marriage, she will remain a governess and will draw her wages and personal support in that manner.

Jane is an astonishing woman for this time – so strong, levelheaded, determined.  I was amazed at this character – and it was particularly interesting to, after all these years finally read the full version.

504) The Art of Growing Old by Marie de Hennezel Trans by Sue Dyson (Library, hard copy)  Yes!

This book was a big hit in France and it is the second book I would recommend that everybody read (I said Elie Wiesel’s Night was also something everyone should read).  It is a fairly short book, divided into chapters on various themes related to aging, but especially to facing death.

De Hennezel takes us through the many issues facing us – health problems, potential nursing home living, and death itself.  This book is designed to help us think through all of these frightening issues and to come to terms with them, in order to protect both our quality of life and of death.  And she really believes that there is something such as a quality of death.

What she means is coming to terms with ourselves, our limitations, our possibilities, our mortality.  When we accept and embrace these things, we can enrich every moment of our lives, even those moments of declining physical ability.

I loved this book. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated with aging and dying – not in the morbid sense, but rather in the sense of how do we do it well?  I’ve read a number of books and talked with elderly loved ones and friends about these topics – for them and for me.

I’ve been struck by the human mind’s ability to adapt – having gone through many losses – as have most 50 year olds, I’ve seen how we are initially overwhelmed by loss, but then come to accept and adapt to it.  I’ve always suspected that aging and coming close to death, premature or not, can be like this.  As someone for whom I have great love and respect once said, it is the people who left much undone who have a hard time with death.  If you move toward the end of your life knowing that you took advantage of the time you did had and that you left little undone, then death and dying are easier.  And these are all notions that de Hennezel subscribes to.  I plan to buy this book for one of my dear friends who is aging – highly recommended!

496) Always Beginning: Essay on a Life in Poetry by Maxine Kumin (hard copy)

Kumin is a famous American poet (I gather she is 87) and this is one of the last books from my poetry section.  She was very close to Anne Sexton (also a very well-known American poet).  This book is a series of essays presented in sections.  One section covers Sexton, another a series of poets, others different phases of Kumin’s life.  She and Sexton became poets in the 1950s when women were supposed to be busily having babies and worrying about feeding their husband’s stomachs and libidos.  Those activities satisfied neither and they struck out to become poets.  It was not an easy time, but ultimately, both had success.  Horribly, Sexton finally took her own life decades ago, after many suicide attempts.  So, Kumin writes frankly about the experience of having a dearest friend who was suicidal for a long time – an excruciating experience.  I enjoyed this book very much, particularly when Kumin was talking about her own life, which I found fascinating.

Spring is definitely here – with occassional summery days, enjoy!

Happy Reading, Ruby



  1. Well done on completing the project. I’m very intrigued to hear about the Feminist Classics Challenge. This year I’m doing a challenge of my own – trying to read and blog about a book from every country in the world. It’s turning out to be quite an adventure. Good luck with whatever you take on next.

    • Hi: Yes – I’ve been reading nearly all your posts. It looks like you are doing very well with it – it seems you’ve found nearly all your books and are reading through them at a good clip. I’m definitely enjoying hearing about the work of writers from all over the world and I love the ethos of your project, what a great way to bring attention to good work from lesser known corners of the globe, Ruby

      • Thanks Ruby. That’s very nice of you to say. It’s been a lot of fun so far. There are several countries that I still have no idea how to tackle, but it’s amazing how helpful people all over the world are being. There’s even someone hunting for bookshops in Monaco for me this weekend – they’re there to watch the Grand Prix!

  2. Yeah – you’re back and blogging 🙂 I like Jane — independent women are my favorites.
    (Hope you had a very relaxing camping trip.)


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