Saturday, October 04, 2014

Real books TV

I got so fed up with dumbed-down TV books programmes I just about stopped watching them - well, I wasn't even sure there were any, any more - but on Tuesday evening I chanced on BBC's The Secret Life of Books, an episode presented by the ever-incisive Bidisha, and found it a revelation. In an exceptionally thoughtful programme, Bidisha re-examines Jane Eyre, recounting the differences in her attitudes to the book as a teenager (when, like so many, she saw it chiefly as a romantic love story with a fine and triumphant heroine) and as an adult (when she saw Jane as subservient to Rochester and racist in her blindness to the rights of Bertha, the wife incarcerated in the attic), and then setting out to examine these attitudes through discussion with others. Arguing her adult view with Rebecca Fraser, author of Charlotte Bronte: A Writer's Life, who stoutly and convincingly defends Jane as a mould-breaking heroine, Bidisha is left with her view of Jane as a woman adjusted, but still unable to accept Jane's, and the author's, attitude to Bertha, seen as Other and conveniently disposed of at the end of the novel. Until, that is, she talks to academic Terry Eagleton, who convinces her that this must be seen in the context of the prevailing attitudes of Charlotte's time.

What was so refreshing and satisfying about the programme was its unashamed intellect, the way it created a narrative out of an intellectual journey. Clearly, there was staging in the presentation of this intellectual journey - Bidisha would have already completed it before the programme was put together - but for once it was a TV staging that was intellectually useful. I do hope it points the way for book programmes to come.

Bidisha didn't mention Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which critiques Jane Eyre by taking Bertha's point of view. For anyone interested, our reading group discussion of Rhys's novel is here.

And, also for anyone interested, my own story 'That Turbulent Stillness' is a tongue-in-cheek examination of the teenage reaction to the Brontes that Bidisha describes. It's published in Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, ed. A J Ashworth (Unthank books).

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