Jane Eyre, and the Lengthy, Passionate, Descriptive Sentence
by Rachel Creager Ireland
While I was writing Post Rock Limestone Caryatids, I often thought of Jane Eyre. I’d read Charlotte Bronte’s classic while I was in college, many years ago, in Robin Behn‘s Women’s Literature class at Knox College. I remembered enjoying Jane Eyre in spite of the nineteenth-century language and morality. I loved the descriptions of nature, and the passionate romance. I flat out didn’t get why she couldn’t be with Mr. Rochester while he was still married, even as I wondered about the fact that he kept a crazy wife locked up in the attic.
Post Rock has been out for over a year now, and recently I picked up Jane Eyre and read it again. I had many thoughts about the difference between reading this book as a 19-year-old versus a 47-year old; but for today let’s just talk about long, descriptive sentences. Early on I noticed that those sentences were pretty much as I remembered them; I’d copied that style more than I’d even realized. It’s very different from the standard modern clipped prose, stripped of as much description as possible. It may well be that I loved the book not in spite of the nineteenth-century language, but because of it.
I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow: in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow!–when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down “ing” and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck! That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest in its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons.
Just for fun, let’s contrast that to a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006.
They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods.
Oh look, both the passages I just chose begin with sentences of 53 words. Nonetheless, you can easily see how different they are. It’s the difference between comparing a dormant tree to a skeleton, versus a pole. It’s the difference between being moved by intense passion, versus being beyond feeling any emotion whatsoever, the soul huddling under a blanket. Bronte lovingly describes a living landscape that sparkles, shrouds, wanders, and tears asunder; McCarthy writes a bleak, dead, wasteland, which simply exists.
Since it’s my blog, I can be so audacious as to take a passage from my own book for further comparison.
There were grass-covered hills in all directions, as far as she could see, not like CGI vermilion grass, but a whole palette of beiges and rusty reds, with only hints of yellowy green at the roots, as if it were hiding. Sable-black and deeply evergreen trees huddled in lines between the hills, but up high, there was nothing to break the horizon, the sky meeting the gentle slopes of the hills, coming all the way down to the human-littered valley behind her, laying over the land like a giant, dark, cloud-heavy dome. It appeared solid and impenetrable, and Maeve noted with irony that she felt almost claustrophobic, or was it the opposite, wasn’t she feeling a faint impulse to curl up and hide in the tall grass?
I didn’t quite make it to 53; the longest sentence is 51 words. It is long, still. But the Flint Hills roll on, layer after layer, and it takes a long sentence to speak them. I’m not Charlotte Bronte, it’s clear; but I do intend to keep writing and getting better, and I will write sentences as long or as short, as descriptive and adjective-laden, as passionate and emotionally intense as my subjects require.
What do you think?