To be convinced of the idea that Austen, the Brontës, and other 19th-century female writers are part of a “Girl Canon” that influences a great deal of female and feminist writing to this day, look no further than the consistent appearance of literary updates on shelves at any given moment, from the billions of Austen re-imaginings to Wuthering High School on Lifetime to Patricia Park’s Re Jane, a literary twist on Jane Eyre set variously among Korean immigrants in Queens, progressive yuppies in Brooklyn, and trendy youth in Seoul.
Charlotte Brontë’s twisted tale of a governess who falls in love with her employer and discovers his mad wife in the attic is hardly as suited to an update as, say, Pride and Prejudice, which merely requires two socially stratified lovers and comedy, or Wuthering Heights, which requires the same plus tragedy. But how does one transpose to today the burning anti-patriarchal rage that permeates Jane Eyre, the deep symbolism of every single house Jane enters, and the social structures that enable the novel’s structure to work? Primogeniture, lack of divorce laws, and the inability for women to do useful work are all crucial to Jane Eyre’s struggle.
Yet Re Jane doesn’t really try to do smash any hierarchy— its ambition is different. Park cleverly uses the coming-of-age aspect of Jane Eyre and its heroine’s movement from insular world to insular world to illustrate the confusion of a young woman who is neither clearly one thing nor another, culturally speaking. Well, Park’s heroine Jane Re is one thing: darkly humorous. Yet the fact that almost no one around her “gets” her frequent quips illustrates the novel’s point. Jane is caught between one home in Flushing, where her status as biracial, orphaned, and adopted by her uncle and aunt makes her feel like an outsider. Her strict relatives are harder on her than she feels she deserves, yet the patronizing, organic-eating, theory-spouting, and very white family she eventually au pairs for, who give her more affection and attention than she’s accustomed to (particularly, ahem, the father of the family), also make her feel isolated from her roots and the nunchi, or social acuity and deference, that she was raised to embrace.
Instead of a journey into the wilderness, Jane flees back to visit family in Korea when an affair with her employer begins to snowball. Abroad, her attempts to make herself fit a very different social mold — including makeup, inflection, and attitude — all go about as well as one might expect. In each place Jane lands, her unusual appearance is criticized, scrutinized, dissected: “What are you?” Yet despite her ultimate inability to blend in, Jane consistently picks up strength and knowledge about herself, until by the novel’s end she has the makings of an adult life, and a sense of herself which won’t be swallowed by anyone, particularly anyone male — an independent state of being which preoccupies so many feminist writers today.
For a contemporary young woman and particularly a woman who doesn’t fit in racially and socially, that self is hard to find not simply because of restrictions, but because of the smorgasbord of choices. Will Jane be a strident feminist like Beth, her comically earnest employer, a club-hopping, sexually free woman on the prowl, like her babysitting pal Nina, or a proper Korean girl like those she grew up with, who mocked her for having a white American dad and all landed banking and law jobs?
Nineteenth-century Jane Eyre’s growth was about searching for equal love in an unequal world, but this millennial trajectory ends up leading towards self-love, or simply a solid sense of self. And although Jane Re’s anger is less palpable and scorching than her literary antecedent’s, and she lacks the righteous self-assurance of a Victorian heroine, her struggle still gestures towards something bigger. Jane’s tendency to vacillate, trying on different styles and cultures, and ultimately upsetting people around her when she changes lanes yet again, can be frustrating to encounter on the page — but it’s also honest, and emblematic of a true contemporary heroine’s journey. The novel is incredibly and delightfully rooted in the details and rhythms of Korean and immigrant and Queens culture (the novel is a love letter to the borough), yet Jane’s story resonates with this moment in time and will offer comfort for readers, regardless of gender or cultural background, who fumbled their way through their early 20s in the Internet era.
I’m still waiting for a contemporary answer to Jane Eyre‘s white-hot proto-feminist rage (Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, in its opening section at least, approached that), but until that future masterpiece arrives, it’s gratifying to see a talented writer like Park use Brontë’s parameters to explore modern questions of identity — while continuing to solidify Jane Eyre‘s position as the godmother of feminist bildungsroman.