Stool of shame for Ms Brontë please

September 29, 2006

Autobiographers have an unsettling tendency to embroider the facts of their lives, says John Sutherland.

Jane Eyre comes round on television as often as the World Cup, and with almost as much razzmatazz. The latest version (showing on BBC1) faced a daunting logistical challenge. Susanna White had to adapt the book into four one-hour episodes and, with the assistance of Sandy Welch, shrink Charlotte Bront 's quarter of a million words to a meagre 50-page script.

The knife cut most sharply into that section of the narrative dealing with Jane's education. This occupies about a fifth of the novel and some ten minutes of television.

Jane Eyre has traditionally been contentious for its depiction of the heroine's eight years at Lowood Asylum. When Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë was published in 1857, it confirmed what local gossip had long known - that the establishment was based on the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, where four Bront girls boarded.

Two of her sisters died, Brontë believed, from the "charitable" malnutrition and neglect they experienced there. For a year after Gaskell's biography, controversy raged in the Halifax Guardian as to how cruel, negligent or really rather admirable the Clergy Daughters' School actually was. No consensus was arrived at.

Jane Eyre is a romantic novel. Women's romance has a licence to falsify. Brontë admitted toJGaskell that she could not bring herself to be "dispassionate" about Lowood.

The latest television version piles licence on licence. It depicts Jane, on her first morning at the school, being made to wear a placard with the word "Liar" on it and to stand on the stool of shame from eight in the morning until midnight without food and water.

This is child abuse of Auschwitzian severity. The novel offers a different version. Some months after arrival, Jane accidentally breaks her slate. She is made to stand on a stool for half an hour. There is no shaming placard (a detail that seems to have been lifted from David Copperfield ).

Nonetheless, Brontë's novel presents Lowood as a sadistic, murderous hellhole. It kills little girls. Bront honestly believed this was, in essence, true. The television version gets this passionate belief across by exaggeration. Or falsification.

Where should that line be drawn? If you look at the title page of the original three-decker it reads, uncompromisingly, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography , Edited by Currer Bell . It does not say "Jane Eyre: A Romance, Invented by Charlotte Bront ".

The degree to which autobiographers are to be trusted - or should be given a romancer's licence to exaggerate or falsify in the cause of what they conceive as truth - has become a litigious matter. When James Frey was unmasked as a fibber, public confession and chastisement (the modern equivalent of the stool of shame) ensued on Oprah . The book's American publishers are offering compensation to readers who may have purchased under the misapprehension that it was A Million Little Pieces: An Autobiography , rather than the novel Frey unsucccessfully hawked round the publishers before one came up with the idea of factifying it.

More unsettlingly, seven of Kathy O'Beirne's siblings have publicly stated that the catalogue of suffering the author records in her autobiography Don't Ever Tell , and specifically the allegations of brutality against their father, are untrue. Legal action may be forthcoming - and, depending how things go, more financial restitution and casuistical redrawing of the boundaries between autobiography and romance.

The publishers of Ugly , the autobiography of Constance Briscoe, one of "Britain's most high-profile black women judges", are being sued by the author's mother over allegations of physical cruelty contained in the book. Ugly indeed.

There are a number of explanations one might come up withJfor this outbreak of true/false, fact/fiction squabbling. That autobiographers habitually lie is the least satisfactory. More convincing are the ideas of the neuromarketers. Leaders in this field, such as Steve Quartz ofJthe California Institute of Technology, are looking at why people store some commercial messages in their long-term memories and discard others. There is no obvious pattern. So it is that, in real-life situations, different members of the same family, or pupils at the same school, will have different mental archives - different fragments of the past they have put in storage. Their pasts will (to them) be different.

More to the point, readers, in the mass, don't care. No one has ever seriously upbraided Bront for offering fiction under the fallacious title of (autobiographical) fact. A Million Little Pieces is still riding high in the American bestseller list (although there is some embarrassment about which list). Samuel Johnson's "common reader" - as always - has enough common sense and pinches of salt to handle these dilemmas and weigh up exaggeration against kernels of truth. Let us hope that authors, their families, publishers and lawyers are just as sensible and that autobiography can carry on being the entertainingly ambiguous genre it has always been, ever since St Augustine.J John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus at University College London.

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