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Thirty-four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre

by Joan Givner

This book defies generic classification, including as it does 11 short stories, several autobiographical memoirs, an author profile of Elly Danica, and a number of essays dealing with the author’s work as a literary biographer, sometimes in the form of scholarly essays, sometimes as memoirs. The short stories are often heavily autobiographical, and the relationship between fiction and biography is a major theme of Givner’s research, so themes overlap and repeat in complex and confusing ways. Some essays are important to those who study Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. One of the best essays in the book, “Mysteries of the Severed Head,” explores aspects of the work of Mazo de la Roche and raises intriguing questions about Alice Munro’s wonderful story “Carried Away.”

Thirty-four Ways of Looking at Jane Eyre is a bold departure from convention that may be admired for its courage although it does not entirely succeed. One major flaw is the repetition of factual information. Since much of the fiction is autobiographical, and many of the scholarly essays contain details of Givner’s life, we are given the same information over and over again about her early life, her parents, her immigration to North America, and her unsettling retirement from Regina to British Columbia. In two essays, we learn that Eudora Welty failed to visit the deathbed of Katherine Anne Porter, although she did attend the funeral. Such repetition is understandable in essays written independently, but these materials should have been edited more carefully when they were brought together.

In writing about biography, Givner seems to carry a weight of unresolved emotion about her research. She set out to uncover naked autobiographical truths that writers had clothed in fiction, but wanted those writers to like and admire her for doing so, and was clearly hurt if they did not. It is hard to imagine a more straightforward set up for lasting disappointment. Nevertheless, this collection is valuable for the complex questions it raises about the nature of biography, autobiography, and the art of fiction.