Review of Jean Eyre
19th September 2018
Recently the novel Jean Eyre was published in its first Scots language version. It was written by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and originally published in 1847 in English. Now it has been translated into North East Scots (Doric) by two well known writers, Sheena Blackhall and Sheila Templeton. Sheena is an Aberdonian who has written and published many poems, short stories, and novels since the 1980’s, while Sheila, born in Buchan, has also lived in Ayrshire and Glasgow and has been publishing poetry for many years. The Scots Language Centre’s own poetry editor, Sally Evans, has written the following short review of the Scots version.
This owersettin of Jane Eyre – far more than a mere translation – is a masterpiece from inception to finish. Merely titling the book Jean Eyre gives it a character of its own, and it is an almost innocent reassessment of the whole concept of Jane Eyre as a book.
A very famous book at the heart of the established English fiction canon, taught to all students and revered by everyone, it has long been considered a middle class book by a middle class author. The true character of the book has been hidden by the association of the Brontës with Jane Austen and the central line of English fiction by women.
This is erroneous on several counts. The Brontës were in large part Irish; they lived in the distant north as far as London publishing was concerned (to the extent that they began writing with male pseudonyms); they almost certainly spoke with the local Lancashire accent; they could write in the dialect (as proof, this dialect appears in the middle part of Jane Eyre). Charlotte visited Edinburgh and regularly read the journals that came from Edinburgh, including the Edinburgh Review.
In reality, Jane Eyre, as shown by Jean Eyre, is a book about country working class people and those just above them, hanging on by a precarious thread at times to gentility, but conversant with want, needing to find uncongenial work (the governesses) and realising the servants of bigger houses not just as providers but as characters in the book (this does not happen in Jane Austen).
From the very start, Jean Eyre (‘Fit dis Bessie say I’ve dane?” I speired’) set us on the right path to understanding this book.
It’s a book about a woman, by a woman, translated into Scots by two women. The senior partner Sheena Blackhall is the most eminent woman writer in Scots probably of all time. Her Scots vocabulary is off the scale (you’ll find her referenced passim in the current Scots Language dictionaries). Her collaborator Sheila Templeton is also a highly respected Scots writer, with strong knowledge of both Aberdeenshire Scots and other dialects, for she has lived elsewhere in Scotland.
It’s a dramatic book, and the dramatic parts are so very good. In Chaper 20, when Jean hears the “yammer” in the night (Rochester’s hidden wife):
Ma hert-beat stappit; ma hert stood still; ma raxed-oot airm wis paraleesed. The screcch deet doon an didna cam again.
In case you think this is an all-positive review I will give you my one small gripe. In my view, ‘Reader, I mairried him’ could have been owerset further. It is such a famous line in English, and I think it would benefit from something more idiomatic in Scots, something to remind you that this is the woman in the story speaking, not the more distanced author. Something like: ‘l hae te tell ye, I marriet him’? ‘I canna lee – I mairried him.’ But perhaps this was too far from literal for the authors of this wonderful version of the book.
Jean Eyre is a great service to the Scots language. People who regard Scots as unimportant or even still think it “slangy” will marvel at its ability to carry a novel of this stature; readers should include some of those who thought Scots infra dig, and reading will release in them an appreciation of the language, better facility in vocabulary, more willingness to relax and use it in at least some situations of daily life.
But it is also a service to the book in the English language, if anyone will listen.
A note to English readers: if you know Jane Eyre and don’t have Scots, you will find your way into Jean Eyre quite easily and it will refresh your understanding of the original book.
Jean Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Owerset intae Nor-east Scots by Sheena Blackhall and Sheila Templeton is published in paperback (442 pp) with illustrations by Edmund H. Garrett and E.M.Wimperis. Published at Dundee by Evertype, 2018