Iola Leroy (or Shadows Uplifted) – Published in 1892

In my last post, I told you that I received two other books from Penguin Group. One of them is Iola Leroy, which I will review today: 

Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy tells an incredible story of struggle, conflict and survival and it is one of the first novels published by an African-American woman. 

The book begins with Iola Leroy, the beautiful young daughter of a rich white Mississippi planter and his wife, a former slave he has freed, educated and married. In order to protect Iola and her siblings from disdain and shame, the planter decides not to tell his children about their descent. Thus, he tries to avoid contact with other planters and sends his children north to be educated. But when her father suddenly dies, Iola is kidnapped and learns that her mother is of mixed race and that she was the former slave of her father. The young girl is sold into slavery and is separated from her family. Although she faces many ordeals and struggles to escape from the unrighteous intentions of her former owners through the Civil War, Iola still manages to remain faithful to herself and she blossoms into a courageous young woman. After she is freed by the Union Army, Iola is determined to search for her lost family, including her brother Harry. What she doesn’t know, is the fact that Harry has learned about the happenings and has joined a coloured Union regiment in order to rescue his sister. While Harry is trying to find her, Iola embraces her heritage and refuses to pass as white. When Dr. Gresham, her devoted admirer, wants to marry her, Iola refuses him because he wants her to keep her heritage a secret. Instead, she marries Dr. Latimer, who is also of mixed race and who appreciates Iola for her dedication to the black community and for her courage. Together they try to improve the condition of blacks in America and they fight for racial justice. After a long journey of search, suffering and resistance, Iola is finally reunited with her beloved family. 

Iola Leroy is a remarkable story of struggle, courage, deliverance and hope. It’s a must read for everyone as the author draws a vibrant picture of the Civil War and provides us with fascinating characters, allowing us to see such important historic events through African-American eyes. I really enjoyed reading this fictional work, as it deals with complex issues and it masterly presents a social chronicle! 

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books and Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorite authors – so how could I not want to read Becoming Jane Eyre, where such a talented and influential female author comes to life?  

Part biography and part fiction, Becoming Jane Eyre concentrates on the short life of a brilliant author who has produced famous works such as Jane Eyre, Villette and The Professor. Sheila Kohler’s novel gives the reader an insight into Charlotte’s life as a writer, but also as a daughter and sister. The reader can witness how Charlotte managed to create such remarkable novels, despite the fact that she had a difficult life, plagued by loss, grief and poverty.  

Born in 1816 in Yorkshire, Charlotte Bronte is the daughter of a poor clergyman and the third of six children. She has to deal with tragedy at an early age as she witnesses the deaths of her mother and her two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. In addition to that, her relationship with her father isn’t always happy and easy. The parson doesn’t know how to handle his daughters; his son Branwell has always been his favorite child. But it is Branwell who disappoints him the most – the young man drowns his sorrows in drugs and alcohol and falls into debt. Facing poverty, the sisters have to take up positions as teachers and governesses. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily travel to Brussels to enroll in a boarding school. There, Charlotte teaches English and grows closer to Constantin Heger, a married professor. For the first time in her life, she feels appreciated and understood. Her professor recognizes Charlotte’s writing talent and they spend a lot of time together, having fiery conversations about literature, religion and writing. Charlotte has fallen in love with this intelligent man, but she knows that there is no future for them. She soon feels lonely in Brussels because Constantin Heger has become distant. Disappointed, she returns home and uses her experience at the boarding school as an inspiration for her novel The Professor (and later for Villette). But when The Professor is rejected by many publishing houses, Charlotte cannot hide her disappointment. What she doesn’t know yet, is the fact that she will soon write her famous novel Jane Eyre. While she takes care of her sick father, Charlotte has a vision of a young girl, orphaned and alone. The young girl, named Jane, has to deal with ill-treatment, poverty and tragedy. Many ideas come to Charlotte’s mind, as she recalls her own journey – a journey full of suffering, disappointment and foolish dreams. While she thinks about her protagonist Jane, Charlotte relives everything once again – the pain she felt when her sisters died, her teaching experience in Brussels and her feelings for the professor. But Charlotte wants Jane to have a better chance in life. That’s why she decides to give her heroine a strong voice; she gives Jane the courage to speak up for herself and she wants her to be happy, with her Mr. Rochester. Thus accrues an impressive tale of independence, love, forgiveness and morality. When Jane Eyre is finally published, it receives many positive reviews and high praise. Anne and Emily also publish their novels Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but they don’t experience the same success. Charlotte is nevertheless very content with her achievement, but her happiness is short-lived, since she can’t share her success with her siblings. After Branwell’s death, she also loses her beloved sisters Anne and Emily, who die of pulmonary tuberculosis. In 1854, Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. She soon becomes pregnant, but tragedy strikes again when only after nine happy months of marriage, Charlotte dies, along with her unborn child, at the young age of 38.  

  

Becoming Jane Eyre is a must read for Bronte fans as Shelia Kohler gives us a glimpse into the life of a gifted author, illustrating how passionate, intelligent and kindhearted Charlotte Bronte was. Sheila Kohler allows Charlotte to speak from the bottom of her heart, making her vulnerable, but at the same time showing us a strong and determined young woman. Becoming Jane Eyre depicts Charlotte Bronte as a devoted woman, who was very passionate about her family and her writing. If you get the chance to read this book, you will delight in finding out about the Bronte sisters; you will be able to cast an eye at Charlotte’s relationship with her father and to witness her intimate thoughts on love and writing.  

I truly loved this novel and I couldn’t put it down. I felt sad when I finished this book and I longed for more information on Charlotte Bronte. That’s why I want to read The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell in the future!  

I would like to thank Gabrielle Gantz from Penguin Group  for giving me the opportunity to review this great novel! Gabrielle also sent me two other Penguin books which I will read and review soon. Thank you for everything, Gabrielle!