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'Becoming Jane Eyre,' by Sheila Kohler

BECOMING JANE EYRE, by Sheila Kohler. Penguin, 234 pp, $15 paper.Before Jane Austen seized control of the popular imagination, zombies and sea monsters trailing behind, the Brontë sisters were the reigning queens of English literature.

As Lucasta Miller observed in her 2004 study, "The Brontë Myth," these Yorkshire spinsters were as celebrated for their romanticized life stories as for their classic novels, "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." The Brontë narrative - three wildly imaginative women, scribbling away on the bleak moors, with a tragic drunken brother and stern parson father, one by one succumbing to consumption - has inspired countless films and novels.

The Brontë cottage industry shows no signs of slowdown. Last year we saw novels by Denise Giardina ("Emily's Ghost") and Syrie James ("The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë"), and this month brings "Becoming Jane Eyre," by Sheila Kohler, author of "Cracks" and "The Perfect Place."

Kohler opens the story in Manchester in 1846, where Charlotte sits by her father's bedside, with pencil and pad, as he recovers from an operation to restore his eyesight. She already is depressed by a publisher's rejection of her first novel, "The Professor." "What is she to write about now, in the silence of this darkened room?"

Why, the tale of Jane Eyre, of course: an orphan girl turned governess, who finds a soul mate in her employer, Mr. Rochester, despite the complications of age, class, temperament and that crazy first wife in the attic.

Kohler chronicles the unfolding of this literary creation, as Charlotte works bits and pieces of her own experience - especially her tenure as a schoolteacher in Brussels and a passionate crush on the headmaster.

Along the way, we encounter Charlotte's sisters and their self-destructive brother, Branwell, as well as publisher George Smith, whose championing of "Jane Eyre" will transform "this small, frail person, hardly five feet tall, with these dainty hands and feet" into an unlikely London celebrity. The point-of-view shifts among these and other peripheral characters, including the Rev. Brontë's nurse and Smith's mother.

It's all recounted in accomplished literary prose, but the problems are twofold: One, the story is familiar to Brontë enthusiasts; and two, it's difficult to fashion much drama out of the writing and publication of a novel.

In other words, "Becoming Jane Eyre" is, well, a bit dull.

What's more, the story feels lightly brushed over rather than fully inhabited. Branwell is more a cameo than a character, his "red hair, freckles and brilliant blue eyes" - and his dissolution - all we really get of him. The least-known sister, Anne, author of "Agnes Grey" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," hardly registers beyond her "earnestness" and "clear, pale face."

Perhaps most lacking is the vitality that courses through "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." Completists may feel obliged to check "Becoming Jane Eyre" off the long list of Brontë-inspired fiction, but the rest of us would no doubt find more pleasure in re-reading the sisters themselves; they novelized their own lives and concerns better than anyone.

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