JANE EYRE – CHARLOTTE BRONTE, 1847
My last memory of reading Jane Eyre is vague.
I had read the book on at least two occasions in the past, the last time possibly as a high school teenager or as a young adult in the first years of my university experience – as a more innocent, less jaded, as-yet un-lived version of myself. I had half-formed recollections of a simple romance tale, restrained as a book of its time necessarily had to be for popular approbation, and the sort of flowery description that I have always enjoyed in the classics – modern writing does not invest in descriptions quite in that manner anymore. And with this expectation, I picked up the new faux leather covered collectible copy I had splurged on a few months earlier, expecting a light read; something that should help me ramp up my descriptive game a notch while at it. No biggie.
Gentle Reader, I was all kinds of wrong.
Oh, I gorged on the descriptiveness almost from the first page. “…a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast…” until the very end. “The manor house of Ferndean was a building of considerable antiquity, moderate size and no architectural pretensions, deep buried in a wood.”
I enjoyed discovering the author’s sarcastic wit that my younger self never picked up on – “The ladies, since the gentlemen entered, have become as larks…” – and her satirical poke at society’s obsession with pretty people. “…her beauty, her pink cheeks and golden curls, seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault”, “…if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one cannot really care for such a little toad as that”.
I was not particularly bothered by its covert bigotry “…the British peasantry are the best taught, best mannered, most self-respecting of any in Europe…’ or what some might consider its, preachy, moralistic tone. It was just as would be expected, given the times and climes in which the book was first published.
“I advise you to live sinless, and I wish you to die tranquil.”
“Do as I do: trust in God and yourself. Believe in Heaven. Hope to meet there again.”
“…if from this day you began with a resolution to correct your thoughts and actions, you would in a few years have laid a new and stainless store of recollections, to which you might revert with pleasure”.
‘It does a woman no good to be flattered by her superior, who could not possibly intend to marry her; and it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown, must devour the life that feeds it; and, if discovered and responded to, must lead, ignis-fatus,-like, into miry wilds whence there is no extrication”.
Yet, in other ways, Jane Eyre took me by an un-remembered surprise. It was a book ahead of it times. While younger me, fresh from the loving bubble of my parents’ home and acceptance, hadn’t yet encountered the yolk of misogyny, so did not notice it on my previous reading, this time, it was hard to miss how radical some of the words of this book would have been to its first readers.
“…but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow minded in their more priviledged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
I can just imagine how well that went down amongst the men, and the female defenders of patriarchy, of those days. Probably as well any challenges to patriarchy does in our time.
Our heroine, a maltreated orphan who grows up into “a governess; disconnected, poor and plain”, was as unlikely a heroine as could be. She is depressingly lacking in self-esteem (“YOU gifted with a power of pleasing him? YOU of importance to him in any way? Go! Your folly sickens me”) and staunch in her self-worth at the same time (…be too self-respecting to lavish the love of the whole heart, soul, and strength, where such gift is not wanted and would be despised.)
Pragmatic as those without the buffer of a loving upbringing often have to be (“friends always forget those whom fortune forsakes”), almost brutal in her metaphoric self-flagellation that masquerades as self-discipline. (You shall yourself pluck out your right eye, yourself cut off your right hand; your heart shall be the victim, and you the priest to transfix it).
A childhood of attachment deprivation made her crave the affection of others – “I have not much pride in such circumstances: I would always rather be happy than dignified: and I ran after him…”. Yet, her will in her conviction is strong, “I shook, I feared – but I resolved.” “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more un-sustained I am, the more I will respect myself…”
In her break-up with Mr. Rochester, I identified with Jane the way my younger self – yet to have lived through the harrowing pains of leaving a relationship that had ceased to serve your wellbeing – never did. “Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonized as in that hour left my lips; for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love”!
As I read through the evolution of her relationship with St. John, my heart ached in the way that only women who have loved good, staunch and stoic men with lofty ‘higher’ callings could empathize with. From the first display of his aloof countenance and seemingly well-meaning advices “Don’t cling so tenaciously to the ties of the flesh; save your constancy and ardour for an adequate cause; forebear to waste them on trite transient objects. Do you hear, Jane?” to his insistence in seeing her how he wanted her to be, “I recognized a soul that revelled in the flame and excitement of sacrifice… you are docile, diligent, disinterested, faithful, constant, and courageous; very gentle, and vey heroic…” I recognize the pattern that leads young, impressionable girls, often in their need for approval and validation, into relationships with men, sometimes good men, who go on to – wittingly or unwittingly – stifle their spirit.
Jane was more fortunate than most. I was pained along with her as she came to the painful realization that she – as herself – would never be what he wanted, that “vivacity, at least in me, was distasteful to him”. Her value was in her generic usefulness to his ‘lofty’ goals – “he prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon, and that is all”. “… he asks me to be his wife, and he has no more of a husband heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock” – and that he would never love her, the woman. She is able to recognize his proposed marriage for the hell it would be, to “endure all forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent… bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle…”
While in her fraternal, affection-seeking manner, she loved him, “but as his wife – at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked – forced to keep the fire of my nature continually luw, to compel it burn inward and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital – this would be unbearable”
And St. John, good man that he is, “his features, beautiful in their harmony, but strangely formidable in their still severity”, with his “disapprobation of a cool, inflexible judgement, which has detected in another feelings and views in which it has no power to sympathise” skated so close to spiritual abuse, “…and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God”! So long has this been the tool for the oppression of women.
Indeed, this character captures very eloquently what it feels like to be subjected to a “good, religious man” without the modulating effect of tender emotions – “What severe punishment a good, yet stern, a conscientious yet implacable man can inflict on one who has offended him… – If I were his wife, this good man, pure as the deep sunless source could soon kill me, without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own crystal conscience the faintest stain of crime”
And lest you, Gentle Reader, conclude that we are upbraiding all good men, Jane was quick to clarify, ‘He is a good and a great man; but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of the little people, in pursuing his own large views”. She, and myself I suppose, only decry the fate of being married to such a man, while expecting in vain a modicum of love and affection, for what could possibly be worse – in such a case – than “to be chained for life to a man who regarded one as but a useful tool?”
In comparison, upon uniting with Mr. Rochester, “there was no harassing restraint, no repressing of glee and vivacity with him; for with him I was at perfect ease, because I knew I suited him; all I said or did either seemed to console or revive him… in his presence I thoroughly lived; and he lived in mine.”
Surely that is as happily-ever-after as anyone can hope for!
For a book purportedly about romance, though, the general voice of Jane Eyre is restrained and slightly gloomy. The sort of pragmatic unfluffy matter of fact-ness that would probably not fly in today’s writing. I find that one of the earliest quotes, ‘even for me life had its gleams of sunshine’ quite captures the essential mood of the novel. And while I fear this might be the only type of romance my jaded self could ever whole-heartedly devour anymore, especially palatable with the humbling of the never-devastatingly-handsome to begin with Mr. Rochester (I love you better now… than I did in your state of proud independence when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector), I am forced to acknowledge that “in the tranquility she imparted there was an alloy of inexpressible sadness”.