Serendipitous Reading: how I learnt to love Jane Eyre

Lezley Saar: Madwoman in the Attic

Over at The Guardian, Jane Eyre is April’s Reading group book, so I decided to join in and read it again.

Readers, I admit: I didn’t always love Jane Eyre, the novel. I preferred the other famous Brontes: Emily Bronte’s frenzied Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte’s chilling g and sobering The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall. 

I did, however, love her ‘elemental characters’, as Virginia Woolf calls them: the eponymous heroine and her smouldering passion and rage beneath a thin veneer of calm and restraint; mercurial and devious Rochester and his poor, mad wife Bertha; the icy egotistical St John Rivers and his lovely sisters.

I absolutely loved all the Gothic elements, the symbolism (red/white, fire/ice, caged birds, the moon and the weather), all the melodrama of Jane’s coming-of-age journey and her moral struggle with Passion and Reason. Certainly, there was a lot to like about the novel.

Except the ending.

The moment Jane ‘hears’ Rochester’s desperate call across space and time and she runs back to him, I wanted to throw the book away. No, Jane! I screamed. I thought Charlotte Bronte a ‘traitor and a coward’, as her intrepid friend Mary Taylor called her after she had read her other novel Shirley. I wanted Jane to be like Mary, who had left England for New Zealand to run her own business there. I wanted Jane to ‘establish her own landmark’ as Charlotte believed her best friend had been intended to do. Instead, Jane returns to Rochester, who tells us in his soliloquy how he’s thoroughly ‘cleansed’ by the fire and how he has found God again and they go on to live happily ever after.

You see, I was the same age as Jane when I first read the novel – young, na├»ve and with little life experience under my belt – so it was easy to miss the key point of the novel.

Over the years, other books kept reminding me of Jane Eyre. There was the heartbreaking tale of Bertha Mason and her descent into madness in Wide Sargasso Sea. The red robes and the fate of women in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of it. Then there was Kai Miller’s poignant  The Last Warner Woman,  a novel about a Jamaican woman with a gift of ‘warning’, a prophetess, who goes to England to be married only to end up in an asylum.  And very recently, I was reminded of Lowood, the notorious school that Jane attends, in Louise O’Neill’s chilling YA dystopian novel Only Ever Yours.

Above all, it was Lyndall Gordon’s astonishing biography of Charlotte Bronte A Passionate Life that led me to understand why Bronte’s contemporaries considered it a dangerous book. Ten years before the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, with naivety of a star struck fan, had written to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, expressing her ambition ‘to be forever known’ as a poet. Southey’s reply was to a ‘flighty’ girl in a need of ‘a dose of cooling admonition’ that ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life’. Once a woman is occupied with her real duties, Southey advised, she would be ‘less eager for celebrity’.

I could only imagine Charlotte Bronte, like her heroine, pacing back and forth, anger bubbling under her skin. Her reply to Southey is seemingly complacent, but when she says that ‘in the evening, I confess, I do think…’, her anger is palpable and with it her resolution to write was getting stronger than ever.

So, Bronte could have sent Jane to New Zealand to run her own shop or to Madeira to continue her uncle’s business. But she knew that neither this nor the sexual innuendo that permeates the novel was what made her contemporaries squirm. It was Jane’s dauntless subversion of the patriarchal societal norms through her anger, her daring to call herself a man’s equal, and moreover, her sense of self and the ability to make her own choices that enraged Bronte’s critics. And I realised that Bronte (and Jane)  did this in four simple words.

‘Reader, I married him.’

Not ‘we got married’. Not ‘he bestowed the greatest honour by asking me to marry him’. No. Instead it is ‘I married him’. The ending, this particular ending, is entirely Jane’s choice. Miss Rigby called such daring ‘anti-Christian’ and ‘sinful’. It is the sin of pride that Miss Rigby claims is Jane Eyre’s worst sin because Jane is not satisfied with her lot and goes for more, goes for what she believes is truly hers.

Mrs Oliphant, Bronte’s admirer and a fellow Victorian writer, beautifully described the impact of Jane Eyre in 1855:

‘Ten years ago we professed and orthodox system of novel-making. Our lovers were humble and devoted…and that the only true love worth having was that reverent, knightly, chivalrous true-love which consecrated all womankind….when suddenly, without warning, …a dangerous little person…impetuous little spirit … dashed into our well-ordered world, broke its boundaries and defied its principles – and the most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre.’

And so Charlotte Bronte’s dream of being ‘forever known’ has not only come true but it keeps on going as each new generation of readers discovers her genius and keeps alive this ‘alarming revolution’ that is  Jane Eyre, the novel, and Jane Eyre, the heroine.

PS. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Tracy Chevalier picks Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall for WSJ’s Book Club. Time to read it again!

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