Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Brontë
First published: 1847

I first encountered Jane Eyre when I was thirteen years old. The story fascinated me so much that I stayed up late into the night to finish it, despite the dense language. In the following years, it and Shirley became my companions, not only because they are so richly written that they bear repeated readings, but also because they provided sympathy and understanding in dreary times. To address the question whether books can help people — they do. They taught me that others have been in similar situations (which is hard to realize; the tendency of misery is solipsist) and vicariously analyzed my difficulties (i.e. being an ugly duckling and feeling powerless to determine my life) while diverting my mind from them. In Jane Eyre I also found the heroine's refusal to succumb to self-pity, her emphasis on independent-mindedness and self-reliance, and her common sense, bracing to the spirits.

At any rate, Jane Eyre is an impressively good yarn. The curtain rises on Gateshead Manor, the seat of the rich Mrs. Reed, a widow with three spoiled children and an unwanted outsider of an orphaned niece. The scenes of Jane's childhood of which we read there are equally authentic and vivid. After clashing with her aunt, she is sent to Lowood School, where she is subjected to a Dickensian experience of poverty and illness and cruelty disguised as charity. There is even an improbably saintly girl: not Agnes or Dorrit, but Helen. It is peculiar what an appeal tales of ragged orphanhood have. It may be that, due to a deep and pervasive fear of being bereft of our parents, we find it comforting to read stories of orphans who can and do find their way in the world alone; or it may be that we find it comforting to contrast our lot to theirs, as it can be enjoyable to read about the Arctic in the middle of summer. Sadly, the bad school experience is no melodramatic fiction, but an episode out of Charlotte Brontë's life. At any rate, the school is reformed after an outbreak of typhus, and Jane stays on as a pupil and, eventually, a teacher, under the benevolent aegis of the superintendent, Miss Temple.

At last, however, Miss Temple marries. After she leaves, Jane finds that it would be intolerable to live out her life at the school, so she advertises in the newspaper for a position as a governess. (If she had read the other books written by the Brontë sisters, she would probably have hesitated to do so, as Agnes Grey and Shirley are thoroughly and convincingly discouraging on that score. But she had not read them.) Her optimism is justified as she receives a response from a Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield Manor, Yorkshire; Mrs. Fairfax and her pupil Adèle prove to be reasonably agreeable.

Jane describes them in an amusing but coolly matter-of-fact passage:
Mrs. Fairfax turned out to be what she appeared, a placid-tempered, kind-natured woman, of competent education and average intelligence. My pupil was a lively child, who had been spoilt and indulged, and therefore was sometimes wayward; but as she was committed entirely to my care, and no injudicious interference from any quarter ever thwarted my plans for her improvement, she soon forgot her little freaks, and became obedient and teachable.
Admittedly this sounds a trifle snobby and authoritarian, but it is doubtless a reflection of the times, when it was believed that human nature could and should be firmly shaped, like hair with curling-rags. But, in deed though not in word, she is really less inflexible. Still, she goes on to describe Adèle as being completely unremarkable, superficial but nice enough. Being French (Brontë has a very 19th-century weakness for assigning character on the basis of nationality), I suppose, Adèle "entertained for me a vivacious, though perhaps not very profound, affection; and by her simplicity, gay prattle, and efforts to please, inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other's society." Then Jane offers this general comment (which would, I suspect, be highly enjoyable if I were a teacher):
This, par parenthèse, will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion: but I am not writing to flatter paternal egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth.
Altogether Jane is reasonably content, though at times she does wonder if there is not more to life than this. Here comes the long soliloquy that so greatly interested Virginia Woolf:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. [Vide Thoreau's "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.]
(What Brontë describes here and later has perfectly resonated with me since Grade 10; I've wanted to do things and experience things, and go out and have adventures, but it has often been thwarted.) Anyway, then she turns specifically and rather daringly to the lot of women (and this particularly interested Virginia Woolf):
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: 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 constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
She then briefly defends bluestockings, and other women who do more than is commonly expected of their sex. Then comes the abrupt change of subject that unsettled Woolf so much; the following paragraph begins, "When thus alone, I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole's laugh [. . .]". I've never minded it, and I think it's perfectly normal to end a train of thought suddenly as reality intrudes. The point has been made, so why dilute it by protracting it?

Then comes an interlude: a walk to the village of Hay, on an afternoon in January, along a lane that was
noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. [Brontë's taste in nature appears to be a trifle funereal.] If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.
That, and the brief, picturesque time before sunset, is the calm before the storm. Then there appears on the small stage of Jane's world the chief actor, the stirringly dramatic character to outdo all the other stirringly dramatic characters in the cast.
A rude noise broke on these fine ripplings and whisperings, at once so far away and so clear [. . . .] as, in a picture, the solid mass of a crag, or the rough boles of a great oak, drawn in dark and strong on the foreground, efface the aërial distance of azure hill, sunny horizon, and blended clouds, where tint melts into tint.

The din was on the causeway: a horse was coming; the windings of the lane yet hid it, but it approached. I was just leaving the stile; yet, as the path was narrow, I sat still to let it go by. [. . .]

It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one mask of Bessie's [Mrs. Reed's servant, who was fond of telling ghost stories] Gytrash,—a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head: it passed me, however, quietly enough; not staying to look up, with strange pretercanine [a specimen of Brontë's broad vocabulary] eyes, in my face, as I half expected it would.
Then comes the horse, and its rider, who at once "broke the spell" as "nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone." This rider is Edward Fairfax Rochester, the lord of Thornfield Manor, and the hero of the story. What is refreshing about him, even if he is not precisely a realistic character, is that he is the antithesis of what I like to call the "palimpsest hero," the blank ideal who is mainly defined by the readers' projections of their own imperfectly matured conceptions. Even Jane Austen tends to present her heroes as slenderly articulated figures who possess a handful of fine traits that inspire respect and admiration, but whose personality is an unknown quantity beyond that. I don't know if there are any readers who are repelled by Mr. Rochester — certainly Jane Eyre faithfully points out his deficiencies, and at times it definitely seems he'd be difficult to live with — but he largely defies the appropriation of his self as the vague object of self-indulgent daydreams. He has an own life and aims and needs. Nor is he devoid of inwardly-directed sarcasm.

So the true story begins, with its conflict of sense and sensibility, religion and inclination, nurture and nature. I don't think, despite the aforementioned melodrama, that it is at all trashy, because there is so much truth to it, in feeling if not in the events. As far as the romance goes, of course I like that he and Jane are so much interested in and drawn to each other on the score of character and mind, not of appearances, and that they see each other for who they are pretty clearly. Their chemistry — the mingled attraction and friction between them — is also enjoyably changeful and diverse. Is that realistic? — I don't know.

As far as the social setting goes (to pick another aspect of the book quite at random), Brontë's highly coloured picture of the well-to-do circles is particularly unconvincing, which does not detract from its entertaining quality in the least. On the day when the ladies of the countryside society descend upon Thornfield, Jane writes that they emerge from their rooms, en route to dinner, "gaily and airily."
For a moment they stood grouped together at the other extremity of the gallery, conversing in a key of sweet subdued vivacity: they then descended the staircase almost as noiselessly as a bright mist rolls down a hill. Their collective appearance had left on my an impression of high-born elegance, such as I had never before received.
Blanche Ingram is a flamboyant specimen of the upper crust: superlatively lovely and accomplished and well-dressed, she speaks to her mother in French and generally puts on immense airs. A man-hunter, or rather title-hunter, she gives enthusiastic chase to Mr. Rochester; and, as he is not especially good-looking, but the possessor of a "taille d'athlète," she delivers herself of the following ode to male plainness:
Oh, I am so sick of the young men of the present day! [. . .] Poor, puny things not fit to stir a step beyond papa's park-gates: nor to go even so far without mama's permission and guardianship! [. . .] As if loveliness were not the special prerogative of woman—her legitimate appanage and heritage! I grant an ugly woman is a blot on the fair face of creation; but as to the gentlemen, let them be solicitous to possess only strength and valour: let their motto be:—Hunt, shoot, and fight: the rest is not worth a fillip. Such should be my device, were I a man.
(It reminds one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's words to Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice: "Upon my word, you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person.") It is also Blanche who addresses a servant in this magnificent apostrophe: "Cease that chatter, blockhead! and do my bidding."

In any case, to return to the novel's fine dramatic potential, there is a very good scene, which comes after that apostrophe, where a mysterious gypsy tells Jane Eyre her fortune in cryptic language that is simple to decipher once one has the key. In my favourite film adaptation*, which was released in 1983 and stars Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (who is quite aware of the novel's histrionic scope and who happily avoids the tendency to take it too seriously), it is really pulled off beautifully. The cockney accent and the croak are hilarious. In the book I also enjoy the way in which the gypsy demands that the ladies of the house go to see her one by one in the library; as the servant reports, "She says it's not her mission to appear before the 'vulgar herd' (them's her words)."
[*Despite the middling acting in the beginning.]

Unfortunately, no film does justice to the figure of St. John Rivers, the Greek statue come alive who devotes himself to a stern God, mind, body, and soul, and expects Jane to do likewise, later on in the book. The films also tend to misunderstand or even completely misportray Jane's reluctance to let Mr. Rochester lavish fine clothing, jewellery, etc., on her. The principal reason is, I think, that these fine feathers are entirely out of keeping with her looks and her personality, which are not at all stunning or showy; so she is uncomfortable in them and fears that he sees in her a person whom she is not. Secondly, she is too proud to wish to be deluged with presents which she has not earned, or to appear rich when she is in herself penniless; thirdly, given her past poverty, any splurge is a bit obscene. Lastly, I think that she is steeped in the more ascetic Protestant tradition in which the enjoyment of material things is an execrable manifestation of the Seven Deadlies (greed, gluttony, and pride — sloth if you count the invariable(?) idleness of the wealthy). It is this tradition that also leads Brontë to implicitly depict society as a manifestation of not only those sins but also of lust, envy, and wrath. At least she does so with a greater moderation and nuance than many other Christian writers a century afterward — or even now.

So, in the end, though the mushy portions of the dialogue still make me squirm, I firmly believe that the book has so much to offer besides the ripping quality of its yarn and smashing quality of its romance, that it is indubitably worthwhile to read it early and often. But, as in all things, what one gets out of it principally depends on one's experience and, ultimately, on one's self. Jane Austen cannot be forced upon people; she must be appreciated voluntarily. It is the same with Charlotte Brontë.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
New York: Pocket Books, 1958

Jane Eyre (Links to full texts at Project Gutenberg)
Charlotte Brontë: An Overview (Jane Eyre in the context of the times)
A Room of One's Own: Chapter Four (Virginia Woolf discusses Brontë)

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