This is the twenty-second and last essay in Critical Mass's new Second Thoughts series, curated by Daniel Akst. Thanks to all who contributed.
Jane Eyre was the first “adult” novel I ever read. I was nine.
Of course, it wasn’t the 400-page Victorian original but the Reader’s Digest Condensed, circa 1974. This much-diminished Jane Eyre featured only the highlights, or what you might call Charlotte Brontë’s Twitter feed: child Jane, unjustly thrown into the haunted Red Room, sees the ghost of her uncle; Jane loses her best friend, the preternaturally good Helen Burns, to illness and mistreatment at the pestilential Lowood School for Orphans; Jane, governess to the “natural” daughter of a wealthy man, is romanced by her employer, the Master of Thornfield, and agrees to marry him only to discover that he already has a wife – a murderous lunatic kept locked in the attic!
The seven or so film adaptations of Jane Eyre (and countless silent, foreign, TV, radio, graphic, and erotic mash-ups) pretty much adhere to this heady plot, ignoring the novel’s sober, even feminist, content. And who can blame them? I, too, at nine, was overcome by the flirtation between Jane and Mr. Rochester – their cruel, witty, and very sexy power plays. It was like watching some 19th century Ben Affleck flirt with the nanny!
Fourth grade offered its own struggles for dominance. A new school (the third in three years); the realization that, despite my doting grandmother’s assurances, I was not a pretty girl; new digs in a suburban house rented with one of my mother’s art students and his wife – and hours spent alone, sans siblings, sans TV, and decades pre-VHS.
The house where my mother and I were living sat just past the college’s archery range (I learned not to walk behind the targets) in a development that was typical Florida: a sandy piece of land cleared of saw grass and palmetto and planted with jerry-built ranches. Behind every door, a young family. Needless to say, our little household didn’t fit the neighborhood mold. Our landlord, Mike, a Vietnam vet, wore his beard big and scraggly and worked nights as an orderly at the hospital. His wife went braless under silkscreened shifts and worked days at a surf shop. Evenings, they pruned the marijuana plants that grew along the chain link fence in our backyard.
All the kids in the neighborhood had been warned to stay away from me.
Bored out of my mind, I wandered the bleached streets of the subdivision as the sun beat down on corkboard houses, every one the bookend of its neighbor. I saw the red flag of the school bus – Stop –as a warning. At twilight, mosquitoes arrived in punctual swarms and I was driven to root through the Reader’s Digest Condensed books stacked like cordwood against the living room wall: East of Eden; Alone; St. Augustine’s Confessions. Out my bedroom’s solitary window, I peered into the window of a little girl who was allergic, I’d heard, to everything – strawberries, peanuts, chocolate, even sunlight. Her ghostly face, pressed against the screen, never smiled.
Having whet my appetite, I next read the unabridged Jane Eyre and discovered what Reader’s Digest and Hollywood ignored: the boring parts. Take, for instance, this scene — cut from every film version – when Rochester devises an elaborate ruse to make Jane jealous. First he imports genteel guests and the local beauty for a house party. Next, he disguises himself as a pipe-smoking Gypsy fortune teller in a poke bonnet, commands a private room, and asks to read the palm of Blanche Ingram, Rochester’s haughty “intended.” She soon stalks out in a huff, insulted by her suitor-in-disguise. And then the fortune teller calls for Jane.
“Why don’t you tremble?” the seer asks her.
“I’m not cold.”
“Why don’t you turn pale?”
“I’m not sick.”
“Why don’t you consult my art?”
“I’m not silly.”
But the old woman contradicts her:
“You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly.”
“Prove it,” I rejoined.
“I will…You are cold, because you are alone; no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings,…keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach…”
Their tête-à-tête ends as Jane notices that the old woman’s hands are supple and white. That ring – it is her Master’s! The parry and thrust of the pair’s intimacy – more verbal than physical – shifts again as Jane realizes that he has been telling her that she must ask for love – that it will not come unbidden. She may be, in her own words, “disconnected, poor, and plain,” and an “indigent and insignificant plebian,” and yet her rich employer needs her, his “little Friend.” My childish self was enraptured: would anyone ever recognize my own heartsickness, my fear?
Later, when Jane learns of Bertha Rochester’s existence, she takes to the roads in her grief and nearly starves. Two young ladies and their brother, the Reverend St. John Rivers, nurse her back to health and give her a job in the village school. The Rev. Rivers is cold as ice, and driven to serve the Lord by converting the heathen “Hindustani.” Will you come with me, Jane? he asks, commending her work ethic, her homeliness. He tells her: you are bred for a life of self-sacrifice and it would be senseless – nay, sinful! — to ask for more than that. But although St. John offers Jane what Rochester could not –respectability, a vocation — she begins to tremble.
Reading this again at 50, I wonder: how did I ever find the time to dawdle through scene after scene of this stuff, the heft of the book denting my stomach? I can almost smell the evenings of infinite heat and pressing boredom back in those pre-Title IX days. (Does anyone in this era of smartphones and hive mind experience such evenings anymore?)
Things are different now of course. Rereading Jane Eyre, I relax to the warp and woof of the novel’s tedium and excitement. The very act of reading a Victorian potboiler in this age of character-counting and news feeds seems to transmit some Victorian fiber, a corrective to the sugary buzz-feed of chick lit. Jane practically flaunts discipline, a strong sense of duty and an insistence on rationality in an irrational world. I should embroider this passage in bright silks as a sampler for my daughters:
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself… Laws and principles are not for the times when there is not temptation: they are for such moments… when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.
Rational, and yet irremediably emotional. If this were Pride & Prejudice, would Jane Eyre have accepted St. John’s offer? We all remember Charlotte, Elizabeth Bennett’s best friend, who marries a foolish blowhard to escape her mother’s house. Austen’s Jane might have packed her mosquito nets and spent the rest of her days avoiding her husband’s company (and bed). Ditto Emily Brontë’s Catherine — for isn’t this the “rational” decision she makes in marrying limpid Linton rather than hunky Heathcliff? But that’s Wuthering Heights. The wonder of Charlotte Brontë’s novel – and the root of its immortal appeal to readers – is that a loveless transaction is not good enough for unlovely Jane Eyre, for, as she puts it: “I need not sell my soul to buy bliss.” And when she hears, drowning out St. John’s (rhymes with whingin’) proposal, a supernatural cry: “Jane! Where are you, Jane?” It is Mr. Rochester’s voice, and passionately she answers, “I am here!”
Victorian-ridiculous, yes, that’s obvious at my age. But I can also see now that this scene serves as an emotional conversion. Having rejected Mr. Rochester’s offer to live in sin, Jane now realizes that she made the wrong decision when she ran away. Or rather, that in running away and beginning a new life, she has discovered what she values: her independence, the pleasures of the senses, love. The equality of mind and soul (“soul” is used frequently in the novel) that she and Rochester share is precious, not to be forgotten. She determines to return to Thornfield.
Reader, I married him. I realize now that this was my dream: to find someone who loved me despite all impediments. Lying on my mother’s bedroom rug, I gazed upward as she blocked the sunlight, craning for glimpses of her sloppy bottom, heavy breasts, vigorous shoulders, and the arrowhead scar beneath her lips. I was willing myself her opposite: small, awkward, demure – even the sound of these words pleased me. I would resist her irritable desire to dominate. She might wheedle and berate dry cleaners, mechanics, librarians – and later, truant officers, unemployment bureaucrats, credit union flunkies, social services supervisors — but I planned to slide beneath the hard white surface of respectability. Somehow, I would, like Jane Eyre, defy all expectations.
I read Jane Eyre at least eight more times before I left for college: in a teepee perched on wet grass, in Cherry Bounce (a dead bootlegger’s house named for his most popular concoction), in a former beauty parlor, in a tongue and groove house in Sunshine where we only lasted a week. In every rough room, I willed myself into a future where I would make my own decisions. I would be Jane, gimlet-eyed and “tenacious of life.”
Of course, even then I recognized that the novel is a fairy tale. Brontë practically invented the tropes — cackling madwoman, gothic pile, Byronic lord –that would later romanticize so many a tale of a young woman’s coming into consciousness (and love). That the woman’s journey is difficult is illustrated by the fates of its casualties: Helen Burns, Bertha Rochester, even my irascible mother. But plain Jane’s conviction is that she can be the mistress of her life. She returns to Thornfield and Mr. Rochester (blinded – some might say castrated — and widowed after a convenient fire) and claims him. Her triumphant I married him is the equivalent of I won!
Fairy tales can be ugly, too. The neighbors snitched on Mike and his marijuana plants. The red and whites showed up one afternoon when I was walking home from school and carted him away, sirens blaring. Mike’s wife, distraught, screamed at us to get out, and, just like that, my mother and I were on the road again.
But this time, I would bring Jane Eyre with me.