Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

Rebecca Brown: “String”

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is—I repeat it—a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

~~ Charlotte Brontë, Preface to the Second Edition, 1847

I’d managed to avoid this novel until now; all I knew was that it involved a Mr. Rochester and a madwoman in the attic, and that Wide Sargasso Sea was intended as a feminist prequel to change the perception of that madwoman. I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly pleased to see it on the syllabus for this upcoming Fiction of Relationship class. On reading it, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, the language is a bit much, particularly the “Dear Reader” addresses, and some of the story is absurd to modern sensibilities; still, I was drawn into things. The suspense, the drive of “what happens next,” of “I know she’s going to get out of this, but how?” often spurred me into reading a chapter or two more than I’d planned at a given time. That’s a very good sign. When I watched the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie on YouTube, I was disappointed at all that had been left out. The long speeches – “talking heads,” they’d call them now in writing workshops that worship clean prose and action – are essential to the overall work. (On a side note, one Eyre enthusiast – from Chile, no less – has gathered the proposal scene from four different movie versions onto one page.)

I found much of it psychologically astute; interesting, given that psychology as any kind of discipline didn’t exist in the mid-19th century. I felt a genuine connection between Jane and me. I confess that I once told someone it was as if we were connected by a rubber band, and when he moved away from me, the elastic snapped painfully back against me. Ok, I was young (well, not that young, but young enough), but I was surprised to see the “string” image used here, and by Rochester, of all people – who does not have the excuse of youth. Maybe I wasn’t quite the sap I thought I was.

Jane’s period of unrequited longing for Mr. Rochester – her pain at watching him court Blanche Ingram, her torment as she tries defeat her heart with her head – was pitch perfect; those who think it maudlin have never been in that space, caught between hope and despair by an emotional longing beyond control, and considering Jane has substantial emotional control, that’s saying a lot. Then I cheered for her as first Rochester, then St. John, tried to bully her into a relationship on their terms, terms she found disagreeable – as Rochester’s mistress after the revelation of the presence of his wife, and as St. John’s wife in a marriage devoid of love or passion, undertaken for the sake of appearances and utility. They argued very effectively to get their respective ways – diametrically opposite ways, as they represent opposite forces – and though she wavered, she didn’t fold.

I very much enjoyed the way religion was incorporated. The pacing also struck me: the eight “happy” years at Lowood, after the reforms but before Miss Temple married and left, were omitted. That’s the longest stretch of time in the novel, in fact, but it’s unnecessary. I’m reminded of Steve Almond’s admonition, “Slow down where it hurts.” My sense of Jane’s return to the charred ruins of Thornfield is that far more than a year has passed, but in fact, that’s the amount of time involved – chronological time, at least, since much has happened in that time, and it is like a different century.

One largely irrelevant note for documentation’s sake: because I’ve been having some trouble with eyestrain lately, I “read” this (as I did “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby”) by listening to the Librivox dramatic reading, marking up a download of the Gutenberg online version as necessary. I was surprised at how well it worked, and in some cases, I learned a few things (like the pronunciation of “St. John” as “Sinjin” for instance). I think it increase my enjoyment greatly; the readers, particularly Jane/the narrator, were excellent.

But the only way to really understand Jane Eyre is to realize that the episode in the red room – a visit from phantoms and fairies and imps, sound in the ears, rushing of wings, eventuating into a scream that comes from her without her knowing it, but then goes “quite through” all those around her – sets the stage for the entire novel, gets replayed throughout Jane’s life, is ultimately the scream that goes through the house.

~~ Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House (Random House, 2003)

In my search for auxiliary materials for the work, I happened across A Scream Goes Through the House by Arnold Weinstein, who will be teaching the course I’m reading for. I would imagine his older work, titled The Fiction of Relationship, would be more specific (and seems to cover most of the readings in the course), and I’ve requested it, but it may take a while, whereas I have Scream in my hand, at least for six weeks thanks to my local public library. I also have Maggie Berg’s Jane Eyre: A Student’s Companion to the Novel from Twayne’s Masterwork Studies.

Both (though I’ll rely more on Weinstein here) provide support for the apparently-now-taken-for-granted interpretation that Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, is a double for Jane: the passionate, wild, “libidinous” and creative side that must, in Victorian times, be kept locked up at all times.

Much to ponder here: for more than a century, it never occurred, even to the boldest critics, that the “mad, bad, and imprinted” Bertha could be understood as Jane’s “other”… The animal is nothing less than libido itself, i.e., the energy system that drives bodies, a view that Victorian thinking proscribes with all its might.
We will never know how much of all this Brontë intended – it is the first question my students ask when I suggest this libidinal interpretation of a book many of them have red in much more innocent fashion – and my only answer is: can we know what any author intends? What we ourselves intend? Novels are not subject to prove or disprove, like evidence in a courtroom… I’d say that some overdue nineteenth-century bills are being paid in this text. What other kind of map could possibly show us these things? I can think of few literary examples that display more perfectly why art matters, what it is good for, what it enables us to see and hear.

~~ Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House

This fits in with other characters as well. Helen Burns, for example: she doesn’t burn at all, she dies, void of anything resembling passion for anything but God. St. John, who likewise burns with ambition, but the ambition of the do-gooder; not the worst kind of ambition to have, but doing good needs to extend to one’s partner as well, and that’s where he fails. Addendum: I’m just now, nearly a week after writing this, filling in this doubling, seeing St. John as the adult version of Helen: passionless, good, focused on heaven. While Helen was a great model for Jane as a new student at Lowood, St. John is not what she wants as an adult, now that she’s known passion, i.e, Mr. Rochester. She reacts to them differently – both help her, but she ultimately rejects the path they offer.

I still don’t quite understand the logic of Bertha’s madness, or why Rochester felt justified in hating her. He was tricked into marrying her, she wasn’t well, but still, the venom heaped upon her, and the sympathy and, later, forgiveness heaped upon him, seems out of proportion. But then, I’m talking from a time and place where arranged marriages are uncommon (or at least less sneaky), where madness is (usually) seen as illness, where divorce is easy to arrange.

I notice that yet again, as in Melville’s “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno,” the use of doubles in literary symbolism. I wonder if this a nineteenth-century thing, a shared theme of the works selected for this class, or if it’s a nearly universal literary technique and I’ve just been missing the point in everything I’ve read.

In any event, I’m surprised how much I enjoyed the book. Now that I’ve got Jane Eyre under my belt, I may have to read Wuthering Heights and find out what all the fuss is about Heathcliff.

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