I knew that I should have demurred when a member of my book group suggested that we read Jane Eyre. Or I should have skipped the meeting at which our discussion took place. Although some in our number were encountering Charlotte Brontë’s classic tale for the first time, its characters have walked with me for much of my life. I knew, or at least suspected, that I wasn’t ready to distance myself from them. I wasn’t ready to assign words to my passion for a coming-of-age story so rooted in my own journey through the world.
Up to this point, I never had read Jane Eyre as an assignment. The book was an experience of pure pleasure. Pure escape. When I began reading it for book group, questions distracted me from my normally single-minded pursuit of Jane’s adventures. What would we talk about at our meeting? What plot elements or themes should I bring to the attention of my fellow readers?
The evening of the discussion, the grinding music of the café where we met accosted me when I walked through the door. The volume was just right for a girls’ night out—but all wrong for the flowering fields of Thornfield Hall. I didn’t want to have to shout my tender feelings for Brontë’s creation.
And then it got worse. I was nearly speechless, as I had suspected I would be. Clutching my well-worn copy of the book, I listened, with growing dismay, to the comments flying around the table:
“Bertha Mason may or
may not exist. She represents Jane Eyre—the passionate side that Jane has
“Jane should have
started a teaching co-op with her two cousins instead of getting married!”
And, most crushing of all:
“I just couldn’t root
for Mr. Rochester.”
Comprised of bright and lively women, my book group nearly always leads me to a better understanding of the novels we read. This time, however, my well-meaning friends threatened to destroy a cherished icon. As the novel was deconstructed before my eyes, I wanted to scream, “No! No! No! Please don’t take Jane Eyre from me!”
Jane Eyre goes by many names in the literary world. It has elements of the Gothic novel. It contains features of the Bildungsroman. But it is, at heart, a romance. Girl meets boy. Girl falls for boy. Girl almost loses boy. Girl—at long last—gets boy. A mistrust of the genre of romance, I believe, partly accounts for my friends’ desire to rewrite significant portions of Jane Eyre. We do not often read romance novels—of any era—in our group. We want a challenge, not a set of conventions. We want a satisfying ending, but not necessarily a happy one. We want, if I can use a romantic term in an argument against romance, to be wooed—not by rules that are time-honored and trite, but by a great piece of literature.
My own courtship with Brontë’s book began some thirty years ago. As with many romances, the course of true love did not run smooth. When I first began reading Jane Eyre, I didn’t much like it. The novel’s first section, in which the young Jane suffers at her aunt’s house and attends a charitable institution, seemed tedious. It contains enough angst to satisfy any reader poised for a journey through adolescence. As I discovered, it contains some serious gaps as well.
Narrated by the title character, Jane Eyre tells the story of a girl who overcomes her rootlessness to find a place in the world. Orphaned as an infant, she is taken in by a cruel aunt, educated at a harsh boarding school, teaches at the school herself, and then takes a post as governess at Thornfield Hall. The book originally was published in 1847 with the subtitle “An Autobiography,” which seems misleading given the fact that it narrates only the first nineteen years of Jane’s life. Of these nineteen years, eight are elided. After Jane gets settled at Lowood Institution when she is ten years old, we do not hear from her again until she is eighteen and a teacher at the school. Other than obtaining a well-rounded education, what did Jane experience during the years in which she became a woman? I myself stood at the threshold to womanhood when I first met Jane, and I believe this explains my initial dissatisfaction with her story. Without being able to pinpoint the cause of my frustration, I felt the adolescent Jane’s absence. I missed her. Tired of reading about a ten-year-old who seemed to be going nowhere, I put the book down. My romance with Jane Eyre nearly ended before it began.
When I took up Brontë’s creation again, some months later, the older Jane came to my rescue. This time, I made it to Part Two, in which Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall. Her adventure began in earnest for me here, and I irrevocably was drawn in by the novel’s combination of mystery and love story. The two genres develop hand in hand: as Jane falls in love with the master of Thornfield, Edward Fairfax Rochester, she becomes aware of a harmful and shadowy presence at the hall. The mystery is solved—to Jane’s detriment—at the moment her love reaches full flower. How appropriate, how chilling, a story arc to a young reader for whom all romantic love was a mystery! Plot holes and other weaknesses in the novel no longer registered with me. As I agonized with Jane, I wondered if passion ever would grip me as thoroughly as it had this otherwise levelheaded heroine.
After a slow beginning, Jane redeemed herself to me—in more ways than one. She offered not only the promise of passion, but also a glimmer of light for the darker moments in the journey of life. Things do not begin well for Jane. But as her story progresses, she exchanges solitude for belonging, loss for gain, despair for hope. She makes every good thing—or at least a good ending—seem possible. I did not yet know the term “catharsis,” but that is certainly what I felt as the darker threads of the book’s tapestry gave way to a lighter weave.
Parts of my journey, I discovered, mirrored Jane’s own. Like Brontë’s heroine, I waited for passion, and I eventually found it. My real-life romance has a good ending. Yet part of me misses the agonizing. Or at least the wondering, the expectation, the mystery of a journey not yet begun. Jane Eyre represents a time when my choices—however good these choices turned out to be—had not closed off other possibilities in life and love. When I read Brontë’s novel, even when I catch a glimpse of it on my bookshelf, I believe that all things are yet possible.
I sometimes wonder how my reaction to Jane Eyre might have differed had I come to it later in my life. Would I have been as willing blithely to follow Jane through hills and plot holes to the end of her journey? I rather doubt it. Discovering Jane at the right moment might make the difference between an admirer—or perhaps a detractor—of Brontë’s book and a die-hard fan.
It also matters where one meets Jane, even where one discusses her. In a coffeehouse playing music loud enough to wake the dead? This is probably not the best setting in which to explore the refined mind of an English governess. In school? It probably depends upon the teacher. I first read Jane Eyre in blissful solitude. I put down, took up, and fell in love with the book in the confines of my childhood bedroom. It is my JFK moment—a defining life event forever linked to a particular set of surroundings. I can still see the room in which I encountered Jane’s story—pale green walls, matching green shelves holding my collection of model horses, and the dark green binding of the book, which was given to me by my grandparents. Jane had her red-room. My room is green. Neither of us can forget the spaces and colors associated with our childhood.
Jane’s red-room, of course, recalls terror and shame. It is the room in which her uncle died, the room in which her cruel aunt unjustly locked her. My green-room, by contrast, evokes shelter. The color of new life, it is the place to which I retreat when I want to reenter the cocoon of youth. In my green-room, my responsibilities are few and my possibilities endless. I have parents to take care of me instead of being the parent myself. My road stretches before me. There is time, all the time in the world: to read, to dream, to imagine, with the heroine of my favorite book, what my life will be. It is a romantic, not to say romanticized, vision of my childhood. But I find life’s journey more bearable with nostalgia as a traveling companion.
And what of romance in the traditional sense? What of the figure I have skirted around but not directly addressed? What, dear reader, of Mr. Rochester? There would be no girl-meets-boy without his formidable and somewhat fearsome figure. There would be no passion, no agonizing, and no good ending. As I discovered the night of my book group meeting, my fellow readers would have few objections to these absences. Most of them seemed quite willing to send Jane’s hero galloping off the page on his black steed, Mesrour, never to return.
Every reader who gathered for our discussion was married. Did we not, then, believe in love? Did we not want Jane to have what we had found? We did. But we also—and here I speak not only for my book group but also for several generations of readers conditioned by progressive notions of fulfillment—wanted Jane to have it all: a career, certainly, and perhaps true love and a couple of kids if she could manage it while running her teaching co-op.
We did not, in other words, blindly accept the idea that every heroine must have a hero. Yet Mr. Rochester is my blind spot. I could no sooner send him galloping away than I could time travel to nineteenth-century England. I believe that I blushed when we began speaking of Rochester, and then I reeled from surprise to find that I carried my torch for him alone. As I listened to my friends, I discovered that they did not object to the idea of a hero for Jane as much as to the particular hero that Brontë provided for her. They did not like Mr. Rochester. I hated to admit that their criticism made sense. As the evening progressed, I began to feel like a bride who realizes, after the wedding, that her husband has some faults she had overlooked before. Could it be that Rochester is not all I thought him to be?
That Mr. Rochester loves Jane seems certain. He sees her worth when few others do, and this does much to endear him to me. Yet, as my friends led me to realize, his affection takes disturbing forms. He makes Jane believe that he is in love with the accomplished Blanche Ingram. He masquerades as an old gypsy woman in order to make Jane confess her feelings for him. And, of course, he never tells her about the present Mrs. Rochester, alive and well (or not so well) and incarcerated in the attic. Mr. Rochester, in other words, not only teases Jane. He toys with her for much of the novel. I began to see plot elements that previously had seemed suspenseful in a more sinister light.
Rochester manipulates Jane partly in order to draw her out, but he also does it because he can. He remains, irrevocably, her master. Jane herself speaks of her love in these terms. Rochester, she confesses, exerts an influence that “quite mastered me—that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his” (620).* She “sirs” and “Mr. Rochesters” him to the point that I sometimes forget his given name. And then I reify the master-servant nature of their relationship by calling him “Mr. Rochester” myself. I would like to rescue Jane from this situation—not from Rochester, but from the servitude that follows her into his arms—but I do not know how. I wondered, briefly, if I could do so by seeing their master-servant relationship as a metaphor. Brontë is not the only person to characterize love as a kind of enslavement. We use clichés to this effect every day. You hold the key to my happiness. You have captured my heart. Perhaps the novel can be read as a meditation on the all-powerful bonds of love.
Perhaps. Yet pesky plot details make this metaphorical reading difficult to sustain. At the end of the book, Jane finally breaks free of her (literal) bondage. Taking the name of Mrs. Rochester, she is no longer her master’s dependent. Yet, as the astute readers in my book group gleefully pointed out, Jane triumphs because the characters’ worlds have been turned upside down. Jane has gained a family and a hefty fortune, while Rochester has been injured in a fire that destroyed Thornfield Hall and killed the first Mrs. Rochester. In other words, Jane claims her man only when she acquires a fortune and he is disfigured; when she has gained and he has lost. She can only have him when he needs her to take care of him and they have retreated from society to a reclusive manor.
My friends’ opinions receive backing in the form of Wide Sargasso Sea, a 1966 novel by Jean Rhys that purports to be a prequel to Jane Eyre. In fact, Rhys’s novel can be read as a sustained critique of Rochester and his world. It tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette Cosway (whom Rochester later renames Bertha), including Cosway’s marriage to Rochester and her relocation from the Caribbean to Thornfield Hall. I learned of Rhys’s novel, and the post-colonial subtext of Jane Eyre, during the meeting of my book group. I previously had not given Bertha much thought other than to wish that she would get out of the way of the rightful Mrs. Rochester! Now, I considered the fact that Bertha, known to most readers as “the madwoman in the attic,” might have been mentally damaged through the psychological abuse of Rochester—or that she might be perfectly sane, her grotesque features and unruly sexuality merely the projections of the imperialist minds that imprison her.
After being assured that Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of literature and not a piece of fan fiction, I acquiesced when our group decided to read the book. I missed the discussion, and so I will confess here that I did not enjoy Rhys’s novel. I found its style opaque and the plot difficult to follow. Fortunately, the book’s minimalist style is so removed from the confessional tone of Jane Eyre that I had a hard time connecting the original to its “prequel.” I could almost pretend that the colonial Mr. Rochester did not exist.
I do not have to work very hard to pretend. Introduced to me at an impressionable age, Mr. Rochester will always be my knight in shining armor. I find in him a truly heroic figure, one whose dark moods match my own; who sees gold glittering beneath the plainest of surfaces; who knows how to announce his love—beneath a towering thorn tree, with a storm brewing, using words to rend the heart:
[I]t is as if I had a
string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a
similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And
if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come broad
between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped, and then I’ve a
nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. (677)
Whatever his faults, Rochester speaks words that, in one form or another, each of us surely longs to hear. They are words that define the most elemental connection between two human beings. When he addresses Jane, Rochester appeals to her first as a friend. In an earlier scene in the novel, Jane herself tells Rochester that in him, she has found her home. Rochester is her place of belonging. He is her green-room.
I am not immune to less elevated feelings toward the master of Thornfield Hall. I confess to a girlish infatuation that I doubt I ever completely can repress. Mr. Rochester stands before me, broad and brooding, sometimes brutish. He represents the passion I want in my life, and he speaks—I admit it—to my desire to be rescued, to be lifted, in one magical moment, from the poverty and obscurity of my own existence. Unlike the thorn tree, which ominously splits into two in the storm following the lovers’ meeting, Mr. Rochester is strong enough to do this lifting.
Yet, strangely enough, it is Jane herself who gives me strength. Even when she is swept off her feet, she remains rooted to the earth. The love scene beneath the thorn tree is stirring. Yet I always have been haunted by the more poignant moment of the lovers’ parting. Once Jane discovers the existence of Bertha Rochester, she cannot stay at Thornfield, despite Mr. Rochester’s pleas and the urgings of her own heart. She cannot go against her convictions. Jane flees in the early hours of the morning, taking next to nothing with her (although I always have thought that she should have taken a few of the jewels with which Mr. Rochester sprinkled her before their aborted marriage). I am not the only reader for whom this scene resonates. In his 2011 film adaptation of Brontë’s novel, Cary Fukunaga begins in medias res: he opens with Jane’s dramatic and wordless flight from Thornfield. Other scenes in the film become precursors to or results of this decisive moment.
Even the members of my book group who found Jane lacking admitted that her departure defines her character. In our meeting, we discussed the scene in which, after the abbreviated wedding ceremony, Jane retreats to her room, takes off her finery and muses:
And now I thought: till
now I had only heard, seen, moved—followed up and down where I was led or
dragged—watched event rushed on event, disclosure open beyond disclosure: but now,
I thought. (emphasis in the original, 705)
Although Jane ostensibly is thinking about the events of the morning—her failed wedding and Mr. Rochester’s confession of his existing wife—my friends made the case that Jane thinks, really thinks, for the first time in her life. And this leads to her resolve to depart.
What does it mean that the most memorable scene in a romantic novel is the one in which the lovers part? It means that progressive readers can rest easy. Jane Eyre is not a typical romance. Jane herself is not a naïf, young and impressionable though she may be. In her moment of crisis, we see what Brontë’s heroine is made of. She may have next to nothing; what she does have is integrity. She knows what belongs to her, and she leaves with it.
At times, I still yearn for Mr. Rochester to save me. But he invariably fails to come galloping into the landscape of my life. Jane, by contrast, is always there. Her rootedness and resolve have come to my rescue more than once. The spring before I took my PhD exams, I summoned Jane to my side. As I took a break from my studies and delved into the world of Thornfield, Jane’s journey—her setbacks, steadfastness, and eventual triumph—reminded me that I could overcome the hurdles in my life. And it provided much-needed distraction as I prepared to jump the hurdle fast approaching. Jane kept me sane.
A few years later, during an even more critical time in my life, Jane stood by me again. I recalled the decisive moment in her own life—her decision to leave Thornfield Hall—when I needed to extricate myself from a cherished but ultimately untenable situation. Leaving is never, or rarely, easy. In my difficulty, Jane gave me strength. I thought about her options—to stay at her own peril or to leave with nothing but her integrity—and I imagined them to be my own. I played a bit of a role, and in so doing, I did the right thing. I came to realize that I, too, possess a certain strength.
Perhaps, then, Jane Eyre is a romance with myself—the better part of myself, in which I always know what to do, and I do it unhesitatingly. I know what belongs to me, and I leave with it.
It is no wonder that the mere mention, and sometimes just the sight, of Brontë’s dark green book can send me to my pale green room. I go there not only to protect my fondness for Jane Eyre, but also to find my faith in myself. I nurture the possibility that I can have it all—not a career, a husband, and a couple of kids (I only have two of these three things, anyway). I want to have it all in the Janian sense—to be romanced yet rooted to the earth, to be swept off my feet yet secure in the person I have become.
My complicated relationship with Jane—and her equally complex ties to the hero of Thornfield Hall—explains the dismay I felt during the meeting of my book group. The Jane that surfaced that evening—the one who never can be Rochester’s equal and who should have run off with her female cousins—this Jane may be savvy and sexy, a heroine for whom modern readers can root. She is not my Jane, however. She is not the character that tells me I can have it all, the one that whispers in my ear that everything is possible.
Yet I cannot fault my friends for their iconoclasm. They could not know that, as I sat dumbly clutching my large volume, I was not green with envy from the astuteness of their analysis, but washed in the pale hue of remembered bedroom walls. They did not know that the sad state of affairs at our meeting was really an affair of the heart. It is my Eyre affair.
The next time around, I will be better prepared. I will warn fellow book-lovers not to worry if, at the mention of Jane Eyre, I become suddenly distant, perhaps mute. It is not, dear reader, because I am unfriendly or unintelligent. I am merely on my way to another world—verdant fields, a green room. I know what belongs to me, and I am leaving with it.
Lisa Deam is a writer and art historian who lives in Valparaiso, Indiana.
*All citations from: Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Orig. pub. 1847. Reprinted in The Brontë Sisters. London: Octopus Books Limited, 1982.