“Strange things”

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1818) attributed to George Cruikshank (British Museum)

Presentments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are signs: and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key. — Jane Eyre, II/6

The climax to Jane Eyre, as most readers know, comes with the narrator hearing Rochester’s voice calling “Jane! Jane! Jane!” though he is many miles distant, and he in turn hears her answering, “I am coming: wait for me.” And Charlotte Brontë has, if we are aware of it, given us plenty of hints that “strange things” are part and parcel of the novel, as this example from the second volume shows.

Presentments, sympathies, signs — what are we to make of these? Luckily Jane characterises them thus:

  • Presentiments are when impressions are anticipated in the form of a dream.
  • Sympathies can exist “between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives.”
  • Signs, “for aught we know,” she writes, “may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.”

She has dreams about one child or another, which she recognises as symbolic; the sympathetic bond she has with Rochester — expressed as a cord joining their bodies — finds its fullest expression in their telepathic communication; and the chestnut tree riven by lightning (though surviving) is Nature’s sign of their imminent but temporary separation. Magic and the supernatural thoroughly suffuses the pages of this classic.

As a novel Jane Eyre is full of balances and correspondences, as I’ve alluded to in an earlier post, another such one being orphan Jane’s religious education by Helen Burns in Lowood Asylum — as occurs early on — being matched by Jane’s cousin St John’s evangelical zeal towards the end. Indeed, as we may expect from a perpetual curate’s daughter, the pages are increasingly peppered with biblical phrases and references.

But running parallel with plentiful Christian images we have a contrasting concentration on the supernatural, almost pagan, world or plane, and especially on Faërie and fairytales, notably in the central Thornfield section. As always with these discussion posts there will be spoilers galore, so desist from further perusal if you’d rather not have revelations!

First, I want to draw attention to a curious parallel between the second Mrs Rochester and the first, with an episode from Jane’s childhood at Gateshead — the altercation with her male cousin John — to compare with a particular incident involving Bertha Mason and her brother Richard.

When Jane responded angrily to John Reed throwing a book at her, she was locked in the Red Room at her aunt’s house, a chamber which was supposed to be haunted by a ghost; Jane screamed, then had a fit; Bessie, a kind Gateshead servant, is appointed her gaoler.

Years later, Bertha Mason is the so-called ‘madwoman in the attic’ at Thornfield (in reality an inner room on the third floor); here she is guarded by Grace Poole; vampire-like, she attacks her brother in a near frenzy, her various other escapes from captivity often marked by a distinctive laugh, a “goblin ha! ha!”

‘She bit me,’ he murmured. ‘She worried me like a tigress […] She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart,’ said Mason.

Later, Jane wakes to see a mystery woman (Bertha of course) in her bedroom, whose face reminds the governess of ‘the foul German spectre — the Vampyre.’

  • Jane attacks cousin John Reed
  • Bertha attacks brother Richard Mason
  • Jane locked in Red Room, Gateshead
  • Bertha locked in on third floor, Thornfield
  • Jane imagines she sees a ghost
  • Jane thinks Bertha is a spectre, the Vampyre
  • Jane screams before having fit
  • Bertha laughs maniacally
  • Bessie monitors Jane
  • Grace Poole guards Bertha

Next, something that surprised me about Charlotte’s next novel, Shirley, was the frequent reference to faërie, and though I wasn’t expecting it here as well, in retrospective it completely makes sense. Principally it manifests in the way Jane and Rochester describe each other.

I lost count of how often — from the very start — Rochester refers to Jane as a fairy or elf: he suggests she is one of the men in green though she herself insists that “The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago.” After the fire in his bed is put out he declares his belief in “natural sympathies” between him and Jane, that she is one of the “good genii”, and that there are “grains of truth in the wildest fable.”

And so it continues. When Rochester proposes to her she considers that “such a lot befalling me is a fairy tale — a day-dream.” In fancy wedding clothes she thinks she would be “an ape in a harlequin’s jacket, — a jay in borrowed plumes”; he teasingly calls her a provoking puppet, malicious elf, sprite, changeling and so on. When she waits impatiently for him in the rain he describes her as “dripping like a mermaid.”

George Cruikshank, illustrator: ‘The Wonderful Story of Blue Beard, and his last Wife” (1832)

What fairytales is Charlotte referencing, though not by name? The rags-to-riches theme alluded to above suggests a Cinderella narrative for Jane, does it not? Meanwhile we have a hint of another tale type when Jane asks Rochester to ‘gratify my curiosity’: disturbed, he hastily says, ‘Curiosity is a dangerous petitioner.’ Coupled with Rochester’s secret — his first wife locked away in an upstairs room, behind a concealing tapestry– are we not reminded of the Bluebeard story?

When she declines dining with him he complains, ‘Do you suppose I eat like an ogre, or a ghoul, that you dread being the companion of my repast?’ This is one of several clues that we also have a Beauty and the Beast strand. It’s prefigured when he is frequently described as “ugly’ and yet Jane increasingly finds things to admire in his looks. Then, when she says she has to go off an see her dying aunt, Rochester beseeches her not to be long absent from him — ‘Promise me only to stay one week’ — just like the Beast does to Beauty.

This absence motif comes closest to the fairytale narrative towards the end of the novel when Jane, having long before left Thornfield following the revelation of Rochester’s first marriage, is about to agree to marry St John. It is then that she hears his voice from afar, in just such a way as Beauty has a presentiment about Beast pining away and close to death. Like Beast, he is in a bad way, injured, blind, and close to despair.

Here to conclude is a final example of the novel’s affinities with fairytale: after charades at Thornfield with Rochester’s snooty guests, Jane is summoned to have her fortune read by some old crone who has apparently pitched up at the house. There follows, as commentators note, a question-and-answer sequence that mimics ritualised fairytale conversations, such as that which Red Riding Hood has with the Wolf in disguise:

Why don’t you tremble?
— I’m not cold.
Why don’t you turn pale?
— I am not sick.
Why don’t you consult my art?
— I’m not silly.

The gipsy is of course Rochester in drag, but unlike Red Riding Hood Jane is more than a match for the wolf in witch’s clothing. Hard then to resist the sense that Jane and Edward Rochester are themselves in a fairytale of a particularly convoluted literary type.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. Penguin Classics 1996.

  • Michael Mason’s informative and wide-ranging introduction and notes, though not alluding directly to fairytales, has discussion on the seeming paradoxes of the supernatural incidents. He does however quote Chesterton’s judgement that the novel is about “the dangerous life of a good person,” as good a summary of many fairytale plots as any.

Anne Wilson, The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance. Manchester University Press 1988.

  • Within Brontë’s novel Anne Wilson regards “the magical plot I discern as the main narrative, the realistic treatment being dependent on it and not forming a complete narrative.” I hope to enlarge on the magical plot structure of Jane Eyre in a future post, using Wilson’s comments as a guide.

9 thoughts on ““Strange things”

  1. Fascinating! I’ve always seen the Beauty and the Beast comparison and to some degree Cinderella, but not in this level of depth, and the rest passed me by completely, I fear. That re-read needs to get prioritised…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, FF, I so enjoyed putting this together, and finding those near contemporary illustrations which CB may have been familiar with. Spotting the fairytale elements in Shirley (the ‘men in green’ there including Robin Hood’s merrie men) had already alerted me — I’d not been aware of them in The Professor but am now looking forward to the Brontë juvenilia where the siblings’ imaginations were given full rein.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow Chris. I see all that you point to. I believe the reason why many dislike this book could be that they approach it not knowing all the fairy tale arquetypes that frame it or operate at the background. Many can’t stomach the hyperbolic nature of her writing, while for others, we consider it her genius.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad we’re of one mind here, Silvia! Yet, if readers rate her as hyperbolic then I wonder how much 19th-century literature they’ve read. Passionate, yes, colourful, true, but intelligent and witty too. I do know that the rags-to-riches trope is a staple of romcoms and so many lesser writers, but as I said in an earlier post Jane has agency in an age when young women with no independent means were seen as somehow below consideration, and that for me is what takes it beyond cliché. I definitely see why this is regarded in such high esteem.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s CB’s art, to make a complex and deep narrative superficially appear simplex, a mere case of girl-meets-boy, boy-loses-girl, then happy-ever-after. But the Gothick and Faërie elements take the tale out of the ordinary, don’t they, while imparting the chill and the strangeness.


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