“It hath made me mad”

Here follow final thoughts on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, certainly for 2019, and definitely for now on this blog. At this point I just want to say a few words for the woman with no real voice in the novel, Bertha Mason, the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’.

Of course, she doesn’t really reside in the attic; moreover, we’re not told the exact nature of her madness — neither do we hear her speak (she only laughs or snarls) nor is there someone to speak for her. Jean Rhys in 1966 famously attempted to do so, in Wide Sargasso Sea, though she changed the timeline somewhat to suit the purposes of her fiction. But it can’t really be argued that Rhys’ protagonist is the same as Charlotte’s Mrs Rochester, nor that this ‘prequel’ is fully compatible with the Victorian original.

Meanwhile, Brontë certainly knew the tale of Bluebeard, for she has Jane picture Rochester’s wife confined to Thornfield Hall’s third storey, along somewhere which is “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle,” and — recalling the young Jane’s terror at being locked in the Red Room of Gateshead as a punishment — we can imagine how such imprisonment might impact on a particularly volatile individual such as Bertha Mason.

But the simile in the phrase “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle” quietly signposts the fact that this is not a simple retelling of the fairytale; and that, despite the literary echoes, this is a vastly more complex narrative that works on several level, perhaps like the different storeys of Thornfield Hall.

Can we find Bertha anywhere in this literary labyrinth?

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Eyres and places

Constantin Héger: a model for Edward Rochester? Image credit: https://alchetron.com/Constantin-H%C3%A9ger

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been the subject of much discussion and I won’t pretend that I’m going to add anything novel or groundbreaking to those conversations; all I can do is say what strikes me as interesting or enlightening, in the hope that you too may find it so — even if you disagree (in which case feel equally free to say so!).

In this rather long post I mainly want to talk about aspects of the novel’s central relationship, that between Jane and Rochester. I shall rely on points made by a study or two to structure my remarks but other observations will be largely mine. Are you ready? Then I shall begin!

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“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!

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Many a quaint craft

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school…

I’ve been in a typhoon in the South China Sea when returning to Hong Kong in a China Navigation vessel in the 1950s; and crossed the Bay of Biscay in a vomit-inducing gale on a so-called mini-cruise in October — to be sure, a notorious time of year for storms.

Contrast these violent passages with more forgettable ‘calm sea and prosperous’ voyages to Japan, the Philippines and Thailand in my pre-teens, or numerous uneventful cross-channel ferry journeys to France as an adult.

Sailings have featured in recent reads, and though I’ve disembarked from them I’m still aboard another; I’m hoping maybe you’ll be interested in hearing what was jotted down in the captain’s logs for these several sea passages.

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Jane’s relations

George Richmond’s initial portrait sketch of Charlotte Brontë

As promised, I’m continuing my appreciation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with further discussions, based on aspects of the novel I’ve not noted mentioned elsewhere or viewed quite as aslant. This post aims to examine Jane Eyre’s relations.

I use the term ‘relations’ in a couple of principal senses here: first, in terms of humans (Jane’s relatives, and her relationships with suitors) and, secondly, concerning how Jane appears to structure her narrative, that is, how in terms of patterns she relates her ‘autobiography’.

I’m certain I’m not the first to observe Charlotte’s creation as very like herself in terms of physicality, temperament, interests and even occupation: Jane, like Charlotte, is small and very much ‘a plain Jane’, holds strong opinions, reads similar books and is a sometime governess. What is strikingly different is that Jane is an orphan and an only child, whereas not only did Charlotte’s father outlive her but she herself had three surviving siblings when Jane Eyre was published.

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“An independent will”

Charlotte Brontë by her brother Branwell, restored detail

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason
Penguin Classics 1996 (1847)

Charlotte Brontë’s breakout novel, first published in three volumes, is now such a well-known classic, its story often summarised, discussed, filmed, retold, that any attempt I now make to précis it is, frankly, redundant. So I shan’t even attempt to do that; what I will do is draw out themes and ideas that have struck me on a first reading, and sincerely hope that I won’t be doing the author an injustice by in any way misrepresenting her.

I shall here pass over any deep psychological analysis of the author’s possible wish-fulfilment in outlining Jane’s supposed ‘autobiography’ (a subtitle proposed by the publishers, not by her), a narrative that borrows freely from people and places that she knew, and from many of her own personal experiences: that’s for specialists to wax lyrically on.

What I shall instead concentrate on in this review is not Jane as a feminist icon — because that’s also beyond my competency — but as an individual with agency, one who asserts her individuality even as she struggles with the love of her life:

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me! I am a free human being with an independent will…

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Thorny text

Though fans of the famed Currer Bell
Were abashed to be told, “He’s a gel,”
They got in such pickles
When she wed Arthur Nicholls:
“Bell, Nicholls, or Brontë? Pray tell!”

There are some books I read straight through, almost without taking breath. They mightn’t necessarily be light fodder but the forward impetus or sheer fluidity of the telling discourages me from anything but an immediate and fleeting reflection.

Then there are others which I cannot help but linger over, when I find myself figuratively reaching for the pause button. This is when I slip the bookmark into the pages, search for a pen, and begin annotating in an exercise book. A choice phrase copied, a tentative genealogy, a reminder of an incident in another piece of fiction, a recurrent theme, an inconsistency — all go into a notebook, one of a dozen or so now dating back fifty years, all now grist for a review, an online commentary, maybe a reassessment.

And so to Jane Eyre.

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