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?
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
“I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things, in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.”
So says Helen Burns in Chapter 6 of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Ten-year-old Jane has been admitted to Lowood School and has just seen Helen, three years her senior, severely chastised by Miss Scatcherd, a woman whom Jane sees as cruel and vindictive for picking on Helen.
Helen however sees herself as entirely in the wrong, listing what she counts as her own faults. In a later elaboration she describes how she daydreams, allowing her concentration to stray from the teacher’s words.
“Now, [my thoughts] continually rove away; when I should be listening to Miss Scatcherd, and collecting all she says with assiduity, often I lose the very sound of her voice; I fall into a sort of dream. Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house; — then, when it comes to my turn to reply, I have to be awakened; and having heard nothing of what was read for listening to the visionary brook, I have no answer ready.”
“Yet how well you replied this afternoon,” replies Jane, with some wonder. “It was mere chance,” returns Helen, “the subject on which we had been reading had interested me.”
This time the subject was a king who reigned nearly two centuries before Brontë lived:
“This afternoon, instead of dreaming of Deepden, I was wondering how a man who wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown.”
For a thirteen-year-old Helen is quite perspicacious. “If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the spirit of the age was tending!”
I have quoted all this because a lot of what Helen Burns says reminds me of myself both as a school student and latterly as an adult. I daydreamed during lessons and even lectures: a word, phrase or image would set my thoughts wandering freely down byways until brought back with a shock to the mainstream. Unless the subject interested me deeply and I could engage with what was being said — until the next moment when another idea caught my attention, distracting me from the main argument.
Like Helen — whom Jane witnessed being punished by having “sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with [a] bunch of twigs” which she herself had to fetch from a small inner room — I was beaten for inattention or, more frequently, not doing my homework, in the days when corporal punishment was permitted. I had the strap (several strips of leather sewn together) administered by Irish Christian Brothers or masters on the palms of my hand, up to six strokes in all on one occasion.* When I was twelve, going on thirteen I held the class record for straps in one year: thirty strokes, which I notched up on my wooden ruler.
Did it cure my inattention or laziness? No, it did not. Did Helen Burns learn to mend her ways? Hard to tell, given what was to come. But it made a great impression on young Jane, who had a natural rumbustiousness coupled with a towering moral indignation. Much of Jane’s appeal to readers must come from those sterling qualities, traits she shares with many a later young protagonist (such as Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite).
* Possibly false memory syndrome, now I think about it. I remember being strapped more than once on on each palm, but whether in all four or six strokes were given I can no longer swear to it. The practice of six strokes was not unusual.
I’ve been recently reading (and reading about) a number of novels which increasingly, it seemed to me, to share memes, themes and tropes, though I’m also sure that the authors didn’t set out to consciously borrow from each other, if even they were aware of those shared concepts.
The first thing that had struck me was that they all featured a Yorkshire mansion, whether or not it was explicitly stated that the setting was in one or other of the Ridings that the county was traditionally divided into (North, East and West). But pretty soon it was evident that these novels shared more than setting in common, and I have been mentioning some of these in various posts in the last month or so.
Which are these novels? In chronological order they are — with links to my reviews or discussions — as follows:
As we will see, while not all novels include all the themes that the final novel in my list displays, many of the elements recur time and again. Some themes are familiar from legends and fairytales, of course, while others reflect the kind of events and situations that recur throughout history, such as disastrous fires. As today sees the start of the Twitter event #WilloughbyReads it may be a good time to examine the elements that link The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to these other classics.
An intriguing photographic image, with Les Sœurs Brontë written on its reverse, was found earlier this decade in a private Scottish collection by Robert Haley from Lancashire while he was researching for a book on Victorian photography.
As Haley explains in detail on his Brontë Sisters website this monochrome picture of three young women, two of them facing a third who is looking directly at the camera — and at us — can tell us a lot about when and where it was taken, what processes the portrait went through and, most importantly, who these women really were.
Haley makes a convincing case that the woman with the very frank gaze (possibly because she’s short-sighted) is Charlotte Brontë and the other two her sisters, Emily and Anne. Equally, he argues — using visual evidence — that the woman in the middle with the Jenny Lind hat is Emily, and the figure with the aquiline nose Anne.
The collodion image is likely to have been copied from a daguerreotype taken between the death of their brother Branwell and that of Emily in, he calculates, late 1848, at a studio in York.
Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) is a curious uchronia or alternate history: though not officially part of the sequence that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it shares many of the features that distinguish the Wolves Chronicles, including themes, period and places.
In 1971 Joan published The Cuckoo Tree which seemed to end a run of novels that had characters in common, namely Simon, Dido Twite and Owen Hughes. In 1974 Midnight went back to Blastburn, where ten chronicle years before (in 1832) Bonnie and Sylvia had been treated so badly at a charity school; fans of Charlotte Brontë will have recognised that the Brisket school will have shared qualities with Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
In this post I want to identify the themes that it shares with other chronicles in the sequence, plus a couple of other features that I feel merit attention. As always with these discussions there will a high risk of spoilers so do read the novel first or skip this post if that troubles you.
Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea Edited by Hilary Jenkins
Penguin Books 2001 (1966)
“Great mistake to go by looks, one way or another.”
— Aunt Cora to Antoinette, Part One Wide Sargasso Sea
As a study in disintegration Wide Sargasso Sea is relentless. The main protagonist is forced to watch her mother gradually fall apart, and then she herself follows a similar journey. In fact it’s hard to name a single character who doesn’t follow a downward spiral. There have been many analyses of this mid 20th-century novel that distinguish it as feminist, post-colonialist and postmodern, and describe it as a prequel or an example of ‘writing back’ or rewriting (it overlaps the chronology of its literary inspiration). Many make reference to ‘the madwoman in the attic’, thus bringing the most marginalised figure in Jane Eyre stage centre and turning Wide Sargasso Sea a reconfiguring of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. No doubt all these things are true, but anything I add to these observations would be superfluous and, anyway, beyond my capabilities.
So I shall instead focus on just three points — madness, fire and poison — and put down my thoughts on how they inexorably lead to the disintegration of the significant actors in this tragedy.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.