Book Simple: My Literary Valentine
a blogumn by Amy Brown
I thought I’d write this Valentine’s Day week about the first man I fell in love with. He appears in a novel; such heroes often do. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre represents to me the end of my childhood and beginning of my adolescence. The last book my father read aloud to me — my impatience to get to the end of novels spoiled that evening tradition– I probably colored Mr. Rochester’s character with some of my Dad’s own traits, and undoubtedly, hearing the words read aloud fixed the gothic descriptions formatively in my mind. But beyond my personal connection to Jane Eyre, the story itself has a richness of imagery and plot unsurpassed, to my mind, by anything in modern literature.
As did our own past week here in California, Jane Eyre begins in rainfall. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner … the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.”
From the first sentence, the reader plunges into cold and discomfort. Belittled and begrudged, our orphaned heroine Jane flees into books, dreaming of “the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland … death-white realms” all more hospitable than her current guardianship.
Jane’s passion and intelligence, so unnerving to her aunt, eventually earn her a happy exile to charity boarding school. Even there, Jane confronts the same terrible inequity that torments her amongst the Reed family. Mr. Brocklehurst, the school’s miserly treasurer, describes his teaching philosophy: “Humility is a Christian grace, and one peculiarly appropriate to the pupils of Lowood … I have studied how best to mortify in them the worldly sentiment of pride.”
The vignettes the novel presents of Jane’s childhood are full of observations of the hypocrisy and cruelty society visits on its most vulnerable. In one moment particularly horrifying for a little girl with long hair, Mr. Brocklehurst orders the students’ topknots cut off, as his be-furred and be-silked family watches with disdain. A typhoid epidemic carries off many of the students, starved and weakened to create a humble underclass, including Jane’s best friend Helen Burns, whose patience and piety Jane learns to emulate. The young woman who graduates from Lowood is a very different creature, thanks to the faith she has learned from Helen and her beloved teacher, Miss Temple. Jane recalls that “to the eyes of other, usually even to my own, I appeared a disciplined and subdued character.”
However, Jane feels stifled after two years teaching at Lowood, and finds a post as governess in the household of Edward Rochester where Ad?le, the offspring of Rochester’s abandoned French mistress, requires instruction. Jane discovers in Mr. Rochester a kindred spirit, similarly restless and passionate. “I find it impossible to be conventional with you;” notes Rochester, “I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort or bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” More than anything, it was Mr. Rochester’s ability to appreciate Jane’s hidden character, the qualities caged beneath her conventional exterior, that stole my heart away.
Unlike our heroine, though, Mr. Rochester has had the freedom of his age, sex and wealth, which allowed him both wilder adventures and correspondingly grimmer mistakes than Jane’s youth and poverty have permitted her. His fiery nature and a secret grief leave him occasionally moody and harsh, though Jane believes he is “a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged.” Is there anything sexier than a man put upon by fate? Rereading this portion of the book finally explains the fascination I felt during those countless hours I spent on the telephone with adolescent boys.
Before I turn you off to the novel, let me explain. The author does not condone the love that blossoms from the banter between master and governess. It is too passionate, too ungoverned by reason and too unequal. In this bildungsroman, Jane must continue to reconcile the fire of her heart with the coolness of society and her faith.
Bronte’s keen and critical eye was the first to teach me to examine the world around me for inequities that could be righted, her heroine the first I ever wanted to emulate. And of course, Mr. Rochester, with his faults to forgive and wild, lightening-bright passion has cast his shadow over every romance since. So happy Valentine’s Day, Mr. Rochester – my heart remains irrevocably yours.
Click on the cover pic to buy Jane Eyre for $7.95 on Amazon!