Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books, with one of the most feisty and resourceful heroines in English literature. Virginia Woolf found the emotional lives of the characters in the Bronte sisters’ novels too extreme. too full of feeling that set her worlds outside of the reader’s more ordinary experience. Whilst I can understand the honesty of Woolf, she was speaking from her own subjective position, a position notably sensitive to the effects of mental instability and excess.
In Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine suffers severe mental torment at the hands of her Aunt and three cousins. Indeed, the Read family, exhibit an attitude towards their orphaned relative that is so cruel and unjust that it seems pathological. One of the brilliant aspects of the novel is that these hatreds, particularly Aunt Read’s loathing for her niece, remain relatively unexplained. Cruelty and hatred lie beyond the rational in the novel. Bronte seems to adhere to belief that some human beings are simply and devastatingly horrid.This goes against our current enthusiasm for environmental or psychological explanation: nature triumphs over nurture in a very excessive and disturbing way.
When Jane eventually escapes the severe trials of childhood, she finds freedom as a governess at Thornfield Hall, a place where she is no longer in bondage to systemmatic verbal and physical hardship. However even at Thornfield, she finds limitation and even emotional suffocation and stasis. She longs for fresh air, for intellectual challenge and liberation. The meeting below, explores the initial meeting between Jane and the home coming master, Edward Rochester. The interest of the meeting emanates from their evident curiosity about each other, even before they are cognizant of their identities. This curiosity is given expression retrospectively as the narrative is past tense; so we are aware that the truth about their identity is also part of the dramatic tension.
Perhaps retrospect encourages us to apply weight and significance to our narratives about the past? ‘Fate’ seems to be ascribed to this meeting, despite the veiling of the identities.
This is what happens when you narrate the tale of meeting your soul mate?
“I cannot think of leaving you, sir, at so late an hour, in this
solitary lane, till I see you are fit to mount your horse.”
He looked at me when I said this; he had hardly turned his eyes in
my direction before.
“I should think you ought to be at home yourself,” said he, “if you
have a home in this neighbourhood: where do you come from?”
“From just below; and I am not at all afraid of being out late when
it is moonlight: I will run over to Hay for you with pleasure, if
you wish it: indeed, I am going there to post a letter.”
“You live just below–do you mean at that house with the
battlements?” pointing to Thornfield Hall, on which the moon cast a
hoary gleam, bringing it out distinct and pale from the woods that,
by contrast with the western sky, now seemed one mass of shadow.
“Whose house is it?”
“Do you know Mr. Rochester?”
“No, I have never seen him.”
“He is not resident, then?”
“Can you tell me where he is?”
“You are not a servant at the hall, of course. You are–” He
stopped, ran his eye over my dress, which, as usual, was quite
simple: a black merino cloak, a black beaver bonnet; neither of
them half fine enough for a lady’s-maid. He seemed puzzled to
decide what I was; I helped him.
“I am the governess.”
In Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine Jane is telling her own story from her early childhood with the monstrous Mrs Reed to her eventual reconciliation with Mr Rochester, The Byronic ‘hero’ of Charlotte Bronte’s enduringly fascinating novel. And because she is telling her own story, she knows how it will end- happily in this instance though certain readers may find Rochester more cruel than charming. This retrospective device is important as it means that Jane is recreating the events of her past as if she does not know she will be happy.
( This device is used by Dickens in Great Expectations of course and is problematic as we cannot find the ending – happy’ if the tone is so relentlessly melancholy. How can Pip ‘get the girl’ if he then talks about his relatiosnhip with Estella in such a miserable way? It is simply incongruent! )
So to return to jane Eyre, Jane is recollecting here in Chapter 12 her first meeting with Mr Rochester whilst on a walk in the countryside, significantly OUTSIDE the boundaries of society and specifically Rochester’s personal domain and empire, Thornfield Hall.
If she meets him anonymously outside such boundaries then this will affect their future relationship when they are situated in their prescribed societal and social contexts.
Furthermore Jane Eyre writes about this encounter in a way suggestive of the symbolic resonances of such a meeting. For example look at the gener reversal of her uterrance to Rochester: ‘I cannot think of leaving you here…’ She is a nurturer, warrior and rescuer. She will even help him to stand up and walk! Feminist critics may see this is highly symptomatic of the nature of their relationship.
Her care is significantly ‘rewarded’ by Rochester’s noticing of her for the first time, emphasising the singularity of jane’s voice in relation to him as wealthy male and also within Victorian society.
Jane as the ‘outsider’ speaks in a way that fasciantes Rochester and ‘alarms’ many as we have already seen and heard by this point in the novel.
She speaks antisocially.
She speaks as only a lonely, independently minded character could.
The Woman in Black
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