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I have had a 30 year relationship with Charlotte Bronte‘s classic novel and every few years I find myself drawn to its pages. Each time, I am excited to see what new discoveries await among the familiar words. The story I thought I knew so well surprises me and reveals a layer of itself that had remained hidden until I was ready, not only to find it, but to understand it.
It all started at the age of 10 when Mrs. Donovan, my 5th grade teacher, asked me to stay after class to talk–she had caught me reading a romance novel during class. I was braced for the stern lecture on paying attention and the importance of not being distracted during the lessons, but instead I was met with a smile and a question.
“Do you like romance novels?”
“Not really. There are a bunch of these books around the house. They’re kind of boring, to be honest. Very predictable.”
“I will make you a deal. You can read after your work is done–except I will select the books and you will have assignments to complete throughout.”
“Okay. That sounds like a good deal.”
The next day she handed me a dark hard bound book. “We will start with Jane Eyre. It does have romance…yet, it is much more and definitely not boring.”
And with those words and that keenly astute gesture, Mrs. Donovan changed my life.
(As a side note–the books that followed were all memorable and opened my eyes to a whole new world–Wuthering Heights–How Green was My Valley–The Stranger–The Sun Also Rises–etc, etc–but, none captured my heart and imagination like Jane Eyre.)
Why such a strong a reaction to this story in particular? Because Jane Eyre was the first character I related to on a personal level. Like her, I was alone and felt the sting of feeling unloved. Like her, I felt trapped by the expectations and standards of my environment. Like her, I was full of passion and opinions. Like her, I sought to be independent and free.
“I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach…I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes…”
Jane became my first and only role model for many years. I wanted to be like her–to have the strength of her convictions and the determination she mustered. Without realizing at the time, Charlotte’s pioneering feminist views would have a powerful influence on my life.
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
The interesting part is the constantly changing interpretation. At different stages of my life I have walked away with a new meaning that relates to me. I could see myself in her solitude. I could see myself in her keen mind. I could see myself in her forgiving nature. In this last reading, I was amazed that I could see myself in her absolute love for Mr. Rochester!
In all my visits to Jane’s universe, I had never truly believed in the soul mate kind of connection, in romantic terms–I may have subconsciously longed for it–but never truly believed. This time I found myself stopping and rereading passages out loud to my Rochester–Matt Greene. He would listen and smile or comment on the eerily similar feelings we had lived with for the last few years.
“I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.”
Honestly it kind of shocked me. Wow! Creepy and unexpected! That I would find myself even more connected to Jane than I ever had previously. I understood all of it now–and it was scary and yet, lovely. I can only hope that I can live through my happily ever after. Jane deserved it and so do I.
I look back and I can not help but feel an immense gratitude to Mrs. Donovan. What would my life have been like without her handing me that book? I shudder to think of my past without Jane as my faithful companion. Looking ahead, I wonder what else awaits me–what will Jane Eyre tell me 2 –5–10 years from now? Only time will tell what my old friend has yet to share with me. I look forward to it.
P.S. Follow this for my review of the most recent Jane Eyre film interpretation–