[This journal in six sections. I write about each section before reading the next, so I only make references to what happens in the novel up to that point.]
13 April 2016
I first read this years ago, but I’ll try to come to this with fresh eyes… which is difficult when I’ve read or re-read so many other novels since, some of which Jane Eyre clearly influenced. Not least David Copperfield, twice, and Bronte’s own Villette.
What Bronte offers us in these first chapters are models of how to live, and how not to live. At one point, the young Jane is given an improving book about a girl who lies and suffers for it – and I sometimes had the thought while reading that there are characters in this novel who are as schematically presented. Of the women and girls, two of them are more or less perfect in every respect that matters. The rest, including Jane herself, definitely aren’t. Most of the characters are female, but two aren’t, and both the spoilt adolescent brat of a boy and the controlling bully of a man are unconditionally hateful. So far, there isn’t a great deal of subtlety in the characterisation.
In the first four chapters we have the situation of the poor girl being brought up in the house of the rich family, and hating it. I don’t know if Fanny Price, just about managing to keep her head above water with the monstrous Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park, is the originator of this role. I doubt it… and she’s certainly not the last. Charlotte Bronte moves things on anyway, by having Jane as the narrator of her own miserable experiences at the age of ten years. It’s a technique that Dickens picked up on very shortly after in David Copperfield, and there are a lot of similarities. Jane, however, has no memory of a happy time with a loving mother. In Chapter 1 we’re dropped straight into the moment-by-moment anxiety of when the next attack will come from. It’s the holidays, so the tyrant of a fourteen-year-old boy is home from school, and his physical bullying is added to the emotional bullying gleefully perpetrated by his two sisters the rest of the time.
The mother, Mrs Reed, is keeping Jane through a grudging sense of duty following the dying wish of her husband. He had asked, of course, that the little orphan girl be brought up as one of the family, but no. Jane is constantly reminded that she is there on sufferance, and the servants (especially a particularly shrewish one) tell her she is lower than they are because she doesn’t even do anything useful. Bronte lays it on very thick indeed, and it’s no surprise when, only a couple of pages in, Jane is subjected to what amounts to mental torture. As a punishment for fighting back, she is locked in the room where Mr Reed died, and imagines a moving light on the wall to be supernatural. (Charlotte, like her sister Emily, is fond of allowing gothic fantasies to arise in her characters’ minds, usually to be explained at some later point. It reaches its apogee with the ghostly nun in Villette, and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of it in this novel.)
There’s another element added to the first-person narrative. The adult Jane, whilst presenting the nastiness of the Reed family and the suffering of her younger self in a way is plausible enough for the reader to feel real anger at her treatment, is also careful to let us know that she herself was far from perfect at that time. Nobody in the house, including the servants, find her attractive either in her looks or her manner. She finds it hard to hide her feelings and, worse, can completely lose control of her emotions if pushed to the limits. Which, of course, happens in the room she thinks of as haunted: she can’t stifle a loud scream, and things escalate. Told she is to stay there even longer, she has some kind of fit – she only learns of it when she wakes up, having been put to bed – and things are never the same again. An apothecary has been sent for – only true family members are entitled to a visit from a proper doctor, boo, hiss – and he speaks to her kindly. But it backfires. She opens up to him and lets him know how unhappy she is – and, hoping to improve things for her, he makes some suggestions to Mrs Reed. These include the idea, that Jane has found not unattractive, that she might like to be sent away to a school….
Oh dear. Jane knows nothing about schools, and certainly not the kind run by an almost pantomime monster of pious, judgmental rectitude. She meets this daunting figure, Mr Brocklehurst, in her aunt’s sitting room some time later. During the intervening time, Jane has found herself being made more of an outsider than ever – she is even excluded from the Christmas celebrations in the family quarters she used to be grudgingly allowed into – and is surprised to have been invited to her aunt’s room at all. She waits outside the door then, ‘passing through and curtseying low, I looked up at—a black pillar!—such, at least, appeared to me, at first sight, the straight, narrow, sable-clad shape standing erect on the rug: the grim face at the top was like a carved mask….’ And guess what? The aunt tells him, in her presence, what a scheming, deceitful child she is. (This is when she receives the little book about the girl who lied.) Not many days after this she finds herself on a journey that lasts all day, reaching the school run by this man’s family long after dark.
Lowood, as it is called, is a parody of middle class philanthropy. It mixes the early 19th Century desire to educate the lower classes into usefulness with a regime of vindictive, moralising Christianity of Brocklehurst’s own invention. It isn’t a workhouse, but readers in the 1840s would recognise the ethos of those institutions in what he says about it on a visit he makes. (He doesn’t actually run it. He doesn’t even live there, but in a comfortable ‘hall’ two miles away, with the silk-clad daughters who accompany him for no other reason that I can make out beyond having their own superior status confirmed for them.)
How does it go? While quietly reprimanding the school supervisor for letting the girls have a meal of bread and cheese after breakfast is too burnt to be edible, he spells it out: ‘Madam, allow me an instant. You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying….’ He ends his visit only after spotting Jane, who has failed to make herself invisible. (She drops her slate through sheer nervousness.) He publicly humiliates her before the whole school. ‘Who would think that the Evil One had already found a servant and agent in her? Yet such, I grieve to say, is the case.’ And nobody is to speak to her for the rest of the day.
In fact, his nasty little scheme comes to nothing. Bronte has delayed Jane’s description of this visit, which actually takes place only a couple of weeks after her arrival, until the third chapter of her stay at Lowood. By this time, Jane has been able to see that however harsh the set-up, there is nevertheless room for human kindness. She has met the two sympathetic characters I mentioned, a girl called Helen and the school supervisor, Miss Temple. (I sometimes feel that the names Bronte invents are as unsubtle as some of the characterisation.)
Helen is an older girl, and Jane is intrigued by her clear intelligence and extraordinary patience in the face of some of the teachers’ petty vindictiveness. She is the one who has described the charitable trust set up by a now dead member of the Brocklehurst family set up and, by implication, the licence that Brocklehurst feels this gives him to run it however he pleases. Miss Temple works within the strict financial constraints and Brocklehurst’s arbitrary rules about codes of dress and behaviour to sweeten the bitterness. She is as much a model of benevolence as Brocklehurst is of moralising cant, and Bronte makes the comparison explicit after the nasty man leaves. Miss Temple invites both Helen and Jane to her room and, basically, treats them with loving kindness. At the end of the visit, we see what real Christian charity looks like: ‘Miss Temple embraced us both, saying, as she drew us to her heart—“God bless you, my children!”’
And yes, it is as schematic as this. Bronte is constantly inviting us to make this sort of comparison between different characters, often – but not always – on the basis of the way that they behave towards Jane. But Jane herself is part of this scheme too. In the chapters describing her unhappy time before Lowood, we have had her highly partial accounts of her own behaviour in comparison with that of the spoilt Reed children. But, even this early, we know that Jane’s adult intelligence is fine-tuning the anger. When she describes the bullying, we believe it: ‘There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions.’ Ok.
But Bronte gives us enough leeway to be able to make our own minds up about the ten-year-old’s own behaviour. When young Jane reacts more vehemently than usual, adult Jane offers an explanation: ‘The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.’ Yep. We’ll buy this – but we’re also registering that little phrase – ‘out of myself, as the French would say’ – that takes things to a slightly worrying level.
The warning, and the ‘fit’ that comes later, are both strong enough for us to remember it a few chapters later. Jane has met Helen now, and asks her about her tolerance of the punishments and humiliations she receives from a particular teacher, Miss Scatcherd. (What was I saying about names? Hers is the model for Ken Kesey’s Miss Ratched, surely.) Helen is a New Testament girl whereas, as we know from earlier, Jane’s favourite books in the Bible are all OT. Helen’s explanation exasperates Jane, who retorts: ‘I should resist her. If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose.’ But Helen responds calmly: ‘Probably you would do nothing of the sort: but if you did, Mr. Brocklehurst would expel you from the school; that would be a great grief to your relations.’ And there we have it, the hot-headed fighter against injustice versus the Christian girl who recognises her own faults and turns the other cheek. (She doesn’t quite use Christ’s words, but she almost does.)
Bronte, again, is giving us enough leeway to begin to make up our own minds. Helen, a (perhaps implausibly) mature fourteen-year-old offers the impulsive younger girl some sound advice and a reminder of where her duty lies. Fine. But it isn’t so straightforward as that. Jane, pointing out that the teacher’s punishments are disproportionate, continues to resist: ‘If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse.’ Ok so far – she has a point. But that isn’t where Bronte has Jane end. She goes on: ‘When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should—so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.’ This is too much for Helen, who is struck more by Jane’s vehemence than by the justice of what she says. ‘It is not violence that best overcomes hate—nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury…. Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.’
Who is right? Helen? Isn’t Bronte, product of the Anglican parsonage, going to want us to cheer these words of wisdom? I doubt it. Jane is too impulsive, but Helen is too passive. We’re being invited to think about both sides and, I’m sure, file them away for later. And, a couple of chapters further on, it is as though Helen’s role as a counterbalance has been sufficiently fulfilled. With the arrival of spring, typhus comes to Lowood, and Helen is one of those is confined to bed. Bronte works it so that Helen is not in quarantine, and Jane can have her poignant parting from her: Helen’s illness is consumption, as we have realised from the start through her sickliness and constant coughing. Against all the rules, Jane creeps to the bed that has been made up for her in Miss Temple’s quarters, and lies with her till morning. She finds herself being carried from the room, having been taken from the bed. ‘I was asleep, and Helen was—dead.’ And there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
…which take us to the end of what was Volume 1 when the novel was first published, and Charlotte Bronte really packs things in. It takes her only three paragraphs of Chapter 10 for Jane to leapfrog over the next eight years of her life: ‘I am only bound to invoke Memory where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest,’ and eight years at Lowood don’t possess any, obviously. By the end of Chapter 15, she’s many miles away, working as a governess in a big house, and is clearly the most interesting thing that has happened in a long time to the 30-something gent who owns it. In the final paragraph of Volume 1 she finds herself unable to sleep, as ‘billows of trouble rolled under surges of joy. I thought sometimes I saw beyond its wild waters a shore, sweet as the hills of Beulah; and now and then a freshening gale, wakened by hope, bore my spirit triumphantly towards the bourne.’ She spends a couple of sentences trying to reason with herself after that – ‘Sense would resist delirium’ – but it’s quite a note to end on.
Before she gets away from Lowood she lets us know that she’s learnt plenty, both as a pupil and teacher. And she must have been born with a degree of enterprise because she advertises her services as a governess. She gets one reply, and… and Bronte wants to move on, so Jane has a place at ‘Thornfield’ before the end of the chapter. (To help us along with the implications of the name, Bronte has Jane use the word ‘thorn’ twice, shortly after her arrival there in Chapter 11. ‘My couch had no thorns in it that night,’ she tells us, and expects life ‘to have its flowers and pleasures, as well as its thorns and toils.’ Ok, got it.)
Before that, Bronte needs to tie up a few loose ends concerning the Reeds. She arranges for Bessie, the only servant at the Reeds’ to have any humanity at all about her, to pay Jane a visit the day before she leaves Lowood. She’s heard Jane is moving on, and wants to tell her that the family, morally speaking, are going to the dogs. One of the daughters has tried and failed to do a runner, Lydia Bennet-style, the other has ballooned into obesity, and the son is ‘such a dissipated young man, they will never make much of him, I think.’ Mrs Reed is ‘not quite easy in her mind….’ Good. And there’s another little nugget: a member of the long-lost Eyre family, far from being a pauper, is in the wine trade and tried to meet Jane before leaving for Madeira. One to file away for later, surely.
But then Chapter 11: ‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play….’ Yeh, yeh. But, basically, nothing eventful happens in this one. She gets to Thornfield late after the slightest of misunderstandings concerning the rather dim coachman, finally comes to realise that the ‘Mrs Fairfax’ who hired her is the housekeeper, not the mistress of the house, and that her new pupil is therefore not her daughter. But neither is she the daughter of the master, Mr Rochester. She is his ‘ward’ – a word to set alarm-bells going for any reader of 19th Century novels – and Jane soon finds out she has been brought up in France, as a Catholic. It’s a good job that at Lowood she was taught French by a Frenchwoman.
Soon, all is going perfectly well at Thornfield. The girl, Adèle, is no academic genius, and isn’t used to the routines of the classroom. But main characters who are teachers in Charlotte Bronte novels never, ever have any problems with discipline or pupil motivation, and soon things are going swimmingly. Mr Rochester is never there – he never visits for longer than two weeks at a time anyway, Mrs F tells Jane – and ‘the promise of a smooth career’ is being fulfilled. Only a maid with a weird habit of laughing at odd times in an upstairs room presents anything to puzzle the mind. But only slightly.
Can we cut to the chase, please? It isn’t only me saying that but, apparently, Bronte herself. At the start of Chapter 11, Jane wasn’t even at Thornfield yet. By the beginning of Chapter 12 she’s been there three months and is becoming as ‘restless’ – her own word – as the author. She often goes up to take in the view from the roof, a vista of open uplands with majestic hills in the distance. And she looks for reasons to take walks to the nearest town. Bronte loves to cause a ripple in any life that seems to be running too smoothly, and she likes the occasional melodramatic interlude to cause a frisson in a character’s mind. Both of these are covered on one of Jane’s walks. A ‘rude noise’ breaks on the evening calm, there’s the clatter of hooves…. ‘In those days I was young, and all sorts of fancies bright and dark tenanted my mind…. I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash,” which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways.’ Jane knows it’s really only a horse, of course, but Bronte hasn’t finished yet, with either Jane or the rider. She’s about to meet the man who, we know, will eventually turn her life around. He is about to fall off his horse.
Of course, she doesn’t recognise him even after he’s dropped the broadest of hints, and I wonder if Bronte is trying that flattering thing where the reader guesses the truth before the character does. Whatever… he accepts her offer of help – he’s sprained his ankle – and asks her about herself. He’s established that she’s the governess at Thornfield before she’s established who he is…. Bronte often does this, when a character is mystified for a few pages before discovering the truth. (I wish she wouldn’t. It’s like the mix-up with the dim-witted coachman all over again.) Jane, back at the house, wonders that the dog there is so like the stranger’s dog before she puts two and two together. (Sigh.)
Where are we? Soon enough, the start of Chapter 13, and… not much. Rochester is busy with estate affairs – he’s been away at least three months, as we know – and is sometimes friendly, but just as likely to be brusque when he accidentally meets Jane. (Sigh, again.) And then… Bronte, as tired of the formalities as the reader is even before the end of the chapter, moves things on. We get the first of a series of long conversations during which Jane and Rochester find out as much about one another as anybody would ever need to know. She’s never met anybody like him, obviously – she reminds him how few men of any sort she has ever met – but he’s never met anybody like her either. It becomes a strange kind of formalised flirtation, one in which both of them occasionally have to remind themselves, or the other person, of their relative positions. It doesn’t stop Rochester, in reply to one of her frank ripostes, saying ‘Not three in three thousand raw school-girl-governesses would have answered me as you have just done.’ But he’s as wedded to the truth as she is, and makes sure she understands him: ‘I don’t mean to flatter you: if you are cast in a different mould to the majority, it is no merit of yours: Nature did it.’
In other words, they are two of a kind, and the reader gets it. He manages to slip in along the way that he’s a bachelor, and I’ve already mentioned the effect on Jane of two more chapters of this kind of thing. And Rochester has stayed at home for eight weeks by now, which is unprecedented. So we can expect wedding bells, yes? As if. There are two more volumes to get through yet, and there are a lot of things I haven’t mentioned, both in those conversations and elsewhere.
Where to start? They begin with the sincerest form of flattery, disbelief – his incredulity that she could really be the person to have painted those highly imaginative watercolours…. In other words, he lets her know very quickly that she’s out of the ordinary – he later even selects three of them to show his friends – and it goes on from there. This first proper conversation takes place when Jane and Adèle take tea with him, and he is so brusque to begin with that Jane is rather pleased: ‘I sat down quite disembarrassed. A reception of finished politeness would probably have confused me.’ This is when he first gets to see her qualities and talks to her about her accomplishments…. Like the later conversations, it’s all above board, Adèle and/or Mrs Fairfax are always around, and neither of them ever mince their words.
And that’s the fun of it. To a degree unprecedented in serious fiction, Jane is given licence – or speaks as if she is – to let Rochester know exactly what she thinks of him. But the most important thing, for me, is the way Rochester makes a great show of opening up to her about his past. Adèle is not, he very strongly asserts, a product of the affair he had with a French opera singer. When he discovered the woman was cheating on him and left Paris, he let her look after a child in which he could see no part of himself. Jane seems to be on his side in this. Adèle has none of his square look – or ready wit. As a pupil she’s very ordinary indeed. Rochester, on the other hand, is a terrific companion for Jane. By the middle of Chapter 15 she sums it up: ‘The ease of his manner freed me from painful restraint: the friendly frankness, as correct as cordial, with which he treated me, drew me to him.’
Fine. Except it isn’t fine. There is something troubling Rochester, and Jane has no idea what it might be. What’s with the mood-swings, the disappearing acts that might only temporarily have come to an end, the troubled look that occasionally comes over him? And is it connected with the mystery of the fire in the night, just before the end of Chapter 15 (and of Volume 1)? It’s another moment of Gothic-seeming melodrama as Jane tries to get to sleep: ‘A dream had scarcely approached my ear, when it fled affrighted, scared by a marrow-freezing incident enough. … This was a demoniac laugh—low, suppressed, and deep—uttered, as it seemed, at the very keyhole of my chamber door.’ Jane ends up saving Rochester’s life when she pours water on his bed after it has been set on fire. There’s that troubled look on his face again, and when she mentions Grace Poole, the name of the maid with the mad-sounding laugh, he’s happy to go along with it. ‘Just so. Grace Poole—you have guessed it.’
Well, maybe she has. But there’s much more going on between them than a simple master/servant thing. I don’t think it can be an accident that, within the bounds of correctness, there’s a teasing physical intimacy from the start. For days or weeks after he has to lean on her after spraining his ankle, he puts all the proper distance between them again. But, once they start to talk, he can’t help referring to her physical presence. Innocently enough (oh yeh?), he mentions her head in connection with the place where the imagination behind her pictures might dwell, but that’s only a start. He asks her whether she considers him handsome, and she tells him. (She doesn’t.) Her own smallness and lack of obvious attractions are also part of their not-quite banter…. Then, on the night of the fire, they are in his bedroom. After he has been out to check on things, he comes back and she makes a move to leave. ‘What!’ he exclaimed, ‘are you quitting me already, and in that way?’ Moments later, he has both her hands in his, and he is telling her of how, since he first met her, things about her ‘strike delight to my very inmost heart,’ and after she leaves it’s ‘My cherished preserver, goodnight!’ It’s no surprise that there’s no chance of sleep for Jane now, only those thoughts of billows of sorrow and surges of joy.
But is Rochester as frank as he wants Jane to believe? She drops enough hints for the reader to realise that she doesn’t believe, not entirely, but she doesn’t know what he’s hiding. Of course, only the most innocent first-time reader shares her puzzlement. But I’m not saying any more about that now.
…which take us to the half-way point, and another pivotal moment. I’ll come back to that, because a lot else happens on the way, and Bronte makes it clearer than ever that she is most interested in holding up for examination different models of behaviour. How she does it is by constantly inviting us to compare and contrast. We saw it at Lowood in those conversations Jane has with Helen, and we see it now in about half a dozen different ways.
I remember in Villette, which I’ve re-read far more recently than this novel, how the retiring Lucy Snowe and the ostentatious Ginevre are presented. In case we’re not getting it, there’s a set piece scene early on in which they stand side-by-side before a full-length mirror. They are precise opposites and – if we are to believe her – Lucy would hate to be Ginevre as much as Ginevre would hate to be Lucy. (It will become obvious soon enough why I thought of Ginevre in connection with certain characters in Jane Eyre.) With Jane, and a woman she has yet to meet, there can be no mirror. How to set up a visual comparison…? Got it. Portrait drawings. It comes in the chapter following the fire, and Jane decides she needs to take her emotions in hand. Rochester has gone to visit a family with an eligible daughter he’s met before, Blanche Ingram, whose praises Mrs Fairfax has been singing. ‘Tall, fine bust, sloping shoulders; long, graceful neck’ and all the requisite accomplishments to go with them. So Jane decides to draw both herself and this imaginary ideal. When she’s finished, ‘the contrast was as great as self-control could desire. I derived benefit from the task: it had given force and fixedness to the new impressions I wished to stamp indelibly on my heart.’
Well, maybe. But the older Jane, narrating this, knows whether such impressions really are stamped ‘indelibly’. So does the reader, soon enough, because Bronte is ready for the next big thing. It’s the reintroduction of the gentry into Jane’s life for the first time. Rochester doesn’t count, of course –these chapters make clear that he’s nothing like them in any way, seeming to be as unique in his class as Jane is in hers. When Rochester brings Blanche and the rest of the party home, Jane is able to do her disappearing act for some days. But he finally insists that she spend an evening with them in the drawing room and… things go pretty much as you would expect. Blanche, whom she’s occasionally seen about the place, is as striking-looking as Mrs Fairfax described her, but now Jane can observe her close up. She is scrupulously fair – Jane, increasingly, is the model of right behaviour – so she sees Blanche’s qualities without prejudice. She really is accomplished as a player and singer, but… but what? It’s difficult to say because, try as she might, Jane can’t help noticing how much interest she shows towards Rochester. And he seems to be reciprocating. As soon as seems polite, Jane slips away. But…
…she doesn’t get very far. On the morning after the fire, Rochester had left without a word, was away visiting these people for weeks, and hasn’t spoken to her in a friendly way during the days the party has been at Thornfield. So he isn’t interested, right? (Sigh.) In fact, he comes after her, speaks kindly, and tries to persuade her back. But she’s had enough, and he has to be satisfied with her agreeing to joining the party each evening from now on. Bronte, through the indecisiveness of his actions and Jane through her close observation of Blanche is letting the reader know how things stand between them. I’m not sure how Bronte does it, but it’s already clear that Jane is the one, and that Blanche just won’t do.
Is this clear from the start? It isn’t only my prior knowledge of this part of the story that tells me Rochester is making his own comparisons between the society beauty and the plain governess. Blanche is carelessly arrogant with servants, and with Jane. Her treatment of Adèle, from the start, is routinely offhand. She is first a ‘puppet’, then a ‘doll’, as though Blanche is unable to see the living, growing person beneath the party-frock. And when she talks to Rochester on that first evening, it is always she who makes the first move. He stands alone near the fire, so she goes to stand on the opposite side. Later, she practically commands him to sing to her accompaniment. But he never looks at Jane, which proves he is only interested in Blanche, right?
Ok Charlotte, we get it. As though we need it, that moment when he follows Jane from the drawing-room makes it absolutely clear to the reader (if not for Jane, because that’s how these things work) that he is besotted by her. He might not have spoken to her properly for weeks, but after they have been alone for maybe one minute we get this from him: ‘a few more words would bring tears to your eyes—indeed, they are there now, shining and swimming; and a bead has slipped from the lash and fallen on to the flag. If I had time … I would know what all this means. Well, to-night I excuse you; but understand that so long as my visitors stay, I expect you to appear in the drawing-room every evening; it is my wish; don’t neglect it.’ My goodness. His peremptory-sounding tone doesn’t fool the reader. We note the close scrutiny, the way he notices that tear. He can see right through the ‘indelible stamp’ with which she’s tried to suppress the feelings of her own heart. Later, Jane routinely uses the word ‘love’ to describe these feelings.
It goes on for days. There’s a game of charades, in which Rochester and Blanche appear as a couple about to marry – but there’s a clue to the truth: ‘Bride’, the first syllable, becomes ‘Bridewell’ on the second. So, marriage to her would be a prison? (Returning readers know it’s a clue to something else, of course. But never mind that.) All the ladies are described, and all the gentlemen… and it’s clear that Rochester is just marking time with them. The ladies are compared and contrasted – Blanche’s snobbish mother is another Mrs Reed in many ways – and so are the men. They are mostly handsome and can make polite, even witty, conversation – and have none of the qualities that make Rochester the only object of interest in the room. Ok.
But Bronte needs to move things on, so we get a quick succession of things happening. Rochester is called away for a day, so the arrival of a stranger – it’s one of the minor coincidences that pepper the book – is made slightly awkward. This man, introducing himself as Mason, has apparently arrived from Jamaica, but knows Rochester personally and wants to speak to him. But there’s a distraction: an old gipsy woman has reportedly arrived and wants to tell, in private, the fortunes of each of the young women present. (Finding difficulty believing this? Don’t worry, it gets worse.) Blanche, of course, thrusts herself to the front of the queue – and, after her consultation, looks decidedly disappointed. Next go the other young women, in a group, and the rest of the party can hear their giggles. Then… the gipsy calls for the other young woman that he – sorry, she – knows is there. Jane, sensible creature that she is, goes in with neither fear nor any expectations. She knows about fortune-tellers, and lets the gipsy know she can see right through the trickery.
Reader, the gipsy is really Rochester in disguise. All this is an elaborate stratagem designed to let him know Jane’s real feelings for him. She understands this, and is suitably astonished…. But I need to move on. She tells Rochester about the stranger, and he is completely taken aback. She’s never seen him looking so scared: ‘“Jane, I’ve got a blow; I’ve got a blow, Jane!” He staggered.’ But soon, it is clear that it isn’t Mason himself he is afraid of – he does exactly as Rochester tells him when they meet – but something else. It’s a mystery – yes, that again – but Rochester seems afraid of what Mason might say. What information could he impart, we wonder, that would immediately turn all the party against him?
We don’t find out, because there’s another event to do with that other mystery, the room on the third floor. Jane, usually a sound sleeper, has uncharacteristically forgotten to close her curtains, so Bronte can make a big thing of her being woken up when ‘the moon, which was full and bright … looked in at me through the unveiled panes… her glorious gaze roused me.’ Don’t ask me what the symbolism of that might mean, because it’s time for that event. It is announced in Bronte’s best faux-Gothic style: ‘The night—its silence—its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.’ By the end of the long night, during which Jane has had to sit up with an injured Mr Mason while Rochester has ridden out for a doctor, it’s clear that Mason has approached ‘her’ – Rochester is still letting Jane think it’s Grace Poole – and she has both stabbed and bitten him. And he’d told Mason not to go unaccompanied….
After the doctor supports Mason to his carriage, Jane and Rochester get a chance to have another of their secret conversations. And it’s the most extraordinary of all, as he comes as close as he possibly could to an admission of what happened in his past. He asks her to imagine herself ‘a wild boy indulged from childhood upwards … in a remote foreign land; conceive that you there commit a capital error, no matter of what nature or from what motives, but one whose consequences must follow you through life and taint all your existence. Mind, I don’t say a crime….’
What could he mean? Whatever, he goes on to describe the twenty barren years that followed, seeking solace in ‘heartless, sensual pleasure… that dulls intellect and blights feeling.’ And then he lets Jane know (without of course, spelling it out) exactly what she has come to mean for him. ‘Heart-weary and soul-withered, you come home after years of voluntary banishment: you make a new acquaintance—how or where no matter: you find in this stranger much of the good and bright qualities which you have sought for twenty years….’ Ok, enough. What he wants is for Jane to say that she would be okay about him turning his back on a certain ‘custom’, one that he has no time for himself. What could he possibly mean (and so on, and on)? Do first-time readers get what he means? ‘Are you justified in overleaping an obstacle of custom—a mere conventional impediment which neither your conscience sanctifies nor your judgment approves?’
However hard he tries to persuade her, Jane doesn’t take the bait, and he responds in the only way he knows how. He bites it all back, hums a tune, and asks her not to curse him. Of course she doesn’t curse him, so… ‘Shake hands in confirmation of the word. What cold fingers! They were warmer last night when I touched them at the door of the mysterious chamber. Jane, when will you watch with me again? … For instance, the night before I am married! I am sure I shall not be able to sleep. Will you promise to sit up with me to bear me company?’ He goes on to describe what a ‘strapper’ his wife-to-be is, and… and so on. He’s covered up every vestige of his real self, as is made clear when he rises ‘cheerfully’ to greet the others in the party with some breezy nonsense about Mason having risen and left early.
Next. Following a genuinely Gothic preamble, to do with dream that recurs for a whole week, and presentiments of death, Jane gets a visitor. It’s the coachman from the Reeds’ house, bringing sad news. Sort of. The son’s dissipated life has led to financial near-ruin and, apparently, his death by suicide. Mrs Reed has had a stroke – so can Jane come and visit her on her death-bed? Yes she can, but she needs to tell Rochester first. Cue yet another conversation, in which he makes it as clear as he possibly can that she must not, under any circumstances, fail to return. And she mustn’t advertise for a new place either – he will sort that out for her. (She has told him that Adele can’t possibly stay in the house after his marriage, and that therefore she, Jane, must leave as well.) This all feels highly unresolved…
…but no matter, because a chapter-break later Jane is far away at the Reeds’. The daughters present another opportunity to compare and contrast: the older, ascetic-looking one assiduously makes herself busy with uselessly pious good works like embroidering altar-cloths, while the fat younger one fills her head with nonsense. We later find out this one was disappointed in an eligible marriage, and that she blames her sister. At first they treat Jane exactly as you would expect, but are pleased to have her draw their portraits.
But the main interest is Mrs Reed herself. There’s a comparison to be made, with Helen Burns. She might already be in our minds as a model for right-minded Christianity, as opposed to the elder daughter’s self-promoting pietism – and there she is, as Jane waits, contemplating what is to come for Mrs Reed: ‘In pondering the great mystery, I thought of Helen Burns, recalled her dying words—her faith….’ Mrs Reed is an object lesson in how not to make your peace with God and the people you are about to leave behind. She has no way of knowing herself, never understands that she did Jane great harm while, all these years later, she blames Jane for behaving so unaccountably that fateful day. ‘I could not forget your conduct to me, Jane—the fury with which you once turned on me; the tone in which you declared you abhorred me the worst of anybody in the world; the unchildlike look and voice with which you affirmed that the very thought of me made you sick, and asserted that I had treated you with miserable cruelty.’
And Jane, suffering this tirade? She forgives her and feels genuine worry for her eternal soul. At the end, she contemplates the corpse: ‘I gazed on it with gloom and pain: nothing soft, nothing sweet, nothing pitying, or hopeful, or subduing did it inspire; only a grating anguish for her woes—not my loss—and a sombre tearless dismay at the fearfulness of death in such a form.’
That ‘loss’ Jane mentions is a particular one. Mrs Reed has called for her to tell her one thing. Her relative, John Eyre, the one Bessie mentioned on her visit as Jane was about to leave Lowood, later sent Mrs Reed a letter. Bronte lets it speak for itself, leaving the reader to think about the road not taken three years earlier because it was closed off by the vindictiveness of a woman mindlessly seeking revenge. ‘I disliked you too fixedly and thoroughly ever to lend a hand in lifting you to prosperity.’ The main message of the letter is that Jane might have had a very different life – and, the reader realises, might do so yet:
‘It is my intention to write shortly and desire her to come to me at Madeira. Providence has blessed my endeavours to secure a competency; and as I am unmarried and childless, I wish to adopt her during my life, and bequeath her at my death whatever I may have to leave.’
We’ll have to see.
…to the end of Volume 2, just after the biggest shock of all. I’m not at all sure how to write about these chapters. I was talking to a friend about the lead-up to the fateful morning not only of the revelation of Rochester’s previous marriage, but of the existence of the madwoman in the attic. I called it bonkers. He called it Gothic…. I think we might both be right. I tried to argue that what makes it bonkers is the fact that Jane is a character out of place in Bronte’s universe, that she’s escaped from a novel by Jane Austen. She is scrupulously moral, is able to see the true value of people beneath the personas they present to the world, and tells it like it is. Well, maybe. Or maybe it’s easier than that. Like the heroines trapped in all Gothic novels, she mustn’t ever realise that that’s where she is. She has to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary in her life so far, that she’s in a world where normal rules apply. And the comparison with Austen characters won’t wash anyway. Jane is too prone to Gothic dreams and imaginings for that, and she takes the most intimidating portents imaginable completely in her stride. If she’d been Elizabeth Bennet she’d have run a mile long ago.
These five long chapters can be quickly summarised. On Jane’s return, Rochester finally stops playing games and admits he has no intention of marrying anyone but her. She’s fine with this, agrees to a wedding in a month’s time, and ignores the storm that arises the moment she makes her decision. The lovers are soaked to the skin and lightning tears apart the venerable horse-chestnut tree, but that’s normal in this universe. During the month leading up to the wedding she plays games of her own, making sure he realises he hasn’t got the better of her. She plays the part not of the fairy (or angel or whatever) but of the forthright governess, and refuses to be charmed by his offers of jewellery and colourful silk gowns. But the day arrives, they get as far as the church – and the wedding’s off. So why does it take five long chapters?
If there were such a word as Gothicisation, that’s where the answer would partly lie. That and Bronte’s own take on what a courtship might look like – which is like nothing else on earth that I’ve ever seen. (I tell a lie. I’ve seen it in Villette. But I’m not going to wander into that perilous territory just now, because there’s enough weirdness in this novel.) Jane wraps up the account of her errand of mercy at the Reeds’ with a couple of barbed remarks about the two daughters – one gets a loveless marriage to a rich old man, and the other gets the equally meaningless reward of conversion to Catholicism and life as a nun – and, a month after leaving Thornfield, she’s back. Of course, this being the novel it is, she can’t arrive at the house quietly, as she would like. She’s making her way through the garden ‘and I see—Mr. Rochester sitting there, a book and a pencil in his hand; he is writing. / Well, he is not a ghost; yet every nerve I have is unstrung: for a moment I am beyond my own mastery. What does it mean? I did not think I should tremble in this way when I saw him….’
In other words, a month has brought no change to the feelings she has for him – you know, the ones she can’t possibly let him know about, and that she has to bury deep inside herself because he mustn’t know. Earlier, I suggested that Bronte might be flattering the reader by allowing us to guess what the character doesn’t. I wish she wouldn’t, because it means we have to live through the charade that Rochester plays out for the next – how long? – day after day, and page after page. He has to pretend that he’s going to marry Blanche while Jane, playing by the rules of the Bronte universe, believes him. (Something very similar happens in Villette. In other words, it isn’t only the universe of this one novel.)
It means, eventually, that there can be the big reveal: whenever he’s been talking about the woman he will marry, he’s been referring to Jane all along! He’d only been pretending he meant Blanche, who has turned out to be no good. (He’d set her a different test – I told you this was courtship as you’ve never seen it before – by pretending to be far less rich than he really is, and she’d gone all cold on him.) It’s taken nearly two chapters to get here since Jane’s return – we’re quite near the end of Chapter 23 – but now, at last, we get that magical moment both she and the reader have been waiting for. Yes, her time for happiness has come.
Except, of course, it hasn’t. We’re not even at the end of Volume 2, and this sort of ‘Reader, I married him’ moment is supposed to come at the end of the whole novel. But Bronte can’t let the madwoman in the attic revelation arrive unmolested. If she had, it would have taken a single chapter – basically, following Jane’s acceptance of Rochester’s proposal, a pared-down version of what is now Chapter 26. But no. We’re not even at the end of Chapter 23, and Bronte begins her campaign of throwing everything she has into strewing ever more direly ominous warnings in her heroine’s path. (Now I think of it, she started long ago. Rochester has clearly never been frank with Jane – she might believe that the strange laughter is Grace Poole’s, but the reader never does – and, a bigger clue still, he has a fondness for pretence. He might be playing the innocent now, pretending that it was only Jane who assumed he was marrying Blanche, but he’d never once disabused her. And dressing as an old gipsy woman might be a clue. And the trick he played on Blanche. And let’s not forget his first ever meeting with Jane when, despite knowing exactly who she is, he never reveals his own identity. My god.
That storm – ‘there was a crack, a crash, and a close rattling peal’ – is only Nature’s first little hint that Jane might be making a mistake. The crash is the strike on the horse-chestnut tree, and when she goes back to look at it shortly before the wedding, there’s another warning: ‘it stood up black and riven: the trunk, split down the centre, gasped ghastly. The cloven halves were not broken from each other, for the firm base and strong roots kept them unsundered below; though community of vitality was destroyed—the sap could flow no more: their great boughs on each side were dead, and next winter’s tempests would be sure to fell one or both to earth: as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree—a ruin, but an entire ruin.’
She, now a frankly Gothic heroine by any definition, addresses the ruined halves of the tree: ‘“You did right to hold fast to each other,” I said: as if the monster-splinters were living things, and could hear me.’ Returning readers – those who know where Bronte goes with this novel before the end – will have an interesting time working out the symbolism. I tried, but it isn’t easy. If it’s the dead remnants of Rochester’s first marriage, it isn’t Jane’s decision that has brought about the ruin. If the halves of the tree represent Jane and Rochester, well, Jane is being given only a partial vision of the future: ‘the sap could flow no more.’ The end. Or maybe I should remember that Bronte isn’t writing this for returning readers. All we know for sure (but Jane doesn’t) is that her acceptance isn’t going to lead to anything good.
But before all that, we’ve been getting Jane’s utterly Bronte-esque approach to what ought to be the happiest time in her life, a month of delightful anticipation. She goes in for a particular kind of tease with Rochester. If he thinks it’s all going to be like those frankly loving moments in the garden when she first accepted him, he should have remembered who’s writing this. I’ve already said that what Jane does is play the governess. She sticks rigidly to the routines of her life before the proposal, seeing him only in the evenings and only allowing him the most chaste shows of affection imaginable. ‘Mr. Rochester affirmed I was wearing him to skin and bone, and threatened awful vengeance for my present conduct at some period fast coming.’ This, despite the fact that in her deepest self her feelings are unchanged, and that this is just something she feels she has to do: ‘my task was not an easy one; often I would rather have pleased than teased him. My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven.’ Ye gods.
Are we nearly there yet? No, we aren’t, and Chapter 25 is the most Gothic yet, not only because of the weird event that takes place but, perhaps even more, because of the deliberate delay in the recounting of it that Bronte has Jane go for. It’s the night before the wedding and Jane, for some time now, has been separating herself into two people. She’s the same black-clad governess she’s always been, and she’s the future Mrs Rochester. ‘Her’ clothes are ready: ‘in yonder closet, opposite my dressing-table, garments said to be hers had already displaced my black stuff Lowood frock and straw bonnet: for not to me appertained that suit of wedding raiment; the pearl-coloured robe, the vapoury veil pendent from the usurped portmanteau. I shut the closet to conceal the strange, wraith-like apparel it contained; which, at this evening hour—nine o’clock—gave out certainly a most ghostly shimmer through the shadow of my apartment. “I will leave you by yourself, white dream,” I said. “I am feverish: I hear the wind blowing….”’
Ok, getting it. Her wedding clothes are ‘wraith-like,’ shimmer in a ‘most ghostly’ way. But this isn’t Gothic enough yet. ‘Something had happened which I could not comprehend; no one knew of or had seen the event but myself: it had taken place the preceding night.’ The reader might wonder what this could be, but… Jane isn’t saying. Rochester is out of the house for a day or two, I forget why, so she has her excuse. ‘Stay till he comes, reader; and, when I disclose my secret to him, you shall share the confidence.’ He isn’t the only one she likes to tease.
Might a new reader guess what it is? Unlikely, I’d say. Fast-forward a few pages to the long evening when, Rochester reminds Jane, she had promised to keep him company even when she thought the wedding would be to Blanche. (I’m not making this up.) It’s a time for honesty, and she tells him the story that begins in her room. She had heard a sound from the closet and assumed it to be the maid. But… ‘No one answered; but a form emerged from the closet; it took the light, held it aloft, and surveyed the garments … first surprise, then bewilderment, came over me; and then my blood crept cold through my veins.’ It’s a woman she’s never seen before in her life, and she tears the marriage veil, Rochester’s gift to his wife-to-be, into two separate halves.
So Rochester reveals everything. As if. After she’s listed everybody in the house that this woman definitely isn’t, Rochester outfaces her. ‘It must have been one of them.’ It’s the perfect opportunity to come clean, and to apologise for the danger he’s put her in, but no. And in this universe, after the revelations during the marriage ceremony, it’s why he appears to be beyond any possible redemption.
On the morning of the wedding we get the return of Mason and that other favourite Gothic plot twist, a letter that leads to an unforeseen outcome. You remember John Eyre? You know, the one in Madeira that Bronte has been feeding us information about since Bessie first mentioned him when she visited Jane at Lowood? The one who wrote that letter to Mrs Reed? Jane had finally got around to writing to him to tell him – wait for it – of her upcoming marriage. But he’s very ill, and it finds its way into the hands of the lawyer who is also dealing with Mason – who, it turns out, is the brother of the woman Rochester married fifteen years ago. As we know, because Bronte made such a big thing of his visit a few weeks previously, he knows his sister is still alive…. Now we also know that if Jane hadn’t written to Eyre, Mason would never have found out. Well, thank goodness she did, or she would have been marrying a bigamist.
To say that she’s in two minds about it is understating the case. She’s seen the mad wife, witnessed Rochester’s reactions to the events, and finds herself alone at last. ‘I lay faint, longing to be dead.’ Thinking things over, she realises that she’s not been in contact with God for a while. Rochester, as Bronte hasn’t failed to let us notice, keeps religion at arm’s length. Jane has been too busy with her own games to put him right on that score, but now, ‘One idea only still throbbed life-like within me—a remembrance of God.’ Phew. We’re one paragraph from the end of the chapter, and she’s going to be all right. Is it going to be easy? What do you think?
‘it came: in full heavy swing the torrent poured over me. The whole consciousness of my life lorn, my love lost, my hope quenched, my faith death-struck, swayed full and mighty above me in one sullen mass. That bitter hour cannot be described: in truth, “the waters came into my soul; I sank in deep mire: I felt no standing; I came into deep waters; the floods overflowed me.”’
End of Volume 2. And I’ll be back in a few weeks.
Chapters 27-32, plus part of 33
I carried on into Chapter 33 because I wanted to confirm a suspicion of mine – that Charlotte Bronte had just perpetrated the most outlandish yet of this book’s coincidences. Jane, following a chapter in which she lets Rochester justify his behaviour at inordinate length – I guess she just doesn’t want to face up to what she’s decided to do – gets on a coach and travels somewhere at random. This journey takes all day and into the next, and she is dropped off at a crossroads. Which road to take? There seems to be nothing subtle about the symbolism of it – except that she takes none of the roads, but sets off across the moors. After a miserable day or two she reaches rock-bottom, and states explicitly that if death had come along she would have been fine with it. But…
…having been turned away from the last house standing on her road to starvation, she is rescued. Fast-forward some weeks, to a time when she’s made friends not so much with her rescuer, the handsome and powerful-seeming minister of the small church in the town she had given up on, but with his well-educated sisters who want to be – guess – governesses. Their father has recently died leaving them penniless and, in an unconnected development, they receive a letter telling them that their father’s brother – the one whose speculations ruined their father – has left them nothing in his will. It’s all gone to another relative, mentioned by name in the letter but not in the narrative.
Who on earth might the relative be? There’s already been a big clue – the uncle is called John, and alert readers might remember how John Eyre hadn’t been feeling well when Jane last heard about him on the morning of the abandoned wedding. The kindly trio might have made an immediate connection with the young woman staying with them – if she hadn’t pretended that her name was Jane Elliott. Then, some months later, the minister is visiting the cottage where Jane now lives in his parish – and unaccountably tears off a strip from the piece of paper she uses when she is drawing or painting. Next day, after he has checked something at home, he returns. Dim-witted readers might think he’s braved thigh-deep snow in order to propose – it’s been a possibility floating in the air for at least a chapter by now – but no. The strip he’d torn off contains Jane’s real name, which she had signed in a rare moment of idleness. She is the sole beneficiary of the will, and is now worth £30,000!
I should rewind. I’m a little reluctant, because I haven’t found these chapters as engaging as the Thornfield sections. Even Chapter 27, before Jane has left, has a sense of the waiting-room about it. Maybe it’s because I knew as I read that she really is going to carry out her resolution to say goodbye to Thornfield and Rochester, however tempted she might be by the picture he paints of the happy future they could spend abroad. Besides, she’s made an irreversible decision, one of those where she wouldn’t be able to face herself if she went back on it. So we know Rochester is wasting his time – for page after page after page. It’s another of those occasions, as Jane lets him fantasise about the life they will spend together, that reminds the reader how far away this is from any adult relationship we might ever encounter in the real world. Bronte allows Jane to present her behaviour as that of a woman who fears for her own safety if she is too brutally frank… so we get a variation of the usual games-playing. She does eventually let him know she isn’t going to be his mistress, but she lets him continue to rabbit on for what seems like hours. Then she quietly slips away at dawn.
Bronte seems to want Jane to undergo some kind of re-birth – so she has her arriving in an unknown new world with nothing. She had been carrying a ‘parcel’ of things with her, which – and I’m not making this up – she forgetfully leaves on the coach when the driver tells her she’s gone as far as she’s paid for. So, for something like two or three days, she’s a vagrant. She sleeps out-of-doors on the first summer night, but then she has to find other people so that she can re-boot her life. But nothing comes of it, because the locals offer her no help. Good Christian that she is (yawn), she scrupulously refuses to blame them for their suspicion, but by something like the third evening she’s in a bad way. She’ll die in the night – the balmy summer weather has turned to heavy rain by now – and that will be that.
Thank goodness she’s in a Charlotte Bronte novel. In the middle of nowhere, there’s – a light. Could it be a sign of life? What follows – and, now I think about it, I might be talking about everything from the middle of Chapter 28 onwards – is implausible to the point of silliness. She approaches the cottage, which contains two young middle-class women that she is able both to see and listen to without being observed. They could not be more like her if they were her sisters, except they are better looking. But their housekeeper who answers her knock won’t let her speak to them on this dark and stormy night, so it’s a good job their brother arrives home to discover her, close to death, on the threshold.
Is this the end of the process of re-birth? If so, it all seems a bit pointless because, after recovering in bed for three days, she’s the same old Jane. Or maybe that actually is the point: she arrives with nothing and yet, after the briefest of contact with them, she’s their best friend. I suppose we’re being reminded, again, that all the value resides not in stuff, but in her unfettered, unencumbered self. She tells us that she has no experience of friendships arising from normal social interactions, but she and the two women are instant soul-mates. Their brother St. John, however…. He is another Bronte man, but instead of Rochester’s grim squareness of look there’s youthful and handsome athleticism – and instead of Rochester’s apparent directness that in fact conceals a secret, there’s super-cool reserve that is clearly concealing something of its own. Meanwhile Jane, living in close quarters with him and his sisters, is also concealing secrets – even her name. In this novel, every major character seems at great pains to construct an alternative persona for public view.
The reader wasn’t born yesterday, and I suppose Bronte wants us to start guessing what passions lie beneath St. John’s surface coolness. He talks to Jane and, like everybody else with any taste in this novel, he is struck by the sterling qualities of her character that no surface plainness can hide. It’s something else I’ve found irritating about these chapters – the way Jane has to report this without, Heaven forbid, showing off. (Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House has to play the same game, and it’s just as boring when she does it.) Bronte has her narrator reporting detailed descriptions of her character as outlined, often at implausible length, by others. Inevitably, this leads to more conversations that sound like nothing the reader is ever likely to encounter anywhere in the real universe. Nothing about these chapters feels real.
That’s why I’m a little bored. Bronte has to create a scenario in which some new things can be played out – or some old things can be confirmed, like Jane’s qualities as an unambiguously admirable Victorian heroine. So she has Jane arriving by chance at a house which, as it happens, a super-idealised family are visiting until their father’s affairs are put in order. Everything feels like ingredients thrown into a mixture – the sisters’ love of learning and education, the brother’s dedication to a vocation to improve the lives of those who most need it – and new characters and plot elements appear, to be stirred in.
In fact, there really are hidden passions in St. John. He is ambitious enough to be embarrassed when Jane uses the word – eventually, the ice breaks and he has come to realise her value – but he has sublimated this into a decision to become a missionary. And something else he’s decided to sublimate is his love for the astonishingly beautiful local heiress who is in love with him (yet another thing I’m not making up). She’s been briefly mentioned before she arrives home from London or wherever, but now she’s the new ingredient. Just before this, St. John has hesitantly offered Jane the job of running the little school he just happens to have finished setting up – that’s handy – and the reader might have wondered whether this might just be a plot to keep her close. It’s a poor enough offer, but she responds so exactly as you might expect that it feels ploddingly predictable. The children and parents soon love her, obviously.
Enter Rosamond, Rose of the World as somebody re-titles her. And enter into the mix a variation on the theme of self-denial. Jane, of course, knows all about this, having often reminded the reader of the love she has resolved to leave behind forever. The St. John variant consists of him openly admitting his love for Rosamond – but to Jane, not to Rosamond herself – when he sees a portrait of her that Jane has drawn. In this world of stories – it isn’t St. John’s last in these chapters – he describes the married life they would have if he followed the path of their mutual love. He knows that ‘she would not make me a good wife; that she is not the partner suited to me; that I should discover this within a year after marriage; and that to twelve months’ rapture would succeed a lifetime of regret. This I know.’ So there.
This thread still hasn’t worked its way out at the point I’ve reached. Has he decided – surely he has – that Jane would be the partner he wouldn’t regret marrying within a year? Was he about to propose when he made the sudden discovery of her real name? (This seems quite likely, as he has taken to visiting her in her little school cottage.) He returns through the snow – for what? Anyone in the real world would say, ‘Jane, you’re rich!’ What this Bronte man has to do is couch the news in a story, one that becomes immediately familiar to her. ‘Twenty years ago, a poor curate—never mind his name at this moment—fell in love with a rich man’s daughter….’ After nearly a page of this, he’s arrived at the point where their orphaned child, now grown up, has discovered the truth of Mr Rochester’s first wife and has disappeared. I don’t know why Bronte does it like this, beyond the fact that she revels in having her characters tell stories – but, of course, it changes everything. Now that she is rich and he is poor, he can’t possibly propose… so what’s he going to do?
As if I care. This is Bronte in puppeteer mode and, as I’ve already said, I haven’t believed a word of it for some time now.
Chapters 33-38 – to the end
A long time ago I wrote that ‘what Bronte offers us in these first chapters are models of how to live, and how not to live.’ I’ve only just re-read those words, but it’s exactly what I was thinking as I read these final chapters. Various alternatives are offered, and Bronte spends some time persuading us that Jane has made the right one. To be precise about it, Jane has grown sufficiently independent-minded to be able to make what is clearly the right decision for her. Perhaps this is why this novel is so popular: it seems to be all about choice. The task ahead of Bronte as she set about writing – and I suppose I’m referring to the whole of Book 3 starting with her decision to leave Thornfield – was to work things so that Jane could be happy and fulfilled with the love of her life, despite his all too evident moral deficiencies. Not only has he tried to trick her into a bigamous marriage; he’s done his level best in Chapter 27 to persuade her to live with him as his mistress. How on earth to bring Jane and Rochester together without a hint of ethical compromise?
Answer: play God. And, at the same time, play the God hand. We already knw about the first of these: throughout the whole of Book 3, including the chapters I’ve already written about, Bronte the puppet-mistress is there, stretching credibility beyond breaking-point. But once she’s provided Jane with her windfall, she can start to concentrate on the real God. First, she needs to sort out that pesky obstacle to St John’s plan to propose to Jane. (I hadn’t been wrong in my prediction.) Jane, selfless, Christian Jane, decides to share the £20,000 legacy amongst all four of them – her, St John and his two sisters – so now he’s as comfortably off as she is. All Bronte has to do now, in a way that becomes more ploddingly tedious the longer it carries on, is to take us through the arguments he uses to back up his proposal and the scrupulous reasoning behind Jane’s eventual rejection of it.
Basically, he uses God in his campaign of emotional blackmail to convince her she has to become his fellow-missionary. No, he won’t be marrying her for love – he’s never made a secret of his love for Rosamond, the local rich girl, who is now going to make a more advantageous match – but he will have to marry her anyway because she couldn’t possibly simply accompany him as an unmarried woman. She had suggested this at one point, before she reaches her decision, and this is when he really goes for the God card.
But I should back-track, because his behaviour before this shows all the characteristics of the typical Bronte man. After she has moved into the house that used to be their father’s, Jane expects him to become as friendly as his sisters. Hah. What she gets instead is the beginning of his campaign of manipulation. He is so cold towards her she feels mortified. And then he pretends he wants her to help him learn Hindustani – which, of course, she does, by learning it herself. She, unlike the reader, can’t hear the alarm bells ringing. She seems surprised when he makes his bulldozer-like proposal:
“Jane, come with me to India: come as my helpmeet and fellow-labourer.”
The glen and sky spun round: the hills heaved! It was as if I had heard a summons from Heaven—as if a visionary messenger, like him of Macedonia, had enounced, “Come over and help us!” But I was no apostle,—I could not behold the herald,—I could not receive his call.
“Oh, St. John!” I cried, “have some mercy!” I appealed to one who, in the discharge of what he believed his duty, knew neither mercy nor remorse. He continued—
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must—shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you—not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
That’s enough of that. He won’t take no for an answer, obviously, but after weeks of stalling, she finally confirms that she will not marry where there is no love on either side. (I’ll leave aside the question of the physical needs he never mentions other than to deny – ‘not for my pleasure’ indeed – but which we know all about. His over-developed sense of pride has ensured that he has let Jane, and the reader, know exactly what a sacrifice he has made in not making Rosamond a partner in his marriage bed.) But it isn’t only about love, even though this might have made Jane a romantic heroine to millions of readers. It’s part of Bronte’s serious-minded project to let us know that Jane has yet another string to her multi-stringed moral bow. Jane is absolutely right to deny this controlling, overbearing man what he wants. It is wrong for her because, unlike him, she has no vocation for such work. She tells him, and it is an important aspect of his failure as a true man of God that he will not listen. ‘Not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service,’ he says, and he might even believe it. But that doesn’t make it right.
So that’s one box ticked. Bronte has subjected Jane to yet another rigorous moral test, to go alongside her rejection of Rochester’s proposition that she should be his mistress – there’s a pattern emerging here – and her selfless sharing-out of her fortune. If we didn’t know she was a diamond before – actually, I think Bronte has made it pretty clear by the time she leaves Thornfield – we do now. So… what? Is she, like Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, imagining that her readers ‘will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity?’ Or is she thinking about that other box that she has yet to tick? Jane can’t return to a villain, however much she might love him. Can she? Hasn’t he really shown himself to be the ‘Bluebeard’ she imagines at Thornfield before she’s even met him?
Well, no, of course he hasn’t. He’s done some bad things, but if there’s a Christian message that hasn’t been covered yet it’s the idea of redemption. Ah. And if Bronte can throw in a Gothic slice of divine intervention for good measure, so much the better. Just before St John is due to leave the country on his mission – and before he has accepted that she isn’t going with him – Jane hears a voice in the night. ‘“Jane! Jane! Jane!” Nothing more.… it was the voice of a human being—a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.’ And that’s enough for Jane. She’s going to do what she’s wanted to do for a long time. She’s heard nothing from Rochester or Mrs Fairax for months, despite her letters. What’s going on? She’s going to get on the coach and find out.
You know what happens. But do you remember the teasing way that this most concealing of narrators – I’m talking about Bronte here, because she does it in Villette too – slowly has Jane reveal her first view of Thornfield in many months, and after a journey of 36 hours? ‘There was the stile before me…’ but there’s plenty of mileage to be got out of this. Four paragraphs later, Jane is almost there, and permits herself ‘an illustration. / A lover finds his mistress asleep on a mossy bank’ – but, at the end of the paragraph, ‘He thought his love slept sweetly: he finds she is stone dead. / I looked with timorous joy towards a stately house: I saw a blackened ruin.’ It’s another image to go with that ruined tree from the time before Jane left Thornfield. But it’s hard to see anything at all positive in this ruin, unlike the two conjoined halves of the tree. What on earth is Bronte going to do now?
You know. She’s going to use it to bring about Rochester’s redemption, one that has been taking place in the background while Jane has been away. Bronte has needed her absence so that Rochester could fight his way out of his pit on his own – and he’s almost done it. Entirely blinded in one eye and almost entirely in the other, when Jane finds him it’s all about hope. There’s only been one piece missing, and we all know who that is. But how to make his redemption seem convincing? He’s close to despair when she arrives, and that isn’t good. But, reader, he hasn’t given up. After months of misery, guess who – or should that be Who? – he’s found? ‘I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His chastisements are mighty; and one smote me which has humbled me for ever. You know I was proud of my strength: but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness? Of late, Jane—only—only of late—I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were, but very sincere.’
It’s shortly after this that he tells her of his cry in the night – at the very moment, of course, when Jane heard it. ‘I asked of God, at once in anguish and humility, if I had not been long enough desolate, afflicted, tormented; and might not soon taste bliss and peace once more. That I merited all I endured, I acknowledged—that I could scarcely endure more, I pleaded; and the alpha and omega of my heart’s wishes broke involuntarily from my lips in the words—“Jane! Jane! Jane!”’
So she’s done it. Bronte. She’s played God – by bringing about Rochester’s punishment – to the extent that she feels comfortable enough to call on the real one to help her out. Rochester’s wife died in the fire she started, and which he was trying to save her from when a falling beam took away most of his sight and one of his hands. He’s proved himself, in his own way, to be as worthy of Jane as any God-fearing woman would wish. ‘Reader –’ what? You know what. And after she’s married him – how much strength is there in that forthright ‘I’? – they have a nice place, a lovely marriage and… ever the kindly God, Bronte restores enough of Rochester’s sight to let him see their lovely children. Jane’s cousins, the sisters, are happily married, and all’s well with the world. The first time I read it, all those years ago, I can remember thinking of this as the archetypal 19th Century novel in the way everything is tied up nicely.
But for Bronte, ever the – ever the what? – it isn’t enough for us to be left on a note of domestic bliss. It’s St John’s story she has Jane end with, and lines from what is likely to be his final letter from India. Missionary work has shortened his life, and he knows he will soon die. But he isn’t only ok with this, he’s ecstatic: ‘My Master … has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly,—“Surely I come quickly!” and hourly I more eagerly respond,—“Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!”’
God bless us, every one.