Although Jane Eyre is considered a novel for adults, many of us first fell under its spell when we were children. Then, on each re-reading, we discovered afresh its protean, exponential capacities. It grows even as we do. It is one of those rare novels that keeps on supplying its generations of readers with enlightenment through the seasons and moods of their lives.
I have friends who can recall vividly the moment and circumstance when Jane Eyre provided a transforming experience. "I was 10 and very unhappy," one told me. "My father had resigned his job in the city and we moved to the country where I dreaded the school bus rides. The boys made fun of my haircut and clothes and the 'fancy' way I talked. Then a friend of my mother's gave me this novel. The heroine was 10, exactly my age. The first night, I read all the way to where Helen Burns dies in Jane's arms at the Lowood Charity School and they have to pull her away from Helen's cold body next morning. I cried myself to sleep and woke up feeling strangely better. On the school bus, I thought of Jane's withering description of her bullying cousin John Reed. And I imagined her sitting beside me in her orphan's pinafore whispering comments about these bumpkin bullies in her crisp little British accent." This young reader actually persuaded her father to send her to a girls' school in England the following year. Now she is a multilingual writer of screenplays, a designer of kitchens and the mother of a young actress.
"I was applying for college," another friend recounts, "and you had to write about a novel that had made a lasting impression on you. I immediately thought of Jane Eyre, even though I'd only seen the film. I was deciding whether to rent the version I loved with Orson Welles as Rochester or try some of the newer ones with better production values, and then the daring thought occurred to me that I could read the actual book. Well, it sucked me right in. It was so intimate, I felt I knew her and she was telling me things I needed to hear right now. It also contained some wonderful scenes the movie left out, like when Mr. Rochester poses as an old gypsy woman and tells fortunes at his house party and reveals himself only to Jane, the governess." This latecomer to reading is now a dedicated professor of English.
"I first read it when I was 15 and sick in bed," a parish priest in his seventies fondly recollects. "After that, whenever I got sick, I found myself wanting Jane again. I still do."
This aspect of Jane as nourisher and healer was highlighted by the poet Adrienne Rich in her classic 1979 essay, "Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman." "Returning to Charlotte Bronte's most famous novel," Rich wrote, "as I did over and over in adolescence, in my twenties, thirties, now in my forties, I have never lost the sense that the novel contains, through and beyond the force of its creator's imagination, some nourishment I needed then and still need today."
I can't pinpoint when or how Jane Eyre came into my life. I suspect I might be one of those who saw the 1944 David O. Selznick movie first. But in successive readings, I continue to find Jane the most sustaining female narrator in literature. I'm in her skin from the moment she climbs onto the window seat with her History of British Birds and draws the curtains against the cruelties of the Reed family until she sits down at Ferndean to write her autobiography after 10 years of happy marriage. Hers is a roomy, passionate mind and there is a lot going on in there. Her adamant determination to keep faith with herself elicits my fiercest sympathies. Over the past five decades I have read Jane's story at least 30 times. Now in my sixth decade, I find new insights as I retrace her journey from scorned orphan niece at Gateshead to charity girl at the harsh Lowood School, to dependent governess at Mr. Rochester's Thornfield, to independent schoolteacher at Marsh End; and at last -- after tests of character that would wreck many a heroine -- the loving and beloved equal of Edward Rochester at Ferndean. ("We talk, I believe, all day long.")
Jane Eyre: An Autobiography: edited by Currer Bell (the full title Charlotte Bronte gave to the novel) belongs to that magical category of fiction that seems to sprout new characters and scenes with each successive reading. (Pop quiz for inveterate re-readers: Why is Mr. Lloyd, the apothecary, pivotal to Jane's fate? Who was Mary Ann Wilson? During Mr. Rochester's extended house party, Jane spends hours drawing her own portrait and then that of another woman. What is Jane's purpose in setting herself this exercise?) This novel for all ages has the uncanny ability to give you what you need most at a particular time in your life, whether it's an invisible companion on a bus full of bullies, or the assurance that passionate love does exist somewhere out there, or perhaps even the courage to make big changes in your life.
Or maybe just the courage to tackle the next scene of your own work in progress.
This time around, because I am deeply involved in a long novel of my own, I realized that Jane Eyre is also about writing. Jane as author and narrator provides explicit information about how a writer continually struggles to shape her materials into art. She shares creative asides with her readers, inviting us to reflect on her devices for moving the story along.
"To the first ten years of my life I have given almost as many chapters," she confides in chapter 10 of the novel. "But this is not to be a regular autobiography. I am only bound to invoke Memory where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest."
Ah, good point, Jane!
She then passes over the space of eight years, which concludes her education at Lowood School. Her teacher, the excellent Miss Temple, has married and departed. Jane is now a teacher at Lowood herself, but without Miss Temple's infectious tranquility Jane's more fiery, exploratory qualities quickly reassert themselves. She "gasps" for liberty, change, stimulus -- or at least "a new servitude." Having set her imagination the task of "some inventive suggestions" as to what form this new servitude could take, Jane relates: "I sat up in bed by way of arousing this sad brain: it was a chilly night; I covered my shoulders with a shawl, and then I proceeded to think again with all my might."
She allows us to crawl in with her and ride the momentum of a creative mind going full throttle toward what needs to happen next if a story is to remain vital. I have since taken this scene as a model for talking myself step-by-step through an impasse, whether in my life or in my writing.
("'What do I want? A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances: I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better. How do people do to get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose: I have no friends. There are many others who have no friends, who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?' I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response, and quickly. It worked and worked faster: I felt the pulses throb in my head and temples.") After rising and taking a turn about the cold room, Jane returns to bed and finds the "required suggestion" on her pillow: "Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the _____shire Herald." She does so, and we pack up and follow her into the drama and passion and madness of Thornfield.
I believe that the novel's capacity for providing sustenance may even have extended to its creator. Charlotte Bronte and her younger sisters, Emily and Anne, had been writing seriously since adolescence. All three hoped to earn money from their novels, but on the morning of her father's cataract surgery in Manchester (which he required Charlotte to watch!), a publisher sent word that Emily's Wuthering Heights, Anne's Agnes Grey and Charlotte's The Professor had been rejected. What were they to do? It was not yet known whether their father would regain his sight and keep his job. Their brother Branwell, under the care of Emily and Anne, back at the parsonage in Haworth, was crazy and violent, incapable of earning a living. Here was Charlotte, just turned 30, weary and depressed and with a raging toothache, confined to a Manchester boarding house with a fearsome man whose operation had rendered him helpless and whom she had to keep absolutely still for four days and nights. Charlotte's acute predicament kindled her imagination. As the blinded Rochester at Ferndean was to call out "Jane, Jane, Jane!" and summon her all the way from Marsh End, Charlotte's creative powers now cried out for the exactly right helpmate to lead her out of her impasse. And out of the restrained gloom of the invalid's darkened room in Manchester materialized the 10-year-old ball of fire whose first utterance ("There was no possibility of taking a walk that day") would draw generations of grateful readers into her tale. *
Gail Godwin is the author of 11 novels, among them "Dream Children," "Violet Clay," "A Woman and Two Daughters" and, most recently, "Evenings at Five."