October 12, 2016

Charlotte Bronte at 200 — Love Duets, Dark Debates, and the Passion of Jane Eyre


The portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond (1809-1896), chalk, 1850. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy of the Morgan Museum and Library.

As opening sentences of great novels go, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” doesn’t make much of an impression, certainly not compared to the upfront immediacy of “Call Me Ishmael” from Moby Dick or the expansive vision of society suggested by “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” from Pride and Prejudice. Herman Melville and Jane Austen head the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels. Charlotte Brontë’s no-walk-that-day opener doesn’t make the list.

But the first chapter of Jane Eyre grabs the reader and never lets go. You may begin by asking yourself “Who cares about taking a walk?” Five pages later, after a scene of primal childhood male/female violence that resonates into 2016 and the recent Town Hall debate, Brontë’ has you in her power as surely as Jane has Rochester.

The book became a national sensation. People in 1847 thought they were reading  a novel written by a man named Currer Bell. According to Claire Harman’s bicentennial biography, Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart (Knopf $30), Jane Eyre sold in the thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks. Even Queen Victoria read “that intensely interesting novel.” William Makepeace Thackeray set aside his work on Vanity Fair, which was appearing in serial form at the same time. A servant found him weeping over the love scenes. England was obsessed with discovering the identity of Currer Bell. Reviewers never doubted the sex of the author. Said one, “This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man.”

The Throwing of the Book

Read beyond the chilly weather of the opening paragraph of Jane Eyre and you find yourself in the company of a 10-year-old girl cozily concealed in a curtained window seat gazing at a book. Everyone who loves to read, or lives to read, knows that ultimate readerly contentment. You’re warm inside with a good book. Outside the window are the reasons the girl’s glad not to have taken that walk, “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” The big book she’s so absorbed by is Berwick’s History of British Birds, which is rich with images of the haunts of sea-fowl, solitary rocks and promontories, Alpine heights, “death-white realms,” and a “cold and ghastly moon.” Jane finds her imaginings of phantom ships, “objects of terror,” and a gallows “mysterious” and “profoundly interesting.” She’s worlds away from the miserable reality of her life as an orphaned outcast barely tolerated by a family that wants nothing to do with her.

You, the reader reading about a reader, are right there in the windowseat with the girl when trouble arrives in the form of the 14-year-old cousin who bullies the outcast every chance he gets. He’s “large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin” and “heavy limbs and large extremities.” He gorges himself at meals, which makes him “bilious” with “a dim and bleared eye and flabby cheeks.” As she looks on his “disgusting and ugly appearance” he reads the insult in her eyes and strikes her “suddenly and strongly,” knocking her two steps backwards. Asked what she was doing behind the curtain, she tells him and he demands to see the book, scolding her for daring to look at it (“they are all mine”). Then, after asking her to stand clear of the window, he hurls the heavy volume at her, it hits her, she falls, striking her head. Bleeding from the wound, she finally breaks free of her perpetual victim mode to call him out, “Wicked and cruel boy!” with a barrage of invective learned from books she’s been escaping into — he’s “a murderer,” a slave driver, a Roman emperor like Nero or Caligula. Goaded, he runs headlong at her, grabbing her hair, she can feel the blood from her head trickling down her neck, she fights back, hitting him in certain sensitive areas of his body (“I don’t very well know what I did with my hands”). When the brat bellows for help, the inevitable happens: he’s never in the wrong, she’s the guilty one (“What a fury to fly at Master John!” “Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!”). Jane’s punishment is to be hauled off to the chill, haunted “red room” her uncle had died in. She fights back, resisting “all the way” — “Hold her arms … she’s like a mad cat!” “For shame! for shame! …. What shocking conduct!”

There you are, reader, five pages into Jane Eyre, and like all the myriad readers since 1847, you’re hooked. You’ve been jarred out of that bookish idyll. And of course you love the “mad cat” for fighting back and you smile with the author as she relishes the moment, confiding, just between the two of you, “I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say.”

Making that admission, she knows she has you. You’re there, the same devoted companion to her work she’ll bring front and center in the first sentence of the novel’s closing chapter: “Reader, I married him.”

At the Morgan

One of the first objects you behold when you enter the Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibit Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will is the actual copy of Berwick’s Birds that Charlotte read and copied images from (several of them also on display nearby) when she was growing up among her talented siblings, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. If you’ve recently read Jane Eyre, it’s moving to see first-hand the hefty volume that transforms little Jane from a victim into a tiger.

Rumble in St. Louis

Reading a novel where an embattled female protagonist weathers a perfect Gothic storm of adversity, it’s easy to see the first chapter’s spoiled-bully vs. prey dynamic played out in Sunday night’s Rumble in St. Louis, where the Republican candidate did everything but throw the book of his wrath at Hillary Clinton, towering behind her when she was talking to members of the audience, ever-looming, wheezing with the nasal thrust of every threat, every accusation, semingly unaware that he was presenting the very impression of stalker-and-prey he should have been avoiding on that Access Hollywood night of all nights with the four madwomen-in-Bill-Clinton’s-attic looking on.

The early 21st-century visual of a big man hovering menacingly over a little woman could be compared to the central situation in Jane Eyre — except that the mysterious male presence dominating the narrative is not a sexist bully throwing his considerable weight around but a complex creation of daunting magnitude, one of the most compelling characters in English literature. The scenes between Jane and Rochester could be called debates, but he’s never merely cruel as he quizzes, engages, teases, and draws her out in a series of exchanges that are the glory of the novel. The Gothic trappings of the mad wife are secondary to the duets between wee Jane and ever-looming Rochester. It’s the epitome of male/female interplay perhaps matched only by the heady Shakespearean back and forth in which the Portias and Rosalinds and Beatrices and Kates and Cleopatras match their lover-adversaries word for word, thought for thought.

Jane’s Littleness

Before you come to Berwick’s Birds or anything else at the Morgan show, you see Charlotte Bronte’s pale blue flowered dress and tiny Cinderella shoes and learn that she stood only 4’9”. Apparently the dress was even more elaborate when worn by Charlotte as she conquered giants of literary London like Thackeray, who recalled “the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterize the woman. Twice I recollect she took me to task for what she held to be errors in doctrine …. She spoke her mind out …. New to the London world, she entered it with an independent, indomitable spirit of her own; and judged of contemporaries, and especially spied out arrogance or affectation, with extraordinary keenness of vision.” Thackeray also saw “a fire and a fury raging in that little woman a rage scorching her heart,” qualities reflected in the first chapter of Jane Eyre and in the subtitle of Harman’s biography.

As fascinated as Rochester is by the fire in Jane, what draws and eventually binds him to her are the features Thackeray observes, the honesty, the speaking of her mind, the independent spirit, the keen vision, and the way it’s all set off by her fetchingly slight stature. Then there’s the otherwordly aura he associates with their first meeting, when he’s thrown from his horse, as if she’d “bewitched” it. “No wonder you have the look of another world,” he tells her. “I marvelled where you had got that sort of face.” As he first cross-examines her, he mentions thinking she was waiting for “her people. the men in green, it was a proper moonlight for them.” Among his many endearments, she’s his “stray lamb,” “thorny as a briar-rose,” his “little elf,” his “mustard-seed,” she’s got a “sylph’s foot,” she’s “delicate and aerial,” sprite or salamander or witch, “a little thing with a veil of gossamer on its head,” a “fairy come from Elf-land,” a “little tyrant,” a “bonny wee thing” to put on his watch chain, a “provoking puppet,” “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” and most tenderly, his “little friend.” Even in the scene when she saves his life by putting out the fire the madwoman sets in his bed, he says, “of all the elves in Christendom, is that Jane Eyre?”

The Proposal Scene

A formative moment in the relationship occurs when Rochester asks Jane if she thinks him handsome and she unhesitatingly says no. If she doesn’t win him at that point, she definitely gets his attention. The exchange gives a hint of the pleasures to come, particularly when Rochester tells her fortune in the guise of a gypsy and Brontë turns the bizarre situation into one of her most brilliant duets. Finally, few love scenes ever written can equal the one that Thackeray (and untold others) have been moved by, wherein Rochester’s characteristically unorthodox, protracted, and devious, playfully serious, half-teasing proposal creates a level of emotional music rarely found in fiction.

The best proposal scene, and the best Jane and Rochester on film, for me, is in the 2006 BBC version with Ruth Wilson a wonder as Jane and Toby Stevens a match for her as Rochester. Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday was April 21 of this year. The Morgan exhibit, which deserves a fuller review, will be up through January 2.