Jane and her Mr. Rochester

An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know them sooner.

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Reader, I’m sorry to say it’s taken me this long into adulthood to read “Jane Eyre.”  If I had known what a fabulous story this was, I would have gotten around to it much sooner. I had just figured it was dated, gothic, dreary and a long slog.

I was so wrong.

Jane Eyre is a heroine worthy of being called such. She stays true to herself, no matter her trials and tribulations. And her Mr. Rochester? Well, he’s a brooding, complicated, adoring man. They get their fairy-tale ending, although it is tempered by tragedy.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte has it all: an orphan and a neglected heir, both terribly misunderstood; an English family manse steeped in history; a crazy woman hidden away; superstitions and the supernatural; witty dialogue; beautiful descriptions of the moody, isolated moors, and, of course, the love story.

I read the recent “Mr. Rochester” by Sarah Shoemaker first, and I think it made me love “Jane Eyre” even more. Shoemaker tells the story from Rochester’s point of view, fleshing out his story, the root of his misfortune, and the abandonment and loss he endured as a child and young adult. Just like Jane, he wonders why he has to face such misery and challenge. While he comes from money, he is no less alone in many ways.

An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. They weather each other’s flaws, flirt, cajole and play hard to get. When it appears Rochester is going to marry, Jane knows the beautiful, money-hungry Miss Ingram is not the best for him:

“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure. This was the point — this was where the nerve was touched and teazed — this was where the fever was sustained and fed: she could not charm him.”

(Reader, be prepared for punctuation the likes you don’t often see outside of 19th-Century literature.)

Both the reader and Mr. Rochester know just who is capable of charming him.

Just as it appears that the two will live happily ever after despite the misgivings of others, Rochester’s past comes to light in a shocking chapel betrayal. Jane could have acquiesced to a life of contentment but that would cost her dignity and honor, so she turns from happiness:

“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

Both Shoemaker and Bronte give their characters depth and nuance. Together, the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester is much fuller. Written more than a century after Bronte’s story, Shoemaker adheres to the former’s voice and vision while fleshing out Rochester’s past.

A very poignant part of “Jane Eyre” finds Rochester bemoaning his fate and feeling unworthy: “I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard. And what right would that ruin have to bid a budding woodbine cover its decay with freshness?”

Jane’s response: “You are no ruin, sir — no lightning-struck tree: you are green and vigorous. Plants will grow about your roots, whether you ask them or not; because they take delight in your bountiful shadow; and as they grow they will lean towards you, and wind round you, because your strength offers them so safe a prop.”

In each other, they find home and companionship and refuge.

 

Enlightenment on the Tube

The London Underground provided unexpected inspiration.

In 1991, when I was 20, I spent 6 weeks in London on a study abroad trip and another couple weeks taking a Eurail train throughout Europe. As an angsty, small-town girl, everything I saw expanded my world. As I wandered through streets where history beckoned at almost every door and an eclectic mix of residents and tourists strolled the streets, packed the stairs of the London Underground (the Tube) and otherwise went about their day, I felt I was part of something bigger. Winding through backroads on a rickety bus during day trips, listening to the Cure on my Walkman, taking in the pastoral beauty, every moment was one to discover. There were possibilities. London is a metropolis that pulsates with energy and vibrancy, but is also full of smaller, quieter moments that hum beneath the noise.

I loved the Tube. I had never been on anything like it. “Mind the gap” still makes me smile. The world underground was a respite from the noise and heat and smog and smells. It was a journey to somewhere, anywhere new.

One of the things I love about the British, besides their accent and history and the royal family, is their literature. More specifically, their appreciation of it. I soon discovered on the Tube that summer that travelers were treated to poetry posted within the rectangles normally used for advertisements. The Poetry Society’s program Poems on the Underground was started in 1986 to bring poetry to a wider audience. What a British concept (at least in my mind)! I found it so beautiful and un-American to feature poetry prominently where people of every class and ethnicity who rode public transportation could be inspired.

These poems has stayed with me for decades. In reading them, I felt as if the poet was speaking to me. I felt understood.

“The Embankment (The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)” by T.E. Hulme

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy

In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.

Now see I

That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.

Oh, God, make small the old star-eaten blanket of the sky,

That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.”

Keep in mind my favorite English word at the time was melancholia and my favorite French word was malheureusement (unfortunately).

london underground

Another that captured what it meant to be in a traveler, whose glimpses of pasture and lake and ancient architecture may be fleeting, was this one by A. E. Housman.

“Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows.

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what barns are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.”