There are certain works that are so very familiar that we tend to take them for granted: we think we know them even though, in many cases, we don’t. Jane Eyre is one such work. I read it when I was 13, and haven’t revisited it since – although that hasn’t stopped me from pontificating on it as and when the occasion has arisen. So I thought it might be pleasant to re-acquaint myself with this book, so that, at the very least, when I next pontificate on it, I know what the hell I’m talking about.
And the Christmas-New Year break seemed the ideal time. This is a time when one wants to read something if only to get away from what passes for festive cheer on television; and, while one doesn’t want to read tripe, neither does one necessarily want unduly to tax the intellect. Or, at least, I don’t: some people may positively welcome the idea of settling down after a heavy Christmas dinner with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, but, intellectual lightweight that I no doubt am, I am not amongst them. Not that Jane Eyre makes no demand on the intellect, I hasten to add: as with any book worth reading, the brain should be in at least some sort of working order if one is to take it in adequately. But, as in so many things, there are different shades of grey between absolute black and absolute white, and Jane Eyre, I imagined, occupied a position on this spectrum ideal for a good holiday read. And when that holiday is spent in the north of England, only some thirty or so miles from Haworth Moor; and when, in addition, a bitter and keening wind howling outside almost continuously places the Gothic firmly in one’s mind; then the Brontë sisters do seem ideal companions.
(In the event, I finished Jane Eyre more quickly that I thought I would, and decided to indulge myself somewhat – it was Christmas, after all – by reading also its sister novel, Wuthering Heights. Rarely are sisters so dissimilar from each other: but more of that later. Given my reading earlier last year of Sister Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 2013 has been a bit of a Year of the Brontës for me.)
It is hard to imagine a time when Jane Eyre will cease to be popular. No matter that the position of women within society is now quite different to that depicted in the novel; no matter that the moral imperatives that drive Jane’s actions have largely fallen by the wayside; the story itself hits upon a number of what one may call “archetypes”. It encompasses the archetypes of the Cinderella story (the wicked stepmother and the ugly stepsisters are easy to identify; a dissolute step-brother is thrown in also for good measure); and also of the Bluebeard story, with the inquisitive wife discovering her husband’s terrible secret behind a locked door in his castle. And many other myths too, I imagine.
Not surprisingly, a story that hits upon so many mythical elements is bound to spawn many others: a full list would be tiresome, and, since I am not well read in stories of romance, it would be beyond me to compile such a list in the first place; but, apart from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is a conscious homage to the earlier novel, one may note works as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes story “The Copper Beeches”, which features a governess in a mysterious house and a terrible secret behind a locked door; and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, in which the governess, her unspoken love for her employer frustrated by the latter’s absence, finds instead, as a sort of diabolical compensation, spirits of the most unspeakable evil. And one may also cite in this context Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, which also features an outsider entering a house, displacing the mistress of the house, and winning the affections of the master. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work”, analysed the character of Rebecca West in this play, and identified this displacement as a powerful archetype; he may have added – although he didn’t – that this archetype had already appeared, very powerfully indeed, in Jane Eyre.
I’ll leave it to those more familiar than I am with the principles of psychoanalysis to carry out a Freudian analysis of Jane Eyre: I’m sure they’ll find rich material there. What interested me more was the moral framework of the novel. For Jane, despite her often overwhelmingly passionate nature, undertakes here a moral journey. In a sense, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress seems a sort of antecedent to this novel: it belongs to the same Puritan tradition. Jane’s painful travel to the Celestial City is punctuated by two great temptations, in each of which she has to pit her moral conscience against her own desires. The first of these temptations, of course, is the temptation to become Mr Rochester’s mistress when it becomes clear that she cannot marry him: while it is true that Jane doesn’t even pause to consider Mr Rochester’s offer, her intense passion for Mr Rochester, her hurried and secret escape from Thornfield Hall, and a state of mind so disturbed that she forgets to take anything with her that might have sustained her in the wilderness, all indicate that the decision to resist this temptation is not one easily made. But it is the second temptation that I find even more interesting: it is a subtler temptation than that of merely gratifying one’s desires – it is the temptation of sainthood.
Over the years, I have been in the habit of saying that Jane Eyre is let down by the final section; that, after Jane leaves Thornfield Hall, the novel slows down at the very point when it should have been accelerating towards the end. I think I said this because when I last read this, inexperienced as I was in reading serious novels, this part of the novel had bored me. And it may well have been that I had skipped some passages. Reading it now, some forty years later, it seems to me that Charlotte Brontë has superb control over the pacing; and that, furthermore, the entire sequence involving Jane and St John Rivers is a high point of the novelist’s art. For St John Rivers is more than merely a foil to Rochester: he is a fanatic. If Jane has sacrificed her desires for the sake of her moral code, we see St John Rivers doing the same – except in a more extreme, more fanatical manner: so single-minded is his moral purpose, that he does not allow his mind even to become perturbed by his rejection of Rosamond, to whom, it is made clear, he is attracted. And he tempts Jane: he tempts her not with desire, but with the opportunity to achieve sainthood by jettisoning the last remaining elements of her desire; to carry her own sense of moral purpose even further than she already has. He tempts her to renounce completely any earthy desire she may still have.
For St John’s fierce fanaticism cannot accept compromise on anything, either from himself, or from anyone else: it is, for him, all or nothing. He is, indeed, Ibsen’s Brand. There is, as many have commented, something a bit inhuman about sainthood – something cold and implacable about its absolute refusal to compromise with the fallen nature of our human selves. To achieve sainthood, to follow St John in his missionary work, Jane would have to amputate away from herself earthly desires, just as St John himself has done. I think I failed to appreciate when I was thirteen that Jane resisting this temptation is, indeed, the climactic point of this novel, and that, far from this entire sequence being a boring irrelevance that served but to slow down the narrative, this is what the entire novel had been leading towards. After Jane’s rejection of the temptation of sainthood, St John leaves for India on his own to carry out his missionary work, that fanatic glint still in his eye. (The final paragraphs of the novel suggest that, in India, he becomes very ill, and is unlikely to survive. I couldn’t help looking beyond these final paragraphs and hoping that he would survive, and become caught up a few years later in the Indian Mutiny, in which all sorts of fanaticisms on all sides combined to produce one of the most appallingly blood-drenched episodes in human history. St John in the Indian Mutiny could potentially be a great novel: I’d write it myself if only I had a talent for that sort of thing.)
What we get after this climactic rejection scene is a sort of coda: Jane returns to Mr Rochester, and finds him to be the protagonist of Milton’s Samson Agonistes – blind, in despair, painfully aware of his own guilt and bewailing his hopelessness. He is given here some of the most tender of lines that recall another work of Milton’s:
…but I cannot be so blest, after all my misery. It is a dream; such dreams as I have had at night when I have clasped her once more to my heart, as I do now; and kissed her, as thus–and felt that she loved me, and trusted that she would not leave me … But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned–my life dark, lonely, hopeless–my soul athirst and forbidden to drink–my heart famished and never to be fed.
Would I appear very sentimental if I were to say that I find these lines wonderfully moving? Very well – sentimentalist I am.
Unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights has long been a great personal favourite of mine, and is a novel I have revisited frequently. The two are often mentioned alongside each other as if they were two of a kind, but they seem to me very different. A major theme in Jane Eyre is morality: in particular, it explores how moral integrity may be reconciled with our human needs and desires. But rarely if ever has there been a novel so devoid of a sense of morality as Wuthering Heights. It is not even that this novel takes a subversive delight in turning up-side-down conventional concepts of morality: rather, it refuses even to acknowledge the very existence of such a concept. Here, the id is set utterly free from all moral restraints, and the result is utterly demonic. It is a tremendously violent novel, but the violence isn’t merely physical: anyone can depict physical violence, after all. What this novel depicts, more disturbingly, is a sort of spiritual violence, a violence of the mind: it depicts a world where a state of extreme violence appears to be the natural condition of the human soul. “The action is laid in Hell,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti once famously said about it, “only it seems places and people have English names there.”
Repeated encounters with this book never diminish the sheer strangeness of it, nor mitigate its savagery. Yes, it is passionate, but where the passion of Jane or of Mr Rochester is often expressed in terms of tenderness, here, expressions of passion are more like howls of wild beasts. Here, for instance, is the famous depiction of Heathcliff mourning Cathy’s death:
He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears. I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion – it appalled me…
Could anything be further, I wonder, from the infinite melancholy of Mr Rochester’s longing for the lost Jane? Unlike Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights makes no appeal to our compassion: instead, it appalls. And it seems to me quite unique. That is an adjective we often apply to works that are merely distinctive, but here, I think this adjective is justified; for while, when thinking about Jane Eyre, all sorts of other works can come to mind, from Milton’s Samson Agonistes to Ibsen’s Brand, I cannot think of a single other work that sheds light on Wuthering Heights, either as a parallel or as a contrast. It is out on a limb, quite distant, as far as I can see, from any of the main trunks of literary traditions. Yes, it appalls, but so extraordinarily vivid is the imagination, and so brilliant its unorthodox craftsmanship, it also enthralls.
I am usually uninterested in authors’ biographies: I do not believe they tell us more about any work than we need to know, and that, further, should we succumb to the temptation of allowing what we know of the author to influence what we think of the work, we are likely, I think, to be led astray. But it’s hard not to wonder what the personalities of these sisters may have been. Perhaps I should overcome my aversion to literary biographies and reach for Juliet Barker’s much acclaimed biography of the Brontës.
I don’t know to what extent the personalities of the sisters may be gauged from the portraits. In Branwell Brontë’s famous group painting of his sisters, Anne, on the left, strikes me as a bit querulous and restless, while Charlotte, on the right, is a stolid, matronly, and somewhat severe figure. But of Emily in the middle, I can make nothing at all. Rather surprisingly, given that Branwell was a professional portraitist, she doesn’t even seem very well drawn.
There is a later portrait of Charlotte by George Richmond, but it is clearly an idealised version: not a beautiful face, perhaps, but quite a pleasant one I think, and, though not quite as severe as she appears in Branwell’s group portrait, nonetheless giving the impression of someone with a considerable strength of character. But it’s hard to say much from so sanitised a portrait as this.
There exists also another portrait by Branwell of Emily. Here, she is presented in profile, with no expression discernible in her features. As a consequence, she appears remote and distant, her personality inscrutable. Given how unsuccessful Branwell had been in capturing any kind of personality at all of Emily in the group portrait, this is possibly a sensible way of painting her; but what we have here is a sort of icon rather than the depiction of a personality. From the internal evidence of her only novel, all we can really infer is that hers must have been a strange personality indeed: perhaps that personality was too elusive for Branwell Brontë to capture.But whatever the personalities of the sisters, the last two weeks spent in their company have been quite fascinating. I must do this more often.