Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Brilliant Brontes: Jane Eyre: To Thine Own Self Be True

Anne Bronte (1820-1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 - Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 - Haworth, 1855), English writers, Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848), ca 1834. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 19 Dec 2015.

Charlotte Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, and to celebrate, let's reflect on her best known novel Jane Eyre, which is an inspiring and unconventional book that went against the social norms of Charlotte's day. Her heroine Jane Eyre, is a courageous young woman without connections, who is determined to make her way through the world with her own talents, gumption, and integrity. An orphan who is sent to a grim boarding school by her unjust aunt, Jane is a rebellious child, who is too strong to be broken by cruelty, either by her scant relatives or her induction into the Gothic nightmare of the Lowood Institution for girls.

Charlotte Bronte drew on her life experiences and her literary inspiration for the Lowood school came from the Clergy Daughter's Boarding School where Charlotte, Emily and their two elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth attended until brutal conditions wore them out . During their time there, typhoid fever struck the school. The suffering of pupils who perished was not an exaggeration, even by the most dramatic depictions. It was such an inhumane experience that Charlotte's father was urged by the school to withdraw Emily and Charlotte, after the deaths of their older sisters from tuberculosis. Their swift declines were undoubtedly exacerbated by physical abuse, insufficient food, hygiene, and the relentlessly cold and damp conditions. Charlotte Bronte was sued by the headmaster Reverend William Carus-Wilson, and managed to avoid court action by writing an apology, which carried the disclaimer that she had used literary license in her fiction. But I would say that being sued by a churchman is as good as any enthusiastic review if you want to take some literary revenge.

Charlotte's lost sister Maria Bronte experiences an afterlife in the saintly Helen Burns character, a shining New Testament example of turning the other cheek and transcending the unforgivable. Helen Burns alleviates the spiritually abusive atmosphere that prompts Jane Eyre to famously answer the headmaster that in order to avoid damnation and hellfire, "I must keep in good health and not die."

Jane survives and leaves Lowood as a young woman, determined to experience life, albeit as a respectable governess. Jane's inner strength helps her to maintain her dignity in the difficult situation of falling in love with her employer and master of Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester, who is supposed to be a great Byronic romantic figure, but really is the worst, at least according to Edan Lupecki: Mr. Rochester Is a Creep: A List.

Despite Jane being an orphan and Mr. Rochester's employee, she is too genuine and truthful to keep up a pretense of inequality with Mr. Rochester, who is extraordinarily aggravating in his malicious toying of her sensitive feelings. Pushed to her limits, Jane delivers an impassioned speech:

“Do you think I am an automaton? A machine without feelings? And can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal — as we are!” 

Spoiler alert: Jane and Rochester attempt to get married and if anyone knows of any reason why these two may not be lawfully wed, let's proceed to the attic and meet Mrs. Antoinette Bertha Mason Rochester, the insane, inconvenient first wife who is very much alive and turns out to be the source of deranged laughter cackling throughout Thornfield Hall, a pyromaniac and catalyst for other dangerous acts of mayhem and attempted murder. Bertha is portrayed in ghastly, subhuman terms. Mr. Rochester defensively credits himself for keeping her under the watch of a servant instead of sending her to the madhouse, which he may deserve some points for, due to asylums of that time period being a fate worse than death.

Through ABC Library's subscription to the eResource: Britannica Library, I found this remarkable video of "The Figure of Bertha Mason" by Professor John Bowen , courtesy of  The British Library. The first Mrs. Rochester is seen as a demonic obstacle to Jane's happiness and longed for marriage to Edward Rochester, but from a 21st century perspective, Bertha is the character that genuinely deserves sympathy and rescue, not only from her untreated mental illness, but a spouse who congratulates himself for confining her in the attic and pretending she doesn't exist in between her destructive escapes when the gin-loving and overtaxed servant Grace Poole drops her guard.

In keeping with his track record, Rochester asks Jane to run away with him and be his mistress, since a legal marriage is now out of the question. He paints himself as the wronged party, coerced into an arranged marriage for money. Jane refuses to compromise her morals and declines Rochester's desperate offer, which would reduce her to being one of his many kept and cast aside women. As she struggles with this momentary temptation, a Bronte-esque inner monologue is delivered: "Who in the world cares for you? Who will be injured by what you do? Still indomitable was the reply: "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad - as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation."

When Jane runs away from Thornfield Hall, she endures three harrowing days of homelessness and hunger, but is rescued by the Rivers family, composed of two sisters: Diana and Mary Rivers and their cold, aspiring missionary brother St. John. In the course of nursing Jane back to health and securing her a job as a school teacher, it is revealed that they are cousins. Jane's uncle in Madeira dies and leaves her a fortune she eagerly shares with her newfound family.

The steely St. John proposes marriage to Jane, not out of love, but in the hope she'll be his helper on his mission to India. Jane is aghast at yet another terrible proposal, and after several rounds of loveless, baffling negotiations, finally tells St. John, "God did not give me life to throw it away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide."

You go, Jane!

And go she does indeed, after hearing Mr. Rochester's voice haunting her, all the way back to Thornfield Hall, to find it burned to the ground. The first Mrs. Rochester succeeded in her latest suicidal pyromaniac attempt. Mr. Rochester redeems himself by getting everyone out of the house and even trying to save Bertha, who flings herself from the roof, dashing herself all over the cobblestones. Mr. Rochester is blinded and has to have a hand amputated, but Jane is moved by his inner transformation. Jane is able to return to Rochester on her own terms as a financially independent woman. Their love scene of reunification, forgiveness, and spiritual gratitude are deeply moving.

Jane Eyre is the epitome of Victorian Gothic literature, but as a reader in the 21st century, the fate of Bertha Mason Rochester is about much more than an insane wife, but a tragedy of ignorance. "Bertha Mason's Madness In a Contemporary Context" by Mia Iwama, takes the racism and brutality of Charlotte Bronte's portrayal of Bertha to task. "Bertha Mason, Insane Asylums, and Jane Eyre" by Kayleigh Schultz, defends Rochester's choice to confine Bertha to the attic. Bronte's limited view of mental illnesses, may have come directly from the family's medical handbook.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, chronicles  the life of Antoinette Mason (known in Jane Eyre as Bertha), a West Indian who marries Rochester in Jamaica and returns with him to his home in England. The loveless union and miserable English climate is attributed to Antoinette's descent in mental illness and violence. Rochester banishes her to Thornfield's attic. Most of the book is set in the West Indies, and is narrated alternately by Antoinette and Rochester. Antoinette is given a voice and can be seen in a dynamic and humane light.

Antoinette's Creole ethnicity leaves the reader to speculate about her identity, although Bronte portrays her as having dark hair and a "discoloured black face". Bronte further dehumanized Antoinette by referring to her in a variety of demonic labels. Rochester is also guilty of referring to Antoinette as "gross, impure, depraved’ and of a ‘common mind" and also refers to the "ravings" of a "lunatic" and "demon" so that Rochester feels justified in locking her away without any kind of medical help.

In a sense, Jane Eyre is a codependent's dream come true: a woman changes a moody, brooding man into a devoted companion. On the other hand, Jane Eyre is also about redemption, forgiveness, and being true to oneself; especially in regard to self-sufficiency and not being afraid to go out into the world. Before learning that Bertha/Antoinette is gone, Jane returns to Rochester, not knowing what she'll be walking back into. Jane's love for Rochester is sincere, and in the end he is able to receive her love freely and humbly. The human cost is the mad woman in the attic, Thornfield burned to the ground, and Rochester's blindness and loss of his hand. Bronte offers a conditional happy ending of partial restoration of Rochester's sight, so that he may see his infant son.

I believe that Charlotte Bronte was able to transform her thwarted love for her teacher Constantin Heger into her masterpiece Jane Eyre. In re-reading this novel, I have to wonder how much of Heger was fueled into Rochester and if Charlotte Bronte fantasized about Madame Heger somehow being "out of the picture". There are elements of Jane Eyre, that I would speculate were extremely therapeutic to transform into a creative endeavor.

*This post is part of our year-long Brilliant Brontës challenge! To see more posts, search for the labels "Brontë, challenge" in the blog sidebar.

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