For the Lady Canon reading group ::
In case you missed our Lady Canon this season, you can still swan dive into Jane Eyre, an examination of death, madness, oppression, and boredom, starring a character who looked at all the bullroar, all of it, and was like no, nah, death first! (This will be riddled with spoilers.)
“Ten years ago we professed an orthodox system of novel-making. Our lovers were humble and devoted…and the only true love worth having was that…chivalrous true love which consecreated all womankind…when suddenly, without warning, Jane Eyre stole upon the scene, and the most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre,” said a critic from 1855. 
The romance novel’s ancestry :: mythology to the folklore of the fairies and sorceresses to the fantastic lives of the saints (their magic came as gifts from God), and those women were often saying no, and when those women said no, they were executed. This genre, of course, led to the fairytale, a new space where girls moved about the world, untethered, making decisions. Which leads us at last to the romance novel, which at first were chock-full of saintly virgin girls flowering into saintly wives. The Brontë sisters took the romance genre and gave us something darker and angrier, something more dangerous.
They also really dove into the twisted heart of the poor Byronic hero as lover.
Byronic Hero : the dark, brooding types who feel so deeply : Hamlet, Snape, Aragorn II, Bruce Wayne, and Troy Dyer. He is the tortured genius who has a way with poetry and his hair is probably amazing. Women tremble before him. He is Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff. Charlotte and Emily knew what was up.
Jane herself has a little Byron in her too. She is proud, passionate, and so, so angry.
Repressed rage is more destructive to society than repressed sexuality.
And while there are Katniss Everdeens and Lisbeth Salanders stomping around now, Charlotte’s guts, and specifically, her symbolism, paved the way for the rebel teen girl trope.
Charlotte’s names, her places, and her things are all in impeccable order.
The beginning :: the first trial :: the temptation of victimhood ::
Gateshead :: where Jane’s head/brain/psyche/soul/self is imprisoned :: Gateshead.
Jane: No jail was ever more secure.
Little kid Jane is an orphan who lives with her dead uncle’s awful wife and her awful children. The eldest, the boy, beats her up all the time. Charlotte opens Jane Eyre with Jane punching back. She is hiding in a window seat behind a curtain. Outside is cold and she is reading about the Arctic. The boy reminds her that she has no right to his stuff: dirty orphan girl cannot just steal a book whenever she wants. When confronted with this early propertied male brutality her response is to “fly at him.” 
Jane is punished by being locked in the Red Room.
The Red Room :: the sickroom : the room her uncle died in : the attic : the bloody chamber.
The Red Room : stately, chilly, swathed in crimson, with a great white bed and an easy chair “like a pale throne” looming out of the scarlet darkness…
Jane’s uncle was her mother’s brother. His death marked the last of her family.
But in the Red Room she is not alone. She sees her double inside of the mirror.
Jane: I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say…like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved in my desperation, to go all lengths.
She’s like a mad cat, Bessie will say.
My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down.
Her whole body screaming: I MUST LEAVE. Unjust! She yells. Unjust!
It is unjust to be locked in an attic.
Only three possibilities of escape: flight; starvation; and now a new addition, madness.
What’s great about Jane is that in the Red Room, facing the bitter isolation of death and abjection, she experiences her situation as unnatural. She knows life could be better. There is this core to Jane, an “inward treasure” Rochester will call it, that refuses to break.
It is at this moment that the germ of the person we are finally to know as Jane Eyre is born : a person determined to live, and to choose her life with dignity, integrity, and pride.
Then she passes out. Flight through fainting.
Jane’s pilgrimage takes her from the oppression at Gatehead straight to starving at Lowood then, of course, to the madness of Thornfield, and finally to the coldness at Marsh End. Before she leaves for Lowood, this orphaned Cinderella lays into her wicked stepmother.
As though possessed, she’ll later say. She heard the rushing of the wings again.
She lights the proverbial bridge on fire, tells Mrs. Reed to go fuck herself, then leaves for school.
There is no longer a gate around her head. She is free. Ish.
(She’s not free at all.)
Lowood :: an attempt at Christian submission by taking away food and warmth.
Mr. Brocklehurst tries to break her. He stands her on a chair and tells everyone to shun her for she is a LIAR. Mr. Brocklehurst is a priest, a pillar of society. She’ll also call him a pillar with an ugly face. But the girls do not shun her. She makes friends, finds herself a couple of prototypical maternal figures.
Her teacher : Miss Temple : a marble figure of perfection : a pillar of lady-like repression. Miss Temple is a good fairy, but all she can do is clean up the mess. She does not act on her own.
A temple: a house to protect the girls from the man.
Her friend : Helen Burns : burns for freedom, is consumed/consumptive with God.
Because life will be better next time around. Helen burns with passion for this. That fire consumed her.
Saintly renunciation is not for Jane. Her mind cannot be regulated by conventional Christian wisdom. There will be no gates around her head.
Again, she longs for liberty. Or at least new bondage, she says.
Thornfield :: the heart of the narrative :: the biggest temptation of all :: Mr. Rochester.
Jane is an adult now, nineteen, gainfully employed away from her traumas. She’s a free governess – though tied to Mr. Rochester’s offspring, Adéle, a pretty doll of a thing. A governess is in between servant and independent, peasant and gentry. They are a new breed of people. Jane can almost taste the liberty. When she arrives at Thornfield, Mrs. Fairfax greets her. Bless her heart, Jane thinks this sweet old lady owns the mansion. Silly girl, how could she even? Remember, your place Jane, head out of the equality clouds.
Thornfield :: the center of her pilgrimage where she is to be crowned with thorns, and cast out into a desolate field after she confronts the demon of rage.
Thornfield is a nest of thorns run red with lush roses.
The Poetics of Space :: Bachelard argues that nests (love nests) are a childish metaphor; utterly absurd: Among birds, need I recall, love is strictly an extracurricular affair, and the nest is not built until later, when the mad love-chase across the fields is over. The house is the universe, Bachelard says, whole and contained. There’s the rationality of the roof, and the demonic monster in the basement. (This formula can easily be reversed.)
Jane is drawn to the attic.
To calm her nerves, she paces near it to think.
This is when she believes she hears Grace Poole. (Grace Poole is the opposite of Helen Burns. (Not Grace herself, but who/what she stands for; Grace Poole is Bertha’s caretaker.))
That low, slow ha ha ha laugh.
Jane, pacing, thinking: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
This is her double, that girl in the mirror. She’s Dorian Gray and that laugh, the wild animal upstairs in the rational attic, that’s the painting. We aren’t in Lowood anymore. Thornfield is the brambles that guard Sleeping Beauty, a nest of pubic hair. It is plain that the girl who longs for experience will fall into her sexual awakening here.
Soon she will meet this devil on the side of the road. It will feel like magic, a fairytale. It’ll be dusky, she’ll be walking into town, he’ll be galloping home. She’ll think him a gytrash. Not expecting her, she’ll spook him and his horse, this improprietous imp on foot. He’ll fall, think she’s a sprite or a witch who's bewitched his horse, but she has to help him, she leads him back to the horse. He doesn’t tell her who he is. (His first of three acts of deliberate (seductive) deception: all of which are, naturally, harbingers, preludes to his attic wife.)
As they wrestle with the power ball, they begin as spiritual equals. (A political offense in the 1840’s!) Cinderella and the prince may be comrades now, but Rochester is still the prince: he owns the house (the universe), and holds the purse for her cheese and bread, is twenty years her senior, and is sexually experienced. The ghosts of his past bed haunt Thornfield Hall: the doll of a daughter skipping the grounds, and the mad animal caged upstairs.
Oh, and Jane’s paintings! Her dreams!
The drowned girl corpse : hey nonny nonny.
The avenging mother goddess rising like Frankenstein’s creature.
The terrible, paternal spectre of death.
That phantom child – her orphan trauma, her rage – that she carries around with her in her sleep. She’ll also dream of Thornfield’s ruin.
She’ll hear him call her name miles and miles away. The sybil. He was right, Jane is a witch, if only because Jane is a woman who says no. Surely, if this were two hundred years ago, she would’ve been burnt at the stake.
Ah, but her waking dreams. Oh, Mr. Rochester, she kisses her pillow. Up until him her life was so boring, so, so boring. She longed for so much more. Then voilá, holy shit, a man, a cute man, a smart man, and above all, one who wants to talk to her, thinks of her as his intellectual equal, and keeps her by the fireside all night, waxing, smoldering. This is all Jane ever wanted. But she’s not ready yet. He can’t just kiss her. He’s her employer, her social inferior, um, married. So Rochester creates a series of diversions, flights of fancy to break down her layers and get at that inward treasure.
But Jane grew up in a patriarchy, she is weary of men. She notices that Rochester may be charming with her, but he’s a crabby tyrrant with others. She may be totally in love with him, but: I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
Jane doesn’t want his presents, his doting, She resists being romanticized. She doesn’t want the veil. Jane isn’t a doll, and she isn’t Miss Ingram either. She would not be marrying Rochester for his money. She resents his money, so much so she Freudian forgets her wages in the car when she leaves him. Jane would rather starve than go back to being under someone’s thumb. No more Reeds, no more Brocklehursts, no more God.
Mr. Rochester is a god. But he is also a man. A man with a terrible secret.
Moon to Rochester’s sun, he imprisoned Bertha, his first wife, for being fast and loose. He said she was crazy, but isn’t that something men say when women lose interest in them? She was slutting around town and starting fights. Impetuous and unchaste, he called her. She was acting like a man, and women can’t do that, not in 1820. He caged his first bird. Then was impetuous and unchaste himself about town, all surly and sad.
Bertha is strong, she’s violent, and she’s fat and ugly: corpulent.
But most of all, Bertha is pisssssssssed.
So is Jane.
So Bertha is the imp that does Jane’s secret bidding.
I’m so in.
The three times Bertha appears she does something totally lucid. Violent, but not senseless. Just as Jane is discovering how much she wants to get to know Mr. Rochester, right after he tells her of Adéle’s scandalous (jealousy-inducing) origins, Bertha lights his bed on fire, with him in it. Understandable, and a lovely coincidence.
The next time we see Bertha is after Rochester dons that silly disguise as a gypsy woman to get sensible Jane to tell him how she feels about him. All of the other women at the party fell for it, but Jane was like, What? That night Bertha stabs her brother. Hey! Brother, kin, blood! Can’t you fucking help me? He has me LOCKED IN THE ATTIC.
This brings us to the veil.
Jane hates that veil.
That veil is the veil between herself now, Jane Eyre, and that other soon to be self, Jane Rochester, or Mrs. Rochester, you know, Bertha.
Jane does not want to be unwrapped: disemboweled, was how Rochester described Adéle opening her cadeau. Jane will not be possessed. Jane, our witch, our fairy queen. The paternal Abrahamic religions crushed the sorceresses of yore, they beheaded and burned them. The Enlightenment chinked the religious armor, paving the way for our Jane. She is a woman who burns for liberty as she swims through the patriarchal waters.
On her wedding day he will lift the veil, cross the threshold, and take her in. She will be absorbed. Her name is now his. She is now his.
Thank the Goddess for Bertha who clefts that shit in twain.
Bertha who, like a terrible spectre, this vampyre, this goblin, appears before Jane on the eve of her wedding. She doesn’t attack Jane, she looks at her, up close, with a candle, and that, admittedly, is terrifying, but she doesn’t want to hurt her. She wants to wear this veil. And in this moment, when she is looking at herself in the mirror, maybe for the first time even in years, this is first time Jane sees her.
Trapped in a mirror, just like Jane.
Bertha, c’est moi!
Jane’s life, her future, it’s all so surreal. She’s so angry, so, so angry. She feels trapped again, this time forever sealed up in the annuls of matrimony. Tomorrow at the wedding all will be revealed, Rochester will beg Jane to stay. Is flabbergasted she’s uncomfortable. It’s all so easy. Ignore the attic wife. He has some sympathetic points, a few actually. But still!
Interestingly, Jane doesn’t seem to care a fig about bigamy in the eyes of the Lord. I think she finds his rules a bit stifling. Everything stifles Jane though. As everything should.
That night she dreamt of the Red Room and passing out, but then the Great Mother of the Night, Mother Moon, the Goddess herself visits Jane. My daughter, she’ll say, flee temptation.
“Mother, I will.”
Jane has an attic wife the size of Bertha locked in her own gated head. Jane needs to deal with her angry orphan child baggage. (Hence all those dreams.)
And Mr. Rochester has a literal attic wife, so he’s busy too.
So she fled.
Just as Jane’s instinct for self-preservation saves her from earlier temptations, so it must save her from becoming this woman by curbing her imagination at the limits of what is bearable for a powerless woman in the England of the 1840’s…Her terrible journey across the moors suggests the essential homelessness – the nameless, placeless, and contingent status – of women in a patriarchal society.
Marsh End :: end of the line, unless…
Jane Eyre ends in a very deus ex machina kind of way. But since it’s a parable, it’s works.
Starving, wind broken, cold, and so alone, she arrives at the Rivers’s door. Sisters, and secret kin, Diana and Mary (the Huntress (Artemis) and the Virgin Mom) take her in. Saint John, their brother, a deeply pious man, will propose not only a loveless marriage, but one that will require her to spred a patriarchal religion, one that will only ever see her as his inferior. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
Adrienne Rich says this is Jane’s last temptation: that of adopting a man’s cause or career and making it her own. It’s very easy to let someone else tell you who you are. It’s very tempting to drown in something bigger than yourself.
Jane felt excluded inside St. John’s proposal, and he was so open about it.
Jane’s telling St. John no, again, for like the twelfth time, and now she knows that he, Diana, and Mary are family, and she’s inherited money and shared it with her new family, so she’s literally no longer orphaned. She is good, planning on living forever as a free teacher inside a little school inside a little town. Lonely, but fine and honest and rewarding.
But then, the moon rises and, like a good witch, she hears him :: JANE!
And like Beyoncé, she gloriously takes him back.
He’s humbled now: blind, missing an arm, a broken sad man living in the woods. JANE! Bertha lit Thornfield Hall on fire then flew into the void to her death. L’appel du vide. Mr. Rochester ran into the fire to save Bertha and came out with the scars of a man beaten by his sketchy past. A symbolic castration. Now, like Jane, he draws his powers from within. Egalité!
Coming to Rochester in economic independence and by her free choice, Jane can become a wife without sacrificing a grain of her Jane Eyre-ity.
Jane: “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. …We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.”
All I wanna, ain’t no other
We together, I remember
Sweet love, all night long.
It doesn’t have to be anti-feminist to go after love, in all its flaws.
Jane and Edward live in the forest and let nature heal them, which it does! And they have some kids, and live happily ever after. 🖤
End Notes ::
1. said a Mrs. Olyphant, quoted by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their essay “A Dialogue of Self and Soul : Plain Jane’s Progress” from their collection, The Madwomen in the Attic; The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination. 1979.
2. St. Margaret of Antioch, punished for not liking a man, and for not renouncing her real man, God, is swallowed whole by a dragon (who’s really the Devil), who then makes the sign of the cross and like mighty Athena, bursts from the devil’s belly whole and ungobbled. She is the patron saint of childbirth. And, of course, she was still executed, first by burning, which didn’t work, then drowning, same, and finally they chopped her head off.
3. As told by grandmothers to their granddaughters to prepare them for childbirth and the mysteries of sex, namely, that the bridal bed can kill you because there was a good chance the childbed would. Bluebeard and all those dead wives suggest this, as will every dead mother in a Disney princess film.
4. The ones who then flowered into the dead angel mothers of the fairytale.
5. My current favorites are Lidia Yuknavitch’s Dora, and Amethyst from Steven Universe.
6. Cixous telling women to fly through the text, to assert yourself. Interestingly, in French (Cixous’s language) voler means both to fly and steal. If you’re ever going to fly, first you have to steal back from men your right to speak.
7. …perfectly represents her vision of the society in which she is trapped, an uneasy and elfin dependent. To round off Gilbert and Gubar’s thought.
8. Trapped in a mirror. Classic girl longing to be independent trope.
9. Adrienne Rich. From her essay “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman.”
10. Butterflies represent freedom, especially freedom to think.
12. Merryweather can’t undo Maleficent’s curse, but she can soften it.
13. Gilbert and Gubar.
14. Gaston Bachelard. The Poetics of Space.
15. “What’s in the west wing?” / “It’s forbidden!” Then what does Belle do? She nearly deflowers the Beast.
16. The waters of insanity.
17. The Gytrash is a large, vicious, nocturnal white dog, possibly an animal ghost. This very fast brute runs wild throughout woodlands, such as the Forbidden Forest of Scotland and the New Forest in England. It has a very strong sense of smell and a forked tail. Thank you, Harry Potter Wiki.
18. The same who will help her when the time comes :: Mother Moon.
19. Not really, but probably.
20. This will come in St. John’s episode.
21. It’s amazing how in the movies she’s always that hot and crazy archetype: think Angeline Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.
23. Adrienne Rich.
24. Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.
25. Adrienne Rich.
26. All Night Long. Beyoncé. Lemonade.
*Images by 1. Christian Schloe. Portrait of a Heart. 2. Me. 3. Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. Jane Eyre: A Babylit Counting Primer. 4. The woman herself, Ms. Charlotte Brontë. 5. Elizabeth Hopkins. 6. Renee Diggs: @10cameliaway on instagram.