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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Great Books Countdown – Number Eight

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Brontë

. . . I started awake on hearing a vague murmur, peculiar and lugubrious, which sounded, I thought, just above me. I wished I had kept my candle burning: the night was drearily dark . . . I rose and sat up in bed, listening. The sound was hushed.

I tried to sleep, but my heart beat anxiously . . . Just then it seemed my chamber-door was touched; as if fingers had swept the panels in groping a way along the dark gallery outside. I said. “Who is there?” Nothing answered. I was chilled with fear. . .

A dream had scarcely approached my ear, when it fled affrighted, scared by a marrow-freezing incident enough.

This was a demoniac laugh –low, suppressed, and deep, uttered, as it seemed, at the very key-hole of my chamber door. . .

Now there’s a spine-tingling lead-in. It comes from partway through Jane's story, after she’s lived at Thornfield for a while and met her employer, Mr. Rochester. Until then, she’s had no clue that horrific trouble lurks just beneath the surface of the grand estate. But she certainly will discover it and the picture won’t be pretty.

Jane Eyre was required reading in my high school English class. After trudging through Silas Marner and Shakespear’s Julius Caesar, I found the novel about Jane to be wonderful, fresh air. Some years ago, I bought a paperback copy and read it again, hoping I would still like the account of the long-suffering heroine, all about her uncaring aunt, the trials at Lowood – the boardingschool from Hell, the enigmatic Mr. Rochester, and the heart-wrenching disaster that befalls. You’d think, in our modern day, the tale would’ve sunk into cheesiness. But no. I had to root for Jane to extricate herself from the mess and make things right. By golly, she did. She might have been little, as she said, but she surely had gumption.

Jane's creator, Charlotte Brontë, was born in England in 1816. When she was five, her mother died, leaving the father as single parent to five girls and one boy. Three years of this was apparently all the man could handle and he packed off the four oldest girls to a boardingschool. Treatment there was so bad that the two oldest girls expired, (rather like the fictional Lowood.)

Charlotte and sister Emily returned home to father and younger siblings, where the rest of their childhoods consisted of fantasizing imaginary worlds. Charlotte’s was a country called Angria and was full of elaborate tales, fine preparation for a future writer.

As young women, the remaining sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne, took jobs as governesses (of course.) Charlotte hated the work and said employers treated her disrespectfully, like a slave.

After years of the governess drudgery, the sisters gave up and returned to their father’s home. They put together a small volume containing their own works of poetry and found a publisher. It sold a grand total of two copies! However, these women had perseverance. They turned to novel-writing and amazingly, each of them gained success, Emily with Wuthering Heights, Anne with Agnes Grey, and Charlotte with Jane Eyre. All were published using male pseudonyms. Charlotte’s was Currer Bell.

Two more novels flowed from Charlotte’s pen, although neither was as popular as Jane. (A fourth novel was published posthumously.) Tragedies then struck the family, the losses of Emily, Anne, and brother Branwell in quick succession in 1848-49. For a long time, Charlotte wrote nothing.

Then, at age thirty-seven, she actually gained a suitor and he proposed marriage. Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nicholls were married in June, 1854, and she became pregnant soon after. The next months were the happiest she’d ever experienced, but they didn’t last. She suffered “perpetual nausea and every-recurring faintness” and met her demise, along with her unborn child, in March, 1855. She was just shy of her thirty-ninth birthday.

Today, literary scholars refer to Charlotte’s style as innovative. She combined natural story with melodrama, a new concept in Victorian novels. But she believed “art is most convincing when based on personal experience.” Importantly, she wrote Jane Eyre from a first-person perspective, and even more ground-breaking, she used a female voice.

When Charlotte was around age twenty, she wrote to Poet Laureate Robert Southey to ask for encouragement in her hoped-for career as a poet. This was his response. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.”

Charlotte was wise to ignore that man.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Five stars. Highly recommend.

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