by Don Franks
It’s a bit like locking up your place and flying to another country, previously unseen. A country that fascinates you. You work your way in, trying to make sense of the new surroundings. Along with some things that seem familiar, you’re struck by unexpected sights, sounds, smells. Some delighting, others jarring. You might not approve of everything they do in this place or understand why they do it, but you’re really glad you got to have the experience. You’ll always retain some impression of it.
A really good novel is also cheaper than overseas travelling, my latest find cost me nothing. Idling at Tawa drop-in centre with an hour to employ before an appointment I picked up a grubby old copy of Jane Eyre. Some pages later, riveted and the hour up, I popped Jane in my bag to return later.
Jane’s creator Charlotte Bronte worked hard at writing throughout her short life, first concentrating on poems. Aged twenty, she sent some of her work to England’s Poet Laureate of the day Robert Southey, asking for his opinion of her talents. He replied: “You evidently possess and in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls ‘the faculty of verse’.” He then advised her: “There is a danger of which I would … warn you. The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be.” Charlotte’s reaction was to turn round and make literature the business of her life with all the energy she could muster.
In Jane Eyre, (chapter 12) she insists: “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, too 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”.
Jane Eyre is a novel of contrasting facets. It’s a women’s liberation argument for independence and fulfillment, a fast-paced adventure yarn, a Gothic novel – what the Victorians had instead of horror movies – and a white hot romance.
Along with the action and sex, the book is also an expression of deep Christian faith. This combines a powerful exposition of individual faith in God as an aid to fortitude with admiration for missionary activity. An austere Christian zealot imposing his creed on Indian folks in Calcutta is described: “…he clears their painful way to improvement; he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it. He may be stern; he may be exacting; he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon. His is the exaction of the apostle, who speaks but for Christ, when he says–“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
If you were considering reading the novel and are put off by the above passage, don’t be. By far the main feature shining through most of the work is Jane Eyre’s determined lust for life and her refusal, when it comes to the crunch, to take any shit from anyone.
Charlotte Bronte is one irrepressible human spirit. While reluctantly supervising the children at Roe Head School, she wrote in her journal: “I had been toiling for nearly an hour. I sat sinking from irritation and weariness into a kind of lethargy. The thought came over me: am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolic and most asinine stupidity of these fat headed oafs and on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience and assiduity? Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair prisoned within these four bare walls, while the glorious summer suns are burning in heaven and the year is revolving in its richest glow and declaring at the close of every summer day the time I am losing will never come again? Just then a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.”