Keats recalled his first reading of Chapman’s translation of Homer, “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken”—exactly the degree of surprise and wonder I felt when I read on the first page of Jane Eyre that young Jane (I imagined her my age), the poor relation grudgingly given house room by Mrs. Reed, was exiled from the fireside family circle until, Mrs. Reed announced, “she had heard from the nurse, and could discover by her own observation that I was trying in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more sprightly and attractive manner,” she must exclude me from the company of her own “happy and contented children”—spiteful brats, in Jane’s experience.
Why did this mean so much to me, setting me on my life-long path as a writer?
Because Charlotte Brontë described the alienation that colored my childhood, and the childhood of so many girls, then and now: the iron rule of appearing to be happy and contented, no matter what the reality.
Jane rebelled against that rule, ended up hurting the boy Reed who tormented her, and spent a ghastly night locked in the Red Room, where she nearly lost her mind.
But recovered, Jane survived other disasters, and in the end found a conventional, or nearly conventional, happiness with Mr. Rochester.
Nearly conventional, because she insisted on an equality that only became possible after he was maimed and blinded when his mad wife burned the house down.
Before that, Jane knew better than to tie herself to a man (the savage lover of girlhood dreams) who protested when she resisted his proposal, “Jane, be still. Don’t struggle so like a wild frantic bird.”
Charlotte Brontë herself had struggled to escape the miseries of teaching and governessing—the only occupations available to English women in the first half of the 19th century—and even to escape her infatuation with “Professor Heger,” the captivating head of the boarding school where she taught for a little over a year. Escaping him, she built another extraordinary novel, Villette, around that experience.
Ah, but the shades of myth still close around my heroic writer, even at the exhibit I saw Tuesday at the Morgan Museum and Library in New York: the first glass case contains a nearly doll-sized afternoon dress—Jane was 4’7” with an 18½ inch waist—when corseted—which apparently she often was. Nearby George Richmond’s pastel portrait of a demurely smiling woman adds another note of gentility, reinforced in the Morgan’s gift shop by Brontë tea and Brontë soap—soap and tea being the prescribed attributes of a writer I would rather see armed with sword and trident.
Well, we are all encased, and explained, to some degree by the clichés of our time, as I discovered over and over when researching and writing Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman (out next year from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.) The expectations, for women, of the first half of the twentieth century were different from the expectations of the first half of the nineteenth, but equally limiting.
Charlotte Brontë’s independent will enabled her to break out of those limits, giving me the crucial example I needed to start on my life as a writer.