By Melissa Fortuin
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Year Published: 1847
Genre: Bildungsroman, Gothic, Mystery
It wasn’t so long ago that we dealt with the dark and stormy windswept moors that was the scene of Wuthering Heights. There against the grim backdrop, love and loss married together perfectly under the watchful eye of Emily Bronte. Well, there must have been something in the earl Grey teapots in the Bronte household, as the famous sisters have a strange fascination for bleak and harrowing tales, sprinkled by misfortune holding unsuspecting heroines in its tightening grip. Unlike Jane Austen’s slightly more present dislike for motherly figures, one would be swayed into thinking the Bronte trio simply did not believe a relatively normal life filled with rosy-cheeked young English girls and a dashing wealthy heir was a befitting narrative to explore. Little stumbling blocks were not just instances afforded through writing for any sort of character development. No sighed ‘aha’ moment before the girl ended up with the perfect man, the money, the perfect marriage, and perfect carriage ride over a horizon dashed by surreal sunset hues.
Their characters must reflect in their eyes, the true embodiment of life’s sufferings, life’s twist and turns, and great moral dilemma is most definitely present, and as within so without, a character must wrestle with herself, or himself to emerge, with proper context, the better version of him or herself.
Today we will be looking into Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre. Less dark and violent, less brash and as unapologetic as Wuthering Heights, but still carrying the undercurrent of refusing to subject themselves to the norm. Charlotte chooses a safer ending and play on imagery, but this does not reflect any less on the impact. Front and centre, we are thrown into the autobiographical world of Jane Eyre, a woman who has suffered great misfortune throughout her life, travelling everywhere but belonging nowhere, who must wrestle with her morality, and her freedom against a life longing to simply be loved and belong. Semi biographical, with some real-time occurrences from Charlotte’s personal life weaved into the fabric of the novel, in beautiful Bronte prose we are transported into the heart and mind of a woman who despite her peers and surroundings, refuses to accept the ideals of the times she lived in, where being an autonomous woman was not the ideal to strive for.
A bit of background on the author. Charlotte Bronte was an English novelist as well as a poet born in the year 1816 and was the eldest of her three sisters, also having outlived them (alas only until the age of 38). She died 9 months after marrying Arthur Bell Nicholls, an Irish pastor who was not the first choice by her father. Her childhood was spent with her siblings fostering a fondness for literature and storytelling before being listed at a boarding school, were like Jane Eyre the conditions were harsh and strict. She later became a governess, another attribute shared by the book’s heroine, and her schooling greatly influences her tone at the beginning of the novel. Her book caused little to no controversy unlike that of Wuthering Heights, but having her true identity revealed after the posthumously published work (the sisters wrote under male names) the origins of the author and subsequent autobiography did, as in private letters much light was shed on the mistreatment she endured during her educational years. The result was several attempts to publish alternative stories on her life. This was clearly light years ahead of current cancel culture.
So here’s a little plot for your taste buds. Jane Eyre is a young orphan and is lives unhappily (obviously) with her wealthy aunt and cousins who treat her cruelly. Amongst other tortures, one includes locking her up in a red room said to be haunted by the ghost of her uncle who unlike the rest of the party was known for his benevolence. As life would have it, a moment of escape presents itself in a chance to attend Lowood, a boarding school for girls, only for Jane to discover that it too comes with its challenges within its austere environment. An outbreak ensues at the establishment, rendering great upheaval in the awareness of the school’s poor conditions and Jane is finally able to thrive academically and ends up teaching there. Years later, she is enlisted as a private governess for a rather private and gloomy employer Edward Rochester whom Jane is convinced must be hiding a shady past. The households a foreboding air, coupled with maniacal laughter emanating from the upper floors, who he has attributed to their seamstress who works upstairs. Despite this, Jane finds herself more and more taken in by a world where money, vanity, and dark secrets will confront her to wrestle with her longing need to belong alongside her desire to remain virtuous and independent.
Jane Eyre is not just a novel about a woman who suffers through life and tries to find a happy ending. It is a novel infused to its very sinews with a human struggling to balance the desperate desires born from the struggle itself, to not give into momentary fear and wanting, yet only to pay with the soul. It is a woman who cannot and will not settle for a happy ending not befitting of a woman with high values and sense of worth, who refuses to be self-aware and is unafraid to sacrifice the fairytale for the truth. It is about holding onto our shreds of humanity, despite the adversity that chips away at the share of emotion meant to bestow further kindness. This is a woman in Victorian England who cannot live under the shadow and grip of another, who cannot settle and will not compromise. Despite our modern times, despite the passing of years and years, this is not something that has died out with the advent of modern society. Women, individuals, anyone really is still here fighting to belong without having to sacrifice themselves or to be under the thumb of another.