A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
(Originally published on the 11th of April 2008.)
All through her childhood Charlotte Brontë – with her brother Branwell – filled tiny book after tiny book with her stories of Angria – the imaginary land that she and Branwell created between them. Her stories featured brooding Byronic heroes and beautiful, submissive heroines, who were frequently to be found languishing in ‘durance vile in damp dungeons. All very melodramatic, overheated and adolescent.
Her first attempt at “grown up” writing was the ill-fated The Professor, which – although streets ahead of some of the stuff churned out by modern authors – wasn’t exactly what you might call a world-beater. In fact it was so much not a world-beater that her publishers – Smith Elder – sensibly refused to touch it in her lifetime. (After her death, of course, it became a hot little number which no self-respecting publisher could resist.) She couldn’t shake off her Angrian “style” and although you can see glimpses of the writer she was eventually to become, it’s best read as more of a curiosity than a great English classic.
The most convincing chapters are those set in Belgium. Those, in other words, that were drawn directly from her own experience.
In 1842 she and sister Emily had enrolled at the Pensionnat Héger in Brussels in order to further their education and ready themselves to run a school of their own back in Haworth. Charlotte fell painfully and unrequitedly in love with Constantin Héger – the man who ran the school with his wife (that’s him in the picture). He was a loving father and a faithful husband and did not reciprocate in any way, but her obsession with him was to have a profound effect on her life and writing.
When she finally accepted that no-one was going to touch The Professor with the proverbial barge pole, Charlotte tried again. This time she resurrected her favourite character from her Angrian stories – the arrogant, brutally handsome (yawn, yawn) Zamorna – and cross-fertilized him with her idealized mental portrait of Constantin Héger.
In the process, she created a monster.
She created Edward Fairfax Rochester.
I can’t remember when, exactly, it dawned on me that Rochester was odious, but I presume it was probably in my 30s, by which age my ‘slimeball detector’ was fully developed.
I’m reasonably certain that the first time I read the scene, early in their relationship, where Rochester tells Jane about his affair with Celine Varens I just thought, “Ooh. A man of the world. How jolly thrilling.” The second time I read it – many years later – I thought, “Wait a minute. This thirty-something year old man is telling a unworldly teenage girl, and his subordinate to boot, about his unsavoury sexual history. Oh yuck.”
And it gets worse. It gets much worse.
Remember the part where our plucky heroine prevents him from being flame-grilled after Mad Bertha’s midnight peregrinations? Yes? Good. Now consider what he does next. Having made it pretty obvious that his feelings extend beyond gratitude, Mr Arch Manipulator decides to ‘test’ her. He deserts her, he brings the Ingram party back to the house and allows them to humiliate her, he reduces her to tears, he pretends to be courting Blanche Ingram and THEN he pulls that idiot gypsy-fortune-teller stunt.
Hands up anyone who wouldn’t have found the nearest blunt object and crowned the arrogant git with it.
He not only plays with Jane’s emotions, he also callously uses and misleads Blanche Ingram … and before anyone pipes up and says “Ah but …” – no she does NOT deserve it, even if she is an insufferable cow. (We’ll pass lightly over what Blanche Ingram’s characterization tells us about Charlotte Brontë and her innumerable shoulder-borne chips, because that’s a whole OTHER hatchet job.)
Then, just when you think he can’t possible get any more obnoxious, the Crown Prince of Creeps trumps himself.
That proposal. That hideous, toe-curlingly manipulative proposal. He’s made her completely miserable, he’s messed with her head, he’s convinced her that she’s being sent to Ireland … and then he just pops the question as if he’s suddenly remembered he’s supposed to be in a romantic novel.
He’s attempting bigamy. He’s lying by omission. He’s declaring undying love for little Jane, while all the time he knows he can’t contract a legal marriage. When he’s rumbled, his justification is that Bertha isn’t really his wife because she doesn’t have any discernible oars in the water. He was tricked into marrying her, you know. Oh yes he was … blinded by her beauty and unaware of her depravity until it was too late, blah, blah, blah …
Everybody go “A-h-h-h …”. Poor lamby love. You weren’t too hard to manoeuvre into marriage, were you? As my mother would say, “Where there’s a willy there’s a way …”.
So … There’s Jane in her best wedding frock, stricken, sobbing and about to hot foot it over the moors to do some good melodramatic freezing and starving for a few pages and what does he do to try to persuade her to stay? He tells her the rest of his mucky life story, for crying out loud. And when that doesn’t work? He goes berserk. In one of the weirdest and most chilling passages in 19th Century literature, he loses it completely. In fact, in retrospect, it looks dangerously like a temper tantrum.
I could go on (and on, and on …) but you get the picture.
Jane Eyre is one of the greatest wish-fulfilment exercises in English literature. To a great extent, Charlotte Brontë created the governess in her own image – little and poor and plain. Rochester was Monsieur Héger reimagined. Poor mad Bertha – could she have been Madame Héger … nutty as a fruitcake and destined to be dropped from a great height just for being in the way?
Not nice, Charlotte. You’re a vicar’s daughter, remember? Now go and write a grown up book. I’ll even give you the title. You can call it Villette.
Most classic works of fiction have some sort of message for the reader. As far as I can tell, the only useful message in Jane Eyre is that if you’re offered a job as governess by a short-tempered man who suffers from dramatic mood swings, demand to see a complete inventory of the contents of the house before you sign the contract … and pay particular attention to the attic.
(Exits, stage left, moving rapidly and keeping low …)