Table of Contents
VOLUME ONE - Manchester 1846
CHAPTER ONE - Father and Daughter
CHAPTER TWO - Professor
CHAPTER THREE - Glimmerings
CHAPTER FOUR - Love
CHAPTER FIVE - Writing
CHAPTER SIX - Reality
CHAPTER SEVEN - Jealousy
CHAPTER EIGHT - Nurse
CHAPTER NINE - Hope
CHAPTER TEN - Awakening
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Origins
CHAPTER TWELVE - Progress
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Governess
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Thornfield
VOLUME TWO - Haworth 1846-1848
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - Stalled
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Childhood
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - Waiting
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Retrieval
CHAPTER NINETEEN - Branwell
CHAPTER TWENTY - Openings
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - Decision
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - Anne
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE - Conflagration
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - Thorp Green
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE - Strife
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX - Rapprochement
VOLUME THREE - London 1848-1853
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN - Smith
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT - Opera
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE - Fame
CHAPTER THIRTY - Disappointment
AN INTRODUCTION TO
Questions for Discussion
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First published in Penguin Books 2009
Copyright © Sheila Kohler, 2009
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PULICATION DATA
Becoming Jane Eyre / Sheila Kohler.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15964-4
1. Brontë, Charlotte, 1816-1855—Fiction. 2. Brontë, Emily, 1818-1848—
Fiction. 3. Brontë, Anne, 1820-1849—Fiction. 4. Brontë family—Fiction.
5. Women authors, English—19th century—Fiction. I. Title.
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To the love of my life, my husband, Bill
Father and Daughter
e wakes to the scratching of a pencil against a page: a noise out of the darkness. He lies quite still on his back, reaching out for sound. His ears have become wings, straining, stretching, carrying him away. The world comes to him only through sound, and there is precious little of that.
Even the sounds of quiet Boundary Street on the outskirts of this large industrial town are strange to him. Apart from the scratching, he can hear little except an occasional cry, the rumble of carriage wheels below, the call of a city bird. He hungers for the wild sounds of his hill-village home: the low keening of the wind over moors, the bark of a dog, the cries of crows, the tolling of his church bell.
He misses the sights of his world: the sweep of a lonely hill; the joy of an eagle, plummeting wildly through the blue air in search of food for his young. Now he is a bird with wounded wing. Is he cast forever
into bottomless perdition?
Is he to dwell in
Adamantine Chains and penal Fire?
He learned to recite Milton to himself as a child, and the words come easily to him now. In the darkness he feels the heat of the poem.
He imagines opening the front door of his parsonage, the light streaming in from the window over the stairs and the mad scrabble of paws coming to greet him across the stone floor. In his mind he holds Keeper or little spoiled Flossy, the black-and-white King Charles spaniel, in his arms. He can smell their wild smells of grass and wind, from the moors. He even misses the canary, singing in its cage, and Emily’s geese. He has walked for hours with the dogs. Striding fast across the hills, through the dark heath, in all sorts of weather has warmed his blood and his heart and become a wellspring of his verse. His children are fond of all kinds of animals, and so is he, but of course the dogs have not followed him here.
Not even the sound of church bells, chiming the hours, comes to him in this part of town. He imagines the chimes, which have regulated his days and nights for so long, calling him to his God, who has not forsaken him, surely. He will find his way to the light of Heaven again, surely.
Is it early morning? How long has he been lying here? This immobility, this helplessness, this perpetual darkness, are too hard to bear.
God help me!
All his life he has marched onward, striding upward, acquiring knowledge, position, and distinction, going on with hope and firmness of purpose and conviction in the Army of the Lord, carrying the Word of the Lord like a banner before him to sinners and sufferers, with the belief in his heart that he brings salvation. He remembers how he joined the Home Guard at Cambridge as a young man to protect England from the unruly French—a warrior priest.
But now they have nailed his sixty-nine-year-old bones to his couch. They have pierced his eyes with a crown of thorns. He has become a blind mouth. How much longer will he have to lie here helplessly in the silence of the late-summer darkness, with nothing but the sound of a scratching pencil in his ears? Will his mind survive its creeping dimness? There is only a thin sheet over his body, but his bones feel heavy. Despite the hot, dry air he is cold, cold.
He recites the familiar words from the 23rd Psalm:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet shall I fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He repeats the words as he did when he lay awake and conscious under the knife.
They propped his eye open with some steel instrument as the cruel work was done. Two of them held on to him, should he struggle, but he did not, lying still as death, in his God’s hands, excruciatingly conscious of the knife’s work in that delicate place, of every sound in the room, and of the presence sitting quietly in a corner, a comfort to him: Charlotte.
High on the flat, white bed, her father lies. She sits by his side on a low ottoman near the marble chimneypiece, writing in the silence and the half dark of the early morning. They have found convenient lodgings. Her father’s room opens into hers, and there is a small sitting room to which she can retreat. The nurse, a redheaded woman in her late twenties or early thirties who is lodged upstairs in one of the third-floor rooms, is competent, if annoyingly officious. Charlotte hears her clomping down the stairs. The doctor has been helpful in this, as he has in all things. Though not large, their rooms are comfortable. She props her writing desk on her knees and places a small candle at her side to light her page.
Against the wall a monstrous wardrobe looms ominously. To her right the curtained windows give onto the street, and between them a dim mirror stands. The doctor has ordered privation of light and perfect silence. The strangeness of these lodgings, the dryness of the dusty air, the hot darkness, and the suffering presence beside her make her shiver.
Next door she hears the nurse moving about with purpose, dropping things on the floor. Living in such proximity, she has taken a dislike to the large, hard-faced woman who enters the room in her navy uniform, her round, white cap with its ribbons flowing down her back, her black stockings brushing together with a sigh.
Charlotte nods her head in response to her greeting. The nurse’s presence is an intrusion she attempts to ignore. She prefers to listen to her father’s breathing, to be alone with him. A distant, God-fearing man preoccupied with his Christian duty, his concern for his large, poor parish, his grief, and his only boy, she has never been alone with him like this.
The nurse asks how she is feeling this morning. She replies that her tooth aches, that sleep seems to have abandoned her. The nurse suggests a walk, in a voice that sounds loud and shrill. Charlotte shakes her head. She has little desire to walk in these charmless, suffocating streets.
How much walking she has done in her life! She has scampered as a child on the moors for the joy of it, the freedom, the escape from the cramped house, the adults’ oppressive presence. She has walked for necessity, for exercise, for pleasure, and for the beauty of the natural world around her. She has walked to tire herself out. Here, she prefers the time alone with her father in the early morning, before the nurse comes bustling into the room, moments of escape into the world of imagination. Here, she is able to let her mind go where it will, even while her eye is fixed on him.
She lifts her gaze from the page, where she has written words and crossed them out. She surveys the scene. Things seem very still to her and, oddly, in the darkened room she now seems to see more clearly. It is being alone with her father, being his eyes and his hands and even his voice, his link with life, that brings this clarity.
She finds herself drifting into a moment of reflection. It is difficult to fix the boundaries between imagination and memory. She absorbs what comes to her, drawing images into this dim, silent space. All the small objects in the room—the bulb-shaped water bottle, the green counterpane, the plant on the windowsill—seem to mean something. She is in a moment of transition. She looks for signs of what she will become.
She was glad to come here on her own with her father, yet reluctant to leave her brother and her two sisters at home. What will happen there? Will her sisters find the time, the courage, to work on their new books? All through the summer, before she came to Manchester, they took their desks out into the garden, to work in the shade of the cherry tree. What mischief will her brother be making? She sees him, sitting in his study, his head in his hands, an empty bottle before him, raving about a woman called Misery who follows him everywhere, a woman he calls his wife.
Shudders run through her father’s body, as they did through hers as a child when he would shoot his pistol at dawn, as though a shock has run through him.
“What?” she asks. “What is it?” She reaches a hand to still his beating heart. She has never been able to stare at him like this, touch him freely in the muted light. He reaches out for her. What does he know of her, or she of him, after all these years? What secrets would he tell her if he could speak? Would she want to hear them? What would he say about his marriage, his parents, his God? Had he chosen her mother for love or for her superior position in society, the fifty pounds a year? Or was it her religion? Did he want her help with his work in the church? Did he think she could advance his career? Was his religion simply a means of advancing socially?
But he only asks for water, as he does repeatedly. He has always been a thirsty man. Though he is president of the local Temperance Society, she is not sure he has not used alcohol for more than medicinal purposes.
She pours the water, resumes her seat, and takes up her pencil and her square notebook again, as though tied to her post beside him.
On her return home from Brussels after New Year’s Day, burdened with her own sadness, she was appalled to find her father so helpless. Blind, like his beloved Milton, he could not venture outside in the snow because the glare hurt his eyes. Full of pity and terror, as well as impatience at his helplessness, she was obliged to lead him through the narrow streets to visit his parishioners and to read and write and see for him, describing the landscape she knows so well, the fields, the sky, and snow. In his thankfulness he showed her more consideration than he had ever done, accepted her help and love, yielded to her attendance on him.
Each evening when they sat together, she brought up the good chance of having his eyesight improved by the operation. All through the winter and spring she worked on him. He procrastinated, finding excuses. Finally she persuaded him to go through with it. Was this wise? Was she being selfish or merely dutiful? Was her motivation one of revenge?
She relives the scene: two men in white at his side, like the flaming angels she had seen as a child, standing at the head of her youngest sister’s cradle, but here prepared to wrestle with her father, their hands on his shoulders, pinning him down. The glint of the scalpel. She holds her breath, unable to avert her terrified yet fascinated gaze as the surgeon cuts through the cornea. She watches her father’s face contort with agony and hears the cry escape his lips. Afterward, she needs the arm of one of the assistants to take her from the room.
Now her mouth is dry, her lips chapped, her bowels blocked. She puts her hand to her cheek, feeling her flaking skin. What will the future bring for them all? Will this let in the light? What would they all do without him, he who provides the rent-free house, the yearly stipend?
It is this which clothes, feeds, and shelters them. They are entirely dependent on him. Without him they would all be separated again, scattered to earn their bread in the professions they all hate and have failed at abysmally: teaching, tutoring, and, in the brother’s case, clerking on the railways. Their livelihood, the roof over their heads, their beloved parsonage, all will be taken from them at his demise, perpetual curacy holding only so long as the curate lives.
Will she be the one to save them all from penury with a new book, when her first one, her
, has just been rejected? She cannot believe it was without merit. Her soul is marked on every page. She is each one of her characters: the two brothers who are estranged, as were so often the ones in her own brother’s tales. She can still hear their voices, see their faces, feel their forms. She hears the wicked brother’s wife, Mrs. Edward Crimsworth, say with her lively lisp, “You are late.” She hears the swish of Edward’s whip. The child, Victor Crimsworth, has her brother’s fiery glint in his eyes.
What is she to write about now, in the silence of this darkened room?
She reads Psalm 119 to her father in the faint light of the candle, “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light to my path.” She watches his familiar face beneath the bandage: the high cheekbones, the decisive nose she has inherited—better on a man than on a woman, she thinks. She stares at the grim mouth, which dips at the corners, the jut of the determined chin, even the fine, broken veins in the cheeks. Her words seem to console and revive him. Blind as he is, smiles play over his face, and joy dawns on his forehead.
She brushes the bristles of white hair, which give him a surprised and unexpectedly roguish air, from his forehead and studies the long oval of his face. She feels a contained elation in the moment, a whisper of self-knowledge. Now that she can be useful to him in his reduced state, she loves him more than ever. She reaches out with the tip of her finger to wipe away a tear, which trickles from his cut left eye, and traces the strong lines of his fine face with her middle finger.
She makes a rough sketch of him in her notebook.
He feels small fingers brush his face like a cobweb. He sniffs at them, at the smell of the body. Since the death of his wife, no one has touched him so. He has almost lost the torment of his celibacy. “Who is this?” he asks, straining to see. He conjures up his wife’s small, neat form, the verbena scent of her skin. “Maria, is it you?” he says in his dream, and reaches out to catch at her skirts and her slim waist. “Saucy Pat,” she says, and slaps at his hand.
He sees his wife as she was at the end, begging for relief from pain. All her life she had been so well balanced, so sensible, pious, and self-effacing. Now at the end, the Great Tempter, envying her life of holiness, no doubt, had come to her and disturbed her mind. He sees her plainly, sitting up, her long hair wild about her shoulders, her face pinched and gray, wasted with illness and repellent to him. In her creased gown she reaches out to him, imploring him to help her. “Where is your damned God now? Where is He?” she screams at him, her hands to her belly where the pain is eating away at her.
Now, for the first time, he understands what she must have felt during those seven long months she lay dying. Then, he could only warn her that blasphemy was a mortal sin and urge her to think of the Judgment to come. “Help me! Your words are not helping me,” he still hears her scream. He would like to cry out the same words to his daughter, who is sitting beside him, scratching away with her pencil.
When he carried the children into the room—first the eldest, the most pious and brilliant, his favorite, his wife’s namesake, and then her favorite, their only boy—thinking it might comfort her to hold them in her arms, she cried out as though he had affronted her. Only the old servant, with her prosaic gestures, was able to calm her. Maria watched her clean the hearth, the way it was done in Cornwall, or let her softly brush her hair or bring a pillow to lift up her legs. Above all, she brought her the laudanum she craved in increasing quantities. “Give it to me! Give it to me!” she would say, reaching for it. “This is more help to me than your God.”
In the early afternoon when she lies down to rest and the nurse has gone downstairs for her dinner, Charlotte leaves the door open so she can hear her father’s call. She thinks of him lying immobile in the muted light. She thinks of her two living sisters, back home with their burden, their brother, who is probably drinking or drugging himself into a stupor or fit.
She takes out the letter of rejection she keeps in her pocket and rereads the curt words. Her novel,
, together with her two sisters’ first novels, has come back addressed to the Messrs. Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, the pseudonyms they have chosen to hide their sex. How much of this triple rejection is due to her sisters’ work? She has had her doubts about Emily’s, which seems too somber to her. But Emily would not listen to her counsel. As for Anne’s, it is certainly an honest book, but lacks perhaps the force necessary to engage an editor.
The letter had arrived on the day of the operation and came to her as a shock. She was surprised at the intensity, the sharpness, of her feelings. Death almost seemed a way out, but it was driven from her mind as she sat with her father through his ordeal.
How often he has had to still the voice that rises riotously within him. He distinguishes his daughter’s light, fast footsteps, her soft voice, her gentle touch, from the nurse’s with the hush, hush of her stockings rubbing between her languorous legs, the forced cheer of her voice. He hears them come and go. He drinks in the warmth of his daughter’s breath as she leans over him, brushes lightly against his chest, straightens his sheets and blanket. He would like to say: “Lie down beside me. Warm me with your youth. Warm my dry, old flesh and bones.”
She hears her father shouting her name in his sleep. “Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte!” he calls. She rushes to his side in her white gown.
He has shadows like a lace of leaves on his face, a dripping candle burning at his head. He looks gray and cold. She feels the shadow of death upon him. He lies like a stone knight on his back, his hands crossed on his chest. She is afraid he has died, her name on his lips. She approaches with the candle. She cannot hear his breath or see the candle flicker.
She thinks of the story from the Bible of the old king who cannot be warmed until a young virgin is brought to lie beside him. She lies down gently beside him. She stretches an arm above his head. She leans over him to hear his quiet breath.
hat night, she dreams of her professor, Monsieur H. She is sitting on the white sofa, talking to his wife, yet thinking of him so vividly. He has left on an extended voyage. She pictures the thick, black hair, dark eyes, robust body, wide shoulders, and strong legs. He is dressed casually, without any effort at elegance, in his loose old cloak. She says to his wife, who looks pale and is obviously upset by this long absence, “You can replace a husband but not a father,” and she sees a small, delicate child standing in the doorway, bent over with grief. The child looks very much like Charlotte herself. She wakes with a start in tears, all her old sorrow returning.
How she had trudged through the damp streets of Brussels, half-crazed with longing, lust, and jealousy, reluctant to return to the school. She lingered there in the dark and the rain to escape black thoughts. She walked to forget her Master and beloved friend who had replaced her father and her brother—her black swan, the first to discover her talent and encourage her art. How she has waited for his letters!
It was his wife whom she and Emily met first when they arrived in Brussels that evening, tired and hungry, having somehow lost a suitcase and their way in the dark cobblestoned streets, which glistened wet in the lamplight. Finally they came to the green door with the bronze plaque in the wall with the name of the
Pensionnat de Demoiselles
. The great door was opened by a small, hunched woman who ushered them inside the bright parlor with its black-and-white marble floor, where they were immediately confronted by a picture of family life that surprised and delighted them. Madame H. was there with her own mother, Madame Parent, as she was called, and sitting close by her side in her old-fashioned dress was Madame Parent’s sister. Delicious odors wafted in from the kitchens: baking bread and bubbling stew.
Charlotte and Emily sat side by side on the elegant white sofa so unlike the old dark horsehair one at home. A fat green stove warmed the room. They admired the paintings in their gold frames, the ornaments on the mantelpiece, and the folding doors, which led into the
with its piano and enormous draped window.
As they ate something heavy but delicious in a brown sauce with fresh bread followed by an apple tart, Madame Parent regaled them with an exciting tale. She had very blue eyes and a small mouth, and maintained she had been a beauty in her youth. She was a good storyteller and seemed delighted to have new listeners. Though Charlotte was not certain of the truth of her story, she was immediately drawn into it. She had fallen in love with a man who had escaped to Brussels penniless, with the Comte d’Artois, the king’s brother, during the French Revolution. The old lady told them her husband had been an elegant man, her eyes glistening and a tremor in her voice, who continued to powder his hair, wear knee breeches, and use the formal
when addressing her.
His sister, she said, a nun of both courage and generosity, had left her convent with a friend, both of them disguised as men. They, also arrived in Brussels, were the ones who had founded this school, which her niece—and here she smiled proudly down at her daughter—now continued to run.
Charlotte, too, admired the ebony-haired and dignified Madame H., a woman in her late thirties who sat very upright, her lace collar perfectly flat. What a relief to be in the company of these hospitable women!
But how unlike them was Monsieur H., a rude and choleric man. The only jarring note in the scene of harmony and family
was his sudden entrance and exit. He came into the black-and-white-tiled hall of the house on the rue d’Isabelle in a cloud of cigar smoke. He was obviously in a hurry, had apparently lost something, and seemed in bad humor. Charlotte watched him open a desk lid and rummage about inside, muttering and sputtering under his breath.
Still, there was something familiar about him. He was like a caricature of a man entering and rummaging about in a desk in a hallway, looking cross. Perhaps she had read such a scene in a book?
Madame H. called to him through the open glass doors of the salon, “Come, Constantin, dear, and meet our new pupils.” He lifted his head, gave her a stern glance, and strode impatiently into the elegant sitting room.
A small, spare, bespectacled man, he entered with a preoccupied air. With his black hair closely cropped, his brow broad and sallow, and his nostrils wide and quivering, Charlotte decided he looked like a beetle. He seemed to her in a childish rage.
Charlotte pitied Madame H., who appeared to be somewhat older than he, though neither of them was yet in their forties. She remembers thinking,
What an intensely disagreeable and ugly man
, as he bent briefly over her hand with her sister at her side. He hardly took the time to mutter a greeting to his new pupils. Indeed, he seemed to scowl at her particularly and take an instant dislike to both of them.
Madame H. arose to show the sisters to their dormitory. As they walked through the rooms, Charlotte admired the large school buildings. She stopped a moment before the image of the Virgin in an alcove with a burning lamp at her feet and found a prayer rising to her lips:
God give me the courage to live here and do my duty.
In the dormitory, they were placed at the end of the long row of beds, with extra bed space and a washstand between the beds, providing welcome privacy, and spotless white curtains, which lifted in the breeze.
The next morning they were able to see that the windows overlooked a romantic garden, a haven of quiet and calm in the midst of the city, which would become what she loved more than anything else. She liked to stroll there in the birdsong of early spring mornings or in the calm of the evening, within the shadows of its high walls, its row of pear trees, and its widespread acacia with the fine, feathery leaves, which trembled in the slightest breeze. It made her think of their childhood’s imaginary country, Angria, and long for her brother as he had once been. She would have liked to walk with him within such a sheltered garden as this, with its bright blooms, its graveled walks, and its romantic bower nestled in vines.
From the start, in those first few February days, she admired the orderly but generous way Madame H. ran her school: the young girls were not starved or overworked or obliged to walk to church in wet boots, as Charlotte had once been. Lessons were at reasonable hours: from nine to twelve and then again in the afternoon from two until four. The excellent food they had eaten that first evening proved to be a sample of what was to come. No burned porridge here. Exercise, too, was provided: fresh air in the garden.
Mens sana in corpore sano.
Or so she thought at first.
She saw him the next morning in the large, sunny classroom where they took their lessons. He taught literature at his wife’s school and also at the one for boys next door. From the moment he entered the classroom, he seemed transformed. The dark beetle had become a black swan, the rarest of birds. Monsieur H. sailed in fast, wings spread, obviously in an altered, expansive mood. He was already talking fast, moving his hands furiously through the bright air, as though he were on urgent business. Now, as he mounted the platform, she noticed the broad chest, the strength of the legs, the smiling mouth, the intensity of the black eyes.
He commanded his pupils to sit up and listen. “
,” he trumpeted with authority, and his gaze roamed the room fiercely, searching for an inattentive gaze. He was obviously enjoying himself, the admiring looks of this crowd of young women. When he had their complete attention, he proceeded to read from Racine’s
in a fine, deep, resonant voice. He rendered Hippolyte’s lines with such feeling and so much expression that, despite her limited French, she forgot where she was, swept away. When he came to a breathless halt and looked around the classroom and the silent, awestruck pupils, she thought,
I am falling in love, falling in love with language, with these sensuous words
She listened to him as he analyzed what he had read, probing and darting with daring and eloquence. Despite her limited understanding of the language, she was immediately aware of this man’s original mind, his deep comprehension of the many layers of the difficult text. She watched him use all his enthusiasm, his strength of mind and body, to claim the attention, and the hearts and minds, of these young women. Suddenly, she became aware, her mouth was open and her breathing shallow.
Then he handed back the girls’ homework, his pupils coming up to claim their work. She saw his expression change again and again, withering one pupil with the movement of lip or nostril and elevating the next with the upturn of an eyebrow. Some wept; others beamed, their faces lit with delight. Sometimes he would produce a little gift for a favorite student who had pleased him particularly, bringing forth something, a bonbon or
from one of his numerous pockets, like a conjuror from a hat.
She knew she wanted to please this man, to see his expression alter, to delight his eyes. She wanted one of his sweet gifts.
er father stirs beside her. He gropes in his darkness, and she arrests his wandering hand and imprisons it in both of hers.
“Read me something, dear child, will you? You are my vision. God bless you, child, and reward you,” he says. Gone is the old autocratic tone, the aggravation barely concealed beneath the pious Christian pronouncements, the threats of punishment for sins.
Sitting by her blinded, silenced father, she dares to take up her pencil and write for the first time in her own voice. She writes from experience, using what she knows of life, of literature, of love, plunging into the midst of her tale, not wasting the reader’s time or trying her patience with lengthy preliminaries.
This time, she will not hide behind the persona of a man, as she did in her novel
, with its two brothers in conflict, or as her younger sister has at the start of her book: no Crimsworth, no Lockwood. Nor will she use the Byronic heroes from her early works: no Wellesley, no Townshend, and above all, no Chief Genius Branii, to tell his tale of war, blood, mire, death, and disaster.
She remembers the direct, engaging voice of Robinson Crusoe—indeed, she feels like Robinson Crusoe, abandoned on her desert island—and she writes as though recounting her own adventures. “An autobiography,” she writes at the top of the page. She will make them think this is the truth, and it will be.
In their rejection letter, the editors have asked for an exceptional incident. She will give them one—no: many of them. She will give them mystery. She will use compression and little explanation, plunging into action. Above all, no grumbling. She will write out of rage at injustice and arrogance, the religious humbugs, the exploiters.
She works on the first scene, writing rapidly, seeing it all vividly, the shadowy picture emerging fast from the darkness of her mind, this shadowy room: the rainy, gray November day, the aunt’s bitter words to the child. “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance,” the aunt tells the child, her darlings clustered around her before the fire.
This new story of an orphan develops with a kind of urgency she has never known before. She has read and written so much, from such a young age. She knows the child’s position in this alien family will yield a steady stream of pathos. She knows how to create suspense by putting a fragile creature in immediate jeopardy and by making her fight back with spirit and justice. “What does Bessie say I have done?” she has the child retort to the aunt. Let the editor, the reader, put this down!
She contrasts the plain, ten-year-old girl with her richer, better-looking cousins. She invents a bully, a fourteen-year-old boy, John Reed—drawn from her days as governess—a fat child who gorges himself on cakes and sweetmeats. He has sallow skin and two spoiled sisters. How she has suffered at the expense of spoiled children whose doting parents could find no fault in them! She makes her heroine small for her age, delicate, and, like herself, plain. She conjures up a disapproving aunt, a mercurial servant girl.
Charlotte knows about the structure of stories and novels: her beloved Bunyan, Scott, Byron, the German Romantics, the French novels, the great Thackeray, Dickens, Carlyle. She has listened to her teacher’s admonitions to imitate classic works. She remembers the fairy tale, where there is an abandoned child, a Cinderella, the parents absent or dead, the aggressor brought swiftly onto the scene. She knows readers will recognize themselves here, all those who had too many brothers and sisters, who were lost in the midst of the solitude of a large family, as she was—or those who had no family at all. An orphan is not so far from a middle child, a third child, soon to be one of six motherless children, with their remote father shut away in his study, muffled in grief. She will avoid mawkishness by creating the complexity of a real child’s mind: this child will be no angel.
She remembers her aunt’s preference for the other children. She makes up a child who dares to ask what most would want to ask of the uncomprehending adults around her, had they the courage—a bright, brave, imaginative child, the child she would have liked to be. Like Charlotte now in the somber room, turning the pages of a familiar book, this child is glad of a quiet moment to study the pictures, the words that both echo the loneliness in her heart and carry her away from her solitary place in this family. She dreams of shadowy realms, frozen wastes, uncharted territories. The child is almost happy.
The desolate day outside, the loneliness of the child within the heart of the family, leads to the reading of the book, the escape into pictures, into a dream world. She creates a moment of hope, a slight pause before violence. Perhaps things will be better for her heroine in her hideout, in her world of dreams. Perhaps things will be better for Charlotte, too, starting this new book, alone with her father at her side. Her spirit lifts.
The name of her character and of her book comes to her casually, as she is busy with other things. She thinks of it as she adjusts her father’s blanket and lifts a cup to his lips, as he stirs, mutters something, stretches out a hand.
“Are you really there, my dear?” he asks.
“Of course, Papa,” she says, but she is not really there. She plunges on and on into the silvery depths. She floats through the autumn night and leaves this place behind.
It comes to her out of thin air. She is not sure if she has heard such a name. Was there someone she knew with that name? Does it come from the family arms she once saw in a church, or the river she knows well, the beautiful valley of the Ayre? Or is it a name that comes from air, perhaps, or fire? Fire and ire will be in the book: rage at the world as it is.
Ire and eyer: she is the one who now sees in her father’s place. She has become the voyeur, the observer. Plain Jane, Emily Jane, her beloved sister’s second name, Jane, so close to Joan, brave Joan of Arc, Jane so close to Janet, Jeanette, little Jane. A name that conjures up duty and dullness, childhood and obedience, but also spirit and liberty, a sprite’s name, a fairy’s name, half spirit, half flesh, light in darkness, truth amid hypocrisy, the name of one who sees: Jane Eyre.
itting at her father’s bedside, she has a vision of her French teacher, Monsieur H. She sees him striding fast into the classroom, waving a paper in his hands with that enthusiasm and certainty in his judgment. He draws himself up, staring at her with his intense gaze. She realizes that the paper he holds is hers. He reads from it in his expressive voice, adjusting his glasses. Will he commend it or heap coals of recrimination on her head?
She has written about Napoleon in the freedom of a language that increasingly belongs to her teacher. It is a language of head and heart, of glitter and gleam, a language that she is distanced from and yet now closer to than any other, because of him, a language of enchantment: French.
He trumpets, “
” and obtains in an instant the complete attention of a roomful of girls in all their youthful giddiness. “Now listen to this. Observe the range, the promise here. This is lively writing. Pay attention, girls—you’ll hear something different, something rare.”
She is not used to compliments. She feels her cheeks flush with pleasure. He has recognized her gift. Her body spins. The whole classroom, with its blackboard, its wooden desks, and its stolid Belgian pupils, swims around her.
She remembers the vacillating spring weather: bright one day and wet the next. As she walked in the garden, how brightly the beds flowered, how darkly the high wall between the boys’ and the girls’ school cast its shadow on the grass, how sweetly the sounds of the city came to her, like the constant murmur of the sea. How quickly she and Emily learned French, swallowing it down with great joyous gulps until their Master said one day,
“Voilà le Français gagné!”
She remembers his wife, lying flushed, happy, and exhausted in her canopied bed, smiling at her, as she hesitated at the door with her bouquet of roses clutched in her hand. She welcomed her into the room, patting the bed to invite her to sit close beside her, to admire the new baby she held in her arms. A rush of tears came into her eyes at the sight of the tiny pink creature.
“Would you like to hold him?” the wife asked, but Charlotte didn’t dare.
“Yes, yes,” the new mother had insisted, and thrust the little bundle like an offering into her shaking hands. Would she ever carry a baby within her? She lifted the warm infant and kissed his head, inhaling his scent. With this small, helpless being in her arms, she thought quite peculiarly that she would be willing to do anything, anything, to protect this child, if she was called upon to, if he was dependent on her care.
And her teacher, her Master. He seemed in a feverish state during those early days, rushing from one class to the next in his savage-looking old coat or his old-fashioned slouch hat, arriving sometimes unexpectedly in the early morning as she walked alone in the garden.
“Mademoiselle est bien matinale,”
he would say, pressing her hand in greeting and offering his arm. They walked together under the blossoming fruit trees, the apple, the pear, and the cherry, strolling among the spring flowers, daffodils, tulips, primroses, and fragrant herbs.
In the dim light of her father’s room, she recalls the twilight hour and the fluttering of the young girls in muslin dresses like moths in the gloaming between the shadowy trees. She watched him speak with the girls and realized he was not to them what he was to her.