Jane Eyre-ity

(This essay was broadcast on Milwaukee Public Radio on August 9, 2011. Have a listen here. Or go ahead and keep on reading…)

Flashback to the late ‘80s.  The flight from Sydney to LA, still parked at the gate, is going to be full, I can tell. But I’ve lucked out and am comfortably perched in business class, waiting for the push back, drink on my tray table, book in hand—Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. An a-typical business trip airplane read. The stewardess—the term still in use back then—smiles, tells me she loves that book. Instant friends.  Going to be a great trip. Hours later, I’m the only passenger with a light on in the darkened upper deck, finishing the book. As I’m heading off the plane, she asks, “Well?”  I say, “I am Heathcliff.”  She says, “I am Cathy.”  Wink.  I smile and head for Customs.

That little jetway exchange didn’t really happen—but it could’ve.  And I did love that book.  For me, it was another fix of Romantic English Gloom. Those days, I was a complete sucker for that stuff. Still am.  Misty moors, larks ascending, the banks of green willow, England’s green and pleasant land. And I was deep into Hardy, Dickens, Conrad.

And now, Jane Eyre.  Just finished it. First time. Why did it take so long?  Yes, my reading list is always a mile long, but after all, my wife, Jill, is a very well read Bronte aficionado and even one of my football player sons read Jane in high school. And, shortly after that long ago wuthering flight, Jill and I made a pilgrimage to tiny Haworth, the remote Yorkshire hometown of the Brontes, on a deliciously dour February day.  We stood at the garden gate and gazed out over the misty moors, astounded at what these young women—Charlotte, Emily and Anne—accomplished from that lonely moorland house, grim churchyard and gloomy graveyard.

Jane Eyre/Charlotte Bronte—revolutionary, bomb-throwing proto-feminist.

This is not news. Jane’s radicalism is well known. Countless readers have perceived this and some early reviewers complained. Most readers have been enchanted. And, of course, there are all those movies.  So, please forgive my newcomer’s gushing enthusiasm for this 170 year-old novel.  But how did Charlotte Bronte do this?

The magic of genius.

Jane Eyre/Charlotte Bronte said:

“Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but 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…”

Betty Friedan, author of one of the founding documents of the second wave of American feminism, 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, might’ve written that. But Charlotte Bronte wrote it in a dank, consumption-ridden house on the moors in the first half of the 19th Century.

What is it about Jane?

It’s her Jane Eyre-ity.

Adrienne Rich, writing in 1979, said, “The wind that blows through this novel is the wind of sexual equality—spiritual and practical. The passion that Jane feels as a girl of twenty or as a wife of thirty is the same passion—that of a strong spirit demanding its counterpart in another.”

Demanding its counterpart in another. Those are some revolutionary winds.  And Mr. Rochester and I were enthralled.

Rich continues, “Coming to her husband in economic independence and by her free choice, Jane can become a wife without sacrificing a grain of her Jane Eyre-ity…for Jane at least it is a marriage radically understood for its period, in no sense merely a solution or a goal.  It is not a patriarchal marriage in the sense of a marriage that stunts and diminishes the woman, but a continuation of this woman’s creation of herself.”

Jane Eyre-ity is a very good thing.  So many of the women in my life have it.  Independence, strength, confidence, humor—the innate sense that of course a woman demands and requires a “counterpart in another.”

In The Dangling Conversation, a brainy Simon & Garfunkel tune from the 60s, Paul Simon describes a comfy domestic scene, “And you read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost…”  Simon, adored by academic campus folkies in those days, was, I think, gently spoofing tweedy literary norms—I puffed my pipe, you served tea, we made tenure (sorry, maybe you didn’t) and, still, men and women didn’t communicate.  In those days, we, as a generation, were still figuring it out, still looking for clues. We still had miles to go before we had the brains to understand what Jane already knew over one hundred years before—that woman, Jane, is her own creation, no stagnation. No “rigid restraints.”

Revolutionary winds.

You gotta love Jane Eyre-ity.

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2 Responses to “Jane Eyre-ity”

  1. Sarah S. says:

    Love turning Jane’s spirit into noun that way. Fabulous!

  2. Indeed, what a cool thing. A noun. Does it work with other great characters? Gatsberity? Holden-erity? I think it does….thanks Sarah.