Reading Jane Eyre

I was just a year older than Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous character when I first read Jane Eyre. I took the Norton Anthology copy with me on my flight to my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. I was spending spring break with my then 80-year-old grandma—my kindred spirit. As slow reader in those days, I’m sure I packed the classic to stay ahead of the homework awaiting my return to campus.

My week was full. If I wasn’t in hours-long conversation with Grandma, I was catching up with family friends. Grandma cracked open my copy of Jane Eyre while I was away, and was giddy to discuss what she’d read when I got home. I saw firsthand what a marvelous teacher she would have been, and I sat under her tutelage as we discussed the plot points. What I remember most was how much she loved reading the book, and how much I loved discussing it with her. The week wound down, so I bought Grandma her own copy so she could keep reading it when I returned to campus.

As years passed and I came across the book in a box packed for my next move or sitting on a bookshelf, I marveled at the fact that I could not remember one single thing about the story. Only that I had liked it at the time. I finally took the book off the shelf to reread when my mom handed me the book I gave her a few years ago to read. The book title is my mom’s first and last name, which was the reason I bought it for her. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to the plot or appreciate that familiarity with the Jane Eyre plot would be helpful. Mom asked me to read the book, so I could give her a book report. This was my opportunity to get reacquainted with Charlotte’s Jane first.

Rereading Jane Eyre at 48 is like cracking open a long-sealed time capsule. I was a sophomore in college still nursing a broken heart after a break up I hadn’t seen coming. I had a hard time getting into the story as I suspect I would have had the first time around without Grandma’s tutuoring, but this time the struggle had more to do with middle-aged eyes fighting the too-small font.

I read with interest the pages I had underlined in red pencil or hot-pink pen. Julie at 20 was studying college French, and so she underlined most of the French dialogue. She was also just beginning to acknowledge the inner chaos she felt, but didn’t yet understand. The underlines showed evidence that she related to some of Jane’s plights. Both Jane and Julie were learning how to stand up for themselves and to find their voices.

In one scene, Jane speaks the unwanted truth to her unkind aunt, and then reflects:

Ere I had finished this reply my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.”

I would experience what Jane describes, but much later in life, and after a lot more heart ache, self-doubt, and second guessing.

The story picked up speed and steam when I finally set aside my old college volume, and checked out a copy from the library with larger font. As I compared the two versions, I noted that my underlining slowed as the story progressed. What I had underlined were excerpts that described longing. I was in deep longing in those college days.

Jane has long been in love with Mr. Edward Rochester, but his circumstances do not permit them to wed as they both had hoped. And then their circumstances change (drastically in some respects), and they find themselves in each other’s company again.

As Jane’s prospects improve, my underlining virtually stops. I see now that I could not envision how my story was going to fare as well as Jane’s. This is where 48-year-old Julie delights in an imaginary conversation with her younger self.

What I would tell Julie at 20 is to rest easy. That her broken heart will mend, but not in the ways or on the timeline she could imagine or predict. I would tell her that she will find her way back to her own Mr. Rochester, and he will be everything he was the first time around and so much more!

“I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.”

I am a proponent of rereading fiction—especially at different times in one’s life. Revisiting Jane Eyre gave me the opportunity to rethink what I thought I knew about myself at different stages, to replay the loving exchanges with my grandma, and to have a conversation with my younger self.

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”- Albert Camus

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”- Jessamyn West

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