Mustering Courage To Become Jane Eyre

Edward A. Wilson, "Jane Eyre"

Edward A. Wilson, “Jane Eyre”

Friday I recounted how my great-grandmother Eliza (Lizzy) Scott turned to the sentimental novels of Susan Warren and Charlotte Yonge to negotiate a difficult childhood that included the death of her mother and baby brother. (She also found solace in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “May Queen.”) Today I write about a book that she doesn’t specifically mention but that I’m pretty sure was an inspiration: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

What tipped me off was a particular word that Lizzy uses when she decides to leave her father and become a governess. Here’s the passage from her memoir:

Father made strenuous objections at first, but I was glad to have the prospect of a change and of earning a little money. I was not needed at home and was restless at having nothing to do.

There are few words more important in Jane Eyre than “restless.” Janes uses it when she is a governess at Thornfield and is chafing against domestic restraints:

I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line—that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen—that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach.  I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adèle; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

Who blames me?  Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented.  I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes

Because women of the time were supposed to find complete fulfillment within the home, Jane’s reflections were revolutionary—so much so that reviewer Elizabeth Rigby attacked the novel for being unfeminine, antichristian, and communist (“chartist”). I can imagine Lizzy Scott, like many women of the time, recognizing her own inner longings in Bronte’s passage, which concludes with Jane complaining about the gender double standard:

Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it—and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence.

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.  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; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

This passage echoes an earlier one that, while it doesn’t use the word “restless,” nevertheless captures the same sentiments. Jane is teaching at Lowood school and sees herself going nowhere. She longs for contact with the “real world” where “hopes and fears,” “sensations and excitements,” await those who have “courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils”:

 My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out.  There were the two wings of the building; there was the garden; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon.  My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks; it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits.  I traced the white road winding round the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between two; how I longed to follow it farther!  I recalled the time when I had travelled that very road in a coach; I remembered descending that hill at twilight; an age seemed to have elapsed since the day which brought me first to Lowood, and I had never quitted it since.  My vacations had all been spent at school: Mrs. Reed had never sent for me to Gateshead; neither she nor any of her family had ever been to visit me.  I had had no communication by letter or message with the outer world: school-rules, school-duties, school-habits and notions, and voices, and faces, and phrases, and costumes, and preferences, and antipathies—such was what I knew of existence.  And now I felt that it was not enough; I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon.  I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer…

Jane Eyre was tremendously popular amongst governesses and prospective governesses throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. It was practically a Bible for some. I think the novel gave my great-grandmother the courage to venture out into the world. In Jane’s case, she ratchets her desires down but can be seen as making a bold demand nonetheless. Here she is requesting a second and then a third choice:

…[liberty] seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing.  I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”

I think such a passage supported my great-grandmother in making her own bold decision to leave her family. Like Jane, she succeeded in finding a “new servitude”: she became a governess with the Martin family.

There were more books on the way. Lizzy discovered that her new mistress had literary connections:

Mrs. Martin was the eldest daughter of Mark Lemon, the well known editor of Punch, an intimate friend of Charles Dickens, Macauley, and all the literary men of the day.

If Jane Eyre helped Lizzy launch herself into the world, however, Lizzy found herself unable to imitate Jane in every particular. Jane is fairly confident in her ability to manage Adele whereas Lizzy found the job to be tougher than she had anticipated:

I realized almost at once that I was not qualified to teach those children. My education was so limited, and they were very bright. I knew only a little of music and French, whereas Mrs. Martin was an accomplished musician and spoke French and Italian fluently.

When she expressed her self-doubts and offered to resign, however, the Martins persuaded her to stay another year. She resolved to do so and then experienced the happy ending that concludes most governess novels, including Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.”

She didn’t marry the lord of the manor, however, but my great-grandfather Edwin, who had dated her before he left for America. In fact Lizzy, like Jane, received two marriage proposals in one week. Edwin’s marriage proposal came by letter, as did a proposal from another man who had been reticent about expressing his love.

Lizzy didn’t accept the man with the steady job. Instead, she took the one who, to borrow from the Bronte passage above, would allow her to follow, and follow further, the white road that vanished in a gorge. Edwin would take her to America and South Africa and back to America again and they would suffer periodic reversals of fortune. It’s a love story worthy of the romances that Lizzy loved, and she never expresses any regrets.

When I would visit my “Granny Bates,” Lizzy’s eldest daughter, I was impressed with all the editions of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, and many, many others on her shelves. I’m pretty sure they came from my great-grandmother rather than from Edwin, who viewed Dickens as a man who lived a scandalous life. Lizzy Scott passed her love of literature along to Granny, who passed it along to her youngest son, my father Scott, who passed it along to me.

I in turn have passed it along to my children, one of whom last year completed his dissertation in Victorian literature.

Further thought: One of the most useful ideas in Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic is that the madwoman functions as Jane’a alter ego, acting out her restlessness and her anger at being pent up. One sees the connection especially vividly in the following passage, which follows the “restless” passage cited above:

When thus alone, I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh: the same peal, the same low, slow ha! ha! which, when first heard, had thrilled me: I heard, too, her eccentric murmurs; stranger than her laugh.

 

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