What can you learn from a fictional character whose creator, a woman herself, lived in the 1800’s and in London, England no less? The answer is plenty. The book is Jane Eyre and its author is Charlotte Bronte.
Jane Eyre, for those unfamiliar with this book, is about a character of the same name. This novel is written in what those in the literary world call Bildungroman, where the reader sees the character develop from child to adult. At the time of the writing of Jane Eyre, most novels so styled had male characters, but this is just one area that Charlotte Bronte demonstrated that she was before her time. We follow Jane through many and varied life experiences and see her frame her proto-feministic views. I picked up this book when I was about 12 or 13 years of age and haven’t put it down since. Let me explain what I mean.
Jane Needs a Home
All throughout the novel, your heart bleeds for this little girl who no one seems to want or love. She loses her parents very early and is left in the care of a merciless aunt who sends her to an ill-ran boarding school. This bleak start propels her on the journey to find love and appreciation – or in other words, a home.
It struck me as amazing how this issue is till relevant today. In magazines, books and TV shows there have been countless information that tell you how to find love, be loved, and maintain love in your life. We struggle against all odds as Jane did, to prevail in almost what seems like a miracle.
Jane Needs Self-Love
It’s interesting that Jane received two marriage proposals – one from a then married man and the other from someone who absolutely did not love her at all. It raises questions like, would Jane get involved with a married man? Or would she settle and get married to someone she didn’t love just because it was the thing to do?
How familiar is that? How many times have women been in the same predicament and made the oh-so-bad mistake of yielding to their lesser values. However, Jane did find strength to do the right thing. Some would say, she a fictional character. But I would answer, her maker was not. As anyone will tell you, authors live through their characters; a little of their souls is exposed to the world, leaving blood-stained pages by means of the ink.
So what was Charlotte Bronte trying to say with this character? My opinion may be different from yours, but that’s as it should be. I hear moral excellence is required by those who are informed. Jane was not an ignorant person by any means. She was articulate, well-read, spiritual and discerning. Today’s well-informed women should be held to the same bar. Don’t we hold others to that bar? Now let’s not confuse excellence with perfection. Perfection? Who does that? Exactly. But excellence is doable and reasonable because it asks for what is only humanly possible. How many times have we asked ourselves did we do our best? Did we do all we can? And we should ask ourselves those questions; it keeps us to the task. The trick is to expect excellence but no further. As Jane found true, when we hold to our truths, we develop into a stronger version of ourselves and draw loving relationships into our world.
Religion or Spirituality
What held her to this course? Some of it could be attributed to her natural tenacity, but she herself attributed it to God. Sometimes, God is not a poplar subject today because many use his name for the own agenda. Jane grew disgruntled for similar reasons as well. First, when attending the boarding school, ran by the so-called religious headmaster named Mr. Brocklehurst. He proved to be pious, hypercritical and mean. You hear Jane ask with her actions, “Is this God?”
Next, was in the character of the young, ambitious minister, St. John (pronounce “SinJin”) Rivers. He was cold, austere and was determined to reject all warmth and indications of love. Again, Jane asks, “Is this God?” Even after all of the bad experiences and bad examples, Jane did not spurn God and set out to please only herself. She was a thinking person, who clung to her faith. We see her grow from cleaving to that shaky faith to a well-grounded and tested reliance in what she knows was true. Many today have taken the same journey, but initially, they may believe because others say they should. This produces only a superficial spirituality, but when faith is tried, tested and made fast by life experiences, appreciation is rooted and faith stabilizes.
One of the reasons Jane has been subjugated is because she was financially dependent on others. And as stated before, some of her superiors were not so much. It’s not as if she went quietly along either. For instance, she physically fought her rich cousin, made her stand against her hateful aunt, and declared the Psalms were not really interesting to a foreboding clergyman – all this while still a young girl.
So how does she gain financial stability? By hard work? One could say it was hard work although on the surface it looks as if she just inherited a rich uncle’s wealth. But what if she was not the person she had built and worked hard to be? What if she had not valued the relationships and friends that presented themselves in her life? Something tells me that even her old spiteful aunt would not have given in, even at her death bed, and told Jane about her rich uncle had Jane’s character been of a shady nature.
Something tells me that self-righteous St. John would have kept the secret of her inherited wealth and connections with his family had she not shaped herself into the person she was at that time. Her spiritual affluence seems to indirectly affect her financial affluence. With that said, it is only at the time of financial affluence that she felt she was on an equal footing with her newly widowed, romantic match, Mr. Rochester. The social norms at this time devalued women because they were women. With all of these negative external queues, Jane had to work hard to overcome these barriers by at times acquiring the same thing that she resented for her holding her back – lack of money, no husband and no home.
What is the message here? Money is not the thing. The thing is our character, inner beauty, inner person or secret person of the heart. It is power itself and by it we can be freed. Jane Eyre taught me this at such a young age. Truth be told, I did not get it or fully understand the lesson then, but I just knew that this novel resonated within me. I knew it was important to me as a woman. And what’s so fascinating and wonderful is that its messages will be carried to women beyond my time as well.