Saturday, April 7, 2007

Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre"

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was published in 1847 to immediate acclaim; Queen Victoria praised it as "really a wonderful book."

Richard Dunn is Professor of English at the University of Washington, with a particular interest in Victorian literature, particularly the Brontës and Dickens. He is the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Jane Eyre (3rd edition, 2001).

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to Brontë's classic British novel and reported the following, beginning with a block of text from the page:
From p. 99 (Ch. 12)

I did not like re-entering Thornfield. To pass its threshold was to return to stagnation; to cross the silent hall, to ascend the darksome staircase, to seek my own lonely room ... was to quell wholly the faint excitement wakened by my walk, -- to slip again over my faculties the viewless fetters of an uniform and too stiff existence, of an existence whose very privileges of security and ease I was becoming incapable of appreciating ...

I lingered at the gates; I lingered on the lawn; I paced backwards and forwards on the pavement: the shutters of the glass door were closed; I could not see into the interior; and both my eyes and spirit seemed drawn from the gloomy house -- from the grey hollow filled with rayless cells, as it appeared to me -- to that sky expanded before me, -- a blue sea absolved from taint of cloud; the moon ascending it in solemn march; her orb seeming to look up as she left the hilltops, from behind which she had come, far and farther below her, and aspired to the zenith, midnight-dark in its fathomless depth and measureless distance: and for those trembling stars that followed her course; they made my heart tremble, my veins glow when I viewed them. Little things recall us to earth: the clock struck in the hall; that sufficed; I turned from moon and stars, opened a side door, and went in.
Here Jane recalls the start of the third principal stage of her story, the move from Lowood school to new life as governess at Mr. Rochester's Thornfield Hall. The walk she mentions was the occasion where she aided the stranger who had fallen from his horse and who she later found to be her new employer.

"Stagnation" is an apt description of Jane's life in many senses, of the repression she suffers from relatives as a poor orphan, from the severe evangelical schoolmaster, from the socially indeterminate role as governess. This passage well articulates Jane's sense that the stagnation threatens her most vital being, not just her station in life but her vitality and the imagination which sustained her both as character and ultimately as "autobiographer."

This passage's opposing images of dark and gloomy interior and expansive, moon and star-lit external world present one of the novel's many linkings of Jane's human nature with the larger natural world. Though here she is recalled to earth by the striking of a clock, her story will continue to present moments when heartfelt imaginative views inspire her very pictorial writing. For example, early in her life at Thornfield, Rochester critiques powerful and unconventional scenes Jane had drawn earlier as student and teacher. Ultimately, in her famous account of receiving a call from the far-distant Rochester, she describes it as a night-scene and characterizes it as "the work of nature. She was roused, and did -- no miracle -- but her best."

The plot of Jane Eyre centers on her relationships with those relatives, teachers, and potential mates who both attract and repel her, but in terms of the life she reconstructs as autobiographer what is at stake is satisfactory resolution of life-long efforts to accommodate and sustain her passionate nature. She does so largely by responding in word paintings of an external nature full of life and value.
View the Contents page of Jane Eyre, the Norton Critical Edition.

--Marshal Zeringue