Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jane again

Readers, I didn’t want this book to end. I stayed wrapped in its spell all weekend. My husband has started to resent dear Jane since I preferred to cuddle with her and a cup of hot tea, rather than cozy up on the couch for movie-watching with him. So finally I savored the last few pages and put it down Monday morning. It cast such a spell, I hated to leave that world.

But to put a finger on exactly what is incantatory… the language, the romance, the setting, the loftiness of Jane’s faith in the individual soul?

Like Melanie, I'm looking forward to other comments, because I just have some rambling thoughts, no coherent argument, to make.

After Betty mentioned our friend’s essay on the romance of domesticity in Touchstone, along with the fact that I started a biography of Lord Byron’s wife and sister, I found myself questioning whether Jane was a Romantic or not. She is practical and resourceful and doesn’t seem to suffer self-doubt, but she has this restlessness even at Morton. She trusts that passion is the mark of true love, but she believes it is better to be “free and honest” schoolmistress than to be “a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles.” She certainly has high standards and believes strongly in the equality of souls, although she appears to treat servants and her country students with condescension. Her joy in finding she has cousins whom she loves (as opposed to the Reeds) and her satisfaction with her quiet marriage seem to quench any restlessness of her heart; she finds perfect contentment in her small cottage life reading and talking – a romantic - but not capital R Romantic - happily ever after ending. 

Some other questions:
Is there any conflict in her rejection of Mr. Rochester’s initial proposal and her offer to go to India as a helper to St. John but not as a wife? On the one hand it seems like she doesn’t care about appearances (despite her faith in physiognomy) as long as she knows she is doing what is right, but on the other hand, you’d think she be able to accept Mr. Rochester’s explanation of why he thought it would be okay to marry Jane because he had talked himself into believing that the first marriage was illegitimate. But Jane is willing, although she dreads the idea, to risk being “the instrument of evil to what you wholly love” rather than risk living in sin.

St. John is an interesting character – are we supposed to admire him or see him as a fanatic? I thought how he described Jane was interesting when he first calls her “impassioned” and then clarifies: “I mean that human affections and sympathies have a most powerful hold on you. I am sure you cannot long be content to pass your leisure in solitude, and to devote your working hours to a monotonous labour wholly void of stimulus; any more than I can be content… to live here buried in morass, pent in with mountain – my nature, that God gave me, contravened; my faculties, heaven-bestowed, paralysed – made useless. You hear now how I contradict myself. I, who preached contentment with a humble lot, and justified the vocations even of hewers of wood, and drawers of water, in God’s service – I, his ordained minister, almost rave in my restlessness. Well, propensities and principles must be reconciled by some means.”

This speech of his, too, stuck out: “It is hard work to control the workings of inclination, and turn the bent of nature: but that it may be done, I know from experience. God has given us, in a measure, the power to make our own fate; and when our energies seem to demand a sustenance they cannot get – when our will strains after a path we may not follow – we need neither starve from inanition, nor stand still in despair: we have but to seek another nourishment for the mind, as strong as the forbidden food it longed to taste – and perhaps surer; and to hew out for the adventurous foot a road as direct and broad as the one Fortune has blocked up against us, if rougher than it.”

If he had decided to be a soldier or statesman instead of a clergyman, would he have been able to marry Miss Oliver and to find an outlet for his energy in those pursuits? Or would that have made his soul smaller? Is his example a justification of celibacy to a culture that prized marriage so highly?

On another note, do you think novelists were especially susceptible to faith in physiognomy? The idea that you can read a person’s personality in the prominences and valleys of their face seems quaint now, but is there enough history in people’s faces that the only fault is to regard it as a science?


BettyDuffy said...

Hmm. on reading personality traits in people's faces--I think our sensitive culture wouldn't take kindly to making such judgements. THough, I think there's some truth in it, and I'm pretty sure most of us do it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Whenever I think of novelists and physiognomy, two writers always pop up in my mind at the same time: Charlotte Bronte and Ayn Rand.

From Rand's Fountainhead:

"I think . . . that every human soul has a style of its own, also. Its one basic theme. You'll see it reflected in every thought, every act, every wish of that person. The one absolute, the one imperative in that living creature. Years of studying a man won't show it to you. His face will. You'd have to write volumes to describe a person. Think of his face. You need nothing else."

"That sounds fantastic . . . And unfair, if true. It would leave people naked before you."

"It's worse than that. It also leaves you naked before them. You betray yourself by the manner in which you react to a certain face."

I think Rand was already too literal about this idea in The Fountainhead and then took it to the point of absurdity in Atlas Shrugged . . . but deep down, where it counts, I've always agreed with her on this.