Holiday Recovery

After three days in bed, this is the experimental day 1 back in a chair. Word to the wise: do not fly immunocompromised. Posting will resume after the workday. But I just couldn’t help myself, I wanted to share what may be the best piece of “search engine poetry” I’ve personally gotten. Thank you to the anonymous but well-understood reader looking for information on {to st. john, insufferable blighter}.

Jane Eyre’s Eliza Reed

In Jane Eyre, I am one of the bad characters you are not supposed to emulate. That is to say, I identify most with her.

Eliza Reed isn’t an awful character; she’s certainly not as bad as Mr. Brocklehurst or St. John Rivers. When Jane parts from her forever, as she does about halfway through the novel when Mrs. Reed dies, Jane does not wish her ill—but she is rather cool.

What’s wrong with Eliza? For one thing, she is much too dispassionate for Jane, who thinks an evener blend of reason and emotion might be better. Eliza, instead, is extremely calm and rational, even in the face of family tragedy. She is busy all the time and keeps to a strict schedule she doesn’t want anyone to disturb—much like myself.

Eliza still spoke little: she had evidently no time to talk. I never saw a busier person than she seemed to be; yet it was difficult to say what she did: or rather, to discover any result of her diligence. She had an alarum to call her up early. I know not how she occupied herself before breakfast, but after that meal she divided her time into regular portions; and each hour had its allotted task…. I believe she was happy in her way: this routine sufficed to her, and nothing annoyed her so much as the occurrence of any incident which forced her to vary its clock-work regularity.

This could just as easily be a portrait of me. Not a lot of time is scheduled in there to visit with her dying mother, which is a bit of a shame, and she sheds no tears when the fateful morning arrives.

Eliza is, of course, a member of the disharmonious Reed family. Why is everyone so unhappy and unfulfilled in the Reed family? Well, Eliza’s problem at least is that she doesn’t really love them, especially not her sister Georgiana.

“Georgiana and she had nothing in common: they never had had. She would not be burdened with her society for any consideration. Georgiana should take her own course; and she, Eliza, would take hers.”

And why not? She tells Georgiana as much herself, after giving her some life advice.

“Georgiana, a more vain and absurd animal than you, was certainly never allowed to cumber the earth. You had no right to be born; for you make no use of life. Instead of living for, in, and with yourself, as a reasonable being ought, you seek only to fasten your feebleness on some other person’s strength: if no one can be found willing to burden her or himself with such a fat, weak, puffy, useless thing, you cry out that you are ill-treated, neglected, miserable. Then, too, existence for you must be a scene of continual change and excitement, or else the world is a dungeon: you must be admired, you must be courted, you must be flattered—you must have music, dancing, and society—or you languish, you die away. Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts, and all wills, but your own? Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes, include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun; and you are indebted to no one for helping you to get rid of one vacant moment: you have had to seek no one’s company, conversation, sympathy, forbearance: you have lived, in short, as an independent being ought to do. Take this advice: the first and last I shall offer you; then you will not want me or any one else, happen what may. Neglect it—go on as heretofore, craving, whining, and idling—and suffer the results of your idiocy: however bad and insufferable they may be.”

These are, in fact, excellent instructions, and I can see in Eliza’s assessment of Georgiana many of the faults of my own younger sister, for whom I have extremely little affinity. This, again, is where I line up very closely with Eliza. She may be related to Georgiana, but they are nothing alike, and there is little reason why they should be.

“After my mother’s death, I wash my hands of you: from the day her coffin is carried to the vault in Gateshead church, you and I will be as separate as if we had never known each other. You need not think that because we chanced to be born of the same parents, I shall suffer you to fasten me down by even the feeblest claim: I can tell you this—if the whole human race, ourselves excepted, were swept away, and we two stood alone on the earth, I would leave you in the old world, and betake myself to the new.”

Jane describes her, after this speech, as “intolerably acrid.” She has spent her whole life looking for a family, while Eliza rejects hers. But of course, Jane has rejected Eliza’s family too; she agrees that Georgiana is an annoying fool. She’s just too nice to make a big deal out of it. Her assessment of the sisters: “Feeling without judgment is a washy draught indeed, but judgment untempered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition.” Too bitter and husky for humans; I suppose I can accept that.

Where I differ from Eliza is in her devout and somewhat strange religiosity. She spends a large amount of time while Jane is staying in the house studying the Book of Common Prayer, specifically the rubric. And she is planning on moving to a nunnery to make a study of the Roman Catholic Church and see whether that might not be a better path to heaven. I wonder, does this occasion coolness on Jane’s part as well? Eliza is not only peculiar and unloving, but a potential papist. Jane’s somewhat offhand remark that Eliza will soon be “walled up alive in a French convent,” I think, supports this at least somewhat. (St. John is certainly a worse person, but Jane is nicer to him—and note that their relatedness is identical with hers and Eliza’s. But St. John is a Calvinist while Eliza flirts with Rome. Even St. John’s household routines, work ethic, and reluctance to spend time talking to his sisters rather than working are similar to Eliza’s habits.)

At their parting, Eliza does have some positive words for Jane: “you perform your own part in life, and burden no one.” Nicest thing she could possibly say, really, from her perspective, where being “quiet and unmolested” are the ultimate goals.

And the more I think about it, maybe the religiosity fits with me too. Eliza does say that she wants to study “Roman Catholic dogmas, and…the workings of their system; if I find it to be, as I half suspect it is, the one best calculated to ensure the doing of all things decently and in order, I shall embrace the tenets of Rome and probably take the veil.” An extremely rational way to go about things, really. So we may have reached different conclusions about that, but temperamentally….

So what to do, when you find yourself at the wrong end of a Victorian novel’s morality lesson?

Self-Righteousness vs. Religion in Jane Eyre

Amateur Reader mentioned in a comment that he had done a week of Jane Eyre himself, and after I finished up the novel last night I stopped by to read the posts. He has done everything: the books, the surprising dates of the novel (maybe—and “snaps into place” is right—the exact same place, in fact, as Wuthering Heights), even the fairies. Three things that interested me highly! But they are great posts.

What is left? Many things, surely. Religion among them—one of the greatest puzzles of the novel for me. One of the surprising things about the book is the amount of it spent not at Thornfield Hall, and nearly all the time away from Rochester is dominated by religion or religious figures.

In the preface to the second edition, Brontë (that is, Currer Bell) goes to pains to assure her readers that the novel is not antireligious. “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” So I was on the lookout for this, and certainly Jane starts out by attacking some pretty serious self-righteousness in the person of Mr. Brocklehurst.

Brocklehurst is highly religious, highly self-righteous, and pretty much evil. He fairly starves the children under his power so they may learn to mortify the flesh, and is responsible for the deaths of perhaps dozens of girls. We know this episode is autobiographical, and it’s easy to see why Brontë would want to attack such a person in her novel. But while Jane is at Brocklehurst’s school, she meets Helen Burns, a highly religious young consumptive. Amateur Reader describes Helen as adhering to natural religion, but I must disagree there. She is quite clear about her belief in the Bible and thus revealed religion; she seems to be, instead, a Christian Universalist.

Then we have Thornfield Hall, and Rochester, who does not seem a very religious man—could probably be described as irreligious considering his past and what he attempts with Jane. And the discovery scene, where all her hopes are dashed, happens inside a church, because of a religious ceremony. And Rochester fairly orders the clergyman to continue the wedding! He basically repudiates the solemnity of marriage first by trying to wed Jane, then by describing Bertha as a devil and a great burden, in front of the self-same clergyman.

Religion, of course, is what sends Jane from Thornfield in the aftermath: she is convinced she has forgotten God and idolized Rochester, leaves, and is saved by another clergyman.

So here we come to St. John, insufferable blighter. He was more despicable as a character than I even thought possible. And yet Jane is glad to have him as a cousin, and still respects him when all is said and done? How is that possible? How is he not at least as self-righteous as Brocklehurst—or is Jane the narrator simply become more forgiving in her old age? St. John fairly tells her that she must repent of not marrying him or burn in the lake of fire for eternity—is this an appropriate tone for a vicar to take? It seems an insane, self-absorbed opposite of anything Helen Burns believed, and I am sure her beliefs had an effect on Jane. Yet Jane, even after returning to Rochester, says that he lives to perform “great and exalted deeds,” that “his brain is first-rate,” he “is an accomplished and profound scholar.” At least some of this is to irritate Rochester, of course, but Jane is not lying—she does not despise St. John, she does not seem to scorn him.

St. John was so busy being mean to Jane I didn’t get to focus quite so much on his theology as I might have. And to separate it from his ambition might be difficult. But the first time Jane hears him preach, she says:

Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness: stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines—election, predestination, reprobation—were frequent; and each reference to these points sounded like a sentence pronounced for doom.

How do you get away with preaching predestination in an Anglican church? This seemed very strange to me, and if I knew more about the history of the church might have some bearing on the years in which the novel is set. He is certainly puritanical enough about work and “domestic dissipation.”

And then, of course, St. John’s calling on God to speak to Jane is what sends her back to Rochester. The supernatural world that has Jane’s and Rochester’s voices meeting in the night seems much more akin to Helen Burns’s than to St. John’s. And Rochester is praying—the idol himself has found God and truly changed his ways, now that we have beaten him up a bit. The couple certainly find bliss, but Jane is just as sure that St. John dies fulfilled and happy, and what kind of reward is that for his self-righteousness? Brocklehurst got what was coming to him; what made him so different?

And I have left out what is, for me, maybe the most interesting religious figure of the novel. Even for the brief time that Jane is away from Thornfield on her aunt’s illness and death, she is living under, in some measure, quite a religious eye: that of Eliza Reed. Eliza may keep to herself and remain unemotional, but she is hardly as mean as St. John. Her devotion is much quieter and possibly more rational. But when she decides to leave for her nunnery, Jane is civil but cool toward her. Why does Eliza get such harsh judgment from Jane? Is it because she does not love her family? Because certainly St. John does not really love his family either, only himself. And I have not mentioned either that Brontë was the daughter of a clergyman herself: what bearing does that have on all this? Many more questions than answers from my end.

Mid-Jane Eyre

I am only halfway through the novel, but within 50 pages or so I could completely see why so many people consider this a primary “comfort read.” Unless some antipathetic turn should come in the second half, I expect I will feel the same way.

I know, of course, the mystery of the demoniacal laughter on the third floor. I have even read Wide Sargasso Sea. Rarely if ever do I feel “spoiled” by knowing the plot of a novel, but this time I do a little bit. The romance excites me unexpectedly; would I be more excited by the mystery if I didn’t know the resolution?

I love the simultaneous desires with a book like this both to finish it and to keep reading it. Makes me want to take a day off work and curl up with it. Yes, all the hallmarks of the comfort read.