The Book Club met on Sunday the 21st of February, 2021 to discuss Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
The presentation was a visual treat with images of the Yorkshire scenes and clips from the movie made on the novel. The Brontes were a versatile family of three sisters and a brother, Branwell. The scourge of T.B. or consumption swept over marshy cold England and claimed many victims.
The clergyman lost his wife and the three girls, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were left to study and fend for themselves. They played creative, imaginative games involving the creation of fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal and published it in their own journal, Branwell’s Blackwoods Magazine. By the way, Bronte in Greek stands for Thunder and is quite apt. The brother Branwell died young and the girls were isolated in the prim society of the Victorian Age of the early 19th century.
Charlotte went as a governess to Brussels in 1839 and her novel, The Professor , was published in the Blackwoods Magazine. Jane Eyre ‘s first edition came in 1847. The presenter dwelt on the bold fearless portrayal of an honest young woman who does not fear the norms of a society ridden with rules.
Readers felt this tale of bigamy and the unbridled passion of an unmarried lady could only be penned by a man. Charlotte wrote under the pen name of Currer Bell. G.H.Lewes opined that, ”Jane Eyre is the utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering and much enduring spirit.” The dramatic utterances of Jane in a crisis are remarkable for a woman of her age: fiercely moralistic and yet independent minded. As Adrienne Rich observed that It is Jane’s strong sense of morality, self respect and dignity that saves her from the usual trap of temptation of a motherless woman to overcome the thrill of masochism and the temptation of romantic love.
Jane’s tragic story narrated in three parts of revelations was interesting….as she is orphaned and then the cruel Reeds , her aunt’s family, shut her in the Red room for her rebellion. She falls ill and is sent to Lowood school where she befriends Helen Burns and meets Miss Temple, a kind teacher. The Gothic element in the ghost of her uncle scaring her in the Red Room and then her meeting with Edward Rochester one windy evening in the fog. The screams in the attic of Thornfield Hall are macabre and poor Jane in her first job as governess to Adele, the ward of Rochester, is terrified. This fear rules the relationship of Rochester and Jane. The presenter did not touch on this aspect till the end. The focus was on the feminist protagonist fighting against all odds to fend for herself in a cruel world that seemed loaded against her. In finding love and passion with Rochester, she is bold to admit it. And the revelation of his mad wife in the attic in church seems a dread blow to her happiness. Her honesty, if commendable, as she replies to Rochester’s query, “ Do you think me handsome ?” “No Sir” is a response most Victorian girls would not dare to say. She has to decide on the verge of joy to run away from Thornfield Hall or be the mistress of Rochester. “ I will NOT be yours she declares.” She leaves the haven of a job and security with just her purse and flees Thornfield Hall to hunger and then, providentially, the family of St. John Rivers befriends her and this is the third revelation of her being an heiress. Her gratitude to the Rivers is touching; she wishes to share her money with his sisters and he proposes to her. He wants a helpmate to go with him to India as a missionary. On the verge of acceptance she is fraught with doubt and the goes out into the night and hears the voice of Rochester in pain calling out “ Jane, Jane”…whether her ESP or clairvoyance, she runs to his old place and finds blind Rochester, who had tried to save his mad wife from a fire before she jumps from the parapet of Thornfield Hall. Jane is happy to return to her first love and charts her own future as his wife. She is unconventional and defies all Victorian myths of female coyness and dependency with aplomb. The presentation was brilliant and many sent their appreciations via notes. It was a memorable evening.
The Book Club Pune met online on Sunday 21st February, to look afresh at a classic novel written in the mid-19th century. The presentation began with a selection of pictures relevant to the life of the author Charlotte Bronte, with lively comments by Mohini Khot. We had a brief insight into the family of the Brontes, three daughters and one son. All of them were creative writers, poets and the brother was an artist and painter as well. Some sketches and portraits done by him and the sisters were also shown. The research into these visual representations is really commendable.
After this, we were briefly informed about how the novel was received by her contemporaries. A fleeting reference was made to the biography that a well established woman novelist of that period, Elizabeth Gaskell, had written on Charlotte Bronte. Ms Khot pointed out an interesting fact that the Victorians accepted the novel, initially, because they thought that Currier Bell was a male novelist. We were also treated to the cover of that first edition, along with many other covers of books written not just by Charlotte but also by Emily and Anne. We were also shown some shots taken from the films made on the novel.
Mohini Khot then began the narration of the plot dealing with all the salient features of Jane Eyre’s life. Her lonely exploited childhood, her schooling in Lowood had a lot of Gothic references that were not explored by the presenter. Jane Eyre’s adoration and attachment to Miss Temple and her closeness to Helen Burns has lesbian overtones, which could have been mentioned at least in the passing. One understands that this is completely excusable because of paucity of time. In a novel as “dense” as this one there are several layers and in an informal setting like an online Book Club there isn’t scope for detailed analysis
Having said that, let me once again reiterate that the emphasis on Jane’s character, her strengths, her firm determination to not play the “victim card” or be in a secondary position with Rochester was very clearly brought out. Unlike the docile compliant Victorian heroine, Mohini Khot gave us an interpretation that made us see a bold and modern woman. Not pretty or handsome but with strength born of conviction and passion. In that sense it was a fantastic re-look at a familiar story. THANK YOU.