Today is Charlotte Bronte's birthday. I've been haunted by Jane Eyre just about as long as I can remember.
I bought my first copy of that book through the Scholastic Book Club. Did anyone else have that experience in elementary school? You got a little newspaper with the titles and descriptions of books, and you could place an order every other week.
I first tried to read Jane Eyre when I was 12, and I remember not being able to wade through the first chapter. But just a few years later, I couldn't put it down. And I've been hooked ever since.
In graduate school, I reread Jane Eyre for a Victorian Novel class, and I remember thinking, all this childhood abuse. And look, the abusers act just like we know they act, and Jane Eyre protects the most odious abuser, even when she has a kind adult to tell. How did Charlotte Bronte know all of this? After all, she didn't have a decade of sociological research to draw on.
From that pondering would emerge my dissertation: “My Relations Act with Me as My Enemies”: Domestic Violence as Metaphor, 1794-1850. I looked primarily at 6 works, all full-blown Gothic or Gothic tinged. In each, I traced the realistic portrayal of domestic violence, even in works which had always been studied as full of the fantastic and unbelievable.
I always liked Jane Eyre better than Wuthering Heights, and I've always suspected the world could be divided into those 2 camps. Or better yet: are you a Bronte sister fan or a Jane Austen fan? Or maybe we should get down to the real nitty gritty: Dickens or Bronte sister (sister of your choice)?
I've always loved that vision of the Bronte children who grew up creating new worlds out of their imaginations. I've always felt sad that their adult lives ended so quickly, in sickness and death. Of course, to be fair, so did a good many adult lives in the nineteenth century. Nothing makes me appreciate my twenty-first century perch more than studying disease and sanitation (or lack thereof) and their effects on civilizations.
So, happy birthday Charlotte Bronte. Thanks for blazing that path for female writers everywhere. Thanks for giving us a plucky heroine like Jane Eyre, who knows what she wants and needs and isn't willing to sacrifice her deepest self in order to get it.
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