Compact little essays from a stay-at-home tourist.

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The 19th Century Revisited During a Hurricane


In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, holed up in lower Manhattan without electricity for five days, I reveled in the absolute quiet, in the lack of any technological interference, and in the prolonged interval the storm gave me to paint in daylight and read (Jane Eyre, of course) by candlelight. I was, in short, utterly content and free. One night I fell asleep during Ch. 20, which begins: “I had forgotten to draw my curtain, which I usually did, and also to let down my window-blind. The consequence was, that when the moon, which was full and bright … came in her course to that space in the sky opposite my casement, and looked in at me through the unveiled panes, her glorious gaze roused me. Awaking in the dead of night, I opened my eyes on her disk—silver-white and crystal clear.  It was beautiful, but too solemn…”

That very night, my night, at exactly 3 AM, I too was wakened by the brilliant moon passing by my window and seeming to look in. Good thing her visit did not presage an attack by Bertha Mason. However,  she did cause tides to rise and overflow, magnifying the storm into a monster people called “Frankenstorm.” In light of how many references there are to King Lear in Jane Eyre, it seemed specially appropriate to revisit the novel during a “hurricano” such as this.

During that (excuse the word) preternatural time, some ideas occurred to me. In the Norton Critical Edition is a section of scholarly essays on Jane Eyre, including that of Robert Bernard Martin, excerpted from Religious Discovery in Jane Eyre (Norton, 1966/1971), which discusses Rochester’s development “from sin to repentance, passing from flagrant transgressions of the moral law, through the stage of morality of expediency when he attempts to end divine law to sanctify his own wishes, to the humility of repentance.” I have found signifiers of this development in Rochester’s character, in the evolution of his trust in and dependency on Jane, in each of three times he asks for her physical support:

Ch. 12: Their first encounter, after Rochester’s fall, he asks if she has an umbrella to use as a cane; she hasn’t, so he leans on her instead: “’Excuse me,” he continued: ‘necessity compels me to make you useful.’ He laid a heavy hand on my shoulder, and leaning on me with some stress, limped to his horse.”

Ch. 19: Learning of Richard Mason’s arrival, he is free enough with her despite his desperately-kept secret to convey shock, vulnerability and need: “‘Mason!—the West Indies!’ he said…growing…whiter than ashes: he hardly seemed to know what he was doing. / “‘Do you feel ill, sir?’ I inquired. / “‘Jane, I’ve got a blow; I’ve got a blow, Jane!’ He staggered. / “‘Oh, lean on me, sir.’ / “‘Jane, you offered me your shoulder once before; let me have it now.’”

Ch. 37: At Ferndean, the blind and crippled Rochester yields to his dependence on her voluntarily and with gratitude; he “stretched his hand out to be led. I took that dear hand, held it a moment to my lips, then let it pass round my shoulder: being so much lower of stature than he, I served both for his prop and guide.” Rochester’s many epithets for Jane would make an interesting study, which I’d like to tackle before the next hurricano strikes. These soubriquets fluctuate between references to the natural and the supernatural. Rochester first calls her, in Ch. 12, “witch” and “sorceress.” In Ch. 13 he relates her people to “the men in green,” i.e., fairies: “‘No wonder you have rather the look of another world. I marvelled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse.'” In Ch. 15, having saved him from fire, he calls her his “cherished preserver.” In Ch. 19, he calls her his little friend, and likens her to a good genie. Then, back to teasing in Ch. 22: “‘If I dared, I’d touch you, to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf!'” And at the very end he calls her a “mocking changeling—fairy-born and human-bred.”

I appreciate the time-out bestowed by the hurricane, which allowed me to think about such things.

Categories: Jane Eyre

One Response

  1. Claudia says:

    Jane, I don’t know what was more illuminating–your moon shot or these new angles on Rochester and Jane. You also reminded me of the powerful use of light and dark throughout the novel. Kudos for making the most of the storm!