Sunday, 23 August 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're seeing red
If ever a novel demanded re-reading, it is ‘Jane Eyre’, given how often it has been misread as romance; for whatever else it is (passionate, gothic, religious, contrary), it is also an angry book, spilling over with full-blooded rage. We tend to remember the famously quiet first line (‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’) and misremember the last line (‘Reader, I married him’); forgetting that this is the opening sentence of the final chapter. The actual ending isn’t about domestic bliss, nor is it uttered by Jane Eyre, but by preachy, priggish St John Rivers: ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’
In between these two seemingly well-behaved lines – written by the Charlotte Bronte made famous in Mrs Gaskell’s biography; the devout, quietly spoken clergyman’s daughter, an angel in the parsonage – emerges a far more furious voice. And despite Bronte’s own apparent obedience to a conventional idea of Victorian female propriety – a dutiful teacher at Sunday school; a late marriage to a curate – ‘Jane Eyre’ suggests something more subversive; that rage might be healthier than its inward-looking alternative, depression.
Jane Eyre has good reason to be both angry and depressed from the start: an unloved and unhappy orphan, she must live with her heartless aunt, Mrs Reed, and her bullying cousins. After one of them throws a book at Jane, her head is left bleeding; but when she retaliates, in a different rush of blood to her head, her aunt orders that she be locked in a bedroom as punishment (evidence that female solidarity isn’t necessarily what it should be). The walls of this room are red, yet it is a cold and dark place, where Jane’s uncle died nine years previously.
Alone in the red room, Jane screams out, terrified that her uncle’s ghost will return there; but on hearing the child’s cries, her aunt orders that the punishment be lengthened: ‘and it is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you’. Jane collapses into unconsciousness; when she wakes, she sees ‘a terrible red glare’. Defiant, she feels ‘the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph… as if an invisible bond had burst’; and thereafter it is rage that propels her forward, proving that silent goodness isn’t always the best way out.