Have Your Say! What Do You, The Reader Think?
by Lucienne Boyce
I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but I do know that I’ve re-read it many times since. When I looked at it again before I wrote this post, it had lost none of its meaning for me. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, more than anyone, taught me that women can be rebels, and that the reading woman can be a powerful symbol of subversion.
From the opening page you know you are in the company of a rebel female. The book opens with the child Jane reading. She is hidden away, behind the curtains of a window seat, and she is alone. The passages of the book she is reading – Bewick’s History of British Birds – that particularly strike a chord with her are all images of solitude. She dwells on images of empty places: the Arctic, the ocean, the solitary rocks where sea-fowl live, the solitary churchyard. Humans appear in the scenes only to undergo death, the experience that all, even the most sociable, must face alone. And she is, she says, happy, reading on her own.
But a female can’t be left alone and it isn’t long before the bully, John Reed, interrupts her reading. “Madam Mope” he calls her. How this resonated with me, for as a child when I was caught reading I was told off for “being sulky”! Master Reed – he insists on the title – tells her she has no right to read his family’s books, she is to be denied access to them. He turns the book into a weapon and throws it at her, precipitating the crisis that sees her cast out of the house and sent to a boarding school at the other end of the country.
John, dull as he is, has dimly sensed that Jane’s reading makes her different, makes her independent, stimulates her intelligence, puts her beyond his reach. And it’s turned her into a rebel. She knows what tyranny is from her reading: she tells him he’s like one of the Roman Emperors she has read about in Goldsmith’s History of Rome.
|Young Jane argues with her guardian |
Mrs. Reed of Gateshead,
illustrated by F. H. Townsend
Jane uses her reading to assert her selfhood. Her reading represents her need and desire to be her own person, to stand alone, to be independent. She has her own reading tastes and not even bribery can turn her from them. She has judged the books of the Bible for herself: she likes Daniel and Revelations, she doesn’t like the Psalms. When she is told the story of a little boy who claims he would rather read the Psalms than be given a gingerbread nut, and who is habitually rewarded for his piety with two gingerbread nuts, she remarks coolly, “Psalms are not interesting”.
Books are her solace. She turns to Gulliver’s Travels in the days after John Reed’s attack. Books are a way of recognising kindred spirits: her friendship with Helen Burns at Lowood school is initiated when Jane asks the older girl, “Is your book interesting?” Books are her teachers: Helen tells her that reading the New Testament will teach her that violence does not overcome hate. Books, or at least the books Jane Eyre is interested in, are truthful. I will not, her narrative voice declares, “echo cant, or prop up humbug”.
What a breath of fresh air she is! Jane Eyre, the woman who quietly, determinedly, goes her own way. As a child she refuses the roles thrust upon her: to be the grateful orphan, to be sociable and childlike. As an adult, she casts a critical eye on the shallow, showy, selfish, grasping, ill-natured and unkind society that surrounds her. She is firm as a rock: she is never anything less than Jane Eyre, the woman who reads and thinks for herself.
Jane Eyre was the first rebel female I encountered, and she has been a profound influence on my reading, writing and thinking ever since.
If you are interested in the theme of what Hermione Lee describes as “the threat of the solitary woman reader”, you might enjoy Lee’s fascinating essay about women and reading: ‘Reading in Bed’, in Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing (London: Pimlico, 2008).
About Lucienne Boyce
Lucienne Boyce has published two historical novels, To The Fair Land (2012) and Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (2015). [Read our DDRev Review here] She published The Bristol Suffragettes (non-fiction) in 2013. The Fatal Coin: A Dan Foster Mystery, an e-book novella, will be published by S Books in April 2017. Lucienne is currently working on the second Dan Foster Mystery novel, and the biography of a suffragette with Bristol connections. She is a steering committee member of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network, and recently joined Bristol’s BCfm Radio as a presenter on the Silver Sound programme.
For more information about Lucienne’s books, previews, and buying links see:
Now for you to have your say!
Do you agree with Lucienne about Jane?
Or was she just a victim of bullying?
What other 'Rebel Women' come alive for us in the pages of fiction?
Leave your comments below.
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