Many people read the Bible throughout their lives. It teaches and comforts them and never becomes tiring. I like that kind of relationship with a story, where the characters are so developed and the narrative so strong that the book reveals different strengths as you re-read it at different points in your life. I suppose the book I’ve had the longest relationship with is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
I first tried reading Jane when I was in junior high, too young to understand most of it. The part I did understand was the child Jane of the first nine chapters. Here was a fearsome little girl, capable of attacking a bully or standing up to adults when necessary. Since I didn’t have the nerve to do either, I loved the little hellion and cheered her on. I didn’t really understand her friendship with the gentle Helen Burns (like Jane, I have too much original sin to identify with the saint-like Helen) but I was sad to see her go, with an exit that still gives me a chill. Imagine waking up next to a corpse!
Teens and twenties are high times for romance and that’s when I dwelt in the middle section of Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester is one of the mysterious, fascinating bad-boys of gothic literature that shy governess types are drawn to (He may be the prototype for that character) and for awhile I imagined every guy I was attracted to was a Mr. Rochester. Most of them had nothing in common with Mr. R., especially his lethal secret. But if you are a guy and you want to know why so many girls are fascinated by bad boys, take a look at Jane Eyre. The reason shows up in Chapter 12 riding a big black horse.
Like all works of this type, the boy isn’t as much bad as misunderstood and the course of true love eventually runs smooth but the mechanism that gets them there is the spiritual side of Jane Eyre, a part I didn’t begin to understand until my 40’s. I had read the book many times by that point (“Yeah, here’s the prayer and pleas to Heaven…I’ll just flip past these exhortations”) but Jane’s reliance on her faith wasn’t something I could identify with until I’d developed some of my own. Jane learns to set boundaries to protect herself, even with those she loves, and she has to accept she can’t control any actions except her own. The fact that she does that and refuses to pity herself or act like her life is over when she’s alone makes her a hero of mine. That’s the kind of character I want to emulate.
Jane Eyre’s story ends when she’s around thirty years old and her creator died at 38, two ages I passed a long time ago. Still this novel comforts me and the heroine helps me every time I re-read it. Home seeking and home loving Jane appeals to my domestic side. Self-sustaining, courageous and independent Jane reminds me of the women’s movement. Accepting, spiritual Jane points the way to redemption. Either way, the lady is far ahead of me and I always enjoy hearing her story. Jane Eyre isn’t the Bible but it’s a book worth reading. It’s a book that stays.