Jane Eyre, Goth Girl

by Jason Tougaw


Charlotte Brontë, painted by George Richmond (1850)

Jane Eyre is a strange creature. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine–often thought of as a kind of every girl–is much weirder than she gets credit for. She’s a taciturn idealist with a gothic imagination who spends much of her waking life “in a kind of artist’s dreamland” drawing shipwrecks, corpses, and icebergs; she prefers rudeness and downright abuse to polite company; she routinely antagonizes those with the power to make her life hell; and she is, apparently, telepathic.

As I thought about this second installment in a series of posts about the nineteenth-century novels I’m teaching this semester, I got to wondering why this downright eccentric creation of Charlotte Brontë’s became an every girl–the focus of so much readerly identification, the subject of so many film adaptations, the kind of cultural fixture easily taken for granted. I don’t have an answer, but the novel provides plenty of delightful evidence of Jane’s peculiarities.

Near the beginning of the novel, locked in the terrifying “Red Room” of her Aunt Reed’s rambling estate, ten-year-old Jane confronts her “strange little figure” in a mirror:

 Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented a coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers. 

If this were 1983, little Jane–“half fairy, half imp,” with her white face and “glittering eyes of fear”–would be a budding goth. Her watercolors could be storyboards for a Stevie Nicks or Siouxsie Sioux video:

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon.  Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it.  Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible.  Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge.  This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

Rochester begins to fall in love with Jane through these drawings. In fact, we get her descriptions of them as she frets while he studies them. The message: Jane is not like the others. The drawings become something like a technology for rendering her psyche full of colossal heads with bloodless brows, glassy despair, and lurid gems. In a history of literary heroines, including the likes of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Bennett, Clarissa Dalloway, and Bridget Jones–Jane Eyre is her own species.

After eight years at Lowood school, Jane decides it’s time to get out into the world. But how? With the help of a kind fairy, naturally:

‘What do I want? A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances: I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better. How do people get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose: I have no friends. There are many others who have no friends, who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?’

I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response, and quickly. It worked and worked faster: I felt the pulses throb in my head and temples; but for nearly an hour it worked in chaos, and no result came of its efforts. Feverish with vain labour, I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two, shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.

A kind fairy, in my absence, had surely dropped the required suggestion on my pillow; for as I lay down it came quietly and naturally to my mind:–;Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the —shire Herald.’

This fairy has got to be a metaphor for the unconscious, as some of my students suggested. After all, Brontë describes Jane’s mental struggle as a profoundly physical experience. She “orders” her brain to solve her problem; her head and temples “throb”; she’s “feverish.” So why the fairy reference? I think Brontë is letting us know that Jane is in on the goth joke. She knows she’s strange, and she wants to invite us to share in her strangeness a little, by indulging her preference for imagining her life guided by kind fairies rather than her own ingenuity.

In fact, she’s drawn to Rochester because he’s in on the joke. After their first meeting, he remarks:

“No wonder you have rather then look of another world. I marveled 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. I am not sure yet.”

This is the first moment when another character sees what Jane saw in that mirror back in the Red Room. Not only that: he chides her on the subject of her otherworldliness. This is the kind of flirting Jane Eyre can accept. She’s finally found an intimate, somebody who reflects her weirdness right back at her–and even trumps her with his own. As their mutual admiration intensifies, Rochester tells her,

‘I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.’

That string that threatens to tear through Rochester’s organs and cause internal bleeding is a metaphor for love. Even so, it’s a bizarre–if effective–metaphor. This is not Jane Austen. But I don’t think it’s just a metaphor. Brontë continuously presents us with supernatural events without quite endorsing them as real or dismissing them as fancy. The ghosts in Dickens are real. We are meant to understand that they actually haunt Scrooge. Jane Eyre‘s fairies and imps are more ambiguous. They may be real, or they may be metaphors. It may be that an invisible string knots itself under Rochester’s ribs and stretches into a “corresponding” knot under Jane’s. Or not. Brontë wants us to wonder.

Near the end of the novel, this string blossoms into full-fledged telepathy. Jane and Rochester are separated by miles of misty moors. Rochester’s first wife is dead, his home destroyed in a fire that disfigured his face and destroyed his eyesight. And this happens:

I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry—

“Jane!  Jane!  Jane!”—nothing more.

“O God! what is it?” I gasped.

I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room—nor in the house—nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air—nor from under the earth—nor from overhead.  I had heard it—where, or whence, for ever impossible to know!  And it was the voice of a human being—a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.

“I am coming!” I cried.  “Wait for me!  Oh, I will come!”  I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark.  I ran out into the garden: it was void.

“Where are you?” I exclaimed.

Jane doesn’t need an answer. She’s telepathic, after all. She goes to Rochester, and when they’re reunited he gives her his account of their telepathic love letter: “As I exclaimed ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ a voice—I cannot tell whence the voice came, but I know whose voice it was—replied, “I am coming; wait for me,” and a moment after went whispering on the wind the words—“Where are you?”

In this case, the novel seems to provide definitive evidence for the supernatural moment. Jane must not have imagined it, if Rochester heard her response. That string between them is almost like a telephone wire, and in fact critic Richard Mencke calls it a “cosmic telegram” and makes a compelling case that the moment represents the influence of telegraph technology, first patented in England ten years before Jane Eyre was published in 1847.

Nonetheless, there’s no dismissing the “cosmic” quality of the telegram, unless we remember that this is a story narrated by a goth who lives more in her “artist’s dreamland” than waking reality. That’s Brontë’s out: Jane Eyre is a story told by the artist who painted those storyboards for Stevie Nicks and Siouxsie Sioux videos. Is her love telepathic? We can’t know for sure, but we do know she’s not like the others. That’s what we like about her.

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