The Brontë Bible: How a Novel Inspired a Young Girl
I didn’t grow up a reader.
Surprising for a woman who has built a career on the backs of books and keyboards. But, I preferred to be in the company of Lorelai Gilmore, Princess Belle, or scheming with Mia Thermopolis to find a way to determine my royal heritage— people I could see and hear, people I could relate to. That was all true until one summer Friday in June when I found Jane Eyre.
Nothing was the same.
My high school English teacher gave us an assignment to read and annotate 3 books over the summer in preparation for our senior year. She assigned 2 of them and we were allowed to choose the last from the hundreds of books on the advanced placement list.
There were so many books on this list that no one really knew where to start. So I flipped through a couple pages: Things Fall Apart, Heart of Darkness, Great Expectations, As I Lay Dying, Metamorphosis, East of Eden, among countless others. Somewhere amidst my shuffling, I became frustrated and simply said I’m going to run my finger up and down this list and whichever book I land on will be the one I read (patience was never my strong suit.)
About a quarter of the way down the second page, my finger, clipped by the paper’s edge, put it’s red mark on two little words Jane Eyre. I liked books with names as the titles because characters were my favorite element in a story. Without a clue to what this novel was about or the feat I had inflicted upon myself, I went to the closest bookstore to get it.
Oh my gosh, this book is so long. I probably picked the biggest one on the list, just my luck. (500 pages seemed like an unrealistic goal for a 12th grader.) But I bought it and I went home to start reading.
“There Was No Possibility of Taking a Walk That Day”
How could I take a walk, when I had so much reading to do? The novel always starts the same— throughout editions, edits, copies, and time it remains unchanged.
I still have the first copy I read. Its edges are frayed from overuse, pencil lead, and sunscreen. The inside pages filled with annotations that I laugh at today. In regards to Mr. Rochester I say, “to me, he seems rude,” “so bossy! It is annoying” “he can be generous yet uncaring.” The early days of my annotations are like overexposed baby photos in your hallway. It’s funny that these thoughts are forever recorded in the margins of my classic book.
Jane made me cry. For the first time, I felt like I knew who she was and while reading, she was as real to me as any character on a TV screen.
Off To Thornfield
Jane followed me to London. I studied there for a summer and conducted a research project of Victorian female writers and the feminist movement in 19th century. A good friend on that trip also read Jane Eyre. She did not feel the same way about it that I did.
I remember the train ride on our way to Stonehenge and most of the class was rapidly trying to finish the book before our discussion later that evening. I was crying (at the part that always made me cry) and I looked over and she was dead asleep with the book open in her hands having barely grazed the second chapter.
Upon the conclusion of the trip, she wrote me a letter in the front flap of her copy and gave it to me as a parting gift. It went a little something like this:
I know you would be devastated if I left this in London so I wanted to give it to you. I may not know what you see in this book, but I love how much it means to you. Meeting you and sharing this friendship has made this one of the best summers ever. Thanks for always having my back, and I hope you know I always have yours.
Books bring people together.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Jane taught me strength. She displayed a fire of tenacity and resilience that I try to carry with me every day. Charlotte Brontë gave me the gift of Victorian literature and invited me into a world that I might not otherwise have known.
The rest of my college career became dedicated to Victorian women writers and I have not been able to let that passion go in my career. I’m constantly keeping up with new scholarship and ideas surrounding the 19th century and know that there is so much to be gleaned from those (and many other) spectacular novels.
I cannot sit here and say that Jane Eyre exists without its flaws, because there are numerous, but the beauty of feminine strength and the ability to inspire one little girl and turn her into a reader, for me makes it worth it.
Sometimes 1847 seems like so long ago, but in the grand scheme of things 200 years isn’t so large of a gap. Maybe we are more like the Victorians than we think. But you won’t know until you open the first page of a book. So go on, give it a try and just maybe you’ll unlock a dream you never even knew was there.