I love the disturb-factor in classic literature. Once you’re out of the classroom, much fun can be had by viewing an older book with a contemporary gaze–analysis and history be damned. Pick up Pamela by Samuel Richardson, for instance: the eponymous heroine escapes the sexual advances of her employer, Mr. B., time and time again…only to fall in love with and marry him by the book’s end. Attempted rape: so hot. When a girl says no, she really means maybe. Too bad, though, that Pamela is so dull. I don’t think I could stand another go at it, even with all the life lessons therein.
I’m thinking of Pamela these days because I just finished re-reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё. Oh the Brontё sisters! I haven’t yet read Anne’s books, but based on this comic, I think I might like them. Charlotte and Emily, meanwhile, were deeply weird, and they (or, okay, their protagonists) were into some deeply weird men. They remind me of that friend–we all have that friend–maybe you are that friend–who consistently falls in love with assholes. Just dump him already, we think!
And, Mr. Rochester, if he isn’t an asshole, he’s a psychopath–or, simply creepy and duplicitous. I can’t believe he was voted most romantic literary character in a British poll last year. That’s messed up. Are they kinkier in England? (The Telegraph article on the subject, by the way, mentions that the results were revealed at a literary festival, where “guests were served pink champagne by scantily-clad waiters.” Oh dear.)
Let’s consider some points against old Edward, shall we?
1. We should just get the big one out of the way. Dude keeps his first wife locked up. He never lets her out, if he can help it. “Bitch is crazy!” he cries, but that is no excuse.
2. Not only does Mr. Rochester lock Bertha up, he keeps her a secret from everyone in town–including Jane! After the truth has come out (at the altar, no less, minutes before he’s about to marry–or “marry”–Jane), Rochester insists that he was planning to tell his new wife the truth after a year and a day of marriage. Sure you were, Edward, sure you were.
3. Adele, Mr. Rochester’s little French ward, might possibly his daughter, but, you know, her mom slept around, so he’s not entertaining that notion very seriously. He’ll be her benefactor, sure, but he will never ever be her dad.
4. When Mr. Rochester has the rich guests staying with him at his estate, he goes off to attend to some business or other, and in his absence, a gypsy fortune-teller comes to read the fortunes of the ladies. Jane goes to see said gypsy in the dark library, and remarks that the woman’s face “is a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks or rather jaws.” The gypsy talks mostly of Mr. Rochester, and, surprise, surprise, she IS Rochester. That’s right, Jane’s boss has dressed up in drag, and put on a little minstrel make-up, and asked the house’s governess to kneel before him. “I wonder with what feelings you came to me to-night,” she/he says. Why Jane doesn’t throw up in her mouth a little when she discovers his little game is beyond me.
5. When dressed as a gypsy, Mr. Rochester tells Jane that he’s engaged to be married to one of the women visiting, Blanche Ingram. Later, after Jane has confessed her love, he admits that his engagement to Miss Ingram was only a ruse to get Jane to react. He basically says, “I wasn’t really going to marry her! just wanted you to be jealous, little fairy of mine!” No matter how much of a pill Miss Ingram is, and she is a pill, this charade just seems cruel.
6. At the end of the book, Rochester is blind and maimed from the fire that ultimately destroyed Thornfield Hall and killed Bertha. (He does rescue the servants and tries to rescue his wife–I’ll give him that.) But once Jane has declared that her love for him still remains, he reveals that for the past year, he’s been wearing the pearl necklace (ahem) he had given her during their engagement. Some might call this romance, I call it a problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rochester likes to wear Jane’s underwear, too. Or, let’s be honest: Bertha’s.
7. Mr. Rochester is ugly. Before you start to yell at me, let me say this: I love that the heroine of this novel isn’t good looking. That’s interesting, refreshing, and complicated. But, you know, if a man is ugly, he has to have one hell of a personality. And if he’s going to have a fake history and a secret wife, he needs to be smokin’ hot to get away with it. (Two words: Don. Draper.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Eyre. Its story–part Gothic tale, part romance, part first-person confession–is beguiling. Its heroine–independent yet innocent, obsessed with stories and weak to the power of them–is complex and believable. And the prose will have you underlining every other page:
I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication, for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”
He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the ax-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end…
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m ready to finally check out Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which I’m told gives the first Mrs. Rochester the humanity she deserves. I should also get to The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for I’m sure they can provide some context for and interpretations of this beloved classic. I’m curious what Mr. Rochester, and the abiding love readers have for him, means.