Thursday, April 7, 2016

Eyrepril #1: Jane and Me: A History

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's most widely read book and the epitome of Victorian Literature, is a novel that I have quite a lot of history with.  We had many false starts throughout my girlhood and a brief flirtation during my senior year of high school-- when I read the first few chapters and then promptly surrendered myself to Cliff's Notes and cheesy BBC adaptations-- before I was finally able to tuck into the novel with earnest during my sophomore year of college.

My first "real" reading of Jane Eyre was an unpleasant one.  At the time I was taking an independent study class from an instructor I despised during what I now realize was a particularly virulent major depressive episode (MDE).  In my troubled state, the novel was too much for me: Jane was too uptight, her story too full of coincidence, and her choice of mate questionable to say the least.  For my fevered brain and pained heart Jane was too much and not enough.  Somehow I managed to slog through the rest of my degree, in English no less, without touching another Bronte.

In my mid-twenties I dabbled in reading Anne (the unsung sister; she's brilliant, by the way), but didn't even flirt with the idea of revisiting Jane Eyre.  As a matter of fact, I didn't revisit the novel until I was going to teach Jane Eyre to my Advanced Placement English Literature student and had to.  I was fully expecting Jane Eyre to be a chore given how challenging I had found my first "real" read had been.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Perhaps because I was older this time around (thirty instead of twenty); or because I wasn't reading under a tight deadline; or because I wasn't a complete mess personally; or because I had the luxury of time to sit, enjoy, and savor the novel; but my second read was a wonderful experience.  I had a greater empathy for Jane: someone who, with faltering courage, stands up for what she believes in even when it places her in dire straights.  On my second read my interest was still piqued by troubling elements-- she can only be accepted by her love one's he's disabled? can we talk about Bertha and "the other"?  what is wrong with St. John?-- but I found myself able to bracket my feelings about the novel's troubling elements to a degree that I was unable to while in my twenties.

This got me to thinking: do we become more forgiving of our fictional characters when we learn to be more forgiving of ourselves?  So many of us have found solace in the printed word, have been made to feel better by reading of someone else's experience second hand; could it also be true that our reading can also be a reflection of our mental health?

To my own reading, at least, I didn't learn to love and accept Jane fully until I had learned to love and accept myself.

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