Today marks 200 years since the birth of novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë. Bisha K Ali would like to say thanks for all the times she’s solved a dilemma by asking, ‘What would Jane Eyre do?’
I first read Jane Eyre as a petulant child with nothing left to devour in the library. I read it again at 16, after locking myself into a room at a B&B in Blackpool. I emerged only to collect tea and biscuits from the bar.
After it was finished, I skulked around the Pleasure Beach, between the dilapidated rides and along the beach strewn with rubbish and detritus. Did Charlotte skulk like I skulked, I wondered?
You’re a literary powerhouse – nay, a literary genius – yet to get your work published you have to pretend to be a man (how is it possible that this is still a thing?); the majority of people you love die young, and in brutal fashion, and when it comes out that you’re a woman, the critics turn on you and call your work ‘coarse’ and ‘unsophisticated.’ Charlotte definitely skulked.
But skulking is the birthplace of some of our best art. At least, that’s what I wrote in my diary after a monstrous seagull knocked the ice-cream cone from my hand. Charlotte taught me to push through misery.
“What would Jane Eyre do?” I asked, as my whippy melted into the sand, a swirling mess of all my teenage anxiety, dreams and failures. Or a swirling mess of sugar, cream and bird shit – whatever.
Jane would suck it up. Jane wouldn’t let that guy at the Pleasure Beach who looked at her like she had a dick attached to her head make her feel bad. She’d pack up her rage and leave. She would walk across the dark, wet Moors until her legs couldn’t carry her, and then she’d crawl and rage and find her way to her magical mystery cousins and get super-rich by chance. That’s what Jane would do. That’s what I must do.
I didn’t pack up and leave, but I’ve re-read Jane Eyre every year since. It’s Charlotte Brontë’s most famous work, and it often gets lumped in with the other classics – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey: OK, Austen mainly – because they are written by badass women, and have ‘feisty’ protagonists.
“I learned that love was supposed to feel like you are bleeding to death. It was a good lesson to learn early.”
Jane Eyre is different. It sits well with her sister Emily’s work, Wuthering Heights; together, they led me to believe that the Brontë family lived in Edgar Allan Poe’s brain. Or trapped in the attic of a castle stuck in a lightning storm time-loop – in Edgar Allan Poe’s brain.
Charlotte Brontë completed three other novels in her brief, thunderclap of a life (she died aged 38, but having outlived all of her siblings): Villette, Shirley and The Professor. She wrote about her personal experience of being shipped off to a Belgian finishing school into her work, where she fell in unrequited love with her teacher (or perhaps he called himself her Professor, eh? Get it? It was him. The destroyer of hearts).
Charlotte’s depiction of love in Jane Eyre helped form my young, impressionable, rageful ideas of what true partnership was supposed to feel like. It was supposed to feel “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 some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.” I learned that love was supposed to feel like you are bleeding to death. It was a good lesson to learn early.
Reading Charlotte Brontë 10 years on from that hotel room in Blackpool, I can see a little more clearly. I reckon the mentally unwell ex, cruelly locked in the attic, is actually the patriarchy, and going back to Rochester is an allegory for being trapped in the system we fight to escape. I can see that Jane is as free as she possibly could be – within the confines of the terribly dark world around her, that tries its best to disenfranchise her. I can also see that Charlotte wanted to smash life in the balls. She said it best herself: “Life is a battle: may we all be enabled to fight it well!”3656 Views
Bisha K Ali is a writer and comedian. Off stage, she can be found under a duvet with a notebook.