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On re-reading Jane Eyre

One of the movies we had on tape that my sister and I would watch over and over again as children was the version of Jane Eyre with Anna Paquin as young Jane, Fiona Shaw as the diabolical Aunt Reed, Charlotte Gainsborough as adult Jane, and with a soundtrack motif I can hum until this day. Part of the appeal is that we accidentally taped the music video for Skunk Anansie’s “Brazen” before the film (when M-Net still had “Sound-Check”). It is set in a mental hospital suffused with red light, and shows Skin (the lead singer) throwing herself around in a padded cell. I loved (what I now know to be) the gothic drama of it all.

And perhaps those gothic longings lead me to love the film too, set on the moors in a large old house with the madwoman in the attic.

The first time I read Jane Eyre, it was a Puffin Classics Edition that I found in my Senior Primary Library at Durban Girls’ College. I read it during Needlework class when I had finished or forgotten my work, and I would hope I would find words I couldn’t understand so that I could ask the teacher looking after us to explain them. I did not have a crush on the teacher, but I really wanted validation and praise for reading such an advanced and grown-up book. In retrospect, I think my teacher would have loved and been pained by me almost in equal measure.

I read Jane Eyre again in matric at Port Shepstone High School. I wanted my seven books and films list to look beautifully curated and diverse, and so it included Jane Eyre. This time, I noticed the tortured interactions Jane has with St John Rivers (how did I not notice them at all the previous time I had read it?) and I realised I had never really understood the love story. Perhaps because I was falling in love for the first time myself that year, but also because I was almost the same age that Jane is meant to be in the book, it resonated with me anew.

Then I tutored Jane Eyre with first year Rhodes students when I was reading for my Honours Degree. I cannot remember anything they thought about it (ah, the development of the teacher’s awareness that the learning experience is not about you had not yet started for me), but I do remember reading it in Hogsback on an Opera Company practice weekend. I was sharing a room with Natasja, similarly enamoured of certain of the classics, and just as much of a romantic at heart as I am. It felt right to be reading it again, and to be noticing, for the first time, all the beautiful statements Jane makes about women and their need to be active, useful, independent and creative. Again, I wondered how I managed to miss all those wonderful, passionate declarations about the rights of women.

The latest film version came out a few years later, and although I cannot hum its motif as its combination of string harmonies is too complex for the voice, it is a no less deeply moving and lithe film score. The film also has compelling lead performances, and the deft use of light (or lack thereof) in the house is revelatory.

So, reader; I read the novel again.

This time, I wondered what it is that calls to me when I engage with this text and with this story. The language, obviously, is immaculate, and I think the love story, although wrapped in some Victorian morality, is an imperfect and exciting meeting of two souls.

I think, though, what really appeals to me, in some elemental part of my consciousness, is Jane’s steadfastness of character.

I have found really being an adult so bone-wearyingly hard because I have often felt like opinions I once held so strongly needed to be changed, and the person who I thought I was and the adjustments I thought I was capable of making were partly delusional (perhaps a kinder way of saying this would be that I had, and have, many illusions about myself).

Jane Eyre finds what she wants through being true to her sense of what is right and what is good. Her circumstances may change, society may not look about her views and wishes with approval, and she has to suffer, but she finds what she wanted and what her soul knew to be true.

I have discovered that I do not want what I thought I wanted, that my heart believed incompletely, and that my view of what is right and good has often been fundamentally flawed. The ground has often shifted beneath my feet, and it is unsettling and frightening.

But perhaps being able to re-read Jane Eyre is a kind of gift and the best kind of stability. There is the returning to the narrative and to the story, and the process of re-reading, and seeing anew. It is like being given a second chance at a life, and at a way of experiencing. These changes have made my reading of the novel richer, and I notice more of its treasures every time. I hope I am learning to see my own painful experiences of seeing anew as positively.

Perhaps one could read my above statement as an effort at self-helpifying the re-reading of Jane Eyre, but that is not what I mean. I think it is more about creating a narrative of my life that will serve me and help me to enjoy and be thankful for change. As Rebecca Solnit explains in The Faraway Nearby:

A physical therapist once told me that chronic pain is treatable, sometimes by training people to experience it differently, but the sufferer ‘has to be ready to give up their story’. Some people love their story so much even if it’s their own misery, even it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear – you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself.

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Melancholia

There was this beautiful guy I was at school with. He was deputy head-boy in the year above me, and while he was small: both short and slim, he had this real bone-deep confidence and a genuine, Hollywood smile. He had a strong sense of morality as well, and his leadership was unwaveringly good and admirable. He could command the attention of the school: no mean feat, considering it was 1200-strong.

He also had a beautiful voice. I first met him in a stage production of Grease. He sang the “Beauty-school drop-out” song with his smooth-as-golden-molasses voice, and became a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Youth Choir with me and a few friends of mine. I remember having intense conversations with him on those long journeys to Durban and back, and there is a photograph of him between another of my friends and I. He is smiling and looking perfectly put together, and we are dressed with all the taste and class (or should I say, lack thereof) that I can only laugh at in retrospect.

When he left school, he was lucky enough to get a scholarship – to become a teacher – from a prestigious private school. I remember hearing he was struggling, but I was always knew he would find his way.

Then I left for university, for Rhodes, and in the hodgepodge way that was common to us adopters of Facebook who only adopted it once we left school, we slowly gathered those strands of the web of our pasts about us, and marvelled at those who had three children before we had finished our degrees, or at those who went on to garner fortune and even fame in the world beyond.

Benjamin Mavimbela saw nor experienced either. He died before he was 30 and I could never find out why.

He died when he was a little younger than I am now, and I mourned in an alternately frozen and molten way after I heard. He had escaped my web of connections, and I suddenly wondered why I had never sought him after school. I wondered what could have happened in the years between school and that lonely moment that prompted his death. I couldn’t help but feel his vitality and surety had been crushed by something, or an assortment of somethings, that he no longer felt he could bear. Even as I write this, there is a dull ache that is metallic in quality, like emotional shrapnel, still lodged in a limb.

In Lars Von Trier’s film, Melancholia, the planet (called Melancholia) advances inexorably towards the Earth, and the people there can do nothing but watch it advance until it crushes everything in its path.

I thought of him, and of Melancholia, when Castro Ntsebeza died this week. Castro was also a teacher, one who struggled with his work, and who tried to be good. I only met him twice, but on the last occasion, we sat in Carla’s bright and beautiful garden and shared my char-grilled artichokes and talked about Veganism and trying to make that decision and stick to it: that decision that you make when the horror of the violence and cruelty and environmental devastation feels like it is poisoning your very soul.

I wish, in retrospect, I could have been kinder. That we could have shared Vegan recipes, and jokes and hopefulness about the future, and kept in touch.

I do not think it would have helped in that most vital of ways. Erik taught me that sometimes kindness and friendship and love cannot stop that planet from annihilating that Earth.

But knowing that cannot ease that grief that presses on your chest and makes you wish things could have been different.

I wish things could have been different.

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