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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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