I was eleven. My aunt and uncle, in a moment of uncharacteristic attentiveness to my interests, had bought me a copy of Jane Eyre for my birthday; the 500-and-some-page Illustrated Junior Library edition, it boasted a full color hard cover and plastic dust jacket. Though I remember my mother saying something about the fact that I was probably a bit too young for Jane Eyre, there was something special about that book from the beginning, about the thickness of the pages, the tantalizing illustration on the cover, its sheer weightiness. My first real literature, perhaps. And though I struggled a bit with the tangled language and the length of the sentences, I soon fell in love with its heroine, just as I'd fallen in love with Louisa May Alcott, Girl of Old Boston, even before I read Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables after that. Jane Eyre is one of the few non-children's books I've read multiple times in my life, some assigned, and some not.
A few weeks ago, on the anniversary of the book's 1847 publication, the Huffington Post featured what amounted to "lessons we can learn from Jane Eyre." I found the piece a little Pollyannish : one of the author's takeaways is "Be Positive!" as if Victorian heroines had any choice but contentment with their lot, or at least the forced moral fortitude to embrace it as a "lesson." After all, Helen Burns tells Jane that "it is
weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be
required to bear." Still, it brought back fond memories of reading the book and identifying with Jane, as I identified with Alcott's Jo March: a plain, outspoken young woman who lived both completely in the world and completely apart from it. To this day, there's something about the name I find powerful; it was on my short list of names for our daughter.
There's the proto-feminism, of course; as she leaves Thornfield, knowing that a relationship with Rochester would mean the loss of her self-respect, Jane (and, by extension, Brontë) offers some thoughts about independence which I think are relevant even now: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” While I think that oversimplifies things (do we respect ourselves for being "unsustained"? or is there something respectable about knowing how to lean on others, too? what lessons do we teach our children about finding balance between independence and interdependence?), I confess, it's a principle by which I've lived most of my life.
And then there's the fact that Brontë gets Romanticism right for me: though I wouldn't consider myself a sucker for Romantic novels of the Victorian period, I wept through the death of Jane's friend Helen from consumption, wondering whether one got consumption now, and whether I should be wary of catching it. I remember, too, wishing for a champion like Miss Temple, and resolving to have tea in my chambers for students, should I ever end up teaching in a boarding school--a resolve which was later re-kindled by my crush on Professor Keating of Dead Poet's Society.
I was also drawn to the Gothic aspects of the novel, especially the powerful shadow-figure of Bertha Mason, and feeling sorry for her, even long before I read Wide Sargasso Sea, which attributes Rochester's rejection and her subsequent descent into madness to her (literal) "dark" Creole heritage. Jane defends her without knowing, in her first weeks at Thornfield, musing that women "suffer from too rigid a restraint,
too absolute a stagnation"; they are, quite literally, trapped. Bram Stoker was born the month after Jane Eyre was published, and dressing my son as Dracula this year for Halloween, I found myself thinking about the madwomen in the attic, about how Halloween enables us to plumb our own darker sides, to play with the shadows within us. As he moved from house to house, I watched my son begin to walk differently, cape billowing behind him, fangs brilliant against the ghostly face I'd painted; he was absolutely getting into the character, in a way he hadn't done in Halloweens past.
What are the books you've read again and again? Which literary characters have spoken to you over the years? Did you channel your inner madwoman for Halloween? What are your thoughts on the balance between independence and interdependence?
Cardamom Scones with Cranberries
Miss Temple offered Jane and Helen seed cake during their first visit to her chambers. While these aren't exactly cake, I suspect that they're more like what Miss Temple had in her room, given the conditions at Lowood school, and the cardamom pods count as seeds in my book. Enjoy them warm out of the oven on a dark night or cloudy morning,with a cup of tea.
3 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3/4 t. cardamom pods (or, if you must, 1/2 t. ground cardamom)
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 c. plain Greek yogurt
1/2 c. sugar (I used evaporated cane)
additional sugar for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment.
Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Peel the cardamom pods and grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle (or use a very small knife and carefully chop until you have powder). Stir the cardamom into the flour mixture.
Cut the butter in with a pastry blender or two knives until small crumbs form. Add yogurt, sugar, and one egg, and mix (you can use your fingers). At this point you can also add anything else you want (candied ginger, cranberries, raisins, chocolate chips).
Divide the dough into 12 equal parts (you can also use an ice cream scoop to get rough 1/3 c. balls); place the dough on the parchment.
Whisk the other egg and brush over the dough. Sprinkle with additional sugar.
Bake 25 minutes, or until pleasantly golden brown. Serve warm.