Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jane Eyre and the fairy folk - "Mademoiselle is a fairy," he said, whispering mysteriously

So I had known that Jane becomes a governess in the hire of a Romantic hero with a terrible secret. I hadn’t known that this Byronic man of action is convinced Jane is a fairy.

The stream of references to fairies and their kin is constant in Jane Eyre, from the first meeting of Jane and Rochester, all the way to the end. When they meet, Jane thinks of “a North-of-England spirit,” and Rochester soon after says that he also “thought unaccountably of fairy tales” (Ch. 13, 107). That’s during the strange, hilarious first conversation between Jane and Rochester, when he directly asks her if she was waiting for “the men in green,” and Jane answers in all seriousness that “The men in green forsook England a hundred years ago.” Poor Mrs. Fairfax “dropped her knitting... wondering what sort of talk this was.” Good question, Mrs. Fairfax.

Rochester never stops talking this way. That’s the key – it’s just Rochester. He calls Jane an elf, a sprite, a salamander. He calls himself an ogre and a ghoul. Jane doesn’t talk like this. Part of this is banter, part of it is self-concealment. Still. He can’t stop himself. Or Jane-the-narrator doesn’t let him – she’s the one telling the story.

A couple of red herrings are thrown in. Jane mentions Bluebeard in just the right spot (Ch. 11, 93) , although much too early for the first-time reader to understand it, so that’s really just Jane-the-narrator having her fun. The occasional reference to “the Vampyre” belongs in the “Gothic parody” box, not with the fairy stuff.

Every great writer creates fantasy worlds, our world seen through a creative prism, the best realists as much as the pure fantasists. In a so-called realistic novel, the reader typically accepts one major improbability, the possible but unlikely thing that generates the novel. Rochester is keeping a m*d*o*a*n in the a*t*c. Unlikely, though not impossible, and anyone who runs into such a thing, should write a book about it.

But the story of Jane Eyre has a second, completely coincidental, grosser improbability. Jane flees Rochester and lands amongst the least likely people in the entire world for her to meet. Isn’t this a terrible strain on the story?

Jane finds herself at a literal crossroads at the beginning of Chapter 28, in one of those odd passages where she switches to the present tense (“I am alone... I discover... I am absolutely destitute”). She doesn’t know where any of the four roads leads, or have any reason to take one over the other. Level-headed Jane surprises us all by picking path number five, not a path at all – she heads “straight into the heath”, which turns out to lead, on the third night of wandering, directly to her fairy family. To whom else would it lead? Put this way, it’s all perfectly logical. She finds her fairy cousins are teaching themselves German by means of Schiller’s The Robbers (1781), another 18th century book, and what that means, I have no clue. Maybe Brontë thought having them read the Brothers Grimm would be too blatant.

The same story can be told in endlessly different ways – characters, incident, and setting can be varied, but also style and imagery. It's those latter that distinguish the great work of art.


  1. It struck me as odd that these two very staid young women -- whose brother is a block of marble -- should be reading a shocking work like "The Robbers." The play's central character is a dispossessed son who returns, at the head of a pack of lawless students, to wreak havoc on the brother who wronged him and to denounce all forms of tyranny. It thus fits in with the themes of orphaned children and of the precarity of family loyalty (after all, it is Rochester's father and brother who betray him!).

    "Die Raeuber" caused a near-riot in the theater in Mannheim where it was first performed. There were 8 translations into English between 1792 and 1827, but theaters in England in the 1790s couldn't get a license to stage the play. One of the English translators even altered Schiller's text and "‘prun’d’ the play ‘with British care’, divesting it of ‘all the Jacobinical Speeches that abound in the Original.'

    In 1825, Carlyle still thought it necessary to say that, with Karl Moor (say, exactly where is Jane wandering again?) Schiller had "set up to the impetuous and fiery temperament of youth a model of imitation, which the young were too likely to pursue with eagerness, and which could only lead them from the safe and beaten tracks of duty into error and destruction’

  2. Wow! I've always been intrigued by these elf/fairy passages but I've never heard anyone else mention them. They are essential (in my thinking) to the softening of Rochester's world-weary, carousing character. He sees something "magical" in plain Jane. How romantic is that?!

  3. Hope, thanks - Rochester uses (or narrator Jane makes him use) this fairy langauge at their first conversation. It doesn't just soften Rochester's character, but it shows that he has an imaginative side much like Jane's. See also his interest in her paintings.

    Maria's comments are very helpful and remind me that different parts of the book are written for different audiences. I think I detect a private joke with Emily, Anne, and/ or Branwell here.