Jane Eyre is far and away my favorite creep in literature. She’s a tiny monster who roams the countryside, flinging herself on people’s doorsteps, demanding that they love her or she’ll drown herself in some dark elfin sea. She threatens suicide at the drop of a hat. If I can’t get a new job, I will kill myself, you bastard, she tells God. I wish you would just hit me. If you won’t be my friend I hope a horse kicks me in the face and I explode. I wish we were both dead so you would respect my ghost. Don’t believe me?
“No; I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don’t love me I would rather die than live—I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen. Look here; to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest—”
“I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
“If I could go out of life now, without too sharp a pang, it would be well for me,” I thought.”
“A weakness, beginning inwardly, extending to the limbs, seized me, and I fell: I lay on the ground some minutes, pressing my face to the wet turf. I had some fear—or hope—that here I should die: but I was soon up; crawling forwards on my hands and knees, and then again raised to my feet—as eager and as determined as ever to reach the road.”
“And with that answer he left me. I would much rather he had knocked me down.”
“Hopeless of the future, I wished but this—that my Maker had that night thought good to require my soul of me while I slept; and that this weary frame, absolved by death from further conflict with fate, had now but to decay quietly, and mingle in peace with the soil of this wilderness.”
I love this nut. She almost starves to death because she’s too embarrassed to talk to strangers, and that resonates with me deeply, as they say. She falls in love with everyone who shows her a bit of kindness like it’s her job, starting with Miss Temple and ending with her hot cousins Mary and Diana.
And Mr. Rochester! I’m not going to take away Mr. Rochester from you. This is a slightly unusual Femslash Friday inasmuch as there’s no One True Pairing I’m trying to argue you ’round into supporting; I don’t disagree that Jane and Rochester make for a pleasantly unhinged couple. I like the way they terrify one another with slightly different methods — he threatens to mail her to Ireland but doesn’t follow through; she pretends to run back to her room to grab her handkerchief and abandons him. He’s all bark and she’s all bite; together they make a horrifying, adorable dog. No, my only hope here is that you will come to see Jane Eyre as a book that is suffused with a marvelously gay atmosphere, all tender looks and proclamations of devotion and boarding-school girlfriends. Jane Eyre falls in love too much to be confined to but one gender.
I’m not entirely sure on this, but I think that Jane Eyre is just about the first English novel to devote a significant amount of time to a girl’s experience at an all-female boarding school, which means that without it we might not have lesbian classics like Mädchen in Uniform and Chocolates for Breakfast and Regiment of Women and Olivia and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and our lives would be the poorer for it indeed. Given how large the Rochester-and-Thornfield storyline loom in most reader’s memories (and in most movie adaptations), it’s crazy to reread the book and realize how much of it is dedicated to her life before and after meeting him.
It’s at Lowell, Jane’s first boarding school, that we run into the first really classic set of lesbianish characters, Helen and Miss Temple, who sets Jane’s organ of veneration aflame:
I suppose I have a considerable organ of veneration, for I retain yet the sense of admiring awe with which my eyes traced her steps. Seen now, in broad daylight, she looked tall, fair, and shapely; brown eyes with a benignant light in their irids, and a fine pencilling of long lashes round, relieved the whiteness of her large front; on each of her temples her hair, of a very dark brown, was clustered in round curls, according to the fashion of those times, when neither smooth bands nor long ringlets were in vogue; her dress, also in the mode of the day, was of purple cloth, relieved by a sort of Spanish trimming of black velvet; a gold watch (watches were not so common then as now) shone at her girdle. Let the reader add, to complete the picture, refined features; a complexion, if pale, clear; and a stately air and carriage, and he will have, at least, as clearly as words can give it, a correct idea of the exterior of Miss Temple—Maria Temple, as I afterwards saw the name written in a prayer-book intrusted to me to carry to church.
Miss Temple. And Helen. Oh God, does Helen love Miss Temple.
“Is Miss Temple as severe to you as Miss Scatcherd?”
At the utterance of Miss Temple’s name, a soft smile flitted over her grave face.
“Miss Temple is full of goodness; it pains her to be severe to any one, even the worst in the school: she sees my errors, and tells me of them gently; and, if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives me my meed liberally. One strong proof of my wretchedly defective nature is, that even her expostulations, so mild, so rational, have not influence to cure me of my faults; and even her praise, though I value it most highly, cannot stimulate me to continued care and foresight.”
I don’t know what Helen’s game is, exactly. She’s an absolute saint who derives great and unspeakable joy from explaining just how depraved and awful she “really” is, then sitting at Miss Temple’s feet in mute adoration and radiating goodness at her, which is presumably how angels have sex. She spends the rest of her time restraining Jane’s rough passions, convincing her not to let horses kick her in the chest, and cuddling in bed with her. It’s a wonderful, tender partnership. They kiss and embrace and tend to one another’s needs; Jane adores Helen like Dante adored Beatrice and the both of them worship at Miss Temple’s refined feet.
Miss Temple had always something of serenity in her air, of state in her mien, of refined propriety in her language, which precluded deviation into the ardent, the excited, the eager: something which chastened the pleasure of those who looked on her and listened to her, by a controlling sense of awe; and such was my feeling now: but as to Helen Burns, I was struck with wonder.
The refreshing meal, the brilliant fire, the presence and kindness of her beloved instructress, or, perhaps, more than all these, something in her own unique mind, had roused her powers within her. They woke, they kindled: first, they glowed in the bright tint of her cheek, which till this hour I had never seen but pale and bloodless; then they shone in the liquid lustre of her eyes, which had suddenly acquired a beauty more singular than that of Miss Temple’s—a beauty neither of fine colour nor long eyelash, nor pencilled brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance. Then her soul sat on her lips, and language flowed, from what source I cannot tell..
They conversed of things I had never heard of; of nations and times past; of countries far away; of secrets of nature discovered or guessed at: they spoke of books: how many they had read! What stores of knowledge they possessed! Then they seemed so familiar with French names and French authors: but my amazement reached its climax when Miss Temple asked Helen if she sometimes snatched a moment to recall the Latin her father had taught her, and taking a book from a shelf, bade her read and construe a page of Virgil; and Helen obeyed, my organ of veneration expanding at every sounding line. She had scarcely finished ere the bell announced bedtime! no delay could be admitted; Miss Temple embraced us both, saying, as she drew us to her heart—
“God bless you, my children!”
Helen she held a little longer than me: she let her go more reluctantly; it was Helen her eye followed to the door; it was for her she a second time breathed a sad sigh; for her she wiped a tear from her cheek.
Picture, if you will, a school full of brilliant women dressed in simple linens, strolling about rustic gardens murmuring softly in Latin to one another, sculpting naked in the afternoons and taking tea by the fire every evening before the Poetry and Caressing festival. Mutual admiration and intellectual romance is the byword of the day; it’s nerdy and it’s terrible and it’s beautiful and there are teeny tiny sandwiches every day for lunch. In such a place does Jane Eyre find her heart begin to grow three sizes.
(My favorite place on the Internet is this particular Wiki Answer: “Question: Does Jane Eyre and Helen burns have a lesbian relationship? Answer: Of course they did.”)
Oh, the wonderful and the marvelous gayness of the Brontë sisters’ novels! Women in them are either stone-eyed rock doves who delight in torment and saying “No” and stonewalling the happiness of others, or else solemn-mouthed angels who read German, or lace-bedecked coquettes with flashing eyes and merry, laughing lips, and they all frustrate and tease and instruct and tenderly nurse one another in turn. Occasionally men turn up riding horses or flinging gold purses about, and then they go away again, and the women go back to their tiny dream of opening a schoolhouse together, as equals and companions of the heart as well as of the mind.
Miss Temple, when she finally marries, is described as being “lost to [Jane] forever.” It’s not until after Helen dies and Miss Temple moves away that it even occurs to Jane that she might be unhappy at Lowell. Then it’s off to Thornfield and a great deal of psychosexual mind games that to this day make me more than a little uncomfortable. (Remember when she decides Blanche Ingram must be Mr. Rochester’s fiancé and forces herself to draw Blanche’s beautiful face over and over again as a reminder of what a sad scrap of junk metal she is? That’s messed up, and you know she got off on the degradation more than just a little bit.)
But then. But then. Jane escapes the Thornfield mindfuck and wanders into an all-lady bluestocking’s paradise.
I could see clearly a room with a sanded floor, clean scoured; a dresser of walnut, with pewter plates ranged in rows, reflecting the redness and radiance of a glowing peat-fire. I could see a clock, a white deal table, some chairs. The candle, whose ray had been my beacon, burnt on the table; and by its light an elderly woman, somewhat rough-looking, but scrupulously clean, like all about her, was knitting a stocking.
I noticed these objects cursorily only—in them there was nothing extraordinary. A group of more interest appeared near the hearth, sitting still amidst the rosy peace and warmth suffusing it. Two young, graceful women—ladies in every point—sat, one in a low rocking-chair, the other on a lower stool; both wore deep mourning of crape and bombazeen, which sombre garb singularly set off very fair necks and faces: a large old pointer dog rested its massive head on the knee of one girl—in the lap of the other was cushioned a black cat.
A strange place was this humble kitchen for such occupants! Who were they? They could not be the daughters of the elderly person at the table; for she looked like a rustic, and they were all delicacy and cultivation. I had nowhere seen such faces as theirs: and yet, as I gazed on them, I seemed intimate with every lineament. I cannot call them handsome—they were too pale and grave for the word: as they each bent over a book, they looked thoughtful almost to severity. A stand between them supported a second candle and two great volumes, to which they frequently referred, comparing them, seemingly, with the smaller books they held in their hands, like people consulting a dictionary to aid them in the task of translation. This scene was as silent as if all the figures had been shadows and the firelit apartment a picture: so hushed was it, I could hear the cinders fall from the grate, the clock tick in its obscure corner; and I even fancied I could distinguish the click-click of the woman’s knitting-needles. When, therefore, a voice broke the strange stillness at last, it was audible enough to me.
This is actual porn to a certain type of person. A clean, quiet house with good china. Two lovely, severe-looking chicks learning German, surrounded by cats and dogs. No men. A fire crackling on the hearth. Someone’s knitting. Goddamn. Goddamn.
So Jane passes out on their front door and forces them to take her in, which is just classic Jane (“I know you wouldn’t turn out a dog on a night like this, so perhaps you will have pity on me, miserable worm that I am”). She overhears them talking about how pretty they think she is while she’s passed out, the sick fuck, and the three of them take to each other like ducks to lesbian threesomes:
“Indeed you shall stay here,” said Diana, putting her white hand on my head. “You shall,” repeated Mary, in the tone of undemonstrative sincerity which seemed natural to her.
The petting! The cossetting! The mutual improvement!
I liked to read what they liked to read: what they enjoyed, delighted me; what they approved, I reverenced…
Indoors we agreed equally well. They were both more accomplished and better read than I was; but with eagerness I followed in the path of knowledge they had trodden before me. I devoured the books they lent me: then it was full satisfaction to discuss with them in the evening what I had perused during the day. Thought fitted thought; opinion met opinion: we coincided, in short, perfectly.
If in our trio there was a superior and a leader, it was Diana. Physically, she far excelled me: she was handsome; she was vigorous. In her animal spirits there was an affluence of life and certainty of flow, such as excited my wonder, while it baffled my comprehension. I could talk a while when the evening commenced, but the first gush of vivacity and fluency gone, I was fain to sit on a stool at Diana’s feet, to rest my head on her knee, and listen alternately to her and Mary, while they sounded thoroughly the topic on which I had but touched. Diana offered to teach me German. I liked to learn of her: I saw the part of instructress pleased and suited her; that of scholar pleased and suited me no less. Our natures dovetailed: mutual affection—of the strongest kind—was the result. They discovered I could draw: their pencils and colour-boxes were immediately at my service. My skill, greater in this one point than theirs, surprised and charmed them. Mary would sit and watch me by the hour together: then she would take lessons; and a docile, intelligent, assiduous pupil she made. Thus occupied, and mutually entertained, days passed like hours, and weeks like days.
Indoors we agreed equally well. If it weren’t for St. John (how old were you, by the way, when you found out how St. John is pronounced? How badly did it shake you?), things might have continued in this vein indefinitely, but of course he has to ruin things by proposing marriage to Jane.
While I looked, I thought myself happy, and was surprised to find myself ere long weeping—and why? For the doom which had reft me from adhesion to my master: for him I was no more to see; for the desperate grief and fatal fury—consequences of my departure—which might now, perhaps, be dragging him from the path of right, too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration thither.
Fine. Fine. Jane, we release you to go to Rochester, but never forget the two lesbian paradises you dwelt in before and after you learned his name. Perhaps you will find one again, after he is gone.
Another time, perhaps, we will have a little chat about Villette and Agnes Grey, both of which are easily thrice as saturated with lesbian sensibility. Ginevra Fanshawe, that swaying, teasing, insouciant minx! — If you want to read a book about a coquetteish high femme who strikes up a dizzying, mocking relationship with a stone butch (who cross-dresses and makes ardent love to her in public during a school play), pick up a copy of Villette immediately.
But that is a conversation for another Femslash Friday.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.