We all have friends like her. You know the ones. Months, years go by, and when you see them again, it’s as if no time has passed. Kim, whom I met thirteen years ago at a writers’ colony. Sarah, with whom I used to work in New York City. Jane, who never ages.
Maybe you know Jane, too. She lives inside well-worn pages, and recently, again on the screen. She’s strong and gentle, direct and candid. She’s the kind of woman you treasure as a friend, the kind of woman you want to be. She overcame a brutal childhood and enormous disappointment in love, but when she found her happy ending, you felt not cheated by a Hollywood ending or envious or incredulous but bone-deep contentment.
I met Jane Eyre on a Maui beach when I was fourteen. A family vacation. My brother body-surfed and skateboarded; my parents sat on the beach for an hour or two, then went inside to play cribbage and make lunch. I stayed on the beach all day with a tube of Bain de Soleil and a book, checking my watch every 15 minutes to turn on the towel and ensure an even tan.
I read an early Danielle Steele novel that week – I think it was called The Promise – and Jane Eyre. That combination, right there, tells you a lot about who I was at fourteen (and perhaps who I still am). Drawn to romance, both high-brow and low-, Gothic and mass-market; trying to figure out how to be in the world. Not just as Lindsey the person but as Lindsey the woman my body was turning me into. Tanning in a bikini had something to do with fitting in, as did reading a popular novel. But my sensibility had always leaned more to windswept moors than to sunny beaches, more to feeling on the fringes than to fitting in, so I’d brought along Jane Eyre too.
The basic story in each book is the same: Poor girl meets wealthy guy. They fall in love. Complications ensue, due to guy’s family. They are separated. They continue in love. They find their way back to each other. A template for romantic daydreams, for fantasies of love conquering obstacles, for happy-ever-after.
On the beach that week, I finished off the Steele in a few hours, skimming for sex scenes (of which there weren’t nearly enough), and felt let-down by the happy ending. The fantasy was fulfilled, but it felt foreign from my own sense of the possible. However even my tan, I’d never be gorgeous like Steele’s heroine. And then I turned to Jane.
“Do you think that because I am poor, and plain, I am soulless and heartless?”
Her question comes toward the end of chapter 23, but Jane’s been standing up for herself since page 1. That week at the beach, she gave me a new way of seeing the possible. (And no sex scenes necessary.) Romantic, dramatic, pushed to narrative extreme, yes – but what lofty glory in the speech she makes to Rochester, so full of passion and longing and truth! She gets her man not by her physical attributes but by her soul, her being, her integrity. When they are separated, it’s not by a manipulative mother-in-law-to-be (as in Steele’s plot), but by human flaw, human fallibility, human weakness.
It breaks her heart, but Jane leaves her man. She has to. She lives a less full life, but not an empty one. She’s lonely but intact. So when she does go back to him, and finds him blind as a consequence of the afore-mentioned human weakness, she is still Jane. That’s one reason, I think, the ending feels so right and earned and, despite the Gothic plot, real.
And when I closed the book, one day on the beach many years ago, and every time since, she still is.