Four years ago, I was studying abroad in France. While I hoped to make friends with my host family and other French people, I also knew that my study-abroad experience would be significantly enhanced if I became friends with the other American college students in my program, giving me a ready-made group of companions with whom to visit museums and eat baguettes and live the expat life.
So, as soon as I touched down on French soil, I tried to find myself a group of friends. I fell in with some people who I liked a lot—they were smart and curious and spoke French to each other even when the teachers weren't listening. We had some fun times together, first in Bordeaux, then in Paris.
And then, after about a month, I found myself being ostracized—subtly, but methodically. I don't even know what I had done to offend the others, unless it all started the time I knocked over a bottle of red wine and stained an expensive tablecloth when we cooked dinner at one girl's apartment—but come on, a true friend will forgive you for that! And I had thought that this kind of ostracism was a vestige of middle school, but here we were juniors in college and I was being shunned.
The worst part was, before I got kicked out of the group, I had seen them ostracize another girl who wanted to be part of it. This should have been my first hint that these were not good people. But I was so desperate to belong that I went along with it, helping to snub this other girl. And then they turned around and did the same thing to me—I could see it happening, but was powerless to stop it.
Having lost my group of friends, I felt rudderless. I went to see way too many classic American movies (Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, etc.) at the cheap three-euro theater on the Left Bank. I went on a date with a sketchy guy who hit on me in the Métro. And I did a whole lot of solitary museum-going.
I also tried to find consolation in books. The stereotypical thing would have been to "dress in black and read Camus" (to steal a line from the Magnetic Fields), and there's a part of me that wishes I had spent more time in France sitting in cafes and reading French-language literature. But I already had a lot of school assignments in French; doing my pleasure reading in French would have been too much of a chore.
Miraculously, the one book I had brought with me was The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt, which is now one of my favorites. Its heroine, 17-year-old Frederica Potter, is unpopular with her schoolmates and sometimes hard for the reader to like, but also bold and indomitable. I identified with her, and I adored her.
Then, it came time to choose a new English-language book. Though Parisian bookstores obviously carry a limited selection of English books, several of them had a good stock of Penguin Classics. And I have a thing for Penguin Classics; I try to buy as many of them as I can, and I love the way their black spines look on my shelf. At the time, I was also trying to reread classic books that I had disliked when I was younger, in order to see if I got more out of them this time.
All of these factors are what led me to consider rereading Jane Eyre when I was in Paris. I'd originally read when I was 12 years old, and had not liked it very much. My mother, a fan of Wuthering Heights but not Jane Eyre, finds Jane an insipid heroine, and I think her attitude had rubbed off on me. Also, at 12, I was reading a lot of fantasy books with kickass heroines, so I found it hard to appreciate Jane's quieter virtues. Moreover I was turned off by the constant references to Christian morality, and sentimental scenes like the death of Helen Burns failed to move me.
So I took the latest Penguin Classics edition of Jane Eyre off the shelf, and perused the back cover. And there, in Penguin-orange type, contrasting with the elegant black background, was a quote from the novel:
You probably can't quite read that, but it says, "The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself."
That was when I knew that I had to reread this book. I knew that it would become a lifeline for me.
So I made my way around Paris, solitary, friendless, but sustained by reading Jane Eyre—reading it voraciously, living in its pages. I burned with Jane's passions and marveled at the fact that I had ever found her insipid. The Penguin Classics introduction takes pains to point out that Jane Eyre is a very angry book, which primed me to focus on the restless, independent side of Jane's character, not the self-effacing Christian.
I think there's a popular misconception that Jane Eyre is nothing but a love story, but there's far more to it than that. Perhaps, if you read it at a time when romantic concerns are foremost in your mind, you will focus on the relationship between Jane and Rochester. But if you aren't preoccupied with romance, if what you seek is a sense of strength and self-worth despite misfortune—and especially if you are a woman—the novel has so much to offer in that vein. I am therefore grateful that Penguin Classics chose to promote the book with the quotation about self-respect, and not one of the more romantic or gothic passages of the novel. As I said, I'd probably never have reread it otherwise, and it would not now have a place in my heart.
Jane's voice is infectious; when I recently reread the novel again in anticipation of the new film version, its vocabulary got inside my head and caused me to talk and write like a Victorian. For instance, I found myself saying that I was "in low spirits" instead of "in a funk" or "depressed."
More and more, too, I find myself marveling at Charlotte Brontë's achievement—writing this long novel by hand, inventing this incredibly powerful and resonant story, sprinkling the text with rich patterns of imagery and themes. Now, not only do I try to be inspired by Jane's strengths and virtues, I also try to be inspired by Brontë's example. If she could write this novel by hand in less than a year, at a time when her sisters had already had their first books accepted for publication while her own was rejected—then there is no reason why I should complain about the difficulty of being a writer, nor fail to be as prolific as I wish.
The Brontës read extensively, and wrote stories and poems, to survive a harsh childhood and adolescence. The plot of Jane Eyre kicks into motion when young Jane slips away to read a book and is punished for it; and throughout the novel, she quotes and alludes to dozens of works of literature. Perhaps I will never have Charlotte Brontë's extraordinary writing talent, or Jane Eyre's sense of self and comfort with being alone (because I was lonely in France, though I tried my hardest to survive it). But one thing that these women and I will always have in common is that we take comfort from literature. Perhaps the pious Jane would take issue with my saying this, but for me, four years ago, her story was a secular, feminist scripture.