A letter to Jane Eyre

Dear Ms. Eyre,

I hope that the unfamiliarity of my name and address do not baffle you. The lack of a formal introduction and a long friendship shall not stop me from saying some things to you which I trust you will absorb with the spirit of Helen Burns – that is, the spirit of self-improvement and beneficent attention.

Today I write to offer my thoughts on certain aspects of your story, which I have just finished reading. Perhaps you are wondering why I call you by your maiden name. Ms. Brontë’s wonderful publication tells me that you are lately married, but it is your unmarried self, at a fixed point in the narrative, for whom I fashion this letter.

I know, Jane, that I have no right to pass judgment on the actions of your life. However, I find an inability to keep silent in one quarter – your initial treatment of Mr. Rochester in the last installment of your tale. Let me remind you of the scene.

After your long departure, you have returned to Thornfield. You hear the tale of its recent devastation from a garrulous innkeeper, and, determined, you make your way to Mr. Rochester’s side. The innkeeper has described his new afflictions; your beloved is now blind in both eyes and missing his right hand. You can easily guess how these new losses have transformed his passionate spirit.

You arrive at Mr. Rochester’s current residence, resolved to love him and live with him. Coming upon the house, you catch a glimpse of your beloved – dear Edward! – trying to take an evening walk about his premises. I say “trying” here because he walks with a mixture of reticence and resolution. Unaided, without a cane, he steps cautiously forward, his remaining hand extended before him. In a century, rehabilitation therapists will teach blind children to walk this way before they learn to use the white cane. When a blind child chances to totter forward without the proper precautions, its teacher will kindly admonish, “Put up your bumpers.”

But dear Edward is no blind child under the supervision of a solicitous mobility instructor. He will not receive a slender white cane nor a course in street crossing. No wonder he hesitates, careful of each step, his outstretched hand seeking familiarities. For you and your readers alike, this is a sad spectacle.

You witness and relate the deepening pathos of the scene. Resigned, frustrated, and unwilling to accept another’s arm, dear Edward can only travel so far on his own. He must return to his house to sit in the dark, lonely parlor and dream of your coming.

You know, at this point, that he hasn’t seen you – that it is impossible for him to discern your silent presence. In some minutes, you enter the house and present yourself to Mr. Rochester’s attendants, two old servants from Thornfield Hall. You insist that you, not Mary, will carry to dear Edward the glass of water and candles he has requested. So far, Jane, I object to none of these actions.

Surely you remember the details of your long-awaited reunion with Mr. Rochester, but I will continue to summarize. You enter the room without speaking and try to discourage the friendly, audible welcome of your master’s dog. Dear Edward tells Mary to hand him the glass of water and you oblige. He senses something – your movements, the dog’s excitement, perhaps both – and asks you to confirm that you are Mary. You tell him she is in the kitchen. You offer him more water, and he asks you to speak, to reveal yourself.  You answer him, saying, “Pilot [the dog] knows me, and John and Mary know I am here. I came only this evening.” Again, you withhold your name. He must guess and speculate in discomfort; you keep him shrouded in uncertainty. After a few more lines of dialogue, you reveal yourself to be his “living darling,” his long sought and beloved Jane.

I’m sure that this is a very touching memory for you, Ms. Eyre, but I must speak out at this juncture. No doubt, your story creates a dramatic, poignant, and brilliant entrance into Mr. Rochester’s dreary disabled existence. You withhold your identity and name from him just long enough – perhaps to draw him out or prepare him for the shock of your presence. But you must admit that this is bad form!

You see, I am a blind woman with a blind beloved, and I must protest your actions. To test your dear Edward in this way, to try his powers of perception even for a few moments, is cruel. We writers sacrifice much for a good story, but I believe that you overstep the bounds of compassion in this scene.

You must acknowledge, Ms. Eyre, your position as teacher throughout this entire novel. Yes, you go on to treat dear Edward with kindness and respect – reading to him whenever he wishes, guiding him throughout countless nature walks, being his eyes in all cases – but this initial test, this power struggle in the first moments of your reunion, colors your whole relationship. I know that you and Edward have made a happy marriage together, but I cannot overlook this first breach of courtesy.

I call you teacher, Ms. Eyre, because your readers learn from you. Truly they learn to be helpful and considerate to all, regardless of age or ability, but they also learn something of narrative cost. The narrative cost of your reunion with Edward is that he must give up his power to identify you. Are you unaware of the custom, Ms. Eyre, of identifying yourself to a blind person upon entering a room? Perhaps this custom did not exist when the scene occurred. It is possible, but I am unsure. None of your readers could doubt your deference, your knowledge of etiquette. I wonder then that you did not apply such deference in this case.

I do not propose to rewrite your story. Now that you and Edward have developed such a comfortable routine, I am sure you always tell him when you enter a room. I am sure that you do not continue to observe him when he cannot observe you.

I suppose then, Jane, that I am writing to warn you. There is a danger in the perceived power of the spectator – in the belief that one can always watch and never be watched, that such a watcher is therefore superior to those who cannot return the gaze. Not even for the sake of a good story should one exercise this power with impunity. Yes, a writer watches, a narrator observes, a speaker perceives – but all are accomplished because the environment allows it. Let us not write an environment which allows only some to exert a power of perception. Let us write of the times when Edward creates his own observations. He is not made to be watched only, to be digested in such a one-sided way.

I hope you will accept and contemplate this frank composition. I place these thoughts before you because I know that a character as deep and strong as yours can change the nature of narrative. I urge you to build with me a society that treats vulnerability as an opportunity for characters to empower, rather than overpower, one another.

Your sincere admirer and distant friend,

5 thoughts on “A letter to Jane Eyre

  1. Emily, this was a very clever & subtle way to teach sighted people some important lessons in thoughtfulness and etiquette in their relationships with blind friends and family. I have an aunt (93 years old) wo lost her vision about three years ago to macular degeneration and retinal detachment.Your gentle nudges to “Jane” have made me rethink about the ways I communicate with her to make sure that I am not being thoughtless or patronizing. Thanks for the gentle lesson! Lois

    1. Thank you, Lois, for appreciating the scope of this piece. It was not intended to be a sophisticated literary analysis of the novel. I simply wanted to create something that reflected my reaction to this moment in the narrative.

      1. And you succeeded in your goal! Incidentally, I enjoy every one of your blogs even tho I don’t always respond to them.

  2. I love the Internet! Where else would serendipity lead me (living in England) to such an imaginative blog? I have always had ambivalent feelings about Jane Eyre and now you have nailed it in a witty and practical essay. Thank you. I admire your reference to Victorian attitudes to make a contemporary point.

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