No Net Ensnares Me: Jane Eyre and Religious Life

There is no book I have loved so long, faithfully, and fruitfully as Jane Eyre. It’s even more inspiring than fantasy, because it’s a story of ordinary life which is always teetering into the otherworldly and supernatural, leaving the reader restless in the dully material world and longing for something more. It’s seething with desolate moors, lightening-struck trees, and smouldering Rochesterian stares, but all of the broodingly gothic imagery surrounds a profoundly religious story. I’m sure I’ll write more about the overt religious themes and other manifold perfections of Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork, but in this post I will cover a more obscure aspect: Jane as a model for women religious – more commonly known as nuns.

The key to Jane Eyre, and to understanding Brontë’s rich and dynamic protagonist, is that Jane’s personality unites two seemingly antithetical traits: a passionate nature and stern moral self-discipline. The tension between the two drives Brontë’s vivid dialogue and unpredictable story. Modern commentators often assume that Brontë is playing these traits against one another, that Jane is oppressed by a society that forces her to suppress her true personality under a veneer of self-control. I think rather that it’s because she integrates both traits that she is such a compelling, believable, admirable, vivid figure, and that together they make her an exceptional literary model of religious life – and makes her so truly free, as she famously declares, that “no net ensnares her.”

Passion and Obedience

Jane’s passionate nature is innate: from the earliest chapters of the book, when she is only ten years old, she loves goodness, despises injustice, and craves love with almost animal violence. She longs wildly to love and be loved, but frustrated, abused, and rejected by everyone around her, the heartbroken little girl lashes out with words and fists:

“I declare I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world … You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity. I shall remember how you thrust me back …”

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Her passion and strength of will shocks the adults around her. It isn’t a bad quality, but when it’s unrestrained, as in her childhood in the book’s earliest chapters, it serves only to frustrate her and get her into trouble. In the infamous scene from Jane’s childhood, her hateful guardian punishes her for a violent outburst by locking her in the ominous “Red Room.” The colour red is of course associated with passion, showing that Jane is a prisoner to her own violent emotions. Instead of setting her free, her passion holds her captive.

That captivity is broken when Jane learns the quality of self-discipline from her school friend, Helen Burns. Helen, who deserves her own blog post and a spin-off novel and probably a canonization, is one of the few truly Christian characters in literature. Amid the harsh life of miserable Lowood School, underfed and vilified by unjust teachers, Helen serenely accepts beatings, scolding, and eventually even an early death, professing unwavering faith in God all the while.

It is not violence that best overcomes hate – nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury. Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example … God is my Father; God is my friend; I love Him, and believe He loves me.”

Helen Burns, Jane Eyre

Jane, transformed by Helen’s witness of Christlike patience, emulates her forbearance in suffering, living a quiet, uncomplaining life as student, teacher, and governess. This is the side of her nature that so often gets her compared to a nun in the book – in fact, her simple grey-and-black dresses and humble diligence are the traits she shares with the only real nun in the case, her severe and uncharitable cousin Eliza. 

Jane’s self-control is no less authentic for being learned. Nor does it mean that she is a slave to social convention – in fact, as she demonstrates time and again through her adventures, she is not a slave to anything. Her self-control doesn’t destroy her deep passion, but strengthens it, giving it direction and purpose, so that when certain brooding gothic gentlemen try to push her to compromise her moral ideals (looking at you, Rochester and St. John), she has both the self-control and the energy to resist. No longer a slave to others’ opinions or her own passions, she can finally act in a way that is truly free.

Nuns and Valkyries

“Obedience. The most thrilling word in the world; a very thunderclap of a word. Why do all these fools fancy that the soul is only free when it disagrees with the common command? Why should mere disagreement make us feel free? I know you are fond of dancing; do you want to dance to a different tune from your partner’s? You are a fine horsewoman; do you want to think of walking northward all by yourself, when you and your horse are going southward together? You have called me a nun; I am not a nun … But do you suppose that nuns are unhappy? I never see them pass, silent and hooded, through their quiet cloisters but I have a vision: a vast vision of Amazons, wilder than any heathen Valkyries, riders rushing into battle; a charge of chivalry going all one way, and every rider as free as Joan of Arc; galloping, galloping to God. That is the real vision of Obedience.”

“The Surprise,” G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton tells us exactly why self-discipline, passion, and religious life all fit together: self-control is love on an adventure. Make no mistake, nuns have passion to equal Jane’s. They declare war on everything that keeps them from God’s love. Their greatest enemy is selfishness, which they chase into the darkest regions of their soul and do battle there. They love God too greatly to let anything stand between them and Him.

Nuns, like Jane, have such a demure exterior that one could easily make the mistake of thinking that their vocation is incompatible with passion, but biographies of real saints tell a different story: St. Teresa of Avila, nun and reformer of the Carmelite order, was the wild child of her family, but once she channelled her energy toward loving God, she was an unstoppable force in renewing the Church. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity was what we would today call a “strong-willed child,” but when she turned that passionate will toward God, she ascended incredible heights of prayer. St. Therese, cloistered nun and one of the greatest saints of modern times, began life as a wilful little girl who demanded, “I want it all!” And yet those childish words became the keynote of her sophisticated spirituality: when she fixed her will on God, she allowed nothing to stand in the way of embracing all of the goodness that God had in store for her, including her own sin and weakness.

Jane’s story resembles these ones uncannily. Every single one of these saints – and many more I can list – had Jane’s fiery passion of spirit. They didn’t have to eschew it in order to become holy and live their religious vocations – in fact, they needed it. That passion, once directed by love and tempered by obedience, gave them the energy to throw themselves into God’s love without reserve.

Love

“I am not a bird; no net ensnares me.”

Jane Eyre

But what about Jane? Do we leave her to her quiet and subdued existence, unsatisfied in her desire to be known and loved? Of course not. The point of freedom is love, and once Jane integrates her innate passion with self-control, she is finally able to give and receive the love she has longed for – just as when nuns begin to overcome the tyranny of their self-will, they are free to love their Bridegroom truly. Of course, deliciously gothic adventures ensue before the story’s end – flickering candles, unearthly sounds at night, wandering across rain-swept moors – but the essential part of Jane’s story is that she allows nothing – not fear of the future, nor others’ anger, nor her own emotions – to prevent her from acting in the way that she knows is right. 

Even though I like to imagine it, I don’t think Charlotte Bronte intended to write Jane as metaphorical nun – for one thing, both Jane and Rochester have to actively wrestle with their individual relationships with God, parallel to the love they have for one another – but doesn’t Jane’s luminous description of married life also evoke the delight that God takes in our souls? 

Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved, and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshiped … I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am; ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh … with him I was at perfect ease, because I knew I suited him; all I said or did seemed either to console or revive him. Delightful consciousness! It brought to life and light my whole nature: in his presence I thoroughly lived; and he lived in mine.

Jane Eyre

Married or celibate, Victorian or modern, every person’s soul craves a love too great to be found on earth. Jane Eyre is the most truly romantic story I know, because it puts the limit on romance in the right place: Jane finds love on earth but, as I’ll argue in another post, knows that she has to look beyond earth for that which her soul truly seeks. That is the Love that, please God, we can all learn to respond to with complete freedom, total abandon, and ultimate joy.

I found the one whom my soul loves, and I would not let him go.

Song of Songs 3:4

Montgomery, Cats, Death, and Redemption

Anne of Green Gables is an afterthought when I think of Lucy Maud Montgomery. I grew up on her pantheon of classic novels, which on the surface comprise cheerful sketches of rural midcentury life, but that are always veering away from cheerful sketches of rural midcentury life into gothic romanticism. Anne is her most popular novel, but in the lives of her orphaned, sensitive, and misunderstood heroines, sweetness and light is the exception, not the rule. She has an incredible yearning towards the transcendent, the good and true and beautiful, but her writing leaves me wondering if she ever found the source of that heavenly desire.

Her writing is also full of cats. Almost all of her heroines have a special love for them, and the few sympathetic grown-ups in her stories do as well – such as Jane’s father in Jane of Lantern Hill, and Father Cassidy and Uncle Jimmy in Emily of New Moon. On the other hand, the overbearing adults who willfully misunderstand Montgomery’s child heroines, such as Jane’s grandmother and Emily’s Aunt Elizabeth, are marked by their dislike of cats. 

In her writing, a cat shows up when a heroine has finally found a home where she is safe and loved. They represent childlike freedom and innocence, which is why the few instances of cats dying in her stories are so meaningful. There are only three that I can think of, and they each reveal something about Montgomery’s inner darkness and the spiritual lens through which she writes her books.

Jane Stuart & Natural Death

Jane of Lantern Hill is an optimistic novel about a spunky child who grows into herself once she finds a parent who loves her for who she is. Jane’s new home has not one but two cats, both named Peter.

Dad put his arm around Jane. 

“Second Peter died last week, Jane. I don’t know what happened to him … he got sick. I had the vet for him but he could do nothing.”

Jane felt a stinging in her eyes. She would not cry, but she choked.

“I … I … I didn’t think anything I loved could die,” she whispered into Dad’s shoulder.

“Ah, Jane, love can’t fence out death. He had a happy life if a short one … and we buried him in the garden. Come out and see the garden, Jane … “

Jane of Lantern Hill, L. M. Montgomery

This is a coming-of-age book, and Montgomery captures the painful lesson that every child has to learn, that death can touch the things we love. It hurts, but it’s normal and healthy.

What raises my eyebrows about this scene is that there is no mention of redemption. Dad gives the words of comfort that we all hear when a pet dies: he had a happy life and was loved. Then he distracts her from the harsh truth that “love can’t fence out death”. In a novel otherwise bursting with all kinds of life – flowers, families, crops, children – it’s a chilling little reminder that death encroaches on all of it. Even though Jane and Dad talk about Heaven in other parts of the book, in this one moment where the sting of death is actually present, the hope of Heaven seems absent.

Bruce Meredith & Sacrifice

Montgomery’s novel Rilla of Ingleside captures the human response to World War I. There are moments of courage and self-sacrifice that keep the light shining, but there are also unresolved moments of spiritual darkness, particularly surrounding the character of Bruce Meredith. Bruce, a sensitive young boy, senses the helplessness and despair of the adults around him as they wait for their sons to return from the war, and makes a startling choice: he kills the pet kitten whom he dearly loves.

“Why did you do that?” Mrs Meredith exclaimed.

“To bring Jem back,” sobbed Bruce. “I thought if I sacrificed Stripey God would send Jem back. So I drownded him – and, oh mother, it was awful hard – but surely God will send Jem back now, ‘cause Stripey was the dearest thing I had. And He will, won’t He, mother?”

Mrs Meredith didn’t know what to say to the poor child. She just could not tell him that perhaps his sacrifice wouldn’t bring Jem back – that God didn’t work that way. Mr. Meredith is worried about the effect on Bruce’s faith in God, and Mrs Meredith is worried about the effect on Bruce himself if his hope isn’t fulfilled.

Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery

The theme of sacrifice runs throughout this wartime book. Rilla and the others on “the home front” make many sacrifices in support of the war effort, from rationing sugar to letting their sons and sweethearts go to war, and at the end of the book, Montgomery declares through her character Susan that the victory was worth all the sacrifice. They suffered, but their suffering meant something. It went toward the great cause of victory, so all the pain was worth it. 

But Bruce’s sacrifice isn’t a material one like cutting down on sugar. It doesn’t contribute tangibly to the war effort. It’s the only spiritual sacrifice in the book, and the adults do not know how to respond to it – their theology is ambiguous on this point, except for a vague notion that “God doesn’t work that way.” Did Bruce’s sacrifice count for anything or not? It’s left open-ended.

Montgomery is a subtle writer and very often knows more than she lets on; she allows her characters to wrestle with questions to which she already knows the answers. But there are also times when she lets her characters face dilemmas which she can’t solve. In this case, I think Montgomery is letting us in on her own agony as she faces something far darker than the death of a pet: the idea that some suffering might turn out to have no meaning at all, that perhaps some sacrifices are in vain, and some pain might be absolutely pointless.

Brian Dark & Despair

As her books go on, the darkness deepens. In A Tangled Web, one of her last-written novels, references to “gods” and “fate” outpace references to God and prayer. Its protagonists are mostly older characters, made unhappy by their own poor choices, in contrast to the youth and innocence of her earlier heroines. For the first time in Montgomery’s writing, the story rewards characters for morally ambiguous actions. The whole novel feels more Shakespearean than Austenian, and bears the weight of a worldliness that was totally absent from her earlier ones. It gives me the terrible feeling that Montgomery was beginning to crumble under the pain of the world and lose her hope in the goodness that she had loved earlier in life.

This is by far the most traumatic cat death. A lonely, sensitive, unloved young boy finds solace in a trusting little cat that visits him at night, which he tries to hide from his uncaring guardian. Then one day, the cat disappears.

“Where’d that cat come from that woke me up pawing at my face? You bin having cats here, youngster?”

“No, only one – it came sometimes at nights,” gasped Brian. It seemed that his very soul grew cold within him.

“Well, it won’t come again. I wrung its neck. Now you hustle off after them cows.”

Later on, Brian found the poor dead body of his little pet among the burdocks under the window. Brian felt that his heart was breaking as he gathered Cricket up in his arms and tried to close his glazed eyes … 

By some blind instinct rather than design, his feet bore him to the Rose River graveyard and his mother’s neglected grave. He cast himself down upon it, sobbing terribly.

“Oh, Mother – Mother. I wish I was dead – with you. Mother – take me – I can’t live any longer – I can’t – I can’t. Please, Mother.”

A Tangled Web, L. M. Montgomery

This is not the natural death of a childhood pet as in Jane, or even a willing sacrifice as in Rilla. It is senseless, cruel violence against an innocent creature. Montgomery isn’t writing this scene from a detached distance: she is pouring out her own agony at the suffering that the world inflicts on those who are weakest, most trusting, most innocent. A Tangled Web is a provincial little novel, but it looks the universal problem of suffering full in the face. Why is the world so cruel? Why do we seem to suffer for no reason? Has the God who made us abandoned us here in our pain?

As a Catholic, I know that there is only one possible answer: the Cross of Jesus Christ. In all the suffering I have witnessed in the world, I cling to the truth that He took it all upon Himself and redeems it. All of it. There is no drop of pain anywhere in history that His Cross does not reach. The mystery of the Cross, the reason that Christians worship it, is that it takes all the senseless pain in the world and transforms it into glory. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). 

Little Brian’s cry of despair is echoed in the note found next to Montgomery’s deathbed, which some believe to be a suicide note: “May God forgive me … My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.” I think that, like her character Brian, the pain of the world overcame her and she despaired of finding hope.

I love Montgomery for seeing the spiritual depths of everyday things. I love her for entering into the pain of children. I love her for daring to pour her pain out on paper. But I deeply wish for her sake that she had known that there is true redemption, even for the most senseless cruelty. Love does not fence out death; but in the end, the God who is Love overcomes death (1 Jn 4:8, 1 Cor 15:26). The same God who created everything good in the universe, including cats (which I believe Montgomery would agree are among His best work), redeems it from evil, so that cruelty does not have the last word. 

The Priesthood of Father Brown

The stranger put one hand on the counter, vaulted over as easily as an acrobat and towered above the priest, putting one tremendous hand on his collar.

“Stand still,” he said, in a hacking whisper. “I don’t want to threaten you, but -“

“I do want to threaten you,” said Father Brown in a voice like a rolling drum. “I want to threaten you with the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched.”

“You’re a rum sort of cloak-room clerk,” said the other.

“I am a priest, Monsieur Flambeau,” said Brown, “and I am ready to hear your confession.”

“The Queer Feet,” G. K. Chesterton

Father Brown’s ringing declaration lends itself to comparison with that of another, non-fictional, priest: imprisoned in Auschwitz for speaking out against Nazi crimes, Father Maximilian Kolbe stepped out of line to volunteer to take the place of a man condemned to death. Astonishingly, instead of killing him for disobedience, the Nazi Commandat asked, “Who are you?” 

Father Maximilian replied, “I am a Catholic priest.”

Both of these men are making a “confession” of their own, a deep self-revelation: the priesthood of Jesus Christ is who and what they are. And a priest is one who offers sacrifice. Like the last recorded words of St. Maximilian, G. K. Chesterton’s short story “The Queer Feet,” which is definitely his quirkiest and one of my favourites, illuminates the sacrificial reality of the Roman Catholic priesthood. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

The Father Brown stories are G. K. Chesterton’s reply to the proliferating and unrealistic mystery stories of his day, in which he gives full rein to his capacity for absurdity and paradox. His protagonist’s “moon-calf simplicity” (has anyone ever looked up the meaning of “moon-calf”? I haven’t, but it’s still expressive) and Essex flatness are the pale backdrop to his bright perception of moral reality. The reader can’t forget how unappealing this “small dusty-looking Roman Catholic priest” looks, as Chesterton takes a mischievous pleasure in introducing him one-half or two-thirds of the way through each story – teasing the reader’s annoyance at having a fantastical tale intruded upon by such a prosaic character, like the dry voice of reason amidst a thrilling passion.

Why did Chesterton choose a priest, and a dusty little one, as the hero of his detective stories? To mortify self-assured secular powers of reason by a display of the practical advantage of Christian moral knowledge? Perhaps, but he has other reasons.

One such reason is confession. The Father Brown stories don’t say as much about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as one might expect, given that they centre on a priest, but they are strong on the Sacrament of Confession. We learn that Father Brown gets most of his insight into the darker regions of the human soul by hearing confessions from “his little flock.” And, taking the idea of a criminal’s confession and standing it on its head, throughout the stories, through which Brown pursues criminals in his own plodding style, he doesn’t aim for a legal confession but a spiritual one. In “The Queer Feet,” for example, he does get the confession he demands from Flambeau, and then makes no bones about letting him get away.

Hearing confession is an inherently priestly act, an act of Christlike compassion and self-sacrifice. It takes a very brave man to forsake the comforts of a family in order to sit inside a wooden box and hear the ordinariest people alive tell him the worst things that they can; and not just hear, but listen, listen for the hope that lies beneath their words, the hope that they are more than their shameful secrets, that they are beloved children of God, worth suffering for. 

And suffer they must. As Roman Catholic priests share in Jesus Christ’s High Priesthood (see Hebrews), they also share in His victimhood as the Lamb of God. As such, their lives are a sacrifice. Yet it’s a loving sacrifice; Christ gave up His life amid torture for His beloved Bride, and priests pour out their lives for the love of the souls that Christ cherishes. Christ sacrificed Himself to obtain mercy for us, the very same mercy that He pours out of the dusty little confessional – and, in Chesterton’s stories, out of a dusty little priest.

Let’s return to Father Brown, whom we left in the Monsieur Flambeau’s energetic grip. He is there because he is a priest. He is bound to dispense Christ’s mercy at cost to himself. Therefore, he self-sacrificially interposed himself between a dangerous criminal and that criminal’s escape route, just for a slim chance at saving Flambeau’s soul. Father Brown cares about souls. He’s not happy with catching criminals outright. There are more important things at stake.

“Did you catch this man?” asked the colonel, frowning.

Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread .. You are the Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your silver fish. But He has made me a fisher of men.”

“The Queer Feet,” G. K. Chesterton

He’s even concerned with the tidy little sin of the title character in “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” C. S. Lewis, in the character of Screwtape, says “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.” Father Brown knows this very well. This funny little story distracts us readers (and most of the characters) with romantic scenes of dark windy pines and romantically flung swords, but Father Brown won’t be put off what is, for him, the main point. He has the moral sense to know that laziness and white lies can destroy Boulnois’s soul just as terribly as the murder of which he is falsely accused, and he doggedly pursues him until he extorts a repentance.

“I have helped a I have helped a few murderers in my time, it is true,” said Father Brown; and then added, in careful distinction, “not, you will understand, helped them to commit murder.”

“The Green Man,” G. K. Chesterton

All this selfless love for criminals who don’t deserve it (and, at times, ordinary people who deserve it even less) adds up to the spiritual fatherhood of Father Brown. My favourite story, “The Hammer of God,” sees an extended dialogue between Father Brown and the type of clergyman that grows more commonly on English hedgerows, an Anglican. In the story, Chesterton does the latter the dubious courtesy of calling him after the conventions of his own tradition: “Mister Bohun” and “curate.” The contrast draws attention to the wilder, almost primal terms of “Father” and “priest”, words which are dark with ancient connotations of blood and sacrifice. They never seem quite tame enough for polite company, somehow, and definitely incongruous with the “small and colourless” Father Brown. But isn’t a father one who saves his children at tremendous costs to himself – and a Heavenly Father one who does so at ultimate cost to Himself? And sure enough, the little man shows his spritual fatherhood by saving a soul from suicide before the story is over. 

There are two stories with especially horrifying moments in the Father Brown anthology: “The Honour of Israel Gow” and “The Sign of the Broken Sword.” In both, from the depths of otherworldly dread, the worldly character Flambeau suddenly, plaintively, calls the little man simply “Father.” It’s not a courtesy title. The giant, self-assured Frenchman is crying out to his friend like a little child lost in the woods. Fatherhood, priesthood, is the deep truth of who Brown is. 

Answering my own question, “Why did Chesterton make his hero a boring little priest?” it’s because Chesterton’s mystery stories aren’t about crimes to be solved, but about the human need for repentance from sin. A Poirot or Holmes might do for the former; for the latter, a priest is the only possible hero. The better question is, “Why did Chesterton make his priest so boring and little?” He did so because Brown’s smallness is the foil against which the greatness of his vocation shines forth. Chesterton is always trying to get us to realize how small and unnoticeable Brown is himself, so that we can perceive how great the One who works through him.

The Nazi Commandant accepted St. Maximilian Kolbe as a substitute for the man condemned to die. The priest spent his last days in a starvation bunker, giving encouragement to those who were dying with him, exhorting them to pray and sing hymns. St. Maximilian outlasted all his starvation bunkmates, so that the exasperated Nazis finally killed him with a lethal injection; the priest offered his arm to them with a smile, forgiving them. His self-sacrifice wasn’t incidental to his identity as a priest: it was the very heart of it.

Father Brown’s story ends less dramatically: he buttons up his coat and catches a penny omnibus home. The heroism of his vocation is hidden behind the ordinary. But Brown – and the priests who serve the Church in the trenches of parish work – aren’t less important for their ordinariness. Christ delights in coming to us disguised in ordinariness: a sweaty carpenter, a piece of bread, an overworked man in a Roman collar. St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, says of the priest that he is “Only in Heaven will he fully realize who he is.” That is because the priesthood is Jesus Christ Himself, and only in Heaven will we fully know Jesus Christ as He is.

Please read Chesterton. Please pray for our priests.