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.
“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