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Jane Eyre: A Victorian Heroine For Our Time

This year is set to be a big one for the Brontës, with the bicentennial anniversary of Anne’s birth coming up later this month, and an entirely new adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre hitting theatres across the UK. Adapted for the stage by renowned playwright and director Nick Lane, the play began its international tour in September 2019 at the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell, U.K. The Blackeyed Theatre in Bracknell recently announced the play’s 2020 touring dates which kicked off on January 10th at Theater Ainsi in The Netherlands.

The anniversary of Anne’s birth is also expected to be marked across the country and has already been celebrated in the sisters’ hometown of Bradford where an event was held on Friday in celebration of the writer’s life. A collaboration between South Square Centre and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the event has been described by the latter as ‘inspired by her creativity and the conviction with which she held her beliefs’. Both organizations are committed to heightening the public consciousness about Anne, who is often considered the lesser-known Brontë sister, and ensuring through a celebration of her work on her 200th birthday that she gets the recognition she deserves.

Although Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are not nearly as well-known as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, which might have something to do the editing of Anne’s novels that happened after her early death, they are literary classics full of the passion and strength that infuses the works of her sisters.

Nick Lane, director of the new Jane Eyre adaptation, said: “I’m still pinching myself that I was given the chance to adapt such an incredible, iconic novel as Jane Eyre,” “and I’m looking forward to seeing how the show has grown.” This production demonstrates of Jane Eyre, once again, the amazing endurance of Brontë’s gothic masterpiece.

In recent years alone, Jane Eyre has inspired an eponymous ballet by British choreographer Cathy Marston (2016); an award-winning film starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (2011); and a Broadway musical (2000). Contemporary magazines have picked up on Jane’s popularity in articles such as Verily magazine’s “4 Ways Jane Eyre Speaks to the Modern Woman” (April 2017) and the Huffington Post’s “11 Lessons That ‘Jane Eyre’ Can Teach Every 21st Century Woman About How To Live Well” (December 2017). In light of both Anne’s birthday and Lane’s new play, there seems to be a renewed interest in Brontë characters and how they’ve stood the test of time. What is it about Jane, over 150 years after her creation, that inspires such fascination in the modern world—a world so radically different from the one in which the Brontë sisters lived and wrote their influential novels?

I believe Jane’s power to inspire lies in the lessons readers learn from her vibrant inner life and determined self-sufficiency. Many fans admire Jane for her “resilience”, “sense of direction”, “integrity”, and “hope”—as Verily magazine phrased it in the aforementioned article, something with which I completely agree. These are some of the novel’s most striking themes. But Jane is special for more than a list of abstract values. It is her very character, her inner life, from which we should take inspiration. She is completely self-sufficient—her strength and goodness lie within her. She does not need others to applaud her, and she can endure extreme solitude, loneliness, and heartbreak because she herself is the source of her own strength.

Since early childhood, Jane has to depend on herself for comfort and guidance. She is met with little compassion or kindness—for most of her young life her only close friends are Helen, a fellow student at Lowood school, and Miss Temple, a beloved teacher. Her resilience in the face of the disapproval and cruelty of others is what enables her to survive. When Jane learns about Mr. Rochester’s mentally unstable wife, she must decide whether she can still live with him without being married to him. The desires of her heart do battle with her principles. Principle wins. In what may be the most famous lines of the novel, she writes, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself …. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation …. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth….”

Jane is deeply in love with Mr. Rochester, but she also knows that living with him in such a state would violate her “principles” which, she says, “are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour…”. The lesson we can take from Jane, and from many other Brontë characters, such as Helen from Anne’s The Tenant Wildfell Hall, is that there are times in life when your sense of self and your own beliefs and values are all you have. You alone must make some significant decision without depending on others, without considering whether even your closest friends and family would approve or disapprove. You must be your own counsellor and risk being “solitary”, “friendless” and “unsustained” for the sake of what you know to be right, whether others understand and sympathize with you or not. Jane is completely and utterly alone in the world when she decides to leave Mr. Rochester and strike out on her own without money, family, or friends. But she does it, because she will not sacrifice herself and her values for anything.

Today, it seems we are always seeking approval from others—whether it be from our teachers and professors in the form of good grades and positive comments on our work, or on social media in the form of likes, comments, and public confirmation that we are pretty, handsome, or worth talking to. Jane teaches us to stop looking toward others for guidance about the values that we should adopt or the actions that we should take. She seems to urge us to rely on ourselves and to spend more time considering the values and beliefs that fuel us. To me, the enduring lesson we can take from the Brontës is this: start looking for strength within yourself and your own character. That is the source of true autonomy and integrity.

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