“Tease me, vex me”: Uncommon Love and Jane Eyre

Love in great literature goes against the current. Convention is the enemy, especially in Romantic Comedy where intelligent couples must find a way to find one another. Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, for example, differentiates between lovers who fall in love by the rules (Claudio and Hero), and lovers who live beyond the rules, reject customary understandings of love and lovers’ roles, and must stagger in adversity through labyrinths of misunderstandings to recognize and embrace the person so obviously meant for them (Beatrice and Benedick). Love by the book is an easy path but guarantees the lovers remain unknown to each other and to themselves. [1]

Jane Eyre has no single classical model to follow. Jane’s religious journey, her Pilgrim’s Progress, with its intense self-scrutiny, tends to mask the comic plotting, the Cinderella fairy-tale that leads to its happy ending. Jane Eyre lacks laughter, but it is full of wit and sly humor. Within the tradition of Romantic Comedy the unconventional love excites wittiness at the expense of love by the book. In Romantic Comedy whatever is civil and kindly obstructs love, sweet nothings are nothing at all, pledges of devotion unearned by struggle are empty words and “perfect matches” the easy road to destruction. Intelligent people know this and will have to take the rocky path to love.

This broken path can be wonderfully amusing. Beyond the rules and convention, lie playfulness and creativity.  What social convention cannot supply, the cleverness of lovers must invent. Because we are embedded in these conventions, these inventions will delight us. They help us imagine love as liberation and discovery and not a trap set by nature and society. Hard earned and inventive love tests our patience and resolve, but in the end yields emotional richness and sanity.

Jane Eyre offers no better example of unconventional love than the painful teasing with which Jane announces herself, towards the end, to the pitiful and sightless Rochester (Chapter 37). Jane finds Thornfield destroyed by fire and her beloved master crippled and blind. To Jane he appears “desperate and brooding – that reminded me of some wronged and fettered wild beast or bird, dangerous to approach in his sullen woe”. Bronte in her gothic excess tells us: “He lifted his hand and opened his eyelids; gazed blank, and with a straining effort, on the sky, and towards the amphitheatre of trees; one saw that all to him was void darkness.  He stretched his right hand (the left arm, the mutilated one, he kept hidden in his bosom); he … folded his arms, and stood quiet and mute in the rain, now falling fast on his uncovered head” (420). [2] Proud and defiant, Rochester angrily dismisses his servant’s offer to assist him.  In the face of such anguish, Jane chooses to play blind man’s bluff with him, teasing and vexing him as he becomes aware slowly that this unnamed presence is not a dream but the woman he has been dreaming of.

The scene may seem simply cruel as Rochester begs to know who attends him and Jane refuses to tell him.  However, the game fits the sweet torment they have learned to inflict upon one another, the very opposite of kindness and civility conventional lovers owe to one another. Jane learned this game of disguises from Rochester.  It is their way of doing without the pleasantries and knowing one another truly in a perverse language all their own. When they first met in the dark forest, Rochester withheld his identity. Disguised as a gypsy fortune-teller, he pried heart’s secrets from her. To arouse her jealousy, he paraded Blanche Ingram before his poor governess. He teased and tormented her to free her from her carefully composed masquerade, her prim Quaker disguise. Jane’s cruel tease of her bedraggled master in this “Beauty and the Beast” sequel plays the game they have both mastered, following rules only they understand.

Jane’s cruelty continues. Paying Rochester back for tormenting her with Blanche Ingram, she parades St. John Rivers before him to arouse his jealousy.  Rochester calls Rivers “priggish and parsonic” (430), but Jane enrages him by describing St. John’s social polish and excellent appearance – “a handsome man: tall, fair, with blue eyes, and a Grecian profile.” When she informs him that Rivers offered to marry her, he explodes in anger – “That is a fiction – an impudent invention to vex me” (432). Could this love scene be going worse? But Jane has learned from her master how to break down the door of feeling to uncover vulnerabilities. She protests against his anger: “He is not like you, sir: I am not happy at his side. Nor near him, nor with him. He has no indulgence for me – no fondness.” Turning the tables in this dance of abuse and tearful embrace, Jane explains “Oh, you need not be jealous! I wanted to tease you a little to make you less sad: I thought anger would be better than grief … All my heart is yours, sir …” (433). Playing by conventional rules, they would never reveal their longing and never find their idiosyncratic way to extend love beyond the flash of desire into a life-long devotion. They have learned to amuse one another, to play endless hide-and-seek. Jane tells us: “To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result” (439).

***

From the beginning, Jane encounters threatening male interrogations. John Reed asserts his ownership over the books she reads and her places of refuge. Lacking the defenses she will acquire, Jane bloodies her tormentor’s nose, and suffers isolation in the Red Room (“Murder” backwards). In Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane encounters with wit and originality a powerful bully.  Brocklehurst represents Evangelical hypocrisy, doing good by battering his neighbor. In Jane’s eyes, Brocklehurst is the big bad wolf (“What a face he had, now that it was almost on a level with mine! What a great nose! And what a mouth! And what large prominent teeth!”). Little Jane deflects his cruel catechism with wit.  Asked what she must do to avoid hell’s fire, she responds she “must keep in good health, and not die” (43). Brocklehurst’s sanctimony rests upon self-serving pieties. Young Jane loses this argument with institutionalized stupidity but learns that her way forward requires wit to oppose the entrenched forces of wooden and pernicious thinking.

At Lowood School, Jane tempers her rebelliousness and dons her prim disguise, her cloak of invisibility. She learns restraint from Helen Burns and adroit policy from Miss Temple. As governess, she must attract no notice and avoid all threats. Jane Eyre may be the most sharply observant character in all non-detective literature. A useful book cover for Jane Eyre might depict the eagle and that raptor’s shining eye, so much a focal point in Jane’s descriptions. [3]

Her disguise is carefully considered. Jane is painfully aware she is not attractive.  She has learned from childhood on that the world’s favor smiles upon conventional beauty; while she has learned to compensate with accomplishments and guile, she cannot overcome her disappointment at nature’s unkindness: “I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked. And why had I these aspirations and these regrets? (106).

Jane hides behind a mask of Quaker simplicity, but Rochester’s fierce manliness assaults her. Even before he speaks, Jane spots his Byronic force, his granite features and, in a shockingly un-Victorian way, his body — “broad chested and thin flanked” (126). His grim look shocks and intrigues her, and his gruff tone compels Jane to break her disguise. A conventional false kindliness would have elicited an appropriate empty response, “but harsh caprice laid me under no obligation; on the contrary, a decent quiescence, under the freak of manner, gave me the advantage” (127).

Abandoning politeness and the appropriate reserve between employer and servant, age and youth, man and woman, Rochester violates Jane’s calm. Having offered a present to little Adele, Rochester asks:

… ‘did you expect a present, Miss Eyre? Are you fond of presents?’ and he searched my face with eyes that I saw were dark, irate, and piercing.

‘I hardly know, sir; I have little experience of them; they are generally thought pleasant things.’

‘Generally thought? But what do you think?’

Rochester commands Jane to play the piano, and his comments shock her.  He interrupts to remark: “You play a little, I see; like any other English school-girl: perhaps better than some, but not well.” Rochester’s intense review of Jane’s dream-like water-colors offers another gruff intrusion. His comments emphasize her lack of experience. But Jane observes a difference from earlier bullying, from the Reeds and from Brocklehurst. Rochester recognizes who she is and probes the mystery behind her prim exterior and guarded manner.

          Rochester has seen Jane and admits as much. When Jane informs him she has spent eight years at Lowood School, Rochester remarks “No wonder you have rather the look of another world.  I marveled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy-tales” (128). His comments on her paintings reveal his fascination with her subterranean dream-world:  “These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream.  How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? For the planet above quells their rays.  And what meaning is that in their solemn depth?” (133).

          Some days later, Jane experiences another provoking encounter. Dressed in her “usual Quaker trim, where there was nothing to retouch – all being too close and plain, braided locks included…”, Jane lapses into an after-dinner languor and gazes at her master in too unguarded a way (135). Catching her at it, Rochester traps her with a dangerous question:

 

“You examine me, Miss Eyre,’ said he: ‘do you think me handsome?”

I should, if I had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; but the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware: — “No, sir.”

 

Rochester poses an impossible choice, to tell the truth he and she well know, or to retreat into conventional vagueness neither respects. Jane’s efforts to backtrack are clumsy and should, in politeness, be protected and honored.  Rochester, however, pursues her into this patch of obfuscation to embarrass her further:

 

“Sir, I was too plain: I beg your pardon.  I ought to have replied that it was not easy to give an impromptu answer to a question about appearances; that tastes differ; that beauty is of little consequence, or something of that sort.”

“You ought to have replied no such thing.  Beauty is of little consequence, indeed! And so, under pretence of softening the previous outrage, of stroking and soothing me into placidity, you stick a sly penknife under my ear!” (137)

 

Rochester mocks her evasions to arouse her feelings and clear the path for a real exchange between them. Most provoking, he tells her she is no prettier than he is handsome, a terrible thing to tell a plain young woman. Rochester demands his right to “be a little masterful, abrupt; perhaps exacting” (139) because he is older and more experienced, and because he is her employer.

          Jane learns to hold her own, which is what Rochester intends and she finds increasingly satisfying. When Jane compliments him for showing concern for her feelings, Rochester continues his attack upon her reserve. Jane answers cunningly that his directness signals that he feels no more bound by convention than she does. Rochester deflects this peace offering, also. He asks whether she is ready to accept his domineering manner as merely an offer of informality in their relations rather than a cruel assertion of power:

 

“I am sure, sir, I should never mistake informality for insolence: one I rather like, the other nothing free-born would submit to, even for a salary.”

“Humbug! Most things free-born will submit to anything for a salary; therefore, keep to yourself, and don’t venture on generalities of which you are intensely ignorant. However … despite its inaccuracy … the manner was frank and sincere; one does not often see such a manner: no, on the contrary, affectation, or coldness, or stupid, coarse-minded misapprehension of one’s meaning are the usual rewards of candour.” (140-41)

 

This exchange is followed by the first of several instances where the lovers read one another’s thoughts. After Rochester offers Jane a back-handed compliment — “you may have intolerable defects to counter-balance your few good points” — Jane answers silently within her own mind “And so may you.” Jane knows instantly that Rochester hears her unspoken thoughts: “My eye met his as the idea crossed my mind; he seemed to read the glance, answering as if its import had been spoken as well as imagined” (141).

          At scene’s end, Rochester comments on their deepening communication: “I think you will learn to be natural with me, as I find it impossible to be conventional with you; and then your looks and movements will have more vivacity and variety than they dare offer now.  I see, at intervals, the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high” (144). Having seen Jane behind the prim costume, Rochester has set about to penetrate this veil and compel Jane to meet him directly. They are both stimulated into thought and desire, and Bronte, in her own reticent way, has asked us to be as bright as they are and to learn to distinguish politeness and the rule of courtship from the intelligence and passion of love.

***

          Jane is an ardent listener to Rochester’s anguished disburdenings of his foolish misadventures. [4] Bronte was criticized by reviewers for having Rochester recount his sexual exploits to Jane, but Bronte knew what she was doing. Rochester himself comments on this unseemliness. The confidence he shows her frees Jane to imagine she has a role to play in rescuing her master from his dark past. Still, as Volume One ends, we do not yet know whether this is “Beauty and the Beast” or “Bluebeard’s Castle” (114). Can we trust Rochester, can he trust himself, to be honest in his affections, or will he prove a collector of damaged women, hung like trophies along the corridors of his outraged life?

While Jane grows comfortable with Rochester’s intrusions, her master harasses her peace to excite her passions. Jane manages to retain her reserve, but collapses faced with Blanche Ingram, a model of female beauty and social ascendency. She tells herself a plain, unvarnished tale recalling her insignificance. Jane’s surrender is precipitous and painful as she stifles her dreams of love. However, Rochester parades Blanche before her, requiring Jane’s presence at his glittering social gatherings. Jane sees Rochester and Blanche in brilliant emblematic poses: “Fluttering veils and waving plumes filled the vehicles; two of the cavaliers were young, dashing-looking gentlemen; the third was Mr. Rochester, on his black horse, Mesrour; Pilot bounding before him; at his side rode a lady, and he and she were the first of the party. Her purple riding-habit almost swept the ground, her veil streamed long on the breeze; mingling with its transparent folds, and gleaming through them, shown rich, raven ringlets” (169).

Rochester makes sure Jane observes the ascendency of Blanche and the guests invited to transact this business of courtship. Jane envisions them as unearthly creatures: “They dispersed about the room, reminding me, by the lightness and buoyancy of their movements, of a flock of white plumy birds.  Some of them threw themselves in half-reclining positions on the sofas and ottomans; some bent over the tables and examined the flowers and books; the rest gathered in a group round the fire; all talked in a low but clear voice which seemed habitual to them” (174). Jane gazes from the shadows in anguish, attempting to convince herself that Rochester does not belong with these creatures of sunlight and ease. She subdues her own good sense and claims a bond that every moment recedes before her: “He is not to them what he is to me … he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine; … I understand the language of his countenance and movements; though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him” (178).

But the scenes drown her confidence. Blanche plays the piano expertly and accompanies Rochester in his recital. When Rochester encounters Jane he assaults her damaged confidence with Iago-like precision. Asked the cause of her sadness, Jane responds she is tired, “And a little depressed,” he adds.  When Jane denies this, Rochester is cruel, “But I affirm that you are: so much so depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes – indeed, they are there now, shining and swimming; and a bead has slipped from the lash and fallen on to the flag.” He insists she appear every evening in the drawing-room, apparently oblivious to the cause of her distress.

Jane constructs an elaborate explanation for Rochester’s betrayal. Ingram is, despite all appearances, beneath contempt: “She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness.  She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own” (188).  This bitter and laughable diatribe might seem sour grapes, but the fervor of her rant measures her distress. If she is defeated, it must be for “family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure…. This was where the nerve was and touched and teased – this was where the fever was sustained and fed …” (188-189). [5]

Rochester assaults Jane as his marriage approaches. He taunts Jane by remarking how capable Miss Ingram will be in lifting him from his spiritual despair. When Jane says nothing, Rochester brusquely comments that she is pale and her hands cold. Rochester vexes her further by noting how much he enjoys sitting up with her in the evening, to which Jane responds with her dutiful reserve “whenever I can be useful” (220). Rochester deepens the offense by inviting Jane to sit up with him on his wedding night to listen to him “talk of my lovely one: for I know you have seen her and know her. His Blanche is “a real strapper, Jane: big, and brown: with hair such as the ladies of Cartharge must have had,” as if he were praising a new horse. The narrator records no response, and the scene ends with us wondering whether Rochester no longer recognizes Jane or whether some twisted plot is playing out. Jane the narrator, recalling all this from years after, holds back on what she knows and what we must figure out.

Gone several weeks to attend her dying aunt, Jane finds herself idly sketching Rochester’s face, the exercise providing her contentment (233). On Jane’s return her master teases her, “Absent from me a whole month; and forgetting me quite, I’ll be sworn” (244), but Rochester knows what she has suffered.  He asks her to admire Blanche’s radiant glory and wishes only that Jane had some magic to make him more handsome and more suitable for his strapping goddess. Soon after, Bronte assumes the electric force of present tense narrative. Rochester extols Ingram’s beauty and calls back Jane’s attention as she looks away to hide her grief. Rochester pretends not to recognize what he sees, a continuing pattern in spurring her to passion. He then announces a plan to send her far from Thornfield “to undertake the education of the five daughters of Mrs. Dionysius O’Gall of Bitternut Lodge, Connaught, Ireland” (250), an excellent joke if only Jane could enjoy it.

Rochester’s assault is unrelenting. He forces Jane to admit that she grieves being away from him – an admission that bursts from her followed by humiliating tears. Rochester assures her, in his matter-of-fact way that he will never see her again once she goes to Ireland. Seating her beside him on the bench at the devastated chestnut tree, Rochester stokes her anguish. His cruelty is beyond measure. He remarks how a cord of communion links them under their ribs that if snapped would cause inward bleeding. Wracked by tears, Jane admits her deep connection to Rochester. Her mask of Quaker reserve shatters. Jane admits she has lived in his presence a “full and delightful life,” the “communion with what is bright and energetic.” Without reserve or shame, she reveals: “I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in, — with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind” (251). Love for Jane is conversation, the play of wit, the thrust and parry as the lovers invent surprising things to reveal and disguise their feelings to one another. Still, Jane seems defeated, and in her grief says as much, calling Ingram his bride.

Jane rejects anguish and instead claims the rights of passion and equality. Rochester’s assault has sought exactly this eruption of protest. Jane suspects what he is doing but not fully why and to what end.  She protests: “I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, not even of mortal flesh: — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!” (252). Once Jane asserts her equality in feeling, and even the wild thought to punish him as he is punishing her, Rochester can broach the impossible thought of becoming his wife. Jane believes he is mocking her.  Jane has heard so many words from this man of multiple deceits; she studies his face, and what she sees hardly consoles her: “His face was very much agitated and very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features, and strange gleams in the eyes” (254). His fevered look and the odd pause as he explains his test of Ingram’s feelings for him reveal that his emotions twist in too many directions, even while he pledges his fidelity. When the chestnut tree, their pledge of unity, is split by lightning, Jane ought to know that it is all too good to be true.

          When Jane meets Rochester again, in his wild enthusiasm for marriage, he no longer sees her. He mistakes the color of her eyes, imagines her in finery, and promises the grand tour of Europe, a story-book honeymoon Jane dislikes and distrusts. Jane doubts this effervescence will last more than the usual six-months of new married ardor and will settle into bland, workaday tolerance. Rochester, however, protests that with Jane it will all be different, that to her “clear eye and eloquent tongue,” her “soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break,” he will be “ever tender and true” (258-259). These expansive flatteries worry Jane. She taunts him so that he becomes uncivil to her, calls her a “thing,” to which Jane replies she would “rather be a thing than an angel” (260). Worse yet, she demands that Rochester explain his use of Blanche to antagonize her. He admits he tricked her, and Jane is delighted to hear him admit his low trick and to scold him for his duplicity. His bad behavior shows that he is driven by passion and not by any code of good behavior. For Jane, it represents a great admission that he would pay the price of personal dignity and of decency to excite her passion, a passion he admits he feels for her.

          In this period of engagement, Jane meets Rochester’s flowery efforts of ingratiation with her own style of disdain. When he kiddingly calls her a “hard little thing,” she assures him that she is “very flinty” and that she intends to show him her “diverse rugged points” so he will know what “sort of a bargain he had made while there was still time to rescind it” (271). Her testiness annoys him, but also entertains him; Jane comments that “a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism more, would have pleased his judgment, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste, less” (272). The game continues between them.  While she remains aloof or censorious, he plays at seeming angry: “Mr. Rochester affirmed I was wearing him to skin and bone, and threatened awful vengeance for my present conduct at some point fast coming.  I laughed in my sleeve at his menaces: ‘I can keep you in reasonable check now’ I reflected; ‘and I don’t doubt to be able to do it hereafter; if one expedient loses its virtue, another must be devised’” (272). The game promises endless inventiveness, enough to keep both attuned to one another in the hide-and-seek of exasperation and absorbed commitment. They are singular lovers, writing rules that fit only their own peculiar characters, united for all readers of Jane Eyre, for all our eternities, in their mutual vexation and delight.

 

[1] Austen’s Pride and Prejudice offers another classic account of the struggle of intelligent people to find love without conventional courtship – the arrangements by parents, the social evenings and formal balls, exchanges of letters and love tokens that serve their less imaginative peers so well. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy struggle through thickets of convention and their pride and prejudices to learn to appreciate one another’s depth of feelings and values. Her sister Jane, so much a pattern of loveliness and soft sentiment, and Mr. Bingley, so kindly and responsive, are instantly a couple and therefore never know each other. Conventional lovers, lacking complexities, pay a price in feeling and knowledge. In romantic love, what comes easily is not worth the journey.

[2] All references to Jane Eyre are to the St. Martin’s critical edition, ed. Beth Newman.

[3] Her name itself – “Eyre” – points not only to her aerial spirit, her commanding element (air, as opposed to Rivers, to Burns, and to the stony earth of Rochester), her struggles with anger (ire), and her inheritance of the best of England’s failing cultural traditions (heir), but also to the aerie from which the eagle sees everything.

[4] Of the many Shakespeare references in Jane Eyre, one of the most interesting and apparently unnoticed are the several echoes of Othello. As Rochester opens the account of his sad and shameful adventures to Jane, he pauses to notice that he is telling his tale to a young and inexperienced girl. He remarks: “Strange that I should choose you for the confidant of all this, young lady: passing strange that you should listen to me quietly, as if it were the most usual thing in the world for a man like me to tell stories of his opera-mistresses to a quaint, inexperienced girl like you!” (148). Othello, also an older man, noted for his rude and unattractive appearance, a figure of dark and fearsome power, surprisingly captures Desdemona’s heart by means of telling his tale. Othello, like Rochester, notes that Desdemona’s sympathy for his sufferings moved him greatly: “My story being done,/ She gave me for my pains a world of kisses./ She swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/ ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful” (I, iii, 158-161). Othello and Desdemona are another example of intelligent, unconventional lovers. She eschews “the curled darlings” of Venice to love instead an outsider, one who has suffered a life of privations but has earned through them a depth and nobility lacking to the polished aristocrats, or in Jane’s case the handsome clergyman, society prefers.

[5] Rochester’s disguise as a gypsy fortune-teller is one of the least successful moments in the novel, but it is another example of the painful games they play. Rochester paints Jane a picture of herself listening and watching intently the courtship that promises to dash her hopes, “sitting in that window-seat, … Have you no present interest in any of the company who occupy the sofas and chairs before you? Is there not one face you study?” (200). Oddly, Jane does not protest this trick played against her, and in retrospect understands what Rochester’s benign purpose was in taunting her. In any conventional narrative, Rochester’s behavior would have registered as cruel and ridiculous, but in this courtship beyond the rules, Jane accepts this misbehavior as necessary to open trust between them, as peculiar as that might seem.

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