At seventeen I had a terrible track record with nineteenth-century novels. I only occasionally attempted one for pleasure, and while I had been assigned a few along the way in my first few years of high school, I’m pretty sure that I never finished a single one until Anna Karenina, which was our summer reading assignment for AP English and which I do remember enjoying. OK, I think I might have finished Tom Sawyer as a freshman, but since that’s usually considered more of a fifth or sixth grade book, I don’t think it really counts. I know I didn’t finish Great Expectations when I was assigned it as a freshman – more on THAT saga when we read it for the AP challenge in March – and while I think I might have actually turned all the pages of The Scarlet Letter (a book I now love) when I was a junior, I definitely didn’t process it in a meaningful way. I still have a love-hate relationship with the literature of the nineteenth century.
I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre in AP English, although I read more than half of it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that this novel is famous for the line “Reader, I married him!” If I reached that line as a high school senior, I did it at two in the morning with my eyelids drooping in spite of all the caffeine, and I didn’t remember.
Here’s what I do remember and will always remember about Jane Eyre (and, like so many of my memories from AP English, it is not about Jane Eyre at all but about Fr. Murphy): Early in the novel, Jane is staying as a ward or foster child with a family with several children. The oldest boy in this family bullies Jane in some way. I think he hits her, and I think I remember that she hides behind the curtains to get away from him. Whatever this boy does to Jane is bad, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t THAT bad – in fact, when I read it originally I didn’t really think much about it at all. It seemed like the sort of thing that children do to other children fairly often. But then in class discussion, Fr. Murphy went nuts. He went nuts so memorably that I remember every word of his speech, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say that I think most of my classmates remember it too. Here goes: “Don’t let anybody touch you, unless you INVITE them to touch you. And be careful who you invite.” Like most of Fr. Murphy’s important pronouncements, this statement was delivered in a flurry of emotion and followed by a sinister silence. The man knew how to work a room. All Jesuits do, I think.
One of the reasons I remember this speech so well is that I heard it more than once. Jill and I were also taking philosophy with Fr. Murphy that semester, and on the same day that he made this speech in English class, he also made it in philosophy class, apropos of nothing. He may or may not have actually said, “Oh, and by the way…” but that was the spirit of the announcement. There was no mention of Jane Eyre. And of course it was funny, and we all laughed hysterically – not in front of Fr. Murphy, of course, but after class and later that day and throughout the year and at our tenth reunion and – you get the idea. To this day I really can’t hear the words “touch” or “invite” without thinking of Fr. Murphy, if only for a brief instant.
I remember being surprised by the intensity of Fr. Murphy’s response because I didn’t think the altercation between the two children was a big deal. I remember going back and rereading the scene later because I assumed that something more must have happened. Did he RAPE her? I wondered, scouring the text for suggestions of sexual assault. But no – nothing. I was blasé about violence in those days. I’ve already told you about how the whipping scene in Light of August made Fr. Murphy throw up, and then there was a similar incident when we studied King Lear – which I’m sure Jill or I will tell you when we get to that book in April. Fr. Murphy was a man of tremendous intellect and erudition, but there is no question that the way he influenced me most was in the power of his emotions and his willingness to let his visceral reactions to literature permeate his teaching. I’ve had a LOT of English teachers in my life, but I can think of only a few who let their emotions become part of their teaching. And you guessed it – those few were the best ones, hands down.
So what else about Jane Eyre? I remember that, like so many books that are taught in schools, this novel divides neatly into parts – like the three scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter and the four father figures in All the King’s Men and the three husbands in Their Eyes Were Watching God, this novel is organized around four places. Jane spends time in four different places – first the foster family where the violent incident happens, then a school called Lowood, then somewhere else, then the house where she lives with and marries Rochester and tries to ignore the fact that his crazy first wife is living in the attic.
Oh, and there is a guy in the book named St. John Rivers, but you’re supposed to call him SIN JIN. I remember reading that in the Cliff’s Notes. And then when Fr. Murphy corrected someone in class, I felt really, really smart.
November is going to be a busy month for me, but I would very much like not only to read Jane Eyre but also to read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the post-colonial/feminist retelling of the Jane Eyre story from the perspective of Rochester’s first wife, and I would also like to go back and reread Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, a text on feminist literary criticism that I read and/or skimmed in college and remember liking. I may or may not actually read all of these in November, but I’m going to try – and I can always let this little mini-challenge extend into December if needed.
Oh, and one more thing. I once stayed in a youth hostel in Memphis where there was a REAL madwoman in the attic. I’m dead serious. There was a little trapdoor-type thing in the ceiling of the upstairs hallway that had bars over it, and sometimes she would crouch down over the bars and yell and scream or just stare at people. There was a sign at the front desk that announced that she was harmless. I am totally not kidding.