‘The Helen Mentality’

The most immediately striking thing about this 1999 copy of Jane Eyre held at Senate House Library and published by Canadian publishers Broadview Literary Texts is the wonderful cover art. The photograph is credited to R. Phene Spiers and is of Charlotte Spiers, taken in 1857, and is held by the Bodleian Library.

SpiersCover

A bit of digging reveals that Richard Phene Spiers (1838–1916) was born in Oxford (hence the Bodleian connection) and was a notable English architect. Charlotte Spiers (1844–1914) was his younger sister and herself an artist. Charlotte lived with her brother in London and remained unmarried — perhaps allowing her the freedom to pursue her art. The photograph selected for this edition of Jane Eyre seems especially apt. It shows the young Charlotte Spiers in classic Victorian dress sitting and regarding herself in the mirror — the angle of the mirror reflects her face back out at us with a bold direct gaze. This image is a perfect fit for the young Jane, the pose hinting at a steely inner resolve and the mirror echoing the themes of doubling explored in the novel.

On page 120 of this edition when Jane and Helen Burns are discussing their mistreatment at the hands of others (Mrs Scatcherd’s treatment of Helen and Mrs Reed’s of Jane) the reader has underlined part of Helen’s speech in which she says:

Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited?

The reader has then written ‘The Helen Mentality’, a pleasingly succinct summation of  Helen’s doctrine on selflessness.

Helen mentality

The next passage of interest comes on page 175, where two hands have noted different additions to the text. The passage concerns Jane’s exploration of Thornfield, when she first hears the strange disembodied laugh of the first Mrs Rochester. One annotator has noted: ‘mystery, fear, gothic’ thus listing out the themes and emotions evoked by this section. The other writer has underlined the reference to Thornfield as ‘Bluebeard’s castle’ noting that this is ‘Ominous wife stealing’.

Bluebeard was a French folktale, most famously retold by Charles Perrault in 1697, in which the title character is a powerful, wealthy but ugly man whose beautiful wives have all mysteriously disappeared. The tale follows the story of his last wife, a young neighbour who is forced into marrying him. Bluebeard leaves her alone in the castle, warning her not to enter a certain room. Naturally as soon as he is gone she opens the forbidden room and there finds the mangled dead bodies of Bluebeard’s many wives. Fortunately just as Bluebeard returns and is about to dispatch his latest wife, her brothers turn up and kill Bluebeard, freeing her to inherit the castle and his wealth.

Ominous wife stealing

This reader then has noted that by likening Thornfield to Bluebeard’s castle Bronte would have been reminding her readers of the gruesome yet familiar folktale thus ramping up the oppressive atmosphere and foreshadowing the mad hidden wife.

Having now inspected numerous copies of Jane Eyre is it always heartening to see how strongly modern readers relate and empathise with Jane and her story. This is demonstrated here on page 282 of this edition, where the reader has underlined the words ‘the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things but judgment shall still have the last word in every argument…’ to which they have added the emphatic scrawl ‘yep!’ indicating this has struck a particular chord with this reader.

Yep

This same reader (judging by the handwriting) is again prompted to share the impact of Jane’s experience. The reader has underlined Jane’s assertion to Rochester ‘I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.’ to which they have appended ‘bang!’, likely signalling their happy approval of Jane’s steely resolve.

Bang

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