In one of Ethel Gabain’s haunting lithographs for an elegant, folio sized, 1923 limited edition, Jane Eyre stands alone at Whitcross and looks back longingly towards the familiar life she has left behind. She seems on the point of consulting the signpost behind her, the only guide to the surrounding, unfamiliar landscape.
Gabain (1883-1950) has captured the point at which both Jane and the reader have been brought to stand at a physical and metaphorical crossroads in the narrative. Here they face the awkwardness and fear of the strange and the unknown. Although the story yet to unfold will prove difficult to negotiate, both Jane and the reader will be rewarded for their perseverance.
I would like to think that the person who annotated another, far less pristine copy is one such reader. They must have realized from the opening of Jane Eyre’s story, that in order to negotiate the signposts in the text, they would have to get to grips with the etymology of unfamiliar words that lie printed on the page. This 1991 Everyman’s Library Edition aimed at students, with its introduction, bibliography and chronology, aims to give guidance on critical readings of the text. But without reading comprehension, the student does not have the fundamental tools necessary for the task. It will be impossible for them to articulate their arguments, or to explain either their own feelings or those of the protagonists.
In the first chapter on page 3, ‘the nouns ‘headstone’ and ‘gallows’ have been underlined, and their meanings noted in the margin. Continuing this macabre theme, ‘ligature’ has been underlined on page 7, but oddly without accompanying marginalia. Jane’s comments on the aftermath of her abuse at the hands of the Reeds are underscored: ‘my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded’. Perhaps this reflects the emotions of the annotator, who now feels calmer but is still anxiously tackling the text. On the same page the etymology of ‘rummage’ has been noted in the margin as ‘search for sth [something?] by moving carelessly’. Hopefully this does not echo the reader’s methodology; they will need to persist with a constructive, ordered frame of mind. The heavy and repeated, wobbly underscoring of the line ‘a great looking-glass between them repeated the vacant majesty of the bed and room’, on page 11, may be not only a reflection of Jane’s predicament and state of mind, but also that of the perplexed reader.
Discouragingly, although the now obscure ‘ere’ is accurately researched, the next and last word to receive attention is ‘forlorn’, unluckily on page 13. Overwhelmed by the prospect of disentangling meaning, the discouraged reader may, like Jane, have felt ‘lonely and unhappy’, but unlike her, may have given up on their journey. But I would like to think that they did persevere and continued to accompany Jane along unfamiliar paths.
By overcoming their etymological difficulties the student will have acquired the vocabulary needed to help them understand what they read. Hopefully they will also have realised that although negotiating an unfamiliar text can pose many challenges, their endeavours will have made the reading experience all the more satisfying.