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Jane Eyre: Transactions, Cigar Smoke and Nightingales

Rather brilliantly, I forgot my first seminar started at 11am, not 10am, and hence have an hour of unforeseen liberty. And some time to write a brief blog entry.

Re-reading is important. I very rarely re-read unless I have to, primarily because of a crushing sense of interminable guilt about the hundreds of books that remain to be read. Yet, forced to re-read because I'm lecturing on a certain book, I realise more and more Coleridge's dictum that 'not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return...possesses the genuine power'. Indeed, it is the sense that there is always more to be read - a reserve, a remainder, a promise - that is for me the very definition of the aesthetic.

Re-reading Jane Eyre (only for the third time, I'm ashamed to say - it's a novel to which I came rather late), one strand has impressed itself more and more, and that's the repeated vocabulary of transaction: of relationships which are contractual, deadened and economic in the broadest sense (in which the mechanical exchange of debt and credit may be emotional or moral as well as narrowly monetary). Bronte seeks, I think, the ground on which an authentic human relationship might found itself, and the novel is full of the opposites. One finds this in the text's satirical edge, which is arguably as cutting as anything fashioned by Austen or Dickens: the false charity of Lowood institution, the precarious employment of governesses, the self-evidently hollow set of social and economic concerns which would have motivated the marriage of Rochester and Blanche Ingram.

Yet, equally, the kind of romance initiated by Rochester might also be seen as a psychological or emotional transaction or contract, and is rejected, I think, by the novel. In this vein, one might identify the repeated gestures of ownership and sovereignty made by Rochester (and rebuffed), the idealisation of the beloved (to which Jane asserts that she is no sylph, but herself), and even the substitution of Jane for Bertha (an exchange underwritten by the lie and the secret). All these are transactions made from a position of power (Rochester, masculine, aristocratic) and all can be interpreted as inauthentic.

What is authentic relationship then? The question has a humanist aura to it, and may even seem sentimental, but is central to Marxism and existentialism among others. The stakes that Jane Eyre raises for us are whether authenticity can be envisaged or realised. The two discourses that spring immediately to mind are both problematic. One is religion- the doctrine of the equality of souls introduced by Helen Burns and reiterated by Jane. The second is romantic love and its narratives. Jane Eyre is, of course, banally, one of the greatest love stories ever told. Yet whilst a novel can close its world off with marriage, real life cannot. However, I would not abandon the amatory so easily.

Without sentimentalism, I believe that Bronte does offer us a sketch, a possibility, of authentic relationships. What I'm thinking about is broadly Merleau-Pontyian, and is to do with a shared experience that lies deeper than language, deeper than speech. It is to do with evoking a lived ground of experience - an embodiment, an em-placement - which is so deeply interpenetrated, that it can be genuinely said to be held in common. It grounds the self so fundamentally that it structures or inflects everything the self does, and yet this root of subjectivity is itself a relationship or a sharing with another (here, I am being more Nancyian).

Nancy, Merleau-Ponty...Bronte?? Have patience! Consider chapter 23: the evening in the garden which culminates in Rochester's proposal. What strikes me is the fact that Rochester's cigar smoke intermingles with all the other sensuous marks of the place:

Sweet-briar and southernwood, jasmine, pink, and rose, have long been yielding
their evening sacrifice ofincense; this new scent is neither of shrub or flower;
it is—I know it well—it is Mr. Rochester's cigar.

In that scent is a realisation that Jane's belonging 'here' is now inscribed with relationship. Her place becomes their place: prior to any conversation, dialogue, argument or even touch - and certainly far deeper than any transaction or exchange - is a sense of two selves who respond to each other, because their forms of being are now reciprocal, mutual and inextricable. The smoke of the cigar is a trace which articulates a triangulation between the 'I' of Jane Eyre, the face of Rochester and the name 'Thornfield'.

Or, consider when Rochester beckons her to listen to the nightingale. This too is a sound which shall score itself into her very identity: an experience of sharing or intimacy which shall become an emblem for the fact that a sense of being-with-Rochester lies at the heart of Jane, and a sense of being-with-Jane lies at the heart of Rochester. Read phenomenologically, I think this is how we can justify the extraordinary, spiritual sense of distance traversed: the 'cord of communion' mentioned by Rochester, and of course the haunting voice in the wind with which the novel reaches its conclusion.

It is because experiences like the scent of the cigar or the call of the nightingale are now part of both Rochester and Jane's experience, non-substituably so (a careless rambler who happened to hear the same nightingale would know nothing of its pathos or meaning) that authentic relationship seems opened up. Such openings do not have decipherable meanings, rather they act silently to bind Rochester and Jame to the same spatiality (place) and temporality (narrative).

This is where sympathy - a key term in Bronte, as in so many novels of the period - enacts its full, literal force: these two bodies sym pathos, feel together. If such a thing is possible, then authentic relationship is possible. It would be neither one soul absorbing the other into it, nor two souls stripped of their mortality and raised above awkward finitude. It certainly would be no exchange, no contract, no transaction. It would be two, exposed to each other, on a shared part of the world.

'we must each have, more / than, the place defined by what / we owe'
(J.H. Prynne, 'The Numbers')

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