Isobel Stirk writes:
I should imagine, judging by the favourable response to an entertaining evening held in the old school room in Haworth, many copies of Jane Eyre will be purchased from booksellers and dusty books, with that title, will be retrieved from the dark recesses of libraries and book cases in the very near future.
Tracy Chevalier (pictured), whose second novel was Girl with a Pearl Earring, and who has curated the exhibition Charlotte Great and Small, exhibiting at the Parsonage Museum this year, explained how a book, which was being launched that very evening, came about. Working closely with the museum she had wanted to produce something special to commemorate the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and so she decided to ask writers from all over the world to contribute to a book which would be based on something ‘Charlotte’.
At first it was envisaged that an object associated or belonging to the author would be the theme but in the end the well -known words from near the end of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre seemed the ideal choice. Before the large audience made their way to the Parsonage for refreshment, the place where Patrick Brontë learnt with some apprehension that his eldest daughter had written a novel, they heard two writers reading their own stories from the new book.
Helen Dunmore (pictured), who was educated at the University of York and is a poet, novelist and children’s writer, based her story on Grace Poole’s reaction to the arrival, at Thornfield Hall, of a governess:
The door nearest me opened, and a servant came out, a woman of between thirty and forty; a set, square-made figure, red-haired, and with a hard, plain face: any apparition less romantic or ghostly could scarcely be conceived. ‘Too much noise, Grace,’ said Mrs Fairfax. ‘Remember directions!’- Jane Eyre Chapter 11.
Dunmore’s story emphasised that there were perhaps many more secrets for Jane Eyre to uncover other than just the existence of the inhabitant of the locked attic room- Bertha Rochester. Mrs Poole, who takes an instant dislike to Jane, for reasons that would soon become very clear, calls her ‘the pale one’ and likens her to a snowdrop and shows the extent of her dislike by saying if she saw a snowdrop she would not hesitate to crush it into the ground. Perhaps readers may have some sympathy with the dour, porter- drinking Grace, whose life is spent in that attic room caring for ‘her lady’, as another secret is revealed. Grace Poole is the mother of Jane’s charge, Adele- her daughter having been taken away soon after birth by the father- Edward Rochester. It will be left to the imagination of readers whether Grace Poole survived the fire which was started by ‘her lady’ and whether she ever knew that ‘the pale one’ could eventually utter, with complete honesty, the words- ‘Reader, I married him.’
Audrey Niffenegger (pictured), an American writer, artist and academic whose debut novel was The Time Traveler's Wife, read her story which is set during World War 2 and which tells how the orphan Jane arrives from London in a jeep at a Northern orphanage. At this austere place where her hair is cut off, where rats roam in dormitories and breakfast consists of burnt porridge. Jane meets Helen who becomes her friend. Helen, a very intelligent girl, is treated most unfairly by the teachers and after telling Jane how she had been sent away to a pharmaceutical company, supposedly to take part in experiments to find a cure for the common cold, becomes very ill. Soon afterwards Jane is devastated to be told that her friend has died. Spending the rest of her childhood at the orphanage Jane is lucky that, unlike many others of her fellow residents at the orphanage who sink into a life of prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction, she finds a post looking after a child at a large country house.
When the girl, Adele, outgrows her care, Jane returns to her native London and, whilst paying a trip down memory lane to the bombed out area of her earlier years, is astounded to bump into her old friend Helen- but a Helen whose features are now ravaged by smallpox- the smallpox with which she had been infected at the laboratory when she was a child. Apparently the antidote given to her then, did not work and it was because of fear of contagion that the teachers had treated Helen so badly.
………… my face against Helen Burns’ shoulder, my arms around her neck, I was asleep, and Helen was- dead- Jane Eyre Chapter 9
However the modern day Jane would have a chance to sleep with her arms around Helen’s neck again for there was to be a happy ending for the pair as they were reunited and then set up home together. Much later, as the law changed, they could say with complete honesty: "Reader, we did marry."