Yesterday, I was at the Blackeyed Theatre stage production of Jane Eyre and, from the front balcony seat looking down onto the stage, I saw something so new yet just so obvious about this well-known character that I had missed across all the many years of our intimacy. Very much water has slipped under the bridge since I first turned the pages of Charlotte Brontë’s novel; turning them, I seem to recall, avidly and compulsively beneath my bed sheets, probably in the dead of night and the very early dawn of another summer night spent reading. A whole other deluge of water has passed since the several years that I spent beating all the life out of it through the over-analysis that comes as the pitfall of studying for A levels and an English Literature degree. My professor, I recall, was overly-fixated upon dredging up repressed and coded feminist, and probably lesbian, themes from all our nineteenth century literature and this one especially. By the time I had finished my degree course, I was so weary of annotating books with a pencil, mining them for academic hypotheses that bled them into husks of their former glory, that I read all-but nothing of substance for years afterwards.
But Jane Eyre…she always stood there stalwartly, remaining just out of sight in the shadows of my nostalgia, held there by all the fondness and familiarity that I reserve only for a relatable characters, real or fictional (its all the same to me). She was someone I understood and who may well have understood me; one of those rare beings who felt like friend or compatriot in this oh-so mysterious life. I had travelled her story, felt all the tumultuousness of her passions and yet grasped, more than most, the twists and turns of her rejections.
And there it was, so obvious to me now; she was the oh-so obvious Asperger’s woman stood on the stage before me. Her lack of social ability plus the unnamable qualities of distinction that make others reject her for no logical reason except for a feeling of her being different to them in some unfathomable way, even as a baby…resulting in such a strong dislike from her aunt and cousins that they treat her like some sort of creature on whom to practice their cruel behaviours. Then her sudden outbursts of animalistic rage, her bluntness, the passive logic of her arguments, her extreme self-sufficiency, the lack of emotion in her delivery of information or even in the midst of tumultuous crisis, the robustness of her stance on right and wrong, the cut and dried inability to step forward with Mr Rochester once she realises he has told her an untruth for all she forgives him on the spot, the burning of bridges and walking away so abruptly and with little practical preparation for the “real” world outside….familiar, familiar, familiar!
For all she is a long-running “popular heroine” in some female literary quarters, she is a character who has been equally disliked or even loathed, right from the outset of the book’s publication. Harsh criticism pelted from the sidelines and continue still (such strong reactions she provokes); reviews that talk of her coldness, her inhuman behaviour, her impassive and unrelatable, a-typical behaviour. Me, I never had any of that problem so I didn’t realise…at the time…and not until my studies shouted down my innate response, turning the way I was “supposed” to read this story into more of a thing to do with having to relate to others, including those who marked my work! Not that everyone disliked her but they still failed to get her as I now do and as I think I did as the child on first reading. Back in the academia of my young adulthood, the traits I have listed were made a meal of – yes – but twisted into something to do with Victorian repression of female traits, the need to remain covert when you harbour passions such as these, the suppression of feminine power to the point of poor Jane “having” to seek other outlets for her emotions, resort to the invented-on-the-spot knee jerk positions of an era trying to break out of its corsets; nobody mentioned autism.
Maybe this is why, in my younger years, I mistook myself for some sort of repressed Victorian born into the wrong time, caught up in girdles of behaviour that locked me away into a sanctuary of myself except…oh confusion…I was the one who seemed to have put them there. So, in line with my cultural entrainment, I sought to loosen my own girdles and to become more like those around me; which took alcohol and a whole lot of bending of my own comfort boundaries, all of which got me precisely nowhere; except to send me into a rebound, firmly and decisively back to myself, which is where I find myself (at mid-life) after so many years of pretence. Just like Jane, when she returns to her even-more tumbledown, burnt out home at Thornfield, to be with the one who “gets her” just the way she is and to make for herself the simple life of joy that, perhaps, not everyone would relate to. I had been fighting my own state for decades; my innate “wiring” had made me thus and there it was, plain as day, for me to see from the overview…enacted on a stage; Jane Eyre, to so many women a role model and literary friend and to me, a taste of myself.
So (much like Asperger’s itself) it had taken me most of five decades to see all this and (not for the first time) the somewhat surreal experience of sitting high in a balcony looking down on it enacted on a stage made it all the clearer…somewhat like my last theatrical epiphany, early this year. This was apparently why I pounced on these tickets without a moment’s hesitation, as the second outing for my women’s group, five more women I had just met through my introversion quirks, all of whom were sat in the row beside me. Had they had this same epiphany? No, since they are not Aspie’s as far as I can so-far tell, nor had they (it turned out) had the long-running acquaintanceship with Jane Eyre that I had had. But they enjoyed it anyway; in their own way and I was mostly content to be there having this private, inner layer of experience; no difference there to in any other situation of my life. I am starting to see how friendships come in different depths and colours and I can accept them all just so long as my expectations are realistic. Perhaps a close friend will come along soon…though (I read just the other day) we do better if we don’t make this the be-all-and-end-all of our Aspie lives since it is certainly, in no way, a “given”. Perhaps this is why we respond so intensely to fictional and virtual friends wheresoever we find them. As an undiagnosed female with Asperger’s, literature served as my greatest teacher and soul companion for many years; and finding people I can communicate with exclusively via the written word has been the greatest gift of the internet age, bypassing so many of the difficulties of face-to-face misunderstandings.
Jane could so easily have been my close friend; for we would have “got” each other. The deep passion, the often cool exterior…we were bookends made for each other; and that ending…finding her quiet place with the man whose wild ambitions have been reined in through his very brokenness, yes I get that too for I have found that quiet place in my world with my slightly battered man who is a tadge on the spectrum. Is Rochester on the spectrum? I think so…this is why he found Jane so refreshing to talk to in a world of NTs talking gibberish; why he drew her to his fireside for frank intimacy and no holds barred conversation. I relate to that too; the deep joy of finding this match in a man and of them gleaning this same click-into-place match in you, via the very quirk that makes you like no other partner they could be with; the pearl beyond all pearls. For we are rare enough to have to stick together, types such as us…no complacent “plenty more fish in the sea” attitude will do. I think this is what made my skin tingle when I first read those infamous words “Reader, I married him…”; no less so yesterday when they were delivered on stage in a pool of stage light….who says we don’t feel things profoundly! But, for me, this was no mere romantic notion but a matter of thriving and of soul survival in an alien world since souls like ours need to be together to truly BE; they truly need that “other” who relates and I am reading that truism again and again in my current binge upon Asperger’s biographies. I think I sensed that all important Asperger’s life-hack being delivered to me the very first time I put Jane Eyre down on the side of my bed; like a glimmer of hope…one day I will find my person and then I can just be who I am. It was the light shining at the end of a long arduous tunnel (though I had yet to travel its length); a promise on the wind, drawing me forwards. How did Charlotte Brontë know; was she also on the spectrum? I have yet to even go there with the thought…
So, though I could go deeply into the academic topic of whether I believe Jane Eyre had Asperger’s, presenting “evidence” hither and thither, scouring the book with a pencil in my teeth, I will resist and leave that to others, linking two excellent articles (below) that I unearthed as soon as I got home from the theatre. One is a blogger with Asperger’s and the other, more studied, article (whilst an excellent read) is, you can tell, from someone approaching autism from the academic angle, not someone who knows what its really like, from the inside. As I read her words, though I hear what she says, I can already feel myself switch off as though the harm she does as she rakes through the experience of the novel is all too much like what was done to it by those seeking clues of Victorian repression and feminist themes.
Rather, my response was “its obvious” and, from that place, I never felt more certain that I am right, which is quite enough for me. Asperger’s traits do not benefit much from “being studied” in this highly objective way; which somehow misses the whole point and certainly the beauty of them. Finding peace with this has been one of the true gifts of realising my own Asperger’s traits…I now see them all about me and it feels profound to realise I am not so alone, that they are part of “real” life and that they are endearing, useful, valid and not broken foibles. More, that heroines and people we admire, individuals and literacy characters we have held up as role models have worn these traits…and worn them well (and to hell with the naysayers). Those who are least likely to accept neurodiversity in real life are just as likely to reject them literature but that is their loss!
“You Are a Strange Child, Miss Jane” – Autist’s Corner
“On the Spectrum”: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre” – Julia Miele Rodas
From Elizabeth Rigby in The Quarterly Review 1848; the quote used to open Rodas’ article. Spot the autistic traits, and the neurotypical disdain, disquiet and suspicion around them, if you can…
We hear nothing but self-eulogiums on the perfect tact and wondrous penetration with which she is gifted, and yet almost every word she utters offends us, not only with the absence of these qualities, but with the positive contrasts of them, in either her pedantry, stupidity, or gross vulgarity. She is one of those ladies who put us in the unpleasant predicament of under-valuing their very virtues for dislike of the person in whom they are represented. One feels provoked as Jane Eyre stands before us—for in the wonderful reality of her thoughts and descriptions, she seems accountable for all done in her name—with principles you must approve in the main, and yet with language and manners that offend you in every particular. Even in that chef d’oeuvre of brilliant retrospective sketching, the description of her early life, it is the childhood and not the child that interests you. The little Jane, with her sharp eyes and dogmatic speeches, is a being you neither could fondle nor love…As the child, so also the woman—an uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing.
Another Brönte revisitation blog (2018) in my collection – To Walk Visible…At Last . My childhood love of the Brontë’s has since been cast in a new light via the Asperger’s realisation. It throws up, somehow, my blunt-speaking Yorkshire roots (my longest running stretch of ancestry of many hundreds of years comes from very close to where the Brontës lived) including my blunt spoken yet deep feeling (posthumously realised) Aspie mother who was of that Yorkshire stock through and through. For me, there is a deeply recognisable quality…a kinship…running through it all. I feel like I know where I am with it and this came off the pages when I was that girl curled up in my bed, paperback always in hand.