My mother’s small book collection, mostly college textbooks and drugstore paperbacks, included a 1943 Random House edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In my childish imagination, it was the most significant book in the world. These days, the volume sits on my own bookshelf, and recently, far from home and relying on memory, I thought back to its green and ivory hard cover and matching slipcase, its red bookmark cord and its dark, brooding Fritz Eichenberg wood engravings. I envisioned some writing inside. My mother’s name? Words of congratulations? As a child, I remembered, I would slip the heavy volume from its box and page through it, simultaneously inquisitive and frightened by Eichenberg’s pictures.
Jane Eyre is the early nineteenth-century story of a young woman who spends her orphaned childhood at the home of a cruel aunt and at an austere boarding school. As a young woman, she becomes a school teacher, then governess to the daughter of Edward Rochester, an older man whose mad wife lives in the attic of his mansion. Jane and Rochester fall in love and, after many tribulations, marry. Reading Jane Eyre for the first time at age ten, I had seen parallels between its heroine and my mother. My mother, too, had been orphaned at an early age, once worked as a mother’s helper—a kind of modern-day governess, I imagined—and then taught school. Her middle name was Jane. She was petite and dark-haired like her fictional counterpart. And like the Victorians in the story, my mother considered standards and decorum to be what counted most.
There was another interesting book on my mother’s bookshelves, the Standard Book of British and American Verse (1932), and when I was thinking about my early notions of Jane Eyre, I happened to have it with me. It is bound in soft black leather and has its own blue slipcase and red silk [End Page 39] bookmark cord. Its pages are edged in gold, and on the flyleaf is inscribed, “From the Sophomore Class in Appreciation of Your Services and Friendship,” followed by the signatures of other class officers, including the angular hand of the young man who would become my father.
But I have conflated these two books in my memory. My daughter, standing in front of my bookshelves at home, informs me over the telephone that my mother’s edition of Jane Eyre sits in no pull-out box, is adorned with no silk bookmark, and on its flyleaf is a sticker that reads, “A Book of the Month Club Selection Donated to the Armed Forces.” At a library near here, I find a copy of the 1943 edition and check it out, eager to revisit the images that so alarmed me as a child, to rummage around in a book I apparently don’t remember as well as I thought. Does it contain clues to my mother, a woman I am wont to see, even now at 58, through a child’s eyes?
When I read a Modern Library paperback edition of Jane Eyre a couple of years ago, I read, as well, other female-authored nineteenth-century novels: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Middlemarch, the latter for the first time. I buried myself in each story of a heroine struggling to find her way in life. Elizabeth Bennett, the spirited daughter of a silly and ineffectual mother. Emma Woodhouse, the young mistress of a household headed by a doting father. Dorothea Brooke, a bright, independent-minded young woman raised by a foolish bachelor uncle. All motherless.
I was struck by the fact that it is the lack of a caring mother, a circumstance that would be tragic in real life, that enables these fictional women of marriageable age to assert themselves in a society with strict expectations for behavior. They have no mothers who caution against bad matches, no mothers to chafe against, no mothers in opposition to whom their independent behavior would appear unfeeling, overly competitive, or disloyal. As a nonfiction writer, bound to real people—alive or dead—about whom I care, I envy a fiction writer’s...