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JANE EYRE'S TRIPTYCH AND MILTON'S PARADISE LOST. AN ARTISTIC VISION OF REVISIONIST MYTHMAKING Robin St. John Conover University of Victoria T he opening chapter of Jane Eyre finds the young protagonist/narrator leafing through a copy of Bewick's History of British Birds, describing the pictures which adorn the text and her impressions of them. She claims each picture tells a story, "mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting. . . . With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way" (JE 9). A similar sentiment is voiced again later in the first volume when Rochester queries Jane and scrutinizes three paintings from her portfolio. He asks if she was happy when she painted these pictures, and Jane answers: "I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known" (JE 127). Jane Eyre, we have learned in the interim, finds a spiritual outlet in the act of creative drawing. This sublime activity distracts her from hunger while at Lowood School (JE 75). Absorbed by her drawing, she claims to have once sat at the job of rendering this trio of paintings Rochester peruses, "from morning till noon, and from noon till night" (JE 127). The quotation, of course, directly alludes to Milton's Paradise Lost (1.742-3), describing the time it took Mulciber or Vulcan, the god of fire, to fall from Heaven.1 Significantly, a correlation exists here, as most of the imagery contained in Jane's paintings originates from Paradise Lost. Bewick's volume, with its woodcuts and metal engravings, was one wèll-thumbed by Charlotte Brontë in her childhood, but so too was Milton's twelve-book poem, a particular favorite of her father's. Numerous references are made throughout the novel to Milton's Paradise Lost, suggesting that Brontë may well have attempted to create in Jane Eyre a revisionist version of that Miltonic epic, as told from Eve's point of view. Victorian Review 22.2 (Winter 1996) 172Victorian Review Illustrations by Thomas Bewick, Vignettes being tail-pieces engraved principally for his General History of Quadrupeds and History of British Birds, Edited with an Introduction by Iain Bain, London: Scolar Press, 1978. Text from Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bront, Edited with an Introduction by Margaret Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Figure 1: "The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance . . . to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast. ..." Figure 2: "The fiend pinning down the thiefs pack behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object ofterror." ROBIN ST. JOHN CONOVER173 Figure 3: "I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary churchyard with its inscribed headsonte; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly-risen crescent, attesting the hour of even-tide." Figure 4: ". . . it was an object of terror. So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows." 174Victorian Review Sandra Gilbert and Shirley Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic, state tiiat many early nineteenth-century women writers set out to rewrite Milton's narrative in order to produce a corrective reading of tiieir lives and the story of tiieir origin. The autiiors contend that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte's Shirley are in effect "revisionary critiques" (Gilbert & Gubar 189) of Paradise Lost. In addition, they emphasize Charlotte's role in this undertaking as die author most concerned with Milton's realm of influence on women. Charlotte, they claim, "Milton's threatening qualities, particularly of the extent to which his influence upon women's fate might be seen as might be seen as . . . unhealthy [influence]" (GUbert & Gubar 193). However, in making this argument, Gilbert and Gubar focus solely on Shirley, disregarding Bronte's first published novel and its many allusions to Paradise Lost. Furthermore, they overlook Jane Eyre's paintings, while simultaneously acknowledging that nineteenth-century women writers often subversively encode such messages wititin a more socially and textually acceptable context, producing "a palimpsestic...


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