I have Charlotte Bronte on the brain. Really, all the Bronte sisters, but Charlotte prevails because, let’s face it, Jane Eyre prevails.
So I was thinking yesterday about lessons I’ve learned through literature – and for me, even with Bronte (only Charlotte for the purposes of this discussion) on the brain, that includes Austen. I’ve spent so much time with them over the decades that it’s impossible they haven’t affected my worldview.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from Jane Austen:
Human nature may not change, but individuals can grow.
“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit…. I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled…”
I know I’ve cut up one of Austen’s best descriptions of both human nature and change, but it does say it all. Darcy says it all. People can change and grow and I need to look for it, expect it, and, if necessary, be hopeful for it.
Everyone is flawed – even our beloved heroines.
I’m returning to Pride and Prejudice again because Austen gives us so much here… and it’s such a fun book. Here’s our beloved Lizzy:
“…But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
And Darcy… Oh so many faults… but not in essentials.
“I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding— certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of other so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.”
Actions speak louder than words.
Again Pride and Prejudice shows it all… Darcy hunted down Wickham. He said nothing; he simply got the job done. Wickham, on the other hand, had lots of lovely words – and what a duplicitous heart they hid.
“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”
In the end, it was probably fair to draw only from Pride and Prejudice because for Bronte, I’m really only looking at her most popular work, Jane Eyre.
Here are a few lessons learned from Bronte:
Good friends are rare. Cherish them.
Bronte doesn’t populate Jane Eyre with many “good friends.” Jane’s best, Helen, dies when Jane is only eight, as the story has just begun. That said, Helen’s sweet nature and strong faith had an enduring impact on Jane throughout her entire life. Later in the story Mary and Diana St. John become Jane’s friends and they too influence her character and choices. All in all, Bronte gives friends power and respect. I think she’d say to protect good deep friendships; they matter.
Whether it’s how you live your life – we’re looking at you, John Reed – or something you’re keeping hidden away — now all eyes are you Mr. Rochester – know this: The “wife in the attic” will always out. It’s probably best to remember this in all aspects of life.
Follow your instincts.
Jane’s a good model for us on that one. Need a job? Advertise. Man wants to make you his mistress? Run away in the night. You might pack a better bag, warmer clothes and maybe a little money, but you get the point. And when a man you don’t love, and know you’ll never love, proposes? Turn him down. Maybe more gently, but, again, that’s a personal choice.
Forgive and accept forgiveness.
“Love me, then, or hate me, as you will, you,” I said at last; “you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God’s and be at peace.” This final speech didn’t reconcile Jane to her aunt. Her aunt was a hard woman who, even in her last moments, abhorred Jane. But forgiving her aunt let Jane walk away with no binds tying her to aunt or childhood. Forgiveness freed her.
And I don’t believe Bronte would have given us one of the most unequivocally happy endings in all literature without Rochester experiencing much of the same: “I thank my Maker, that, in the midst of judgment, he has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto.” (322) ) His fervent and heartfelt thanks gives pause for a moment of grace before restoration begins. Jane and Rochester marry, his vision is restored, a child is born, and together they experience “perfect concord.” Ah… What an ending!
So these are a few of my musings on lessons learned.
What has Austen taught you? Or Bronte? I’d love to know what you think and what you find strikes you within the works of these two literary powerhouses.
Thanks for joining me today!