The orphaned Jane Eyre, was taken in by her uncle’s widowed wife, Mrs. Reed, and her spiteful cousins, John, Eliza, and Georgina. She suffered greatly at their home, saying of John, who was 14 and four years older than her,
‘He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh in my bones shrank when he came near.’
In the first two chapters, which take place in her aunt’s house, Gateshead Hall, Jane Eyre mentions three books she had read in her childhood, before the age of ten, which tell us a great deal about her remarkable character.
The first one is Bewick’s History of British Birds, which she was reading when her cruel cousin bullied her for the umpteenth, but final time. This drastic event occurs right at the beginning of the novel, she was reading when her cousin reprimanded her:
‘“You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg.’
He then flung the book at her, hitting her head against the door, and cutting it:
‘The cut bled, the pain was sharp: my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded.’
Jane retaliated by accusing him of being a wicked and cruel murderer, slave-driver, and Roman emperor, because she ‘had read Goldsmith’s History of Rome, and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, &c. really saw in him a tyrant, a murderer.’ It must indeed have been a vicious attack because she ‘felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering:’ and she hit him I self-defense.
As a result, Jane was locked in the red-room, where her uncle had died, and had a fainting-fit, imagining she saw him.
The following day, she was pampered and looked after by Bessie, her aunt’s maid. However, Jane refused to eat, instead she begged her to fetch Gulliver’s Travels from the library.
Regarding Berwick’s book, first printed in 1797, she was only concerned with the pictures and the travelling aspect:
‘I returned to my book–Bewick’s History of British Birds: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank….Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with “the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone.”
Jane is telling us she is interested in wildlife, travel, and the beauty of nature.
The second book she mentions is Goldsmith’s History of Rome. I suppose she is referring to Goldsmith’s Roman History Abridged for use in Schools, first printed in 1772, which was widely used in schools at the beginning of the 19th century. In this case we are implicitly being informed that Jane is a well read and intelligent child, who is able to understand ancient history, and project what she has read to her present reality.
Gulliver’s Travels, is by fat the most interesting of the three, It is a satirical novel by Irish writer and clergyman, Jonathan Swift, first published in 1726. Lemuel Gulliver’s an unfulfilled surgeon who sets out on his remarkable travels between 1699 and end in 1715. He is a gullible, honest man who is shipwrecked, abandoned, and attacked, throughout his travels. He constantly faces opposing forces he must deal with: big versus small, wise versus ignorant, good versus bad, etc. When he finally returns to his home in England, he becomes a recluse who spends several hours a day speaking with the horses in his stables, and loosing his sanity, sadly the same fate which awaited Swift himself.
Gulliver is both a giant and a dwarf. He travels to distant lands where he is surrounded by tiny little people, and to a land where he is tiny compared to the giant-like people who live there. Gulliver is never with his own kind, and always feels out-of-place. When he finally does find a place he likes and is at home with the inhabitants, they reject him because they find him to be too much like the creatures that act as their servants.
Jane says it was a book she ‘had again and again perused with delight.’ She cherished the book and marveled at its pictures, because she had considered Lilliput as a real, solid place, instead of a mere fairy tale. She had imagined one day seeing, ‘the little fields, houses, and trees, the diminutive people, the tiny cows, sheep, and birds of the one realm; and the corn-fields forest-high, the mighty mastiffs, the monster cats, the tower-like men and women.’
However, when Bessie handed her the book and she turned the leaves, she failed to find the charm she had once succumbed to. Instead, Lilliput had become dreary, and the characters malevolent and fearful creatures. She now identified with a desolate Gulliver, who was wandering in dangerous regions. She then closed the book, fearfully, and left it on the table with a piece of ‘untasted’ tart, which reinforces the idea of loss of childhood, and innocence.
This identification with Gulliver’s plight casts the young child in the sad role of outsider. Jane is alienated at Gateshead, surrounded by people who do not accept her, or help her in any way. She is displaced and misplaced. She is not with her own kind. Her family considers her a subordinate, and on the other had she is lost having nowhere to go, belonging nowhere. Jane is like Gulliver, searching for companionship and acceptance.
The books Jane read tell us that she was a well-read, intelligent, and talented child, who was longing for love, affection, and acceptance. She knew about, and was interested in; history, nature, art, geography, and interpersonal relations, and struggles. She was aware that human injustice and evil were a reality, not a ploy in a children’s book.
The punishment in the Red Room marked the end of her childhood, and the end of her stay at Gateshead, because she was soon to move on to the next adolescent stage in her life, and her new abode, Lowood Institution.