Even though to err is human, to read Jane Eyre is divine
Perhaps the mere mention of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre sends shivers up your normally non-literary spine. Does it bring back long-since forgotten memories of half-dozed-through lectures in high school about repressive 19th century English mores? If you are like me, you were ruined by a seemingly incomprehensible introduction in 11th grade English to Wuthering Heights written by Charlotte’s sister Emily. From this failed reading, you concluded all 19th century English fiction is a bore.
And then perhaps a nudging comment from a well-read friend, one too many New Yorker articles or a dinner party conversation in which you felt like a wallflower due to your inability to add to the conversation about 19th century literature persuaded you that really, REALLY, really you should at least give the 19th century one last try before dismissing it into oblivion.
I’m not sure what motivation was the proverbial boot to my proverbial behind that prodded me to finally pick up Jane Eyre. However, I want to thank that boot, because I have not stopped talking about Jane Eyre since I finished reading it in 2010. To me, Jane Eyre has come to encompass not just great literature – a good read, if you want to be crass about it – but also an incredible road map for how to dare, dream, and do in life. Jane Eyre’s character is so full of life and commitment to values that I would hold her as a far better example for how women can learn to achieve in life than any commentary from an actual business book.
There are three main points I would bring as evidence of Jane Eyre’s greatness as a business book. The first point is shown early on in the novel. When we first meet Jane in the novel, the young orphan and protagonist is mistreated by her aunt, cousins, and general society. She is short on love and long on woes. She is beaten, yelled at, and treated as garbage. Jane’s aunt eventually forces her to leave the house. To this, Jane replies: “You have no feelings [Aunt Reed]. People think you a good woman, but you are bad; hard-hearted. You are deceitful.” To Jane’s comment, we applaud. We cheer. We have seen in the past pages how Jane was treated by her cruel cousins and cold aunt. We share joy in her little victory over her oppressor and think that next time we see someone treating ourselves or others in an inappropriate manner we should call them out as did Jane.
As an aspiring entrepreneurial type, I see Jane’s response in the face of her aunt’s cruelty as a reminder that there are many people out there whose unkindness could serve to knock me down and unhinge me from my bearings. However, if I am to think like Jane then I will call them out for their unjustness – even if only in my own mind – and continue to not let fear control me. Rather, sheer resolve and determination should be my bedfellows. Like Jane, I hope to have great inner fortitude which serves as my hitching post.
As a second point, I put forth that Jane is a wonderful female protagonist who believes in self-improvement through education, thrift and sacrifice. Jane’s teacher at Lowood tells her, “we shall think you what you prove yourself to be” and to this challenge, Jane wishes “to earn respect … and win affection.” As she notes of her progress at Lowood school after a few weeks of attendance, “I had meant to be so good, and to do so much at Lowood…Already I had made visible progress: that very morning I had reached the head of my class.” To Jane, to lose the respect of her colleagues and superiors is to feel akin to dying. Yet a few pages later, Jane remarks that at one point after a difficult time in Lowood “I resolved to pioneer my way through every difficulty: I toiled hard, and my success was proportionate to my efforts: my memory, not naturally tenacious, improved with practice; exercise sharpened my wits; in a few weeks I was promoted to a higher class.” Despite the harsh treatment at Lowood that Jane receives from the leaders of the school, she stays. Granted she is short on alternatives, but in spite of the hardships of the school, she stays and improves herself to the point at which she becomes a teacher at the school.
Every entrepreneur faces travails and challenges. Those items are in the gift bags one receives upon entering the entrepreneurial realm. As I reconsider these words from Jane whose life is challenged in every way, I cannot help but reconsider my own resolve and try to exercise my own tenacity. Jane is a steady character whose resolve and commitment stand as a challenge to the reader to do better by those around them.
As a third point, I would note that Jane is incredibly self reliant. She leaves Mr. Rochester because she finds out that he remains married, albeit to an insane woman. She desperately loves Mr. Rochester yet rather than staying in his home with the man she loves, Jane chooses to throw her penniless self out into the cold world where she feels at least she will live with dignity. She will not marry a man who remains married to another. Jane tells Mr. Rochester, “ I do love you, more than ever: but I must not show or indulge the feeling: and this is the last time I must express it. … Mr. Rochester, I must leave you.” One can only imagine the demanding and soul-searing control Jane had to demonstrate. Among her last and parting words to Mr. Rochester before leaving his estate are to “trust in God and yourself. Believe in heaven. Hope to meet again there … We were born to strive and endure.”
For Jane, the belief in character and self-reliance are essential. In spite of her love for Rochester, she cannot marry him. She trusts both in God and her own sense that marriage to him is wrong. Even an atheist can appreciate that nuance of Jane’s belief that she must follow an inner compass of morality and direction. Jane shows incredible resolve and commitment to values in spite of her heart’s leanings. One can only wish that more business men and women showed this fortitude of character.
Would scandals of the past years, headlined by outsized embezzlement and fraud have ever been committed had Jane Eyre been in charge? No, I believe they would have been minimized. Jane’s counsel would have been tried and true. In the face of challenge, Jane would advise to strive and endure. She would tell us there are no easy paths. We must embrace the challenges put in front of us and trust in ourselves.
And how can someone not feel that they are shy of the standard held by Jane? Jane always holds herself to the highest of moral standards and will accept nothing else from herself or those around her. Jane, I want you to be the CEO of my company.