Charlotte Brontë: My Favorite Preacher

Reading “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë.


Charlotte Brontë was a preacher.

In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, (after some acknowledgments given in that classic clerical habit of alliteration) Charlotte Brontë calls out sharply those “whose ears detect in each protest against bigotry… an insult to piety” and reminds us all that “conventionality is not morality” – – – “appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.”

Jane Eyre is the book that has probably most influenced my life. Charlotte’s passion for truth and her love shine through it. Her faith, as I observe it, was not a dead one, built on the shifting sands of human traditions, but a vibrant, deeply personal, living faith. And she spoke out of the abundance of that faith, using the medium available to her (still radical for her time) to speak truth to power.

Perhaps modern readers may wonder about the relevance of a story in which a governess flees her employer once she discovers his mad wife locked in the attic. Be assured, from the opening pages, you will find so much more. This is not your average Gothic romance. Jane herself is the driving force of the book, more than any of the fantastic plot twists. And “force” is the right word; for she enters in a storm and constantly reminds us that she too is human, deserving of love and acceptance for her true self — not as the world attempts to mold or define her.

To me, she epitomizes what it means to be a woman in a way that is still relevant today. What I find is a very modern woman working her way towards independence in a constricted society that has given her few options. What I find is a woman who chooses her own path, rejecting the dichotomies offered in favor of doing the hard work to find her own way. What I find is an uncompromising woman, who sticks to her own convictions without being stubborn; who still changes and grows throughout her life.

I admire Jane Eyre for going her own way at every turn. For genuinely loving the unattractive villain; for turning down the handsome and eligible clergyman; for forgiving those who had withheld love from her; for resisting the pressures of society and class. But I especially love her for her strength and passion. She could have real emotions without being lost in them; speak the truth openly, even to those of a different status. Constantly ostracized for who she is, she neither shrivels nor conforms nor rebels.

As a child, her aunt excludes her for failing to have a more “child-like disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner” to which she eventually responds, “you think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so”. Despite being cast off as a child, in adulthood, she visits her aunt and after hearing her aunt’s deathbed confession of vengeance (having prevented her from living her childhood with a loving relative), Jane graciously responds with, “love me, then, or hate me, as you will, you have my full and free forgiveness”.

Similarly, when her employer Mr. Rochester tries to persuade her to stay with him when she understands that he will shortly be married, she responds, “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?… Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? — You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart!”. Later, when Mr. Rochester’s betrayal becomes evident (discovering on her wedding day that he is in fact already married), she still courageously asserts, “I do love you… and this is the last time I must express it.” and parts him with the benediction, “God keep you from harm and wrong — direct you, solace you — reward you well for your past kindness to me.”

Finally, towards the end, St, John Rivers, a pastor and brother figure to her, endeavors to induce her into a loveless marriage with him for the service of God. When he entreats her to give herself fully over to God (implying that the reason she refuses marriage is because she is rejecting God), she responds with “Oh! I will give my heart to God, you do not want it.” (possibly my favorite line in the book) and continues later with “I scorn your idea of love, I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer… and I scorn you when you offer it”. He goes on to withhold affection from her in an effort to coerce her into accepting his proposal, but she stands her ground while seeking reconciliation, saying, “I am unhappy, because you are still angry with me. Let us be friends.”

Through all these challenges, she firmly stands her ground staying true to her own convictions. She defends herself, asserting time and again her right to be loved; placing herself on equal footing with those whom society deemed to be her betters. In response to conditional love (sometimes withheld entirely), she freely offers her own love, and forgives all who acted unjustly towards her.

This is what it means to speak the truth in love. This is why I think of Charlotte Brontë as a preacher. She ministers to me across time, reminding me to love and forgive without compromising the faith I’ve been given.

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