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“Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting.” –Jane Eyre (9)
There is something extraordinary and spiritual about Jane Eyre’s artwork. In her story, Jane’s solitary pastime sometimes operates as an outlet of past or present pain, and often offers her a chance to deal with unpleasant memories and emotions. Jane’s art transcends her isolation by bringing her into contact with others who see it; it serves as a bridge over the chasm between her desire to be alone and her need for companionship, which is demonstrated by key scenes in the novel that include a viewing of her art. This struggle between isolation (“hidden self”) and companionship (“public self”) upholds the restlessness of the novel, for Jane’s art is her own, marking her as her own woman. Her art offers a means of charting her growth to maturity. The epigraph above is from Jane’s comments on Bewick’s History of British Birds, Jane’s first artistic influence at the beginning of the novel, and is spoken by a young girl whose self is also “undeveloped” and “imperfect.” There are five scenes in the novel that define the importance of art to Jane’s growth: her three watercolors viewed by Rochester at Thornfield, the miniature of Blanche Ingram that precedes their meeting, her unconscious pencil sketch of Rochester during her return to Gateshead, Rosamund Oliver’s request for a portrait at Morton, and St. John’s viewing of her work, which leads to the discovery of her identity near the end of the novel. These scenes occur throughout the novel, giving her art a prominence in the story, and there are also several references to her unique artistic ability.
When Jane confronts her jealousy of Blanche Ingram, the focus of Rochester’s affections when Jane first arrives at Thornfield, she immediately decides to draw a portrait of her based on Mrs. Fairfax’s verbal description (169). She claims that “it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them,” and resolves to reject imagination and resign herself to reason; at that point, she decides that she could never be the object of Mr. Rochester’s affections (168-9). Jane treats herself as her own pupil, and criticizes herself for abandoning “sense and resolution” and vows to have them for the moment, after which she falls asleep easily (170). This scene is curiously like the first time Jane resolves to produce art while a young girl at Lowood, except the focus of that former moment was strictly on the imagination, where Jane was content to imagine “the spectacle of my ideal drawings,” after which she also fell contentedly asleep (78). Because Jane does not want to abandon sense and reason, her portraits at this point are based on reality; she uses Mrs. Fairfax’s descriptions in conjunction with socially constructed native theories of the time to develop what she thinks Blanche Ingram should look like. In other words, one of the biggest conventions of this novel regarding Victorian women is brought out in the moment Jane paints this portrait?conventional views of how they should look, and, in reality, what Jane is not. She is not allowing herself to have dreams of a better life with Rochester, much like St. John not able to bring himself to envision marriage and happiness with Rosamund Oliver. Jane envisioning a portrait of herself and Rochester would have been more ideal, but reason steps in and she shrinks away only to think of her position as “‘[g]overness, disconnected, poor, and plain'” (169-70). This is reinforced by her description of Blanche Ingram as an “‘accomplished lady of rank,'” which is a status Jane cannot achieve (169-70). Given the “conflicting messages” that a governess traditionally lived with, namely that “she was and was not a member of the family, was and was not a servant,” it is no wonder that Jane seeks solace in an isolated world (338).
Still, Jane’s heart wins out over reason. When she returns to Gateshead to witness her Aunt Reed’s final days, she finds herself in the company of her cousins Eliza and Georgina–two disagreeable women (244). Because their presence, along with her unforgiving aunt, gives her no comfort, her art is her comfort and offers “occupation and amusement” during her stay, where she allows herself to follow the “ever shifting kaleidoscope of imagination” (244). Her imagination is in power once more, and from that power she later produces a sketch of Mr. Rochester, and declares: “There, I had a friend’s face under my gaze: and what did it signify that those young ladies turned their backs on me?” (244-5). Rather than an act of reason to counter feelings of jealousy and resentment, here Jane executes an automatic drawing, unplanned, unforeseen, and unconscious, which leaves her “absorbed and content” (245). The imaginative mind is the source of content for Jane, not reason. This literal “escape from reality” for Jane serves, too, as an escape for the reader from the reality of the novel. The portrait is reminiscent of Rochester, who, when Jane begins to muse about him, serves as a sort of “Prince Charming” to Jane. The reader, too, is reminded of the fact that Jane and Rochester are equals; the portrait allows Jane to “capture” Rochester on paper and border him in with lines. In this sense, there is a contradiction in Jane’s (and the reader’s) feelings that is symbolic of the relationship between Jane and Rochester.
In contrast to herself, however, Jane believes Rosamund Oliver is a more balanced lady. She meets Rosamund while living and teaching at Morton, and she also shows an interest in Jane’s drawings and paintings. Though Jane sees her in a more favorable light than her cousins, Jane explains that Rosamund is “not profoundly interesting or thoroughly impressive,” (388). It is her beauty, not her intellect, that attracts Jane and causes her to feel “a thrill of artist-delight at the idea” of painting her portrait (388). This portrait presents a stark contrast to the portrait Jane painted of Blanche Ingram. A contrast is observable in the way Jane approaches the two different portraits. While Rosamund’s is at her own request, Blanche is unaware that Jane paints her portrait. Blanche’s portrait is executed as a remedy for Jane’s emotions, and Rosamund’s is created by Jane’s own desire to paint it, for she has no animosity toward her. Another difference is that Rosamund is able to see Jane’s artwork, which leads her to make the request for a portrait in the first place. Rosamund ironically declares to her father that Jane “‘is clever enough to be a governess in a high family,'” which is a thoughtless, though true enough, comment on Jane’s position in society (389). This comment is noticeably shrugged off by Jane, who says, “I would rather be where I am than in any high family in the land” (389). This statement reveals a sense of self that is confident and maturing. She no longer needs the position at Thornfield, for she has changed since leaving there. This change is reflected in her attitude toward her art, which is no longer an act of desperation but a comforting pastime.
The last viewing of her drawings in her presence proves to be another major change in Jane’s life. For St. John, Jane’s drawings are a deterrent to loneliness for her, and a better distraction than being lost “in thought” (390). When his gaze is diverted toward her drawings, he is surprised to find the portrait of Rosamund. His surprise is manifested in how he “sprang erect again with a start” when he sees the work (390). St. John is quite taken by how striking a likeness the portrait is to Rosamund. His interest eventually leads to the discovery that Jane has inadvertently written her real name on a piece of paper used to cover the portrait (396). This discovery leads to Jane’s inheritance, and the realization that St. John, Mary and Diana are her first cousins. Through her name, her art reveals herself, and her dream of a family. This should send red flags up all over the reader’s mind, because in literal reality, Jane (Charlotte Bronte) is writing this novel under a pseudonym, Currer Bell, which is an obvious contrast to what is happening with this portrait. She seems to be breaking conventions again by saying that women, too, have extensive artistic skills (both written and artistic), and very much good may come out of the lack of anonymity.
Once Jane is restored to the arms of Rochester, her art is no longer prominent. It no longer has usefulness, for Jane has achieved her life long goal of family, marriage, and independent wealth. Rochester’s blindness for the first two years of their marriage makes it impossible for him to view her works as he once did, so Jane shifts to painting pictures in his mind through her voice (475). The most significant of these mental pictures are the ones Jane creates of St. John provoking Rochester’s jealousy prior to their renewed engagement, which is reminiscent of her own jealous feelings toward Blanche. Jane is aware that Rochester is jealous, and plays along with his suffering for the jealousy “gave him respite from the gnawing fang of melancholy” (465). Jane’s artistic skill extends well beyond the actual pencil here, and her portraits “painted with words” become so vivid to blind Rochester that Jane is able to arouse extreme jealousy in Rochester. This is Bronte’s way of turning the knife in the wound, so to speak?she’s already used Jane’s art to say that the skills of women artistically are just as good as those of men, however, now she is taking it one step further by saying the works can even transcend blindness. Jane’s increased confidence and maturity manifest themselves in her ease in dealing with Rochester’s jealousy. She also exhibits maturity in that her art is no longer a prominent outlet for her once she arrive at Ferndean. She eventually chooses marriage, even though Rochester is maimed, and her independent personal fortune indicates that she makes this decision of her own free willa will that was, in part, nurtured by her art.
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