Jane Eyre inspires a life—and a novel
by Joanna Campbell Slan
I grew up in a chaotic, violent household. Notice I chose the word “household” rather than “home.” To me a “home” is a place of solace, renewal and love. None of those adjectives describe the rundown house in Vincennes, Indiana, the dwelling I shared with my alcoholic parents and two sisters.
Although he wasn’t averse to shoves and slaps, my father’s real forte was emotional abuse. “You will never be able to support yourself. You’ll come running back to me,” he told me, over and over.
I worried that he was right. There seemed to be no way out, no escape. Just an endless horizon of more of the same.
My only respite was reading. “You always have your nose in a book,” my mother would sneer.
Books offered a portal to other worlds, fantastical universes so unlike the one I knew that the fiction seemed obvious. But one book, long forgotten at the back of a bookshelf, gave me more than a mental vacation. It gave me hope. It saved my life. It served as a fingerpost pointing the way to freedom.
That book was Jane Eyre.
Through the rough spots—and there were many—Brontë’s heroine sustained me. “What would Jane do?” I often wondered.
Recall, Gentle Reader, that the subtitle of Jane Eyre calls the tale “An Autobiography.” How was I to know that this story was fiction? To me it rang true. I understood being small, insignificant and plain. At age 10, I had unruly curly hair, glasses, buck teeth and a scar that traced an angry path across my right cheek.
“No one is ever going to love you but me,” my father told me repeatedly, his eyes teary and his mouth quivering with sadness.
The mirror confirmed that he was right, and my mother never corrected him.
But I was no longer alone. Jane Eyre shared my afflictions. Lacking the power of beauty and bankrupt in a world where money begets choices, we were often at the mercy of others. Then Jane finished her education at Lowood Institution—and everything changed.
Charlotte Brontë’s classic provided me with an answer to my prayers: I would get an education. Turning the pages quickly, I hatched a plan. I would go to college. I would get a degree. Even if I wasn’t attractive, I could be respected. Although I longed for love, I could settle for a tranquil environment.
Much later I learned that “education” comes from the Latin “educo,” meaning, “to lead out of.” Thus, education led Jane—and me—out of the bleak future predicted for us. At Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, I held down a full-time job, managing a pet shop. In addition, I tutored other students and wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper, the Muncie Star.
Through the rough spots—and there were many—Brontë’s heroine sustained me. “What would Jane do?” I often wondered. The strong-willed orphan became a talisman, my personal lucky penny.
Little wonder that after the launch of my first successful mystery series, the plucky governess came to mind as the perfect protagonist for a new series called “The Jane Eyre Chronicles.” Nor should it be surprising that Jane’s first adventure, Death of a Schoolgirl, sends her to the rescue of a group of schoolgirls who have been largely abandoned by their parents.
Jane Eyre exhibits the important qualities of an amateur sleuth: a passion for justice, curiosity, an understanding of human nature and a mind that grasps patterns. Because she is slight and not terribly attractive, she blends in. Just like any survivor of abuse, Jane tends to be hyper-vigilant.
But she is also strong. Actually, we are strong. In ways I could have never once imagined.
Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of the Kiki Lowenstein mystery series and 11 nonfiction books (including many on scrapbooking). Death of a Schoolgirl is the first novel in her new series, the Jane Eyre Chronicles. It stars Jane Eyre as an amateur sleuth and picks up where Charlotte Brontë’s novel left off.