Table of Contents
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First published in Penguin Books 2009
Copyright © Sheila Kohler, 2009
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PULICATION DATA
Becoming Jane Eyre / Sheila Kohler.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15964-4
1. Brontë, Charlotte, 1816-1855—Fiction. 2. Brontë, Emily, 1818-1848—
Fiction. 3. Brontë, Anne, 1820-1849—Fiction. 4. Brontë family—Fiction.
5. Women authors, English—19th century—Fiction. I. Title.
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To the love of my life, my husband, Bill
Father and Daughter
e wakes to the scratching of a pencil against a page: a noise out of the darkness. He lies quite still on his back, reaching out for sound. His ears have become wings, straining, stretching, carrying him away. The world comes to him only through sound, and there is precious little of that.
Even the sounds of quiet Boundary Street on the outskirts of this large industrial town are strange to him. Apart from the scratching, he can hear little except an occasional cry, the rumble of carriage wheels below, the call of a city bird. He hungers for the wild sounds of his hill-village home: the low keening of the wind over moors, the bark of a dog, the cries of crows, the tolling of his church bell.
He misses the sights of his world: the sweep of a lonely hill; the joy of an eagle, plummeting wildly through the blue air in search of food for his young. Now he is a bird with wounded wing. Is he cast forever
into bottomless perdition?
Is he to dwell in
Adamantine Chains and penal Fire?
He learned to recite Milton to himself as a child, and the words come easily to him now. In the darkness he feels the heat of the poem.
He imagines opening the front door of his parsonage, the light streaming in from the window over the stairs and the mad scrabble of paws coming to greet him across the stone floor. In his mind he holds Keeper or little spoiled Flossy, the black-and-white King Charles spaniel, in his arms. He can smell their wild smells of grass and wind, from the moors. He even misses the canary, singing in its cage, and Emily’s geese. He has walked for hours with the dogs. Striding fast across the hills, through the dark heath, in all sorts of weather has warmed his blood and his heart and become a wellspring of his verse. His children are fond of all kinds of animals, and so is he, but of course the dogs have not followed him here.
Not even the sound of church bells, chiming the hours, comes to him in this part of town. He imagines the chimes, which have regulated his days and nights for so long, calling him to his God, who has not forsaken him, surely. He will find his way to the light of Heaven again, surely.
Is it early morning? How long has he been lying here? This immobility, this helplessness, this perpetual darkness, are too hard to bear.
God help me!
All his life he has marched onward, striding upward, acquiring knowledge, position, and distinction, going on with hope and firmness of purpose and conviction in the Army of the Lord, carrying the Word of the Lord like a banner before him to sinners and sufferers, with the belief in his heart that he brings salvation. He remembers how he joined the Home Guard at Cambridge as a young man to protect England from the unruly French—a warrior priest.
But now they have nailed his sixty-nine-year-old bones to his couch. They have pierced his eyes with a crown of thorns. He has become a blind mouth. How much longer will he have to lie here helplessly in the silence of the late-summer darkness, with nothing but the sound of a scratching pencil in his ears? Will his mind survive its creeping dimness? There is only a thin sheet over his body, but his bones feel heavy. Despite the hot, dry air he is cold, cold.
He recites the familiar words from the 23rd Psalm:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet shall I fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He repeats the words as he did when he lay awake and conscious under the knife.
They propped his eye open with some steel instrument as the cruel work was done. Two of them held on to him, should he struggle, but he did not, lying still as death, in his God’s hands, excruciatingly conscious of the knife’s work in that delicate place, of every sound in the room, and of the presence sitting quietly in a corner, a comfort to him: Charlotte.
High on the flat, white bed, her father lies. She sits by his side on a low ottoman near the marble chimneypiece, writing in the silence and the half dark of the early morning. They have found convenient lodgings. Her father’s room opens into hers, and there is a small sitting room to which she can retreat. The nurse, a redheaded woman in her late twenties or early thirties who is lodged upstairs in one of the third-floor rooms, is competent, if annoyingly officious. Charlotte hears her clomping down the stairs. The doctor has been helpful in this, as he has in all things. Though not large, their rooms are comfortable. She props her writing desk on her knees and places a small candle at her side to light her page.
Against the wall a monstrous wardrobe looms ominously. To her right the curtained windows give onto the street, and between them a dim mirror stands. The doctor has ordered privation of light and perfect silence. The strangeness of these lodgings, the dryness of the dusty air, the hot darkness, and the suffering presence beside her make her shiver.