"Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt? May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonized as in that hour left my lips; for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love."
-Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte
I love the book Jane Eyre. I used to read it every year without fail, since I was 11 years old until about 28. There a many reasons why I love the book so much, but one is obviously the setting. In Shropshire, I have arrived at an old manor, built around the same time the novel was published and I can’t help but feel a bit inspired by the Bronte sisters being here.
For those of you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jane Eyre, it goes something like this (SPOILER ALERT!). Jane is raised by mean relatives who don’t really understand her willful and passionate ways. She is sent off to a boarding school, where she gets very ill but recovers nicely and becomes a teacher. Jane eventually moves on from the boarding school to take a position as a governess in a large country estate called Thorton Hall.
Her charge, the ward of Mr. Edward Rochester, is a French girl called Adele. At first Jane is intimidated by Thornton and it’s surely master, Mr. Rochester. And she keeps hearing and seeing disturbing things, like voices and laughter at night. Her and Mr. Rochester develop a relationship, despite his surly habits and grumpy deportment. Eventually the two fall in love, despite her lowly station and after some toing and froing. They decide to marry.
The night before they marry, someone sneaks into Jane’s room. tears her wedding veil and lights her bed on fire.
Despite this upset, Jane and Edward continue with the ceremony and literally as they are saying their vows, a man walks in proclaiming that Jane and Edward cannot marry because…dun dun DUN!!!! Edward is already married. The crazy happenings at Thornton are due to the fact that he keeps his first wife, the crazy Bertha, locked up in seclusion and occasionally she escapes.
Mr. Rochester cannot marry her but asks her instead to be his mistress, which Jane flatly refuses to do. Concerned that her love for him is so strong that she may change her mind, she runs out in the middle of the night, getting a carriage to take her, well anywhere.
In her upset, she leaves whatever money she does have on the coach and has to go begging. Eventually she ends up with St. John and his sisters, who realize she isn’t simply some old beggar. St. John is a lovely fellow but cold and totally dedicated to the church.
Jane discovers some good news; St. John and sisters are actually her cousins and that she has been left a huge sum of money by a dead uncle. Jane is now a wealthy, independent woman. St. John asks her to come to India with him to be a missionary and be his wife. Not for love but for service to god. Jane considers the offer and as she is convincing herself to go, she hears Edward call out her name across the Moors.
Jane turns down St. John immediately and returns to Thorton Hall. What she finds the burnt out shell of the hall. She finds Mr. Rochester, injured, unable to see. She finds out that his wife, Bertha, burnt down Thornton in a rage and killed herself, just after Jane left. For months, he has been injured and ill and crying out for her.
Jane has returned an independent, whole person, without needing Mr. Rochester and in turn, Mr. Rochester is now free to pursue his life without being weighed down by the estate and first wife.
He is deeply angry at her for leaving and she for him omitting the truth about his wife however, they forgive each other and eventually Mr. Rochester regains his sight enough to see their first son.
The book is inspiring to me on a number of levels. It’s about an independent woman, who refuses to compromise her values, even in the wake of her own enormous passion. And she also refuses to live a life without passion, without love (in those days it was quite common to marry without love being present).
Helen was going to stay here with me in Jane Eyre country for three days but she (understandably) had to return early to assist with the earthquake. When we arrived together in London, we had to catch a train in two hours to go to Shropshire, where her parents are living. Of course, everything went wrong. The plane was delayed. The baggage took ages to come out. And to top it all of, there was a tube workers strike. Clearly the universe was against us.
We talked it over and discovered there were buses straight to Birmingham, not an hour away from her parents. So instead of waiting two hours to get a bus to Victoria, to take another bus to Euston, to take a train to Shropshire, we decided to hop on the bus. It was the best decision, we (well I did, Helen was exhausted and snoozed almost the whole way there), watched the countryside zoom by. It was a lovely drive up to Birmingham.
Her parents picked us up and drove us down to Shropshire. Its an amazing little place, with century old homes. We role up to Winsley Hall, built in the mid-1800s. It’s a large, red brick three story building with 14 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms and a whole lot of clutter.
The place was inherited by a couple in the 1970s from a long line of family members. Essentially, the mother and father frittered all the money away and now the couple no longer has money to take care of the grand home and estate to its fullest.
The couple, June and Wilton, are very kind, good people and for the first time, I see the aristocracy as a gigantic trap rather than a privilege. These people cannot simply abandon their home; they have to keep it for the next generation. Nor can they afford to leave it. So they battle on, trying to keep the mold, dust and rotting infrastructure at bay. The property, although beautiful, is like a gigantic millstone around their neck.
My hosts are the Reverend David and Revette Allison, Helen’s parents, friends of the owners. I could not ask for better hosts; they are superb, entertaining and fun. David is a retired Presbyterian minister, who has a masters from Princeton in theology and Allison is his wonderful wife, the consummate organizer and companion. They have traveled all over the world, lived in some amazing places and still enjoy and seek each other’s company. They are completely devoted to each other after 30 plus years of marriage, three children and lots of adventure. Kind of like my parents.
When we arrive, Helen is packing and rushing about to get all last minute preparations sorted. Her hair is really dry so I do a hair treatment my mother taught me: eggs and beer in the hair. It works, however I used hot water to rinse the egg out and it set in Helen’s hair, giving her the wonderful feeling of waking up with an omelet in her auburn strands. Helen gets the big pieces out but some of the smaller chunks still remain…her hair is pretty shiny though….must remember not to use hot water next time.
We drive Helen to Shrewsbury the next morning to catch the bus and then go walking about. Shrewsbury is a place that looks like Charles Dickens threw up on…seriously, it was the place they filmed the 1980s version of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott. It has beautiful buildings everywhere and you can feel the history surrounding you.
There is a place for modernity though. The McDonalds was built into a Normand Wall and you can sit downstairs eating a Big Mac whilst contemplating the goings on of ancient Norman pastimes like torturing the Welsh and festivals.
We go on a walking tour which is a little bland. The guide says his s’s with a whistle and is an old school teacher. We walk through the small shuts (walkways in between buildings) and look at the more interesting aspects of Shrewbury, mostly famous for being the birth place of Charles Darwin and a border fighting town between the English and Welsh.
At the end of the tour, we have tea with the Mayor Owens. She seems a lovely lady and we chat for awhile about travelling. She has long, acrylic fingernails painted red with flowers on the middle nails. We tour through the old military museum at the castle and her security guard jokingly puts a replica roman helmet on his head.
We head home and I make the Rev and Revette a meal. Ever since I went to Iceland, I’ve felt this strong inner peace of just enjoying existence. I don’t feel pressured to see everything; I feel much more comfortable just sitting and enjoying the surrounding environment.
The next morning we walk up to the Stiplestones. I glamber on top of the Devil’s seat…it feels great to climb, even a small amount, up the steep rocks. I enjoy the view from up top; I can see Wales over the hill and a bit of Offa's Dyke, a protective measure that King Offa put in place to separate England from the Welsh. Its an old structure, built around 800 a.d. but it pretty much still constitutes as the border between Wales and England to this day.
Going into Wales even feels different. There are red dragons everywhere and it just feels…older. The buildings feel more utilitarian and less decorative. We visit the ruins of old Montgomery castle and then sit down for some Welsh Rabbit (essentially cheese on toast with mustard, beer, tomatos and onions).
We go back to the manor for a rest. It is green and lush here, overlooking the heather covered moors near the Stiple Stones. It is a great place to contemplate love, passion, values and interesting journeys we take in life.