Last June, most of our windows were held in the wall only by magic and the bodies of dead flies, so we were measured for nine new ones. When we took this house, we knew we’d be cold, we told our guests to bring warm clothing, and the second year we spent a small fortune on curtains, rods, and liners. British Friends: American curtains are rarely for any other purpose other than aesthetic. American Friends: if you don’t have curtains in England, you die a Dickensian street child’s death. We could be warmish or we could have light. We could not have both.
June 2020: we ordered windows. May 2021: we got (most of) them. In the meantime, our skin acquired the unblemished, ageless alabaster hue of the French aristocracy in the Age of Enlightenment. Except there was no light. And we wore seven shirts. From August to basically yesterday, the 900-pound drapes have been our Spartan shield wall, sometimes losing its footing only slightly in the face of a strong wind. But now, we emerge from our rooms half blind with the beauty and clarity of our natural world, AND only wear one outfit at a time.
It took much longer than we thought, even longer than we were told, and just when we (I) began to get good and cynical, it happened: the rot was broken apart, hauled away, and the hole was filled with real protection from the elements. A clean, correctly-installed window. Seems like a small thing to get ridiculously excited about.
Speaking of Charlotte Bronte…
I love her. I love how tiny she was, that she had bad teeth, and that she could be sort of a jerk. I love that she loved her family and wrote because she couldn’t help it. My first encounter with Charlotte wasn’t her book, but it was her story. The 1983 BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre was a two tape VHS box set . Two tapes. That was a big deal, kids. Later, when I read the book in school, I had a killer grasp on the plot and could quote dialogue all over the place because I had essentially memorized the film which was almost word for word accurate. Sadly, to my fellow students this was not as impressive as, well, literally anything else.
Recently, my favorite part of Jane Eyre has been the part often overlooked or forgotten about completely. We get all fired up about the secret woman in the attic and the righteous flight from Thornfield, and we all love the scene when the mysterious voice of Mr. Rochester floats over the moors, but the eight chapters in between? SO GOOD. Good enough to be its own book: Girl gets dealt crap hand, runs away, is taken in by strangers, slowly recovers sense of hope and purpose, watches new friend suffer painful restraint from happiness, builds community and love, discovers secret family!, is given pile of money!, reasserts faith in God and self, makes empowering speech, wavers! And then the supernatural rescue comes.
The tension slows from the rest of the novel and the action lies in the everyday joys of being safe, loved, and valued. Two sisters. A brother. At Moor House, Jane is “socially distanced” from drama.
Around April last year, I started writing letters to a woman I’d found through the time-honored tradition of Online Impulse Buying. And because we are kindred spirits, our communications evolved backwards. Emails became texts which turned to letters.
Letters slow you down. There are no self-deprecating emojis or gifs to diffuse a statement. There’s no predictive text. The words are all you get. We communicate almost daily– sometimes about the Brontes, life events, and faith, but 98% of the time it’s Schitt’s Creek gifs and Calabrian food. If you’re a hacker, you can check. But our letters are a different story. The only way anyone will know what we said is if the letters are kept.
Much of what we know about Charlotte Bronte comes from her correspondence. Letters, emails, texts, even Twitter and Instagram–anything we express outside of our head is a clue to who we are. I’m not such a tool that I’ll claim one is better than the other. I use all of them, but only one of them is flimsy, digitally unrecorded, and lost forever in a fire.
Social distancing has dealt some crap hands. No visitors, not much travel, no pubs, no movie theaters, no window shopping. It’s been months since I paid with cash. I feel like I’m cheating death by sitting in a restaurant. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my family. It’s been really dark in my house.
I’ve written many letters and emails. During the Lockdowns, I’ve collaborated with several people on art and writing projects. I’ve been working on one particular secret since October and it’s a big deal, kids.
I’ve illustrated Jane Eyre for The Crow Emporium Press.
Charlotte began writing Jane Eyre while in a temporary lodging with her father as he healed from cataract surgery. She was told to keep the room as dark as possible. In her story, at a dark time, Jane found surprise sisters and a desperately needed regroup.
So did I.
There was no reunion in the spring, or summer, or at Christmas, or the spring again; school was uncertain, everyone was cold, nobody knew how to plan, the sun became urban legend, and accomplishment was measured in the height of laundry piles. But I was painting. I could hear the voices of Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke; I saw the flames of Thornfield rising; I felt Jane’s joy as she asked for a pocket comb. I showed my progress to the friend I’d never met and we laughed at mistakes and cried when it came together.
This isn’t just a book. It’s an idea bridge beyond the internet, where four women did their parts, blind to what the other’s saw; and when we opened our eyes we all saw the same thing: Charlotte. This book is our letter to her. It’s the sister God sent me when I was wandering around looking for shelter.
As I write this, it’s been raining all day. There’s been no possibility for a walk. Instead, I’ve been looking up from my work every few minutes to watch the droplets gliding down the very clear, very strong, very safe, very beautiful glass.