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Jane Eyre and Emancipation: twelve artists respond. January 25 to February 29 2020

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

Poem 88 is pleased to present Jane Eyre and Eman- cipation: twelve responses from artists Hannah Adair, Rose M Barron, Cynthia Farnell, Raymond Goins, Judy Henson, Rachel Ibarra, Guy Mendes, Sharon Shapiro, Hannah Tarr, Lisa Tuttle, Nancy VanDevender, and Orion Wertz. Published in 1847 at the beginning of the Victorian era, Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre was experi- mental for its time encompassing proto-feminist ideas, commentary on class and status, a reverie for the English landscape, and most importantly, com- mentary on the strictures of social convention and romantic love.

It’s easy to think that Jane Eyre tells an antiquated tale, but put into historical context, the women’s suffrage movement in Britain didn’t even begin for a full fifty years after the publication of Jane Eyre. As well, readers might encounter intelligent, strong-willed pro- tagonists in Jane Austen’s novels, yet neither Emma, nor Elizabeth Bennet, nor Fanny Price strive to live independently - with a necessity for independent thought: a condition that Jane Eyre requires.

Not a quarter into Brontë’s novel. Jane laments the in- equality between the sexes:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stag- nation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow- minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making pud- dings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Throughout the novel, evocatively named locales, like the Lowood School, Thornfield Hall, and Ferndean, provide a backdrop for Jane’s quest for freedom - from her mistreatment by the Reed family, from the misapplication of religion at Lowood School, from the limits of her position as governess of Thornfield Hall, from the inequality between her and Rochester, and finally from St. John Rivers who compels her to marry him. In fleeing Thornfield Hall and subsequently returning, Jane Eyre remakes her life on her own terms. She returns self-pos- sessed free from the limits that had previously defined her life.

Artists’ works in this exhibition tap into central themes of the book namely Jane’s odyssey toward independ- ence, or, as I’ve named it for this show, emancipation. Works include photography, painting, printmaking, and drawings, some inspired by specific passages in the novel.

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