As a child, I spent many happy hours, huddled in the soft cave created by the parlor curtains. There, nestled between the dense fabric and the cold glass of the window, I sat for hours, turning the pages of Bewick's History of British Birds. During the day, I hid behind the fabric, retreating from my cousins' torture and taunts, memorizing every line of Bewick's prose.
|From Bewick's Introduction.|
At night, I dreamed that I was a bird, wishing with all my heart that I could fly away from this nest, my Aunt Reed's house! My chance at liberation came when my aunt decided she could stomach the sight of me no longer.
One morning before the sun came up, Bessie, our maid of all work, shook me awake. In the dark of my small room, I dressed hurriedly, still groggy and confused, shivering in the chilled air. After inspecting my appearance, Bessie grabbed her own knit shawl, hurried me downstairs. With a practiced economy of movement, she snatched up my cloak, wrapped it around me, and pushed me out the front door. There a coach waited in our lane. Its paired horses stamped their feet impatiently, while steam rose from their nostrils and formed a halo around their hoary heads. The jarvey jumped down to open a door to the cab for me. I started toward the coach, thinking it the answer to a prayer--at long last, I was escaping the domicile of my nasty aunt and her horrid offspring!
But Bessie grabbed my collar. My feet skittered on the stones of the footpath, as I fought to regain my equilibrium. She hauled me to her side and stuck her face close to mine for one last warning. Her breath stank of onions and weak tea: "You must work hard at Lowood Institution. I know it's but a charity school for girls, however, if you are good, if you pay attention, you might yet become a lady, young Jane. Now get going and don't give them no trouble."
Once her lecture was over, Bessie gave me a rude shove toward the waiting conveyance.
"Ain't she a bit young? To travel so far and all? On her own?" The jarvey spoke to Bessie in a low voice.
"Mind your own business," she snapped.
"Suit yerself," said the jarvey, taking my hand to help me climb up onto the step, and into the dark and empty cab. "There's an extra blanket on the seat, Miss. Wrap up tight or yer bound to be nubbin more than a block of ice by time we arrive."
Following his instructions, I pulled the scratchy, sour smelling fabric around my shoulders and settled back against the far wall of the empty carriage. The horsehide seats tickled the backs of my legs, until I yanked my skirts over my exposed flesh. I had never traveled on my own, or seen the place where I was to matriculate. However, any place would have to be better than this! As the driver slapped the reins, I spared my aunt's house one backward glance, sad to be saying goodbye to my uncle's copy of Bewick's, Volumes I and II.
|An Osprey by Thomas Bewick.|
A dozen years have passed since that parting. Oft times I have told my darling husband, Edward Fairfax Rochester, about the occupation of my early years and the joy I derived from those tired volumes. Indeed, Edward has remarked that he owes Thomas Bewick a great debt, because "his life's work consoled my dear Jane, and when none other offered her one tot of kindness. His vision did offer her an escape, even tho' it was only temporary."
Just this week a heavy brown paper parcel arrived for me. The return address was Hatchard's, a bookseller in London. A sharp knife cut through the string and thus the paper fell away. Inside I discovered two familiar volumes, Bewick's History of British Birds. With a singing heart, I opened the cover and revisited my old companion.
Thomas Bewick trained as an engraver, but nature spoke to him and as he heeded her siren's call, his true education began. As the great Nature Poet has written,
"In this my life, exempt from public haunt,
Found tongues in trees, books by the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing."
Emboldened by many friends, encouraged by those who noticed his work and shared their own insights, and dedicated to the education of children the world over, Bewick became Britain's foremost chronicler of avian life. His witty descriptions of birds matched with his insight into their habits accompanied his precise woodcuts.
|Bewick's feasting mice, a sample of his humor.|
So engrossed was I that I did not hear my husband's approach. He slipped his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my shoulder. "May I inscribe those for you?"
"Please sir!" I raced off to get his quill and an ink pot. I watched him write: To my darling Jane, who is no bird...Love forever, Edward.
Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan is the first book in a new series, The Jane Eyre Chronicles. Beginning where Charlotte Brontë's classic ended, NPR has called it "a charming read...smart,sexy, and delightfully fun."