My mother was a quiet person. Her childhood copies of Heidi, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables became mine. As an equally quiet child, such books gave me courage. I felt like Clara but admired the sturdy legs of Heidi. I sympathized with Beth but thrilled with Jo. I held the tenderness of Diana but sought the boldness of Anne.
True kindred spirits, my mother and I ventured to the library together every week. For larger research assignments she drove me to the Headquarters Library in St. Louis, where I scoured reference books, periodicals, and original sources in the towering stacks on numerous floors. I marvel now that my mother never hurried me. She was perfectly content to sit and read a novel while I studied and wrote.
Not long ago my mother entered the final stages of lung illness. No longer able to climb stairs, she needed to sell her townhouse-style condo. She selected a two bedroom apartment in a quiet retirement home. My brother and I wondered about her need for two bedrooms. She insisted. Then we understood: She wanted her books to come with her.
If someone accidentally called her second bedroom an office she corrected, “It’s my library.” Arranged by author and deemed “better than most books written today,” the books in her collection had become her treasured companions. When confined to the sofa or her bed, my mother confided, “I’m just so thankful that I read.” My mother was at home in books.
A Shared Love
My mother loved talking to my son Michael about books. Both drawn to history and both confined at times to solitude more than either might wish, they shared books back and forth. Sometimes biographical, sometimes novels of historical fiction, and often themed by World War I or II, these trades delighted me. I appreciated my mother’s sharing her love of books without fanfare or recognition. She did this, quite literally, with greater ease than breathing.
After my mother died and some time had passed, I found myself looking for a novel to read. My son’s childhood friend—classically homeschooled and with a master’s degree in library science—was visiting. He seemed a logical choice for seeking a recommendation. Without hesitation he suggested Jane Eyre. He ranks A Christmas Carol as the best story ever told but Jane Eyre as one of the best novels ever written. I began reading. Immediately, especially for anyone who loves a “foundling,” an adopted child, or a child with a difficult past, Jane Eyre becomes both pointed and poignant. In the dark settings in which Jane finds herself as a child—specifically Lowood school—we find everything from which we want to protect our children. A hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst and a ruthless Miss Scatcherd engage in lashing young Jane and her delicate friend Helen with harsh public rebuke:
We heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.
Juxtaposed against this relentless, merciless meanness, we also see true education in the healing sanctuary of kindhearted Miss Temple’s room, where Jane and Helen are often invited secretly:
Miss Temple asked Helen if she sometimes snatched a moment to recall the Latin her father had taught her, and taking a book from a shelf, bade her read and construe a page of Virgil; and Helen obeyed.… Miss Temple embraced us both, saying, as she drew us to her heart—”God bless you, my children!”
All that we appreciate in classical Christian education is humanized, elevated, and made beautiful in such passages. They softened me. In my dealings with my children the next day, I envisioned Miss Scatcherd and Miss Temple. Miss Scatcherd was all that I sought to avoid, while Miss Temple embodied all that I wish to become. I found myself holding my tongue, extending my patience, and warming my words before speaking them.
Much more could be said of the impact of Jane Eyre, as with any great novel, but one phrase that struck me most comes toward its end. In unexpected circumstances Jane finds herself walking alone in the dark. Weak and hungry, there appears no one to aid her. Fearing she will die alone, Jane stumbles upon a sequestered home. Jane later describes Moor House this way: “the grey, small, antique structure, with its low roof, its latticed casements … its avenue of aged firs—all grown aslant under the stress of mountain winds.… I saw the fascination of the locality.” She adds: “I felt the consecration of its loneliness: my eye feasted on the outline of swell and sweep.”
I paused. When we enter the rich, seemingly solitary landscape of a classic novel, we feast on the outline of its swell and sweep. We see the fascination of the locality. We feel the consecration of its loneliness; yet there is more.
I was eager to discuss the novel with my son’s friend. Such a conversation could be shared only by those who had reveled in the book’s pain and strength. I felt this truth as an echo of Jane’s experience with Diana and Mary at Moor House:
I devoured the books they lent me: then it was full satisfaction to discuss with them in the evening what I had perused during the day. Thought fitted thought; opinion met opinion: we coincided, in short, perfectly.
This is the desire of education: to invigorate our minds with the greatest books, to find our home in those books, and to share them with each other. Worthy reading becomes the consecration of our loneliness.
In the end, however, a novel can do only so much. In the final months of my mother’s life, did we read a novel together? No, we turned to a book my mother had received at age thirteen. She kept this book through high school and college, marriage and childrearing, older adulthood and, now at eighty-six, in her final residence. When her pastor visited us, this book was the book I retrieved from my mother’s shelves.
My mom’s mind was not as strong as it had been, nor was her faith as unwavering. Unable to attend church and receive needed fortification, my mother had begun to feel scared, discouraged, and uncertain. Her pastor knew where to turn. He assured my mother with eternal words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Psalm 23:6). Uncrossing her arms,
relaxing the furrows on her face, my mother exhaled deeply. She smiled. Tears moistened her eyes in relief. At her funeral service, the same pastor closed with a benediction from a later passage in the book:
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
This is the ultimate consecration of our loneliness. Where great novels may only point, one book truly leads us home.