The first time I read Jane Eyre, I knew almost nothing about autism. All I knew, without a doubt, was that I have a mind like Jane’s.
Film adaptations do not adequately capture the complexity of her thoughts. Half a page of pondering leads up to half a line of speech, which she describes as “the audible conclusion of my musings.”
My thinking – some might call it “overthinking” – is similar. It feels like I haven’t fully processed an idea until I’ve approached it from several angles, and taken the time to mull it over “twice, thrice; it was then digested in my mind.”
On the other hand, when information tumbles at me too quickly to process, I relate to Jane’s feeling of being “half suffocated with the thoughts that rose faster than I could receive, comprehend, settle them.”
Both mentally and physically, Jane finds it “delightful by degrees to invoke order from the chaos” – which echoes a co-worker’s observation that I “walk into chaos, and order follows.” Jane shares my desire to leave “all things straight and neat,” and “in an absolutely perfect state of readiness.”
Although Jane is often remembered as a fiery rebel, she and I are both compliant by default: “I know no medium…” she said, “between absolute submission and determined revolt. I have always faithfully observed the one, up to the very moment of bursting, sometimes with volcanic vehemence, into the other.”
On my first reading of Jane Eyre, however, the most poignant similarity I noticed was how Jane and I behave around people we adore. She is either incapable or unwilling to engage in typical romantic signaling, preferring instead “to answer what he asked without pretension” – responding even to jest by “speaking as seriously as he had done.”
For Edward Rochester, Jane’s style is infinitely more effective than the “meretricious arts and calculated manoeuvres” of her rival. My own style, resembling Jane’s, was embarrassingly ineffective for many years of my life, so it awed me to see her behavior elicit such a response.
Could I really forego the performative exuberance that I saw in others, merely state my mind, and be loved for it? Like the autistic blogger Helen White, whom I would not discover until years later, I saw in Jane Eyre “a glimmer of hope… one day I will find my person and then I can just be who I am.”
I did, indeed – but not before a flurry of self-discovery.
In my late twenties, a friend suggested that I might be autistic. For all I knew, autism was simply a condition that causes children to rock back and forth – a far cry from how I perceived myself. But I met the idea with neither shock nor disdain, only open-minded curiosity.
I asked my friend why she thought that. Instead of justifying her hypothesis, she recommended that I read first-person accounts of how autism feels on the inside, to find out if they match my own experiences. I already knew of one account that does just that, though it happens to be fictional: Jane Eyre.
So, before searching for true stories, I first checked if anyone had suggested that Jane Eyre might be autistic.
They had. I found a 2008 essay by Julia Miele Rodas called, “On the Spectrum”: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre. In it, she explores the many ways in which Jane fits the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, including:
A feeling of misunderstanding and being misunderstood by others in everyday interactions; a powerful and elaborate sense of connection in some special arena or skill area… the experience of being excluded, especially in childhood when rigid social structures prevail; and a sense of peace and satisfaction that comes with order and ordering, both in material and in logical terms.
Rereading that essay now, I can see that it doesn’t tread lightly in describing the challenges of autism. But back then, as my first introduction to how autism can affect an adult woman, I was flooded with a sense of belonging and pride.
This affirmed my earlier suspicion that whatever kind of human Jane Eyre is, so am I.
While teaching me about autism, Rodas also gave me insight into the direct connection between my overly precise language and my social awkwardness. Jane, like many on the autism spectrum, cannot stand a “prolonged effusion of small talk.” In fact, she struggles to make conversation at all without guidance, saying, “I cannot introduce a topic, because how do I know what will interest you?”
From a young age, she interprets questions and statements literally, often missing their intended meaning – for example, she wonders about “the manner in which that operation of changing my heart was to be performed.” Jane continues to miss hidden messages as an adult: “He seemed surprised – very inconsistently so, as he had just told me to go.”
Over time, she grows more aware of her need for unambiguous language, and comfortable with requesting it: “I don’t understand enigmas” is her objection to one of Rochester’s many veiled advances.
Communication is not the only realm where Jane Eyre is perceived as odd, however.
In childhood, she describes herself as, “like nobody there… opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities.” Those who react to Jane with “so much annoyance” see themselves as merely “uprooting [her] bad propensities,” but what propensities are they labeling as bad?
“Her incomprehensible disposition, and her sudden starts of temper, and her continual, unnatural watchings of one’s movements” – precisely the kind of traits that might cause a new acquaintance to shrink from engaging with someone on the autism spectrum.
I want to say a word about these “sudden starts of temper” – an unfair label, since it implies a willful choice. I experience something similar, and it is not a choice. I used to blame my “meltdowns” on exhaustion or hunger, before learning that autistic people tend to be highly sensitive to surprises, and to sensory stimuli.
Likewise, a sudden visitor causes Jane to be “very easily alarmed” and “almost in consternation.” She is cautious about what information she shares with whom, to avoid “the danger of having one’s ears pierced by some shrill ejaculation.”
Jane Eyre’s involuntary responses to such triggers are often unwelcome.
They prompt reactions such as, “Don’t start when I chance to speak rather sharply: it’s so provoking.” It was life-changing for me to recognize, and take steps to prevent, unexpected interruptions and sounds – accepting and accommodating the toll they take on my mental health.
In the weeks following my discovery of Rodas’ essay, I dove headfirst into researching autistic traits. I learned that many autistic people tend to soothe stress through repetitive movement – officially called “self-stimulation,” or affectionately known as “stimming.”
Sometimes, this movement is impossible to control. Other times, it can be controlled with great effort, but not without sacrificing its benefits: calming the nervous system and regulating emotions.
Jane puts such movement to good use as an antidote to the “restlessness” that “agitated [her] to pain sometimes,” finding that her “sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot.”
There, free to move and free to think, she can “allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it – and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement… and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended – a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.”
That is a beautiful description of the complex stream of consciousness that I experience. And I, too, find release through movement.
As I continued to research, though, my confidence began to wane. It seemed that only half of what I read about autism was relevant to me.
I am not blind to facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, nor is my tone of voice flat and expressionless, nor am I incapable of eye contact, nor do I behave awkwardly in every social situation – in short, I have abilities that seemed to exclude me from the descriptions I was reading.
I could have, at this point, set aside the hypothesis that I might be autistic, and accepted that I merely have some overlapping traits. Perhaps, I thought, my quirks could be explained equally well by introversion or anxiety.
But Jane Eyre. There she was, on the page – embodying my sensibilities, articulating my values, mirroring my mind.
I noticed that she has no social troubles among those who accept her mannerisms without scorn. Her childhood friend, Helen, for example, is an accepting listener who gives “ample indulgence” to Jane’s supposed faults, “never imposing curb or rein on anything I said.” With the Rivers sisters, too, Jane discovers “the pleasure arising from perfect congeniality of tastes, sentiments, and principles.”
After just a few interactions with Rochester, she observes, “The ease of his manner freed me from painful restraint: the friendly frankness, as correct as cordial, with which he treated me, drew me to him.”
After their relationship blossoms, she adds, “There was no harassing restraint, no repressing of glee and vivacity with him; for with him I was at perfect ease, because I knew I suited him.” Her conversation with him is “but a more animated and an audible thinking” – an extension of her own internal monologue, not a role to be acted.
Like me, Jane is comfortably social when she can safely share her true self.
So, I continued my search. A page turned when I began to learn how autism affects women in particular, through Sarah Hendrickx’s excellent book Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I found out that we tend to present differently, and are often misdiagnosed.
One reason is that little girls tend to receive harsher feedback than boys for unusual behavior, and may learn to act against their nature in an effort to comply. This continues into adulthood, where autistic women perform a tiresome dance of suppressing some actions and exaggerating others – a pantomime of what is “normal,” and therefore acceptable.
Intentionally or not, this can mask the fact that autistic brains are different.
Jane, likewise, becomes able to “perform well, punctually, uprightly, labour uncongenial to [her] habits and inclinations.” The constraint she develops at school clings to her through adulthood, “controlling… features, muffling… voice, and restricting… limbs,” as she works tirelessly to avoid “making herself disadvantageously conspicuous by some solecism or blunder.”
Yet through all this effort, the act of molding her behavior to fit others’ expectations never becomes natural to her – “though I look comfortably accommodated, I am not very tranquil in my mind.” What autistic advocates call “masking,” Jane calls her “veil” – an attempt to “control the working muscles of my face – which I feel rebel insolently against my will.”
Once I became convinced that a person could be internally autistic in spite of external appearances, I sought – and obtained – a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
I was certain of my place on the spectrum before the diagnosis, but still celebrated it as a validation of my place among the Janes of the world.
Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre half a century before the term “autism” was invented, but would Jane herself be diagnosed with autism if she were alive today? Possibly not, since the diagnostic criteria mainly rely on visible behavior. Moreover, many of Jane’s actions could be interpreted as a normal response to intense circumstances.
But that may be exactly what autistic behavior is. Henry and Kamila Markram have theorized that the world is more intense for autistic people, and we react accordingly. Brontë pushes Jane into scenes with high pressure and high stakes, and she reacts as an autistic person might on a daily basis.
However, autistic readers are not the only ones who relate to Jane. Thousands admire her strong will, and empathize with her powerful feelings.
I wonder if Jane Eyre’s admirers might feel similarly about autistic people, if they could explore our minds as thoroughly as Brontë has narrated Jane’s.
Instead, autistic behavior is often interpreted as senseless and without purpose – like the actions of Bertha Mason, a character integral to the novel’s gothic aesthetic as well as its plot. We never get to hear Bertha’s side of the story – at least not from Brontë, though Jean Rhys later explored Bertha’s perspective in Wide Sargasso Sea. Likewise, autistic people are often spoken for, and far less frequently listened to.
Readers do listen to Jane, however. We can see when she is bursting with emotion, even if her feelings are not accurately perceived by others. She asks, “Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings?” The answer, while painfully clear to the reader, is not so clear to her fellow characters.
The disconnect between Jane Eyre’s reality and others’ assumptions about her should serve as a caution against presuming autistic motivations merely from observing behavior.
For those sincerely trying to understand autistic people better, Jane Eyre can serve as a window into the type of thinking that may accompany our actions. For those who love Jane Eyre, I hope that the possibility of her autism may help put autistic people in a new light – as minds worth exploring, and people worth befriending. And for those of us on the autism spectrum ourselves?
Jane Eyre is a role model of self-assurance and self-advocacy.
As a child, Jane struggles to perceive what others expect of her, but as an adult, she chooses to flout these expectations. Instead, Jane insists that “conventionality is not morality,” and rests securely in the idea that, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”