Walk and Wander

A walk appears in the novel’s very first sentence, and wandering appears in its second:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning …

Headlined in this way, the words gesture towards a long history of literary works made from walks and wanderings. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress – a strong influence on Jane Eyre – begins:

As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world

Dante’s Commedia starts, not only in medias res (as Horace recommended epics should), but also in the middle of a walk:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
(In the middle of the walk of our life)

And Homer’s Odyssey,  in its opening lines, describes Odysseus as a man ‘wandering from clime to clime’. At least, that’s Alexander Pope’s translation – the one the Brontës were most likely to have known – of Homer’s words  ‘ὃς μάλα πολλὰ πλάγχθη’. Nearer to Charlotte Brontë’s own time, Wordsworth had made much poetry from country walks, and Book 1 of his 1814 volume The Excursion was called ‘The Wanderer’. Dickens’s Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy’s Progress (1838) was a bestseller in the years of Jane Eyre’s gestation, and a decisive early turn in the plot happens when, as the title of chapter 8 announces, ‘Oliver Walks to London’.

So with its opening sentence, ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’, Jane Eyre both marks its difference from these precedents and taps their energy to create a potential: when will the walk be possible? It signals the likelihood that the obstruction or achievement of journeys may play a substantial part in the novel; and so it turns out to be, with Jane’s variously troubled displacements from one defining location to another: Gateshead to Lowood; Lowood to Thornfield; Thornfield  to Whitcross, Marsh End and Morton; back to Thornfield, and finally on to Ferndean. None of these journeys is merely physical; each represents some kind of step, whether happy or not, in the personal development which the Bildungsroman genre (to which Jane Eyre is affiliated) encourages readers to expect.

The distinction between ‘walk’ and the alternative provided by the second sentence, ‘wandering’, gives readers a miniature, two-word thesaurus with which to begin to make sense of the novel’s physical and mental journeys.  ‘Walk’ is more decisive, and implies a direction. Charlotte Brontë herself relished a long, brisk walk: though walking was her everyday mode of transport – to church, shops, friends  –  her letters are still full of the enjoyment of striding across the moors. Jane, however, announces her opposite view in the second paragraph of the book, and she uses the inaugural appearance of her assertive first-person pronoun to do so: ‘I was glad of it; I never liked long walks’.

At that moment, we can sense the young character being separated from her heartier adult author; but as Jane grows up, she too comes to like the independence of walking alone, as when, on her return from Mrs Reed’s deathbed in chapter 22, she chooses to walk from Millcote to Thornfield, a distance which (as we know from chapter 11) is ‘a matter of six miles’. Walking is not always done so vigorously, yet even when there is no physical destination, there is always an emotional purpose. This is especially so in the charged moments when a man is walking with a woman. When Rochester walks with Jane in chapter 15 he tells her of his past with Céline Varens; and when they walk together in chapter 23 he proposes marriage, as St John Rivers in his turn will do during a walk in chapter 34.

‘Wandering’, on the other hand, has no evident physical or emotional direction. It can be carefree, as when the young Jane ‘wandered far’ with Mary Ann at Lowood, or desperate, as when the older Jane, having fled from Thornfield to Whitcross, ‘wandered about like a lost and starving dog’. Wandering also lends itself –  much more than ‘walk’ – to metaphor: there can be wandering from the straight and narrow, as with Rochester’s past life in chapter 20; and thoughts and words can wander in the mind, whether in a daydream during dull lessons at Lowood school (ch.6) or in the agony of Jane’s despair after the failed wedding (ch. 26).

If you trace recurrences of ‘walk’ and ‘wandering’ through the novel, you see the words gathering significance. This happens all the more richly if you have the never-exactly-parallel texts of some translations alongside, as we will discover on the next page.

Text by Matthew Reynolds