Some books have a way of getting right down into your bones. The first book to grab hold of me like that was Jane Eyre, which I read a dozen times before I even hit high school. It’s a lonely story and a very strange romance, with its governess heroine and un-handsome, sarcastic hero. One of the strangest parts in it is the scene where Jane is compelled by Rochester to show him her portfolio of paintings and sketches. He picks three in particular to quiz her about.
Reader, these are strange artworks — a seabird stealing jewelry from a shipwrecked corpse, a woman imagined as the Evening Star, and a pale, gigantic head in a landscape choked with arctic ice. They are keenly described and yet somehow still ghostly. Before now we have seen Jane neglected in her family’s house and isolated at Lowood School, but we have never seen her thoughts and anxieties expressed so vividly in images rather than in words. Those cold, mournful pictures are her own deeply felt loneliness projected outward on the world — it is no wonder Rochester responds to them and calls them “elfish.”
Jane sketches several other images over the course of the novel — portraits, mostly — and there’s always a little something wild in the way she does it, as though despite all her self-restraint and discipline there is some part of her that is always trying to escape. It’s a fascinating thing to read, and I can’t help wondering how Jane’s sketches and paintings changed once she found her way back to Rochester and their own peculiar form of happiness. Was there still something wild about her? Or did she allow her paintings to show more warmth, more human connection than she’d known before? Would that make her more or less successful at depicting the scenes in her imagination?
These questions didn’t go away. (For authors, such questions never go away.) So now I’m finishing up work on Color Me Bad, an erotic historical romance with a hero who’s a painter. And though I’m no Charlotte Brontë — for one thing, my books are much, much smuttier — it was fun to borrow this particular writing trick and see what it did to the shape of the story. To let my hero’s paintings say what he wasn’t ready to say yet himself, or to let their images take the place of his own hopes and fears. Whether I used this technique successfully, or whether my imagination outpaced my skill, like Jane’s — well, dear Reader, you will be the best judge of that.