By Sabrina Eager
Art by Sabrina Eager
Of all works of fiction that I have ever read, seen, or listened to, nothing has made me cry quite like the end of Jane Eyre. I remember reading the final lines on my digital copy while curled up on my side in bed at 1:00 am. Tears rolled down my cheeks and made little puddles in the curve between my face and the pillow beneath me. I laid in the darkness, the only light in the room coming from the stark white pages on my phone screen, unsure if the warmth came from my blankets or the story.
I could not quite put my finger on why the return of Rochester’s sight and the words “Reader, I married him” made me so emotional at the time. I did not really know what “love” meant. I was only 14 years old, only about to enter my first relationship — if you can even call it that — with a guy. We would text each other “I love you” and get nervous when we hugged. We shared smiles in the spaces between our music stands in the pit orchestra of our school’s musical, and we counted down from three before our first kiss in a tiny mall photo booth. Then, in the manner of a traditional middle school romance, we’d avoid eye contact when passing each other in the hallways and then would avoid the damning topic of the hallways in our late night text conversations.
Even though I could not relate to Jane and Rochester’s love, even though I had never had a love of my own, I felt that on the pages, I saw how love was meant to feel. The process of reading Jane Eyre was the first time I believed that I could see into another person’s thoughts, into someone else’s mind. It was the first time that I realized the power of literature to give me an inside look into other minds. Thus, it was the first time that I felt like I understood what it meant to be a woman in love.
I once wrote a line describing how Jane Eyre made me feel in a journal: “It’s easy to lose yourself in a book, but it takes a special book to find yourself.” It took me years to finally realize why the fleeting “I love you”s delivered to the boys I liked at 14 years old felt so empty when compared to the words of Jane. I didn’t want a man I could love as much as Jane loved Rochester, but I wanted to know the great love Jane seemed to feel. I wanted a woman like Jane, and I wanted to make a woman feel as Jane felt.
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In middle school, I obsessively consumed everything that the young adult fiction genre had to offer. I could practically recite all the dystopian trilogies that made the bestseller list from 2010 to 2014, with some John Green and Rainbow Rowell mixed in. I read almost exclusively on my phone and would finish one book in line at the supermarket and buy the next in the series while in the parking lot, pushing the groceries to the car. I would hide my phone on my music stand in band class and steal glances at words during the rests. I became almost immune to carsickness, using every trip across town as an excuse to get in another chapter.
Even amidst magical circus performances and battles among Shadowhunters, which each took place in alternate dimensions or thousands of years in the future, my favorite moments were always those involving romance. Each female protagonist in yet another heterosexual relationship would make my heart sing. Everything from first kisses to professions of love to the heartbreak of breakups and deaths. In the cafeteria, my bookish friends and I would giggle about the love affairs we read about the evening before, bragging about who among us stayed up the latest with our nose in a book. Some of the girls would fawn over the fictional guys, especially once the characters on the page were brought to life in film adaptations. My friends started setting photos of Theo James and Ansel Elgort, the leading male actors in the movie adaptation of Divergent, as the images on their phone lockscreens. At the same time, I was showing off how the wind would make my hair look like Cara Delevingne’s hair in the Paper Towns movie poster.
None of my own relationships to characters made themselves out to be crushes. To me, the pairings themselves were each perfect; why would I want to mess with love by inserting myself into the story? I was not one to read fanfiction where authors would leave blanks for you to fill in your own name. Reading The Selection, I did not hope to find a man like Maxon Schreave, but to one day know the feeling of slow dancing on the rooftop in the rain. Reading The Fault in Our Stars, I did not hope to find a man like Augustus Waters, but to one day travel abroad with the person I loved.
The most intriguing stories for me were the ones with honest sounding female protagonists. Fiction is the only opportunity that we as readers have to hear the private thoughts of another. To engage with the mind of someone else. In these fictions, I saw a future. I saw women that I could aspire to become, women who were not empowered by men, but who were swept up in love stories that just happened to be with men.
I only read one queer love story while in my YA phase, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levitan. The novel portrays the criss-crossing love lives of two boys who are both coincidentally named Will Grayson; one of them is straight and the other is gay. I read the book by the pool at my cousins’ vacation house, hoping that none of the relatives around me knew about the queer storyline that weaved across the pages in front of me. My mouth grew dry as I explained the plot to my mom one night before dinner, bracing for the question of why I was reading a book with gay characters. I could not describe why I struggled answering that question. What if supporting gay characters made me look gay? But, I still believed myself to be straight. Just a really good ally. So how could that be the issue?
I was in this same vacation town a year or so later when I asked to buy a shirt with colorful stripes and my mother lamented that the shirt would make me look gay and that I wouldn’t want to falsely advertise my sexuality. I sat beside this same pool when I watched a youtube video from the singer Dodie during pride month, explicitly singing about her love of women and her identity as a bisexual woman. Maybe I’ll be sitting at that pool the day I eventually come out to my extended family. They’ll all be on their separate devices reading the same book, probably the newest Elin Hilderbrand novel that takes place on the beaches of Nantucket, where women fall in love while eating lobster rolls, and I’ll just blurt it out. Everyone will look up at me in shock. Or maybe not in shock, I have not talked about having a crush on a boy since eighth grade.
I eventually outgrew my years spent reading YA novels. Soon after that, I outgrew the need to look at myself in the mirror and convince myself that Boy X or Guy Y would become one the men I read about. Someone who would kiss me in the rain or someone who would risk death to touch me or someone who would make me blush enough for the omniscient narrator of my life to note it on the page. Finally, I outgrew the fear of calling myself gay, of coming out casually to strangers I have spoken to for maybe an hour, of seeking out queer stories to read, of sharing my own story as a queer woman.
It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I read Jane Eyre before the US Supreme Court had legalized same sex marriage. At the time, my “Reader, I married him” moment would have likely been impossible. Now as I browse the YA section of my local bookstore, I see all the titles that showcase two women holding hands on the cover, and I read book jackets that hint at love affairs which would have been too taboo to print only 6 years ago. I can only imagine how in love a young gay girl in the year 2021 must feel while reading inside the mind of someone like her. Hopefully her “I love you”s don’t feel so empty for so long.