It’s the thing the whole world is talking about right now; coronavirus and its devastating effects on society, the economy, and humanity. Growing up in the Western world, few of us have ever experienced anything like this. The virus is a threat to health, wealth, life, and freedom. Although threats to the former three are a common part of the everyday life of many people, even in the 21st century, it’s the idea of our freedom being curtailed and threatened that is very new to us in the West. Freedom comes in many forms and is something that tends to be taken for granted in the society I grew up in. Yes, there are oppressed groups in society and people being denied certain rights based on gender, sexuality, wealth, social class, etc., but the threat posed to our freedom by coronavirus is something new. It’s a threat that (largely) cuts across the divides in society and unites us all. It’s a threat that also, somewhat paradoxically, divides us into the selfish and the altruistic. I can’t blame people for being frightened, for this is a very new threat and an unknown enemy, and the media certainly have a lot to answer for with their focus on the negatives, the panic, the stockpilers, and the greedy, but times like these either bring out the best or the worst in people.
In just a few short weeks, some of the freedoms we took for granted have disappeared, and they continue to dwindle daily. Whether this is the freedom to use public transport, to go to work, the freedom to an education with the closure of the schools for an unknown period of time, to visit cinemas, sporting events, theatres, to eat out, to socialise with friends, and tragically for some, the freedom to spend time with our own families. As the virus spreads, friends and families are cruelly being torn apart through social distancing, isolation, and even death. Beyond anything, it is this lack freedom to spend time with family and friends that is most alien for the majority of us. Tough decisions have to be made, and choices not to see our loved ones for their own protection; some are saying goodbye to elderly or ill relatives with no idea of if they will ever see them again. It’s easy to be selfish in times of desperation, but the majority of people are being selfless and putting the needs of their family and friends first whether this is shopping for them, caring for them, or being separated from them. People are clawing back their lost freedoms in this sense; they are empowering themselves and protecting their families, even if it means losing other freedoms along the way.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”
Looking through my social media accounts, it’s heartening to see the acts of kindness and goodwill. As my feeds are full of bookworms, there are lots of people taking comfort and inspiration from a good book in these challenging times. For me personally, there’s nothing like a book to distract me from bad times, and usually it’s Brontë related. Despite the two centuries that separate us from our favourite literary family, there are certain quotes from their works which are jumping to my mind right now. The first is from my favourite novel, Jane Eyre (1847), by Charlotte, and speaks of the threat to freedom facing us, and the tough decisions that people are being faced with on a daily basis – “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” Charlotte herself faced a lack of freedom in her life connected with wealth, health, and gender, but I think she would be shocked how relevant her words are in the 21st century. The speaker is the novel’s protagonist and heroine, plain Jane Eyre, a woman whose strength, courage, and determination to do the right thing shines through during her parting from her fiance, Edward Rochester.
Although the circumstances of Jane’s departure from Rochester are radically different from the situation currently faced by many due to the virus, I just feel that this quote is so relevant right now. Jane is fighting against the net that threatens her freedom, just as we are finding ways to fight the one which threatens ours. Jane uses her freedom to leave behind the person she loves most in the world, just as people now are doing; it is true that Jane is seeking to protect herself from further harm in the long-run whilst people today are trying to protect their families. It’s a tough decision to make, and one that Jane makes because it is right rather than easy, much like many of the choices people are being faced with right now.
The choice between right and easy is a sentiment/philosophy that continues to thrive even during uncertain times, and it’s also one that continues to be reflected in literature. I have to give an honourable mention to the non-Brontë related Harry Potter and the Goblet and Fire (2000), in which headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, states to his students that, “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” Like us and Jane, Harry is fighting against the net that ensnares him but clawing back freedoms by making the right choices to protect those he loves.
“I only say that it is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble the foe.”
2020 is the bicentenary of the youngest Brontë sibling, Anne. Traditionally, her literary reputation has been in the shadows of those of her sisters, and the personal history of her brother, Branwell. Despite this, Anne was a powerful and trailblazing figure who did not shy away from the brutalities of life. Her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), explores ideas of domestic abuse, women’s rights, and freedom. The quote that really speaks to me currently though is taken from Tenant, “I only say that it is better to arm and strengthen your hero, than to disarm and enfeeble the foe.” Spoken by Gilbert Markham, the novel’s principal narrator, to the protagonist and heroine, Helen Graham, this is a quote that should be plastered all over social media right now. I said above that society has been split into the greedy and the altruistic; we are still free to reject the former and embrace the latter. Anne’s words have so much relevance in an age of panic- buying, stock-piling, and fear. Our enemy is an illness we do not yet fully understand but we have many heroes including kindness, support, and love. Let’s continue to strengthen these and we may win this battle.
“I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.”
Another quote that jumps out at me is from Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). “I wish were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.” This is spoken by Catherine Earnshaw to Nelly Dean, housekeeper of Wuthering Heights, whilst she lies ill and delirious. Cathy’s statement brings to mind images of the wild moors so loved by and associated with the Brontës, but also evokes the idea of physical freedom, something which also feels as though it is rapidly slipping away from us. The need for many to now self-isolate or “lockdown” means that many people are feeling trapped inside their own homes right now. Some of us can manage this considerably better than others; as much as I love my visits to National Trust places and my beloved Haworth, I can handle being inside for long periods of time if necessary. For some though it is much more difficult. But again, I’ve seen people around the country, and the world, find ways to claw back this lost freedom. I’ve seen people singing on their balconies and exercising on the rooftops in Italy, today I read a story about a man in France who had managed to run the length of a marathon on his balcony, and there are lots of people in the UK taking comfort in their own gardens. Living in an area which has not yet been badly affected, I really am very lucky although I know there is much worse to come, but here people are still able to have little walks around the neighbourhood and in the parks, acknowledging one another and saying hello but adhering to the social distancing rules and not making physical contact. If we stick together in this and, like Jane, we remove ourselves physically from those we love, and do as Gilbert Markham suggests, arm our heroes and disable our foes, then there will be a time when we can be enjoy the kind of physical freedom and bliss enjoyed by the young Cathy and Heathcliff on the moors.
“Now is the time for action now is the moment of your freedom I behold it coming over these mountains like the rising Sun”
And now, a word from Branwell. More than any other Brontë sibling, Branwell discusses ideas of freedom in his works. This is mainly because they are so full of politics and war, however, it was fairly difficult to choose just one quote to include here. In the end though, there was one that spoke to me more than others due to its emphasis on freedom and action. In Letters from an Englishman, Volume Four, Third Series (1832), the young Branwell wrote, “Now is the time for action now is the moment of your freedom I behold it coming over these mountains like the rising Sun.” Although many of us are finding our freedoms restricted, we are still free to choose how to act, such as adhering to social distancing advice and parting with loved ones, or, as the case with panic-buying and stock-piling, how not to act. As I’ve already said, we may defeat this enemy if we choose to stick together, to leave that extra pack of toilet rolls and pasta on the shelf for the vulnerable, the elderly, the NHS workers, the emergency service workers, the teachers looking after the children of “key workers”, etc. Only if we do this will the freedoms we are so used to be able to return like the rising Sun for us all to truly appreciate.
Reader, stay safe, be kind, and be free.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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