Enduring Beauty

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Charlotte Bronte, an unmarried, impoverished woman who lived in the desolate moors of northern England, longed to write a novel. 

In 1846, at the age of 30, she submitted her first manuscript – The Professor – to a publisher.  It was rejected.

Four more publishers returned her manuscript, each time with a rejection notice prominently affixed to the front page.  Bronte, who knew nothing about the publishing business, didn’t realize it would have been wise to detach those five ding letters.  The sixth publisher, a man named Smith, graciously ignored them and at least gave Charlotte’s work a quick glance.

He wrote to her, “If you ever write another novel, please send it to us first.”  As professor of English literature Elliot Engel notes, this was one of the first words of encouragement she had ever heard.

The very next year Bronte sent her second manuscript to Mr. Smith.  It arrived in his office at 8:30 am.  Since he had a 9:00 am appointment, he thought he might devote a few minutes to give it a look.  At 8:50 am he told his secretary to cancel all his appointments for the rest of the day.  “I am reading a manuscript that is so superb it will make our name as a publisher of great fiction.” 

He was right.  The novel was called Jane Eyre, and it has been a bestseller for the past 174 years. 

Jane Eyre tells the story of an unattractive orphaned girl who is desperate for love.  She longs to be married to someone who is wise enough to recognize that beauty is only skin deep, and that true beauty is bound up in the goodness and faithfulness of one’s heart. 

It was Charlotte Bronte’s own story.  She was commonly regarded as an unattractive person.  A young man who once met her at a party wrote, “I met Miss Bronte tonight and I would have to say she would have to be twice as good-looking as she actually is to be considered homely.”  Hers was a cruel world, not unlike our own. 

As Engel points out, “Because she was so unattractive, when she would later invent her immortal heroine, Jane Eyre, created in her own image, she did something for Jane that no other author had done for a heroine.”  What was that?  She named her Jane.  

Female characters in Victorian literature were typically endowed with exotic, highbrow names.  But Jane was a plain Jane.  Just like Charlotte.

Jane Eyre was the first realistic heroine in English literature.  Bronte went out of her way to emphasize that she had not been blessed with any of life’s classic advantages:  conspicuous wealth, high social standing, good looks.  As one critic wrote, “Jane Eyre is the story of an ugly duckling who grows up to be an ugly duck.”

But she’s an amazing person – a brave and resilient underdog who rages against poverty and injustice.  As she continues to grow from the inside out, Jane reminds us that the meaning of life, despite what we hear at every turn in virtually every culture, is not looking good, feeling good, and making good.   As Jane herself says, “Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’”

The entire Bronte family seems to have been wrestling with this truth, since it emerges in Wuthering Heights, the famous novel written about the same time by her sister Emily.  

The apostle Paul nails it in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

The older we get, the more evidence we have that everything is slipping through our fingers:  our bank accounts, our “stuff,” our physical beauty. 

But we can never slip through God’s fingers.  

And in his eyes the renewed heart, in this world and the next, is the most enduring beauty of all.