Two of the classics that I have recently read again are Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. After reading these again, I was struck by the fact that I had to have my dictionary at my side at all times. Especially with Jane Eyre. I am going to show you some of the strange words I encountered in Jane Eyre. I also want to show you how some of the spellings have changed through the centuries and mention some of the interesting phrases that I found in the novel by Miss Brontë.
Knowing some French helped me with Les Misérables, but this also helped me with Jane Eyre because the little girl in the book, Adele, is French. She and her governess, Jane Eyre, did converse quite a bit in French with no translation given by Miss Brontë.
Let’s take a look at some of these words:
SURTOUT – n. a man’s close-fitting overcoat, esp. a frock coat. frock coat – n. a man’s close fitting coat, usually double-breasted with skirts extending approximately to the knees.
In French, this word means above all or certainly, so it looked familiar when I saw it on the page but was completely different in meaning. Miss Bronte used this word in describing a picture of her employer’s father when she first arrived to work for him as governess at Thornfield Manor.
SYLPH – n. a slender, graceful girl or woman.
The speaker who used this word is Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre’s employer, who was telling Jane about an old girlfriend of his:
“And, Miss Eyre, so much was I flattered by this preference of the Gallic sylph for her British gnome, that I installed her a complete establishment of servants, a carriage, cashmeres, diamonds, dentelles, etc.”
CONTUMACY – n. stubborn perverseness or rebelliousness.
The speaker is gain Mr. Rochester, who summoned Jane to join him and some guests in the parlor for the evening, even though he knew she probably did not want to join them.
“Nonsense! If she objects, tell her it is my particular wish, and if she resists, say I shall come and fetch her in case of contumacy.”
APPANAGE – n. whatever belongs rightfully to one’s rank or station in life.
The speaker is Miss Blanche Ingram, a lady who Jane thought Mr. Rochester wanted to marry, while in reality he was in love with Jane.
“As if loveliness were not the special prerogative of woman – her legitimate appanage and heritage!”
RAILLERY – n. good-humored ridicule; banter
Using this word, Miss Brontë was telling what was happing from Jane’s point of view.
“Excitement instantly seized the whole party: a running fire of raillery and jests was proceeding when Sam returned.”
ALACRITY – n. cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness
Again Mr. Rochester was in converstation with Jane when he used this word.
“ . . . for if I bid you do what you thought wrong, there would be no light-footed running, no neat-handed alacrity, no lively glance and animated complexion.”
There were many other words I found such as:
pulchritude – n. physical comeliness
bilious – adj. pertaining to bile; peevish or irritable; extremely unpleasant or distasteful
ribaldry – n. vulgarity or indecentness in speech, language, etc.
sententious – adj. abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims (pithy-terse, aphorism-a terse saying embodying a general truth)
arrogate – v. to claim or appropriate to oneself presumptuously or without right
spoony – n. a person who is foolishly or sentimentally amorous
paroxysm – n. any sudden, violent outburst, as of action or emotion
lachrymose – adj. given to or characterized by shedding tears; tearful
Some weird spellings I noted were: divers, gipsy, dullness, and alarum.
Different phrases not commonly used now were:
by-the-by (by the way, incidentally)
worth a fillip (worth a flip) A fillip is a smart tap or strike.
I hope you have learned a few new words and might be a little bit curious about the classic Jane Eyre. I found it interesting to revisit the writing style of a Victorian era woman. Miss Brontë was at different times both a student and a governess. It is also intereresting to see how sophisticated the language of the day was and how things have changed. I also recommend the movie versions of Jane Eyre. I have seen three: the one with Orson Welles and Jaon Fontaine, one with William Hurt as Mr. Rochester, and the latest PBS version.
I now take my leave.