Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the most enduring love stories in the English language, but it is not only a love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester, but in some ways an ode to the potential wonders of travel. While Jane Eyre is 170 years old, the messages about love and about the siren call of European adventure still resonate with modern audiences.
In Jane Eyre, the novel’s Jane, a poor governess, falls desperately in love with her rich employer, Mr. Rochester, who has a dark and tragic past. It was on the premises of Mr. Rochester’s past that the Grand Tour plays such a key role. The Grand Tour was the goal of every maturing gentleman in the 18th-19th century, that they spend a few years abroad touring the sights of mainland Europe. This was considered the completion of their formal education and gateway to society. Appreciation for the beautiful and unique was the main goal of the aesthetic education taught on the tour.
Spoiler Alert. Mr. Rochester, as a young and immature youth, is forced into matrimony by his father and brother in Jamaica for financial reasons. However, it quickly becomes clear that the match was not a good one, leaving Rochester unhappy and his wife, Bertha, insane. By not venturing out on the Grand Tour earlier in his life, Rochester is robbed of valuable time to mature and grow his character. This maturity is what he lacks when he agrees to be married. He was enthralled with Bertha’s beauty and money, not understanding that life was more than its outward appearance.
Following his ill-suited marriage, Rochester decides to venture out on the Grand Tour, to escape from the fiasco that happened in the West Indies and his new, unstable wife. He wants a distraction, and the glamour of the Grand Tour appeals to his senses. He wants the opportunity to feel young and unburdened. So he returns to Europe with Bertha in tow, drops her off in England, and sets out for adventure.
However, after his wandering and many unsuccessful romances abroad, his wandering soul is yet to be satisfied. He realizes that “beautiful” women of his “flings,” such as Celine, Giacinta, Clara and even Bertha, were not worthy to be pursued. Thus, Mr. Rochester desires to connect with the simple Jane Eyre, who was present upon his arrival at Thornfield Hall. His experience abroad gave him the ability to recognize what he was truly searching for: pure, undefiled love. The Grand Tour taught him about himself.
Let time progress a few hundred years and we arrive at our present century. Is travel and education perceived in the same way today as it was in the age of Rochester and Jane? Traveling has become not as much a social status as it was in the past, but rather less expensive and more of an activity in which people from all walks of life participate.
While an education has also become more readily available to everyone today, society is still obsessed with the idea that those with experience abroad are considered truly educated and well-rounded. One may receive a Ph.D. from Harvard and have the knowledge of a thousand books, yet how much practical knowledge has said person acquired from Harvard on living life? One can read about Paris in a textbook, but the history, the culture and the stories only become alive and feasible when one is able to touch the Eiffel tower and taste a fresh croissant.
Experience abroad allows us to meet people where they are. It teaches us empathy, compassion and humanitarianism, by exposing us to reality and giving us the power to influence the next generation. Travel also teaches you about yourself. Just as Rochester discovered the missing component of his life while abroad, you just may discover a missing component in your own life. Society in the 18th century understood that travel enriches life in educational and practical aspects, and it is no different in today’s age. Don’t be afraid to step out and go.