To the British reading public of the mid-19th century, the story was a shocking one: A woman left her fiance standing at the altar after an unexpected revelation, ran away without a penny, threw herself on the mercy of strangers — and then ultimately returned. Some found this tale deeply moving. Others did not. “We feel for her struggles,” wrote one literary critic, “but for all that, the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman — one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend.”
The woman was, of course, Jane Eyre, the fictional creation of the writer Charlotte Bronte. She was not a real-life runaway bride, as is Jennifer Wilbanks, the woman who sent cable news stations into a frenzy last week when she disappeared a few days before her wedding, and then turned up in Albuquerque, confessing to cold feet. But in her own time, Jane Eyre was no less widely discussed. What made her bravery or “vulgarity” so fascinating was her defiance of conventional morality: her frank passion for the errant Mr. Rochester, her refusal to observe social niceties, her blunt speech. And to some, her behavior seemed every bit as tacky and attention-seeking as does the behavior of Wilbanks today.
This is not the beginning of an apology for Wilbanks, whose motives seem significantly less exalted than those of Jane Eyre. It is rather an attempt to work out why her story had so many people glued to their television sets last weekend, what persuaded CNN, MSNBC and Fox to break into their regular programming on Saturday to report her discovery — and what led so many commentators to burst immediately into spontaneous streams of invective. Purely by accident, I switched on the news at precisely that moment, only to hear one TV lawyer after another demand prosecution. Now her fellow citizens in Duluth, Ga., are demanding that she pay back the money they spent in her pursuit. Next they’ll be calling on her to pay back her parents for the wedding dress. Had the story gone in another direction — had she really been abducted — she’d now be a heroine. Instead, she’s the villain.
But where Jane Eyre merely defied her era’s conventional morality, it seems to me that the Wilbanks story also underlines some ambiguities in our conventional morality. Nowadays you’re not supposed to marry for money or status, although we all know some people do. You’re supposed to be happy at your wedding, even though some people aren’t. At the same time, it’s still considered selfish and immature to run away and abandon the caterers if you’re distraught — even though lots of people probably want to. Part of the culture says the conventional, social bits of weddings don’t matter, and part of the culture says they do. Part of the culture says weddings are about true love, and part of the culture says they’re about Cuisinarts.
I suspect that the ambivalence helps explain the sudden, nationwide desire to dissect every detail of this story, particularly the parts that concern money, as if the numbers would help us all come to a more satisfying moral. It’s been hard, over the past few days, to avoid learning that she and her husband had planned to have 28 attendants and 600 guests; that their bridal registry included a $250 Waterford ice bucket; that the bridesmaids were supposed to wear black chiffon gowns with fitted bodices and tiered skirts; or that the costs of this affair were running into six figures.
Had she simply locked herself in her bedroom to avoid all of this, she might have won sympathy as a bride frightened by a pretentious wedding. But the elaborateness of the escape — she cut off her hair, bought a bus ticket in advance, invented a story about kidnappers — suggests she hypocritically agreed to marry that nice John Mason just for the sake of the pretentious wedding, or anyway for the sake of the Waterford ice bucket, and then thought better of it. Unless, of course, it suggests she knew it would take more than locking herself in her room to get out of the whole elaborate mess. No wonder MSNBC’s online poll shows that a huge majority wants the bridegroom to jilt the bride, and CNN’s online poll is heavily favoring criminal prosecution: Anybody who ever wanted to evade a major family commitment can secretly or even unconsciously sympathize — and can also see how pathetic it looks at the same time.