Jane Eyre in 5 bites
Why read Jane Eyre?
1. For Jane herself – a rebellious woman
From the opening of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, we’re batting for Jane. We first see her, an outsider to the group of ‘contented, happy little children’ grouped winningly around their mamma, sounding like a Victorian family portrait exuding virtue – Jane, the smudge on the outskirts – soon banished to dream over Bewick’s History of British Birds. From the outset we know she is an imaginative child, sensitive to the slights of others. She’s bullied unmercifully by the gluttonous John Reed, outcast unfairly by the family and treated shamefully by Mrs Reed, blind to any but her own children. And yet, with a fierce sense of justice, Jane fights back – likening John Reed to the tyrannical slave-owning Roman emperors.
Unlike a classic gothic heroine, Jane is – in her own words, plain and small, with irregular features. She is, despite her wild imaginings in the red-room, level-headed in a crisis and resilient. But she is also passionate – think how she sneaks in to Miss Temple’s room where Helen Burns is dying, flees Thornton Hall and – with perfect self-assessment – knows she cannot marry the cold zealot St John.
It’s not just that Jane seeks justice for herself, she’s hyper-aware of how society sees women like herself. But she rebels from the aspects of this reflection that go against her nature. This includes the idea that she would wed St John in order to accompany him to India. ‘No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. I will never undergo it.’ She has, after all, experienced passion with Rochester and will accept nothing less. Jane Eyre, for all her modesty, plainness and simplicity, holds herself in high value. A lesson to us all!
2. For the anti-boarding school story
Fed up with boarding school romps that offer midnight dorm feasts or lessons in how to defeat You-Know-Who? Charlotte Bronte gives a slice of boarding school life based on her own school experiences. But Lowood – despite Bronte’s own experiences at the Cowan Bridge School – provides Jane Eyre with companionship, reinforces her resilience and – when its quiet routines prove too restrictive – provides her with a ‘narrow catalogue of accomplishments’ she can advertise. Boarding schools are touted in my own family as being character building – and for Jane, this is certainly true. For myself, I’m not so sure. It certainly left me with a distaste for sharing a bedroom with anyone I didn’t love and reinforced my love of libraries.
3. Bronte’s foreshadowing
Jane Eyre is choc-a-block full of wonderful foreshadowing – her first fit in the red-room foreshadows her hearing Rochester calling for her, her first meeting with Rochester, where Rochester is lamed by his horse rearing, foreshadows Rochester’s dependency on her at the end, the horse-chestnut tree split in two, the first fire, started by Bertha, Mrs Fairfax’s questioning of the equality of the match, the tearing of the wedding veil in two…. All of these wonderfully evoke the gothic.
4. Jane Eyre, ‘Rapunzel’ & ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
Like Rapunzel, Jane must be banished from the tower. She banishes herself – but the end result is that she, too, suffers a period in the wilderness, which leads to her self-actualisation. Without her small inheritance – which, as we would expect from the child brought up to favour justice and fairness after a childhood of unfair abuse – she shares with her cousins – she could not return to Rochester as anywhere close to his equal. She would be forever his little governess, prey to his extravagant gestures of love – the silk dresses and jewellery she finds unsuitable – and, eventually perhaps, forced into a position of gratitude, rather than loving equality.
To further cement the deal, Bronte emasculates Rochester – he is to become dependent on Jane. This is an interesting manoeuvre – Rochester has had Jane tucked under his armpit for most of their courtship, but now the fairytale shifts and we see him as the Beast and Jane taming his shaggy locks. Is it necessary for Rochester to reject society in order to be brought back to it by Jane? Is it necessary for Rochester to be brought down in order for Jane to have permission to approach him as his equal?
A similar thing happens in Rebecca – but I wonder if Jane Eyre is the first of these novels where a man must be divested of strength before the marriage to happen or the couple to forge a kind of peace. Are there are other examples? Leave me a comment if you can think of any.
The best unrequited sexual tension scenes in the nineteenth century. ‘Nuff said.