Fiction: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

This is the third time I’ve read Jane Eyre, but the first time I haven’t had to read it for a class. I had to double-check that, because I could have sworn I’d read it a couple of years ago on my own, but looking through my records (yes, I keep records, hello, have you met me, I’m kind of anal) I haven’t read Jane Eyre since before 2006, which would have made the last reading for my 19th Century British Novel course in 2004.

I’ve picked up a couple of books that I’d once read for a class, and it’s interesting; much like when I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles a couple of years ago, I remember the themes that we discussed in class, but I don’t feel the need to analyze them again, which is nice. I recommend that if there was a book that you remember reading in high school or in college that you kinda liked, pick it up again. Tonight’s entry for Jane Eyre will not be discussing the beautiful versus the sublime (which was a major theme in the class), but more about Jane’s sense of individualism.

Of course, if there was a book you hated reading in high school, for the love of God, don’t pick it up again. I did not like Holden Caulfiend in Catcher in the Rye back in junior year, but it’s been over ten years; maybe now, he won’t seem so whiny and phony. However, I hated – haaaaaated – Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. If I ever get the whim to read that again — that’s like, the number three symptom on my list that designates I’m suffering from a severe mental illness.

Um, enough about that. Let’s talk about someone who actually suffers from a mental illness!

The story of Jane, if you don’t know: she was an orphan, beloved by her uncle Reed, but sadly for her, Uncle Reed died, leaving her in the care of Aunt Reed, who does not like her. At the end of her non-empathetic rope, Aunt Reed sends nine-year-old Jane Eyre off to the bare-bones charity school of Lowood. After half the school’s population dies of typhoid and malnutrition, the school gets taken over by characters who are more sympathetic to the needs of poor young girls, and Jane thrives, eventually becoming a teacher. But then she begins to get antsy, and advertises for herself as a governess. She is hired by Mrs. Fairfax, household manager of Thornfield. Jane moves to Thornfield to take care of Adele, a French girl of about ten. After being there a few months and starting to get antsy again, she is going to town to mail a letter when a man on a horse happens to fall off just as she passes. She helps him back on to his horse, continues to town, mails her letter, and when she returns she learns that she had helped her heretofore unknown landlord, Mr. Rochester, get back on the horse.

Mr. Rochester takes a fancy to Jane, which she tries to ignore, as it wouldn’t be proper. He has friends come and stay with him, including Miss Blanche Ingram. To Jane’s eye, it appears that Mr. Rochester intends to marry Miss Ingram. She does her best to ignore the blossoming romance, and finds an escape when she learns that her old Aunt Reed is on her deathbed. She returns to her childhood home, learns that she had an old uncle who wanted to make her his ward, but Aunt Reed was a bitch and wouldn’t let him contact her. Aunt Reed dies, Jane returns to Thornfield, and Mr. Rochester proposes marraige to her, and she accepts.

Meanwhile, weird shit has been happening around Thornfield. Mr. Rochester was almost burned alive in his bed; weird noises emanate from the third floor, and there’s this weird servant, Grace Poole. Oh, and some dude visiting almost got stabbed. So on the morning of her wedding, the ceremony is interrupted by a lawyer from London who announces to the small wedding party that Mr. Rochester is actually already married! To a crazy woman who’s been living in the attic!

So Jane runs away, lives destitute for a few days, and gets taken in by a poor, honest family named Rivers. Through some crazy random happenstance, they learn that they are cousins — how awesome is that? Except that St. John Rivers, the male cousin (and if I remember correctly, St. John is not pronounced Saint John, but Sinjin) wants to be a missionary, and wants Jane to be his wife. Not because he loves her, but because he thinks that’s all she’s good for. (Don’t worry, I’ll get into that later.)

So in another crazy random happenstance, Jane is thisclose to telling St. John she’ll go to India with him when she swears she hears a voice. She packs her shit, hires a coach to take her to Thornfield, finds the mansion burned to a crisp, but finds out that her beloved Mr. Rochester has retired to his secondary mansion (because everyone should have a secondary mansion) after his crazy wife nearly killed him in another fire, and now he’s blind and an amputee. And they marry, have a child, and eventually, he gets his sight back.

Okay. I just reread those paragraphs, and it sounds very trite and melodramatic. It’s not. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre before, please don’t take that stupid little summary as gospel. It’s much more exciting and yes, melodramatic. I picked up Jane Eyre again for a few reasons. Number one, there’s a new adaptation coming to theatres in March, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane (she was Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland last year) and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester (and he was apparently in Band of Brothers and Inglorious Basterds), and I wanted to reread the book before seeing it (as I tend to do). Also, I’m beginning my research into Victorian literature, style, and other things, and I have a couple of examples of near-Gothic description and atmosphere that I’ve marked and can return to. But honestly, I was looking for a romance where I knew everything would turn out okay in the end (because I’d read it before), but for a while, thought it might not. Or something. I don’t know. But I remembered the romance between Jane and Rochester being deeper and more passionate than that of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (SERIOUSLY DON’T THROW THINGS AT ME).

Speaking of that: I know that Virginia Woolf at one point tried to compare Pride & Prejudice to Jane Eyre, and decided that Jane Eyre was the lesser of the two, that the emotions in Jane Eyre were what ruined it. I say thee, nay. That’s what makes Jane Eyre better than Pride & Prejudice, and that’s why I’ve read Jane Eyre more times than Pride & Prejudice (zombie-infested versions don’t count).

I also remember reading the book in that 19th Century British Novel class — or maybe it was the Victorian Literature class — but regardless, I read somewhere that in the grand scheme of things, Jane and Rochester couldn’t marry in the middle of the book not because of Bertha Mason in the attic, but because they weren’t equals in terms of status. So when Jane comes into an inheritance in the last third of the book, then they should be able to marry. But what Bronte does is punish Mr. Rochester for his youthful indescretions and his more recent lies by making him blind and an amputee. And that … it doesn’t feel right to me. It’s probably different to me reading it now than it would have been to more pious readers back in the 1850s, but … is losing a hand that much of a step towards equality? That just seems to me too — uh, you’ll pardon the phrase, but heavy-handed. He has to lose his house, his sight, and a limb? Dude, Charlotte — give the man a break.

But the thing that I like most about Jane Eyre — the character, not the book — is that she is probably one of the first truly independent women in literature. And I’m not usually one to go finding feminist literature — I read historical romances, for cripes’s sake. But while Elizabeth Bennet is witty and smart and can take care of herself when needed, Jane always takes care of herself. Jane doesn’t even attempt to hide her sarcasm behind witticisms; she’s just outright sarcastic. She wants to know where she stands as an entity and as herself, not as property of Man. And above all, she thinks:

And now I thought: till now I had only heard, seen, moved–followed up and down where I was led or dragged–watched event rush on event, disclosure open beyond disclosure: but now, I thought. [309]

This scene followed the great disclosure of Bertha Mason in the attic.

In an earlier example, Rochester asks her to sit still while he’s trying to propose marriage to her:

‘Jane, be still; don’t struggle so, like a wild, frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation,’

‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.’ [266]

Once engaged, their relationship is full of back-and-forth conversation and cutting insults. And it’s the type of relationship I’d love to have: bantery.

‘Look wicked, Jane; as you know well how to look; coin one of your wild, shy, provoking smiles; tell me you hate me–teaze [sic] me, vex me; do anything but move me: I would rather be incensed than saddened.’

‘I will teaze [sic] you and vex you to your heart’s content, when I have finished my tale…’ [295]

Contrast that with her relationship with St. John, who intrigues Jane, but does not inspire the same type of love and respect that she had with Rochester.

I found him a very patient, very forbearing, and yet an exacting master: he expected me to do a great deal; and when I fulfilled his expectations he, in his own way, fully testified his approbation. By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind: his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference. I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by; because a tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity (at least in me) was distasteful to him. I was so fully aware that only serious moods and occupations were acceptable, that in his presence every effort to sustain or follow any other, became vain: I fell under a freezing spell. When he said ‘go,’ I went; ‘come,’ I came; ‘do this,’ I did it. But I did not love my servitude: I wished, many a time, he had continued to neglect me. [419]

St. John also does not see her as an independent entity; she is not someone who has free will, or any personal inclinations. In St. John’s mind, God (his Sovereign) is who decides the purpose of everyone’s life; free will has nothing to do with it. Neither do emotions:

‘God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must–shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you–not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.’ [424]

And here is where Jane’s innate sarcasm shines through:

‘Oh! I will give my heart to God,’ I said. ‘You do not want it.’

I will not swear, reader, that there was not something of repressed sarcasm both in the tone in which I uttered this sentence, and in the feeling that accompanied it. [328]

And now, the It’s All About Alaina section.

Here is proof that Blanche Ingram is nothing more than the first incarnation of Lucy van Pelt:

‘Cease that chatter, blockhead! and do my bidding.’ [203]

This relates to a joke between a friend of mine (name of Mason), and the phrase “Check Means Done.”:

‘Ever since I have known Mason, I have only had to say to him “Do that,” and the thing has been done.’ [227]

CHECK!

Finally: Dearest Jane, I totally empathize with this statement:

I tired for the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it, and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘Grant me at least a new servitude!’ [89]

For as I come close to the nine-year mark of tenure at my place of business, I too at times feel the need to cry out, half-desperate, “Grant me at least a new servitude!”  But then I sigh, pull on my bootstraps, and keep on going. 

Grade for Jane Eyre: 4 stars

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