I have had the unhurried intention to re-read Jane Eyre for a number of years but it was only deciding to hold Brooding about the Brontës which actually made me sit down and do it. I first read this with my mother and came away with the distinct feeling that I did not love it as much as she did. Wuthering Heights appeared to have entirely less to do with love and thus I liked it far better. It was with relief that I studied Stan Bristol’s Joby in Year 9 rather than return to it as one of the other classes did. Yet, somehow there was a lingering feeling that there just might be more to it. I heard so many other stories of how this person or that one had fallen for Mr Rochester that I did wonder at my own utter immunity. It was with the sense of someone who might just have to make a massive climbdown that I picked up the book once more and … Reader, I loved it.
For those who have managed to dodge all idea of what Jane Eyre is about (my non-bookish boyfriend is distinctly hazy), it is the fictional autobiography of an unloved orphan, starting off with her childhood as the unwelcome poor relation at Gateshead, moving on to her schooldays at the horrendous Lowood school and then the beginning of her career as governess at Thornfield where she meets and falls in love with her employer, Mr Rochester. I don’t really think it’s that much of a spoiler to say that there are a few obstacles to her finding connubial contentment in that area (whisper: madwoman in the attic!).
This is a painfully personal novel though – Jane is utterly different to the classic heroine of Victorian fiction. While she may swoon (twice), she definitely not a Goody Two Shoes. From her childhood she exhibits a heartening and stubborn refusal to accept her lot in life. We first meet Jane on the infamous rainy day when it was impossible for her and her cousins to take a walk, meaning that they are all stuck indoors and Jane’s cousin John attacks her with a book, leading to Jane being sent to the Red Room as punishment for striking him back. Jane is a creature set apart from her Reed cousins, she is the niece of their late father and the object of great jealousy from their doting Mamma. Tiring of her charge, Mrs Reed dispatches her off to school, along with a stinging character description to her grotesque headmaster Mr Brocklehurst.
The Brontës always had a keen eye for cruelty in their fiction but where Emily has little Hareton hanging puppies, Jane is forced to watch and seethe as her Aunt explains to Mr Brocklehurst that Jane has a propensity for lies and violence. Jane has been told time and again what her position is – John Reed orders her to call him ‘Master Reed’, the nursemaid Bessie scolds her that as the poor relation, Jane ought to do whatever she can to ‘make herself agreeable’ to her aunt and cousins. But there is only so far one can try and then one stops. On the re-read, it was so easy to see that Jane had tried, tried, and then tried again and that finally she saw that her Aunt had always wanted her to fail and it is not fair. Her furious outburst made me want to punch the air (but I was on the bus, and so did not). It does not matter that her Aunt has fed her and clothed her all these years, it does not even matter that there has been a roof over her head. The emotional treatment has negated it all and as Mrs Reed’s embroidery slips from her lap, we know that she sees that too.
The true fury however is saved for Lowood, which is of course based on Cowan Bridge, which the Brontë girls really did attend and which claimed the lives of the two eldest, Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte was eight when she arrived there and she has lost nothing of her childhood indignation as she pours out her experiences here. The disgusting porridge, the selfish cook and then worst of all, the incredible hypocrisy of the headmaster. He buys cheap needles and thread so that needlework is hard, he takes pride in keeping the girls under-fed and harshly disciplined, feeling that this prepares them for their situation in life, but then visits with his own daughters in their silk frocks and their curled hair. His tirade against the poor child who has had the temerity to have naturally curly hair is so absurd that one feels that it must have been drawn from life.
Carus Wilson, Brocklehurst’s real-life counterpart, contemplated legal action upon the book’s release (Brontë settled privately) but the very fact that so many recognised him so quickly speaks volumes about the man. He may indeed have preached against slavery and been a good Calvinist but he was little use as a school administrator. It is this Calvinist view that we are all appointed by God to a certain position life, meaning that attempts to deviate from this amount to a rebellion against God that is so poisonous but Jane Eyre is just such a rebel and time again, she reasserts her own independence and her own choices. Dickens may decry budget schooling in Nicholas Nickleby but somehow it is not as powerful as Brontë’s account here – not only does it have the flavour of the eyewitness but it is drawn from the child’s eye-view, the true victims.
Helen Burns is one of the more problematic characters within Jane Eyre given that she is Jane Eyre’ closest friend but also a kind of child martyr/saint, coming out with wordy homilies at regular junctures. However, although many have been irritated by her down the decades, reading her always makes my nose fizzle with tears as I imagine the grief that poor Charlotte must have felt to have composed such a portrait twenty years after losing Helen’s real life inspiration, her own darling sister Maria. Just as young Jane rips away the notice ‘slattern’ from Helen, so does Charlotte sweep her late sister clean of any failings she may have had in life and commemorate her here – it is impossible to criticise her for it.
In some ways, the Lowood episode sits strangely next to the rest of the book – certainly it relates little to it – and I have read critics of it in terms of plot. But yet it gives Jane Eyre her fire, her determination – had she gone from Gateshead to Thornfield with nothing in between, it would have been hard to see how tough her road had been. By this point in the book, I had already fallen hook, line and sinker. I had not seen what the book’s objective was when I was twelve – I could not have understood it. Jane Eyre is not about a quest for love – as a poor governess, Jane knows better to expect anything like that. Instead it is a novel about the self. The relationship one can have with one’s own self – to accept yourself, to be true, to have integrity. Coming from a poor family who only had a roof over their head for so long as their father remained alive, Charlotte Brontë knew only too well what it meant live a life over which one has little control, so her heroine is a warrior, demonstrating how to conduct yourself when Fate may conspire against you.
Jane’s journey to Thornfield is laden with trepidation as she regrets that even with her intention to do her best is no guarantee that her prospective employers will be pleased with her. Brontë never romanticises her heroine, never attempts to soften her – Jane’s emotional honesty is her most attractive trait. Even when she arrives and finds her position pleasant, Jane excuses herself to the reader for not overly doting on her young charge Adele – she is fond of her, but nothing more. It is harder to excuse her patronising view of Mrs Fairfax – practically every time this kindly lady speaks, Jane has a snide inward observation but then she is an educated teenager and perhaps slanted towards being condescending. As an English Literature student, I find myself fascinated by how ground-breaking this insider view truly is. Since the novel’s inception (with Pamela), writers have sought different ways to allow the reader to peek into their characters, going from epistolary/confession narratives onwards but even Jane Austen sat at one remove – with Jane Eyre we are in, seeing the world through Jane’s eyes and although we know that this is all told through her eyes and that we are her readers, somehow it feels like unfettered access.
So many of Brontë’s own prejudices appear to be translated on to the page. One (possibly apocryphal) story has her telling her sisters that they are ‘morally wrong’ to have only beautiful heroines in their work, despite their claims that this is the only way to make heroines interesting. Given that Anne wrote Agnes Grey, a history of a plain governess before Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, the anecdote appears unlikely but certainly Charlotte appears to have had a strange relationship with her own appearance. Her own publisher once commented that he was sure that Charlotte would have given up all of her talents in favour of beauty, but yet she so obviously mistrusts it. When Jane Eyre returns to Gateshead after so many years absence, she observes tartly upon reuniting with her cousins that ‘young ladies have a way of knowing they think you a quiz’, something which again surely reflects Charlotte’s own experiences. We see Jane’s disapproval over the way that Adele values appearances above all, of her childish delight in her ‘toilette’, we observe her distaste for her pretty cousin Georgiana’s contemptible vanity and then worst of all, Blanche Ingram. Jane forces herself to compare her own self with that of Blanche, draws portraits of the two to remind herself of her own worthlessness and how Blanche will be the object of Mr Rochester’s designs – we see here someone who is reminding herself to despise her own appearance, where a consciousness of one’s own plainness is a necessity in order to endure life’s trials. Comparing this to Charlotte’s own life, one wonders if this was a lesson she had to endure.
I must admit that even all these years later, I fail to warm to Mr Rochester. The complex sadism of his courtship of Jane, his desire to almost destroy her before declaring himself is just too weird for me. The respect he has for Jane at times of trial is gratifying but he is just too much for me – yet he is not too much for Jane. Even when she believes she has lost him to Blanche Ingram, she refuses to admit defeat in herself – loss of Mr Rochester will not be enough to keep her down. That battle cry of hers ‘I am no bird and no net ensnares me’ is a glorious one.
I do still find it hard to believe that Jane never demanded to know the contents of the attic before the wedding. I certainly would have had a few questions in her shoes. As the words are spoken and the wedding is halted, there is a feeling of icy silence, we feel how Jane is frozen in horror. As we do finally climb the stairs and meet the true Mrs Rochester, the feeling of chilled calm is conjured perfectly. So many have theorised about what Mrs Rochester represents – the suppression of Jane’s true feelings that allows her to keep her self-contained exterior, the frustrations of suppressed Victorian women – but is she perhaps just a woman who has not kept as tight a grip on her sense of self as Jane has? Ripped from her native home and friendless, poor Bertha has had little to cling on to and maybe she is just not as strong. Certainly she has not been blessed with a sympathetic husband.
I am with Jeannette Winterson’s mother on this one, I really think that Jane could have done better. Even if we take the line that Edward played no part in his wife’s condition, and feel a sympathy for him in how his early stumble in life had such far-reaching consequences, the utter selfishness of the man was incredible. To believe that in giving Jane a home, he is justified in lying to her and drawing her into sin is similar logic to how Mrs Reed justifies her own cruelty. Even his demand that Jane remain with him out of his own need is selfish, showing only self-pity and no remorse. Yet, even though Rochester begs her to stay, to be with him, she has a clear-eyed awareness that he will not respect her for it, that despite his protestations, he will hold her in contempt if he makes her his mistress.
Jane may appear to be mealy-mouthed as she makes the decision to leave – many have wondered why she does not just give in – but here again, the object is not the heart but the soul. Jane acknowledges that her conscience may be of no obvious use and that yes, she might have been happier had she fled to France with Rochester but that an important part of herself would have been lost. In the choice between romantic and sexual fulfilment versus personal integrity, Jane chooses herself. In our contemporary society where the former is blasted from every magazine and media outlet, it may seem a strange choice, Jane may even seem narrow-minded. She is not. She is just refusing to compromise.
The following episode, as Jane flees, is perhaps also problematic since it sees Jane stumble accidentally across her long-lost Eyre cousins, St John, Mary and Diana. Mary and Diana do seem to be very thinly veiled portraits of Charlotte’s own sisters Emily and Anne, with the trio of girls shortly falling into a pattern of study with all three sitting round the table which does mirror their real-life habits. If we accept this, then St John is an intriguing inversion of Charlotte’s brother Branwell, a young man in the process of collapsing into alcoholism at the time that Charlotte was writing. By contrast, St John abhors all vices, refutes all of life’s temptations and plans to sacrifice himself to a life as a missionary. Jane observes him critically, even before she hails him as cousin, feeling a sorrow that his faith is such a harsh one, for while feelings without judgment are as ‘washy draught’, so judgment untempered by feeling is ‘too bitter a morsel for human deglutition.’ This observation coming from a parson’s daughter is an interesting one.
I found St John an unnerving character on this reading, far more so than Rochester. He is truly quite disturbing. When Jane asks him about his love for the local heiress, he sets his watch on the table and allows himself fifteen minutes exactly to contemplate the feeling – and no more. He is like marble, perfect in his physical appearance, well-intentioned and hard-working. Yet when he proposes to Jane, it is horrifying. There is no love there but yet he demands her loyalty, her service, her partnership in his mission. It is almost frightening as he orders her to obey, telling her that she is called to this life. Despite her respect for him and even some cousinly affection, Jane is evidently repulsed by the notion. Whispering behind this backing and forth is the physical side of the relationship; despite his avowed lack of love for her, Jane has no doubt that he would insist on a husband’s duties. Just as the child Jane would not submit to harsh treatment by the Reeds without a fight, so Jane refuses to submit to St John, telling him ‘God did not me my life to throw away’. Indeed, it is truly unsettling to read his declarations that he requires a helpmeet who is ‘unable’ to leave him (a sister substitute will not do), that he wants someone ‘bound’ to him permanently. He does not desire Jane’s body but he does want her mind and her soul. Frankly, he gave me the creeps.
While events prompt Jane to flee once more and return to Rochester, I owned myself slightly underwhelmed by the ending. Having seen Jane refuse a man who loved her emotionally and physically and yet did not respect her morally, then refuse a man who respected her morally but had no love for her emotionally or physically, I felt the perfect ending would have seen her find the union of both. The return to Rochester, albeit a subdued and diminished version, seemed somehow unsatisfactory – but again I remembered that this is not a romance. A romance would have had Prince Charming step forth. This is Jane’s journey to personal growth. There have been so many characters throughout the book telling Jane that she must do this, that she must do that but the finale sees her take control herself and make her own choices. It is not Rochester who marries Jane, but she who marries him. The final paragraphs of the novel do not even relate to her marriage, but rather reflect on St John and praises God.
I found Jane inspiring in a way that I truly did not expect – when she cries out, “Do you think that because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, that I am soulless and heartless?”, she speaks for a vast tract of Victorian society. Women of limited means, forced to scratch their way in the world and then despised for it. But yet, within her restricted scope, Jane makes her own choices and follows her own will. When all else is lost, when she is alone and starving and freezing in the cold, Jane has her self and nobody can take it from her. This is such a powerful comfort that even in times of distress, one can have a self and cling to it and Jane’s refusal to surrender to others is the reason why we are still singing this novel’s praises two hundred years after the birth of its author. Long may we continue.
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