JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë
There were 10 of us to dinner that evening. We were to discuss a book written 160 years ago, which has nonetheless just appeared among the top 10 of a list of Best Reads. It is a ‘classic’, the sort of book you are forced to read at school, only to be terminally put off by the old-fashioned language, the many words never seen or heard in everyday 21st-century life; that is, unless you let yourself be borne along by the story, which is so powerful as to have lodged in the collective consciousness. As it turned out, only three of the ten of us had read it before (although we all knew about the mad wife in the attic); and only one of us finished it: the demands of concentration and time were too great. The best time to read it is in adolescence, when you are most likely to empathise with Jane. The daughter of one of our party, aged 13, has just read it at school, and loved it, appreciating particularly the way it was written by Jane herself, allowing the reader to get right into her head.
As well as the fact of his mad wife, Rochester has passed into everybody’s general awareness as a gorgeous hero; so it was odd for some of us, reading it again as an adult, to see that he is in fact not good-looking at all: Jane takes some pains to describe him as ugly, low-browed, with a heavy, square-cut fringe. Some of us don’t notice his looks, however, still thinking of him as a romantic lead. Maybe we are confusing him with Heathcliff. One very unattractive trait is the way he plays with Jane, testing the strength of her attachment to him, pretending right up to the moment of the first marriage proposal that he is planning his wedding to Blanche Ingram, taking her compliance for granted, until she is forced into outright protestation, enabling the capitulation and confession of love. He may have been reassuring himself, but it is unmistakably cruel of Rochester. He seems to denigrate Jane all the time, referring constantly to her as little, or quiet; and of course we know, from her inward thoughts, that she is anything but this, keeping it all buttoned up. Feeling herself too lowly to consider the possibility of love herself, his unpleasant games give her the opportunity to recognise it; and there is a tremendous erotic power to their dialogue, as strong as Charlotte’s sister Emily’s in Wuthering Heights, if more understated. It must have caused a frisson on first publication, quite as much as the content of the story.
We felt Charlotte must have experienced such feelings herself in order to write about it. Perhaps it comes from her obsession with her Belgian professor, who of course in reality repudiated her love; in Jane Charlotte gives herself the opportunity to imagine a happier outcome. There is so much that is autobiographical about the book: the miserable situation at Lowood school, the character of Helen Burns, a replica of Charlotte’s idolised older sister Maria, who died, a martyr to illness but gentle and loving to the last. Her character and death are so reminiscent of Beth March in another, equally famous novel later in the century; and, like Jane, Beth’s sister Jo in Little Women is a flawed, feisty, angry person whose character is so much more interesting both to reader and author.
We discussed the Christian element to the story at some length. It is very strong, but always in conflict with the erotic, as though it represented a deep paradoxical pull for Charlotte herself. Holy Helen brings the comfort of human embraces, but is taken away to God. Later, St John’s muscular Christianity, his struggle to adhere to the tenets of his faith while repressing all warmer, physical impulses, are a harsher reflection of the dichotomy in Jane’s own character, her dutiful religious beliefs, deeply entrenched since childhood, set against her natural sexual feelings. Where did these religious beliefs originate? Hardly in the household of her aunt Reed. But they are strong enough to exercise a real temptation when St John invites her to accompany him to improve the heathen hordes. She is on the point of accepting, inexorably drawn towards an outcome that she positively dreads, almost as though it is beyond her control, when she is saved by an out-of-body experience, hearing Rochester’s voice coming to her from hundreds of miles away. It is a clear indication of the pagan, or non-Christian, overcoming the orthodox. Rochester for his part has to be punished: for his treatment of Jane, as much as for his actual bigamy, frowned upon by society even more than by God, however understandable in the circumstances. He was morally wrong in trying to coerce Jane into entering an illegal state, absolutely against the teachings of the church. His punishment was terrible, but a ray of light (literally) entered his life at the end, and, having repented and been cast down in to the depths, allowed his happy ending.
In the light of this thinking about Christian punishment Brocklehurst and his family are interesting. Frustrated in his desires both for control and for an ascetic life, he forces his hapless orphans into a situation of absolute, cowering obedience, being unable to exercise the same control over his worldly, vain wife and daughters. He is not physically punished, but his ideals are thwarted along with the raison d’être of the school: Helen Burns’ martyr death has its effect and the situation at the school has to soften, the pupils no longer dangerously deprived.
We noticed that although there are descriptions of landscape or the disposition of the furniture in a room, people’s reactions and expressions are not often directly described, but are implied through dialogue, or by dwelling on physical attributes as noticed by Jane (Rochester’s dark eye, the perfect symmetry of St John’s face). We hear so much of Jane’s innermost anguish, questioning, self-doubt, convictions, that we become totally absorbed in her: it is odd to look up at the end to find ourselves not in a large, ruined mansion in Yorkshire. This leads us to believe that Jane and Charlotte are one and the same, which led to a certain lively discussion among us. Charlotte seems to be very different, but has done many of the same things as Jane: she has attended the same sort of school, both as pupil and teacher; she has worked as a governess, and has fallen in love with an older man, and had to leave him. We did not know about Charlotte’s religious convictions, but as she was the daughter of a parson we might deduce that Jane’s mix of inbuilt Christian belief and natural moral independence are shared with her author.
Jane is of course a very lowly choice of narrator: a poor relation, almost a servant, unheard-of in novel-writing to date (Jane Austen included), which concentrated mainly on the moneyed classes. Charlotte’s sister Emily went one further of course and used a housekeeper as her mouthpiece for Wuthering Heights.
On a light-hearted note we were struck by the similarities with Harry Potter’s situation: the orphan state, the horrible, heartless aunt, with her spoiled, cosseted and overweight son, who taunts the hapless, less fortunate hero(ine). Both Jane and Harry are locked up in a small, frightening room by the family. In Jane’s case it gave her brain fever and she was rewarded by being sent away to school where she eventually came into her own, just like Harry.
Brontë makes full use of the structure of the book common to her time: the three volumes, each ending in a cliffhanger to keep you coming back for the next instalment. There is tremendous pace, once you get past the first, Reed-family part of the book. This could also be said to be similar to the structure of the Harry Potter books: the Privet Drive part, so different from the main story, is something to be got through at the beginning of each one before you are rewarded with the full action. In terms of plot, Jane Eyre is a mixture of realistic, psychological development, and melodrama: the obvious embodiment of this latter is Bertha Mason, but there is also the tenuous, coincidental link through the Madeira uncle between the Masons and St John’s family, which brings Jane her unexpected wealth and changes her situation for ever. It is only when she is able to return on her own terms, rich in her own right, and physically stronger than Rochester, that she can allow herself to become his wife. He is fully humbled before her, absolutely dependant upon her. She is his eyes, as well as his happiness.
Some time ago in our Book Club we read Jasper Fforde’s wonderful The Eyre Affair. This is the wrong way around: it would have been better to go from Jane to feisty Thursday Next, with her ruses to improve the character of Mr Rochester, and her interference in the plot to correct the infelicities which jar for the 21st-century reader. It is Thursday who impersonates Rochester’s voice under the window, causing Jane to come to her senses and turn down St John’s marriage proposals (how could she even consider such a humourless, hard-edged Christian?). It was Thursday, bumbling about in Thornfield trying to sort out Bertha, who inadvertently dropped the match that started the inferno that led to the extinction of the house, and the blinding of Mr Rochester. Fforde’s book is full of affection for the earlier novel.
Jane Eyre is a long book, unfashionably so, one might say. The degree of absorption and concentration necessary fully to appreciate it are hard to find in the busy lives of book club members, rushing about between work and family. However it was wonderful to feel intellectually challenged, and to be brought out of ourselves for a while, to share the life of a ‘little’ governess, wrestling with the inbred religious fervour which sat so ill with her naturally strong, independent character, falling in love with an impossible man, remaining true to her ideals even through the most heart-rending situation. We were with her during her experiences of near-starvation and destitution, and admired her indomitable spirit.