Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Book review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (Puffin Classics: The Essential Collection, 1994 [1847])

Mystery, hardship – and love

Orphaned Jane Eyre, hated by her aunt and cousins, is sent away to Lowood School. Though life improves for Jane, she longs for true love and friendship. Then one day she meets Mr. Rochester, and everything changes …

COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED

Jane Eyre follows the life of a Jane Eyre – a poor, plain, unconnected and very small-bodied young woman. When the novel begins, she’s ten years old and lives with her horrible Aunt Reed and her equally dreadful cousins, who enjoy bullying her. Deemed a troublesome and disagreeable (even “passionate”, gasp, the horror!) girl, Jane is passed onto Lowood, a school for orphaned girls.

After six years in that hell-hole, having survived a typhus outbreak and malnourishment, Jane is promoted to teacher, and stays on for a further couple of years, until the headmistress gets married and takes off. Eager to broaden her horizons now that her friend is gone, Jane advertises for a position as a governess. The only response is from Thornfield Hall, where a young French girl needs tutoring.

At Thornfield, Jane finds her pupil to be very vain, but agreeable nonetheless. The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, is an old dear and life is a bit monotonous … until the master of the house happens to finally return. Edward Fairfax Rochester – harsh, sarcastic, brooding … and oh such a darling deep within. And about 20 years older than Jane, but what does that matter when you’re in love? Question is, can an unconnected governess really find happiness with the rich master of Thornfield?

Perhaps you find it strange that it’s taken me this long to review the one novel you would’ve thought would be the first book review I I’d blog about. Well, what can I say? I do take a very long time to get down to business sometimes …

This has got to be my favourite book of all time, right? Actually, you’d be wrong. I love the story and the characters – I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the novel itself, because it has issues. Charlotte Brontë’s pacing is peculiar – the first twelve chapters tend to drag on a bit and she’s too fond of very long, rambling descriptions, like a NaNoWriMo writer in November who has to make up the day’s word count and is short of time and just tries to cram as much as possible in there. I mean, the whole bit in chapter one about Bewick’s History of British Birds is enough to send one to sleep. Yadda yadda yadda, bored. On the plus side, I like the ramblings when they’re describing nature. I mean, ahh, look at this:

If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.

How can that not fill your soul with poetry?

Then there are the over-the-top “coincidences”. The one doorstep she happens to collapse on turns out to be that of her long lost cousins! OMG! And then their mutual uncle just happens to die and leave Jane with a fortune! How fortuitous! And isn’t it terribly convenient how there’s a fire that removes a certain obstacle to the Happily Ever After? And so on. I believe the doorstep thing would be classed as “providence”, as Charlotte Brontë was a good Christian woman, but today it sounds a bit far-fetched.

On the other hand, it’s a novel that’s stood the test of time, and in fact, was way ahead of its time too. Jane is a woman you can push but not break. She’s not a demure little mouse who will sit quietly and just accept abuse – no, she’s feisty and fights back, and that was not “agreeable” for a woman to do in those days. She gets a second offer of marriage and refuses – most women wouldn’t have. Then again, other women might have taken Rochester up on the offer of becoming his mistress, which she also refuses. Not that she isn’t tempted, because BOY IS SHE, but because she wouldn’t be able to respect herself if she did. Kudos to you, Jane. What a great role model she is for young women everywhere, even today! Or perhaps I should say, even MORE so today.

As for Mr. Rochester … To quote Adam Wolstenholme in the Spenborough Guardian a while back:

And for me, the hot-blooded Rochester with his secret mad wife hidden in the attic is a far more intriguing hero than the brooding rich boys of Jane Austen’s novels.

Yes. Yes, he is. Mr. Rochester is layered, much like lasagne. I was going to use “lasagne” just to avoid saying “onion”, but it works surprisingly well. He’s crusty and hard on the outside but once you break that crust and look inside, he’s all gooey. He’s not much to look at, but wow, he’s delicious. Cheesy to, at times (thanks for the reminder, LadyLittleton!) And to think how many people keep misunderstanding him all the time. (Tara Bradley being a notable exception.) He’s a naughty boy, but he’s not a bad person; just one that has been dealt a really harsh blow by life – or, rather, by his greedy family.

While seriously rich, that’s not his main appeal (unlike, I dunno, Darcy whose £10k a year makes him very appealing indeed, of course). It’s his damaged character. Rochester is flawed but passionate and you know he would love you to the end of the world. And that’s why so many people love him, even to this day. He’s not a cardboard cut-out, he feels three-dimensional. And he’s not even pretty. You’d think that the leads of a famous love story would be good-looking, but neither of them are: the term “Plain Jane” could’ve been named after Jane Eyre. (It might have been, I wouldn’t know.) So far away from a Mary-Sue you could ever wish for.

Regardless of anything else, Jane Eyre is a melodramatic powerful story of love against all odds, self-respect and female independence. There are plenty of scenes we all know and love (my favourite is the “How do you do/Depressed” scene, end of chapter 17), and the story keeps being adapted for the screen time after time. It stays with you. At least if you manage to get through the chapters where Jane isn’t at Thornfield. I have to admit I find the Gateshead and Lowood parts a little tedious – I’m just waiting for her to get to Thornfield so the story can start for real. Then, I tend to shoot through the chapters and then it grinds to a halt in Morton and the pages drag on until finally, she’s gone to Ferndean for a final verbal sparring match before it’s Happily Ever After for real.

There is a reason some books are still read and cherished 160+ years after their first publication. It’s because they’re well-written, tell a compelling story and have themes which we can still associate with and understand. So what that it’s about an orphaned girl in 1830s England who grows up to become a governess to a French girl who may or may not be the bastard offspring of an English gentleman, who has a mental patient safely tucked away in the attics of an old manor house? We can still relate to Jane’s passion and a good love story always works. Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel has stood the test of time so far, and I think it will live with us for many years yet.

4 out of 5 dreadful charity schools for orphans, because while I love the story, I’m not keen on the very convenient “coincidences”, nor at times the writing itself. Charlotte Brontë was a great dialogue writer, but her descriptions … sometimes she just doesn’t know when to stop.

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