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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre - Q.D. Leavis, Charlotte Brontë

Re-reading as an adult a book you enjoyed while young is always an interesting pursuit. This book has been extensively reviewed – and I agree with the general opinion that it is excellent – so this won’t be a standard review, but rather my observations this time around (full of SPOILERS).

I first read Jane Eyre for school at about 14, and like most girls in my class, loved the first two sections of the book – Jane’s childhood and her romance with Mr. Rochester – but felt that it lost its way in the final section. The boys tended to dislike it throughout, and I wonder now if its being full of women is part of the reason. It surprised me to find the first section devoid of males, except for a couple of brief and unpleasant appearances. Throughout the book, there are only two or three men who matter; Jane moves in a mostly female world, as makes sense for her time and station. Still, it’s a surprising Bechdel pass from a 19th century novel and a romance at that, and I enjoyed reading about the relationships Jane forms with the many secondary female characters who cross her path.

But my opinions on the three sections of the book have changed dramatically; this time around, the third section seemed the most important and my favorite. Jane’s childhood is still compelling, but she now comes across a little too put-upon. It’s no stretch to believe that an introverted young cousin might be disliked in a boisterous home, and that’s how the adult Jane, narrating the story, understands it, but that and her initial months at Lowood feel almost over-the-top. I can believe a school like Lowood would have existed, but it sounds bad even for the time – still, I enjoyed seeing it reformed after the sickness; the sequence of scandal followed by belated institutional change is apparently not a new one.

Then Jane grows up and shows good sense and initiative, which I always appreciate in book characters, and then we’re on to the romance. I wasn’t sold on this as an adult, though Bronte handles its development skillfully. Rochester is twice Jane’s age, extremely manipulative, and the first man to give her the time of day in her entire life, so she’s going to marry him? Not to mention his hiding the first wife in the attic. While that is of course extreme, I consider it a warning sign generally if someone has nothing good to say about their exes. What kind of partner is a person going to be if the most he can do to acknowledge his role in the failure of his prior relationship is “I was an idiot to marry that shallow, uncultured and demented person”? Admittedly, Bronte was working with different cultural expectations about marriage – likely in her time the spouse had to be absolutely hideous for an audience to sympathize with a character wanting out.

Which brings us to the book’s most glaring flaw (yes, there are also some melodramatic and unlikely elements, but you can roll with that because Jane is so down-to-earth). The portrayal of Bertha is pretty much “OMG, what a hideous, African-looking person! Who behaves like an animal and has no sense or feelings whatsoever!” Yikes. Other non-English people are not treated quite so badly, but are still criticized for all their non-English qualities. Most of this comes from Rochester, who has a habit of dating non-English women and then breaking up with them for not being English. But Jane also talks more than once about the virtues of an English education in improving the French (and therefore flighty and fashion-obsessed) character of the young Adele. Someone remind me how the UK ever got into the EU?

Otherwise, Jane shows rare good sense even compared to many modern heroines, so back to that. She realizes that continuing to live with the guy who nearly tricked her into a bigamous marriage is a bad idea and flees Thornfield. I liked this part, because who hasn’t wondered what would happen if you were cast out in the world with nothing? And how interesting to see how that might have played out hundreds of years ago. This is where Jane comes into her own: she achieves her independence both by modern standards (finding a job by which she can support herself) and then by 19th century ones (inheriting enough money to live comfortably on). Yes, she gets lucky – to my younger self there was too much coincidence toward the end – but this time her success in the village school convinced me that one way or another, she would have made it. And she meets people and sees other options that life has to offer, so that when she finally returns to Rochester, I was okay with it. This time she is coming from a position of strength rather than dependence, and makes her choice freely. So what would have been a creepy story had the first wedding succeeded turns into one in which the characters earn their happy ending.

At any rate, this is delightful reading – not only is Jane a strong character, but she has a strong voice, and despite the 19th century language, the prose is compelling and very readable. It flows so smoothly that it got into my head and I even found myself thinking in archaic language once or twice. So, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and had a bit of a book hangover after finishing. Definitely recommended to those who haven’t read it already!