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An appreciation of Jane Eyre
A meditation on Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was published in 1847, over 160 years ago. It's inspired a host of movies, including the most recent 2011 adaption by Cary Joji Fukunaga, as well as literary spin offs. It remains highly popular today, so what is it that captivates about Jane Eyre?
Story background: be aware that story spoilers follow if you have not yet read the book!
Essentially, Jane Eyre is the story of the novel's eponymous heroine. It's really a fairly predictable storyline. Basically, the poor, plain girl endures a cruel childhood but ends up marrying the rich man whom she loves. However, Charlotte Bronte's characterisations and her writing skills make this an intensely readable novel.
It's interesting first of all to consider Charlotte Bronte's background. One of five siblings, Charlotte grew up in a relatively isolated village. Their father was a clergyman and after the death of their mother, the children were looked after by an aunt. All the siblings were intelligent and derived intense enjoyment from writing and literature. Two of Charlotte's sisters died when she was relatively young. Her other sisters, Emily and Anne both had their own literary works published. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is the most famous of her two siblings' novels. Given the sisters relatively limited and conservative life experience, it is amazing that these young women were able to produce two of English literature's most popular and enduring novels.
In Jane Eyre, Jane's early childhood is spent growing up in the household of her aunt. Her wealthy aunt reluctantly takes Jane into her home after Jane is orphaned as a baby. Her aunt feels obliged to do this due to a promise she made to her dying husband. However, Jane's relatives treat her cruelly, making it clear that she is perceived as an inconvenience and a troublemaker who is dependent on their charity. She is bullied by her older male cousin and victimised by her aunt. The only saving grace is the occasional acts of kindness bestowed on her by one of the household servants.
At the age of ten Jane is essentially disowned by her aunt, when she is sent away to a boarding school for girls.The school is a charity run for impoverished girls. Lowood Institution, or school, is operated by Mr Brocklehurst, a clergyman. Bronte portrays Mr Brocklehurst as a hypocrite who pretends he is providing christian charity for the young women in his care. Instead the Lowood girls are kept in Dickensian conditions. They are mistreated and kept in near starvation conditions.
During her initial time at the school, Jane makes friends with a fellow student, Helen Burns. Jane admires Helen for her intelligence, stamina and interest in books. Jane believes Helen is unfairly victimised by certain teachers at the school and greatly admires Helen's ability to cope with this situation and her simple faith in God. During a hard winter, where the students are provided with little food or warmth, Helen dies of consumption. The character of Helen is widely believed to be based on the character of Maria Bronte, Charlotte Bronte's sister, who also died of consumption. Helen's simple christian faith and goodness are a contrast to Mr Brocklhurst's overt and hypocritical christian protestations.
Jane is a very likeable character in the novel. She knows that she can't rely on her looks or wealth to help her get by. She repeatedly describes herself as plain, dark and small. Instead she has to rely on her hard work, commonsense and commitment. She doesn't let a cruel world let her down. Unlike Helen Burns, she won't resign herself to simply accepting her fate or place in life. Although she has a christian faith, she doesn't rely on religion to help her find her place in the world. Instead, she decides to better herself. So Jane works hard at the school, eventually becoming a teacher. This position eventually enables her to obtain employment as a governess.
On the surface Jane finds fulfillment in the role of governess. Her employment conditions are favourable and her accommodation is comfortable. Her wealthy employer seems moody but kind. She is also genuinely fond of the young girl in her charge.
However, things get interesting when Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr Rochester, her employer. Mr Rochester reciprocates the attraction and proposes marriage.
However, it turns out that Mr Rochester has a tortured past and is already married to a 'mad woman", Bertha, whom he keeps locked up in an attic. To modern eyes, keeping your wife prisoner in an attic seems highly suspect and unjust. In fact, the sad life of Bertha inspired a spin off book, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys which was first published in the 1960s. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as an almost inhuman, monstrous, violent woman who is beyond redemption. Perhaps this reflects the attitude of Bronte's time to insanity. Bronte's writing implies that Rochester's actions redeem him because he is in fact doing Bertha a kindness by locking her up.
So although Jane is very likeable in the book, Mr Rochester her love interest, is more of an ambiguous character. Rochester enjoys wealth, but has gone through a long period of depression, self pity and self reproach. These are qualities that are the opposite to Jane's struggle to survive and improve her situation in life. She wouldn't have the luxury to engage in the same levels of self indulgence that Rochester does in the book. Unlike Jane, who increases her independence throughout the development of the novel, Mr Rochester becomes increasingly dependent on Jane to offer him emotional redemption and physical support.
The thing I like about Jane is that she is so honest with a hardcore commonsense. She doesn't need to rely on a man to solve her problems. In fact although she feels a strong passion for Mr Rochester she is also fiercely independent. She initially leaves Mr Rochester because she wants to preserve her integrity. Several times she is the one that saves Mr Rochester, rather than him riding to the rescue of her.
However, Jane also has an awareness of other worldliness and love. She isn't afraid to listen to her instincts. She has a practical nature, but can accept the possibility that there may be ghosts or other spirits in the world. Jane's love is also an honest one. Unlike Rochester's other love interest, Blanche Ingram, Jane's love is not coloured by perceptions of his wealth or physical attractiveness. In fact at the close of the novel, she goes to Rochester even though he has become physically handicapped. Their passion seems to be based on their ability to instinctively understand each other and enjoy honest conversation.
One of the other memorable characters in the book is St John Rivers. He is a contrasting character to Mr Rochester. He is hard working clergyman, who is handsome and austere. He wants to be a missionary in India and encourages Jane to accompany him there as his wife. Although Jane sees the advantages of the match, in the end she turns his offer down, as she realises she can't be true to herself by entering into a passion-less marriage.
Some of the cultural references made by Charlotte Bronte in the book are a little dated for modern readers. However, overall Bronte's writing flows beautifully and the story captivates until the end. I can well understand why this novel continues to be enjoyed 160 years after its publication.
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