Oh Jane Eyre, how I love you!! Sigh. This is my second time through Jane Eyre (if I don’t count the graphic novel version and the several movie versions I brought home), and I love it just as much as the first time I read it three years ago. I’m not going to give a synopsis here, as I think most people already know about what happens in Jane Eyre, and if they don’t, it’s best to go in as blind as possible. I didn’t know a thing about the book on my first read and I loved discovering each new point. With that in mind, I also want to give a BIG SPOILER WARNING here – I’ll be discussing many aspects of this book, including spoilerific ones, so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you might want to stop reading this review here. Also, another warning – this will be a long post. I have lots to say about this book!
Kelly from The Written World and I decided to read this one at the same time and have a sort-of buddy review for it. We didn’t have time to have a full discussion – the book took longer for both of us to read than expected! – but we did exchange some questions to include with our reviews. One of the things she asked me was since this was a reread for me, what made it worthy of a reread? I guess there are several answers to that, and many are involved with how and why I came to read Jane Eyre in the first place, January 2008.
At that time, I was just starting to write one of my novels, and the main character, Nina, was highly romantic. I wanted to find a book in classic literature that she could carry around as a talisman and call “the greatest love story of all time.” I wanted something that fitted her nature and also the story, a dystopian world where people were governed by a matchmaking corporation. Classic literature is fairly devoid of happy endings. Great love stories end up tragedies like Romeo and Juliet or Anna Karenina, or they’re violent and scary like Wuthering Heights, or they’re dispassionate and calm like Dr. Zhivago or Jane Austen’s books. I started asking around about good classic love stories, and the only one mentioned to me that I hadn’t already read and rejected was Jane Eyre.
I’d just read Wuthering Heights less than a year before and hated it, and I expected the same from Jane Eyre. I learned my lesson, though – never judge an author by her sister! I adored the book, and not only that, but it fitted into my story perfectly, in more ways than I expected! I spent months weaving sections of Jane Eyre into my novel, by quotes and references. It became a major thematic element. I already loved the book when I read it, but that constantly continuation with it made me love it even more. I’ve been excited to reread it for awhile now. I was worried, after only making it through half of Villette and a quarter of Shirley, that I had changed and wouldn’t like Charlotte Bronte’s writing anymore, but I needn’t have worried because I adored the book even more this second time through. It read differently, because I knew what was coming beforehand, but I still loved it.
Why do I love it so much? There are so many reasons! First, I have to admit, I’m one of those people who adore Edward Rochester. There are many people who think he’s a selfish bastard, imprisoning his first mad wife and manipulating Jane the way he does. I’m sorry, but I can’t see him in a selfish bastard light at all. He is the most human character I’ve ever read. Ever. He feels more like a real person than any other fictional person I’ve ever come to know. He has flaws, and major ones, and yet I still love him. I’m so used to reading characters who are either so flawed that they’re unlovable (or at the least, unrelatable), or who are nearly perfect, whose flaws don’t really matter. But Rochester is different. Is he selfish? Yeah. Aren’t we all? Is it wrong of him to want something for himself when he’d been cheated out of so much in his life? I don’t think so. I think I’d be just as selfish. He’s also very jealous and insecure, but I don’t see him as the evil guy who keeps trying to hurt Jane. I see him as very playful, and she certainly holds her own when she banters with him. They are perfect foils to each other, which is why I think their relationship works so well.
I adore Jane, too. I love how strong and witty and passionate she is, and how she has managed to control her passions as an adult the way she was unable to as a child. Another thing Kelly asked me was what I thought of the religious aspect of the book, and despite not being religious myself, I really enjoyed them! I felt like they fit. I never once felt like the book was preachy, as if Bronte was trying to push off Christian dogma onto the reader. Awhile back I discussed the strange lack of religious characters in non-religious modern-day fiction, and Jane Eyre is the sort of book I was talking about. I don’t mind at all that Jane has her religious convictions that she upholds. It makes her Jane. People have viewed her as weak, but I think she’s the strongest person in this book, standing up for her morals in the face of every temptation. How many of us would have that strength, no matter if our moral convictions were religious or not? I think most of us would just give in to the temptation.
When my book club read Jane Eyre, only a few months after my initial read in 2008, one of our members talked a lot about how strong Jane was, and how Bronte used Jane’s strength and convictions to put forth a feminist novel. I’ve seen reviews where people have talked about this book being the opposite of feminist, and I disagree. I like the way that book club member presented it: Jane was poor but morally rich, whereas Rochester was the opposite. Had there been no Bertha in the attic and they’d been able to marry, they would never have been equal. As Jane feared before her almost-wedding, she would never have been able to hold him the way an equal would, even if he always loved her. He would always be superior to her in a worldly way. Instead, she clings to the strength of her morals and leaves him, and only comes back once two things happen. She gains family and an independence, and he is crippled and made dependent. They are more equal when they go to the church a second time, or perhaps Jane is elevated slightly above Rochester at that point.
But what about Bertha? How does Bertha fit into the idea of a feminist novel? All I can say to that is in the end, despite her imprisonment, she destroys her prison, maims her husband, and chooses her own end, much like Edna in The Awakening. I’d love to read a story about her, from her point of view (besides Wide Sargasso Sea, which I’ve read and liked, but where there are huge discrepancies in fact and personality from the original novel and so the two books are completely disconnected in my mind).
Bertha is another reason I don’t think Rochester is just a bastard (going back to that point…). Yes, he kept her locked up and hidden, and he didn’t tell people about her. That first point, I don’t fault him for. Locking up “mad” relatives – I use the quotes because it was often unclear if they were actually insane – was common practice. He could have done so many other things with her. He probably could have annulled his marriage in the beginning, leaving himself free but her culturally tainted. He didn’t. He could have locked her away in the house he had which wasn’t very healthy, in which case she probably would have died quickly and been off his hands. He didn’t. He could have sent her off to an institution, which would have treated her even worse. He didn’t. He could have slowly starved her, or in some other way harmed her. He didn’t. He could have left her to die in the fire. But he didn’t! He tried to rescue her. Even through his hatred, even through his bitterness at being tricked into marrying a woman who was already starting to go mad, even after losing Jane, he crippled and maimed himself in trying to rescue Bertha. Do I feel sorry for Bertha? Yeah. The poor woman needed help probably no doctor was qualified to give in that time period. But I don’t blame Rochester for hating her, or for keeping her locked up and under good care, which is more than an institution would have done for her. Was he wrong to keep her a secret? Selfish, perhaps, but as reputation was such an important part of life then, I’m not sure I could call it wrong. We all keep secrets, sometimes huge ones, even today. Are we wrong to have them?
The last question that Kelly had for me was how this book compared to other Gothic novels I’ve read. It’s an interesting question. Originally I meant to reread this last RIP season, but I ran out of time. When I reread now, I didn’t really feel the Gothic elements so strongly. Perhaps it’s because I knew what was coming already, but the mystery didn’t feel so mysterious and I was far more interested in the characters and their interactions. The part at Thornfield is balanced by Jane’s time on the moors with St John and her other cousins. While that section of the book is relatively short, it feels like half the book to me and is rather tedious, not at all Gothic in nature. I understand why it’s important to the book as a whole and I appreciate it being there, especially for the contrast between Rochester and St John (who I think is a complete bastard no matter how Christian he considers himself), or between love and companionship. Still, it takes away from that Gothic feel of the book and I’m glad I reread it now, rather than for RIP.
Okay so this is super-long already, so I think I’ll end with just a quick note on the version of Jane Eyre I chose for this reread. A couple years back, Jason gave me the Dame Darcy illustrated version of Jane Eyre. All throughout are lovely illustrations, some tiny, some full page, in the style shown on the cover. This replaced my old copy of Jane Eyre which was none too great, and I think the illustrations lend themselves perfectly to the story. It made the reread even more pleasant than it would have been otherwise!
Note: Originally read in January 2008. Reread (by audio) in October 2013. The audio (read by Wanda McCaddon) was good but not particularly noteworthy.