As luck would have it, I found this lovely 1933 edition of Jane Eyre in a charity shop about a year ago, and over the Christmas holiday I got a chance to read it.
I read (and enjoyed) Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights during a trip with friends to the sister’s home of Haworth a couple of years ago. Although from reading reviews and articles about the books I expected them to be different, I was surprised at quite how dissimilar the writing style was. Wuthering Heights is bleak, cold and intense, whereas Jane Eyre is dramatic yet our heroine is practical, kind, courageous and moral. She sounds a little boring, no? Not at all, as I found out.
I didn’t know the plot at all before reading Jane Eyre and it was a delight for me to discover it so I won’t go into too much detail but try to give the gist instead. Jane is an orphan who has a pretty tough time of things in her early years, first living with mean old Aunt Reed at Gateshead House where the eldest child John torments her, and then moving to Lowood School, a charitable institution where the students live a modest lifestyle in quite harsh conditions. Jane eventually becomes a tutor at the school herself before leaving to become a governess at Thornfield hall which is where she meets a certain Mr Rochester, but that is merely the beginning of the story!
How could I not love Jane? She is kind-hearted, high-spirited, and a book-lover! Written in the first person, Jane has a wonderfully warm and eloquent voice. She takes the reader into her confidence, revealing her private thoughts, hopes and fears. I felt that I really came to understand her as I followed her growth from a little girl to a young woman. She makes much of the fact that she is plain-looking, but her mind is anything but plain. She is passionate and really quite modern in her thinking – quite the early feminist:
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from to rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
With these personal sentiments, Charlotte Bronte must have found it frustrating that she had to adopt a male pseudonym to publish Jane Eyre and I like to think that she gained great satisfaction in its success.
One of the key themes in Jane Eyre is of personal morality. Jane is a very moral person, however while she is influenced to some extent by religion she is also strongly guided by her own conscience. A keen observer, she also learns from and is influenced by those around her. Helen Burns, a fellow student at Lowood, makes a lasting impact on her by teaching her the value of patience and forgiveness, not just from a Christian perspective but also from that of a sense of being able to liberate oneself from the burden of anger:
“What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill-usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs.”
It is this sense of independent conscience which helps Jane on her journey to make many difficult decisions.
I should mention that although I found Jane Eyre a gripping read for the most part, I did lose momentum a little towards the middle section. I think that perhaps because Mr Rochester appears relatively early in the novel I was bemused about how it would progress from there. The structure of the story is a little unusual, however Charlotte Bronte continues spin her story and reveal surprises that kept me compelled in the second half of the novel.
Jane Eyre is full of drama, but Jane herself is down-to-earth. Her frank tone helps to temper how preposterously unlikely some of the plot twists are. I did have some small reservations about how unlikely some of the situations were and also felt quite sorry for one particular character who I won’t name for fear of spoiling the story. However I loved the character of Jane and the story itself that I can happily overlook those issues!
In Jane Eyre, I was expecting a brilliant story and that’s exactly what I got. Love, learning and dark secrets – it had everything I wanted and I felt that I had almost come away with a new friend in Jane, so sincere was her voice.
A Guardian article that I read suggested that you could only be either a Jane Eyre person or a Wuthering Heights person. I’m not sure that is exactly the case, but having read them both now I think that I can say that I’m 80% Jane with a little bit of Wuthering thrown in for good measure!
My rating: 9 out of 10
Have you read any Bronte novels that you enjoyed?
This was this post on Mad Bibliophile’s blog that bumped Jane Eyre up my reading pile and Savidge Reads’ glowing review confirmed that it was a must-read for Christmas. Kimbofo also just read it, and you can read her thoughts here.