Jane Eyre begins with the titular character and narrator, ten years old, unable to go outside because it’s raining. We learn that she is an orphan and has been adopted by her widowed aunt, Mrs Reed. It’s clear she is being neglected by the family and bullied by her cousin John. But she’s not the type to take this lying down: after a spirited altercation she is locked in her late uncle’s room, where she has a supernatural experience, the first of several in her life, that causes her to faint with terror.
Jane spends her time dreaming of miserable, fantastical places like stormy seas and icy poles. According to others she is lacking in a “sociable and childlike disposition”, a “more attractive and sprightly manner”. She is plain girl and later woman. In one of the novel’s many wonderfully acerbic lines, a character says to her face, “I should hardly have been able to guess your age. It is a point difficult to fix where the features and countenance are so much at variance”. She rails against her “prospects”: “to be made useful, to be kept humble”, as she will do throughout the novel. But it is these qualities that make her such an endearing narrator. Soon she is fighting with Mrs Reed and sent to a charity school for poor girls, where she meets the saintly Helen, who advises,
far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you.
But Jane counters:
If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way.
It is between these two positions that Jane battles throughout her story: whether to trust her own sense of right and wrong, or follow that ordained by society and God. The novel has it a little both ways. Skipping forward to when Jane is 18, she picks up her story as she leaves the school and takes a position at Thornfield Manor as governess. At first she is bored and restless as she has ever been:
What good it would have done me at that time to have been tossed in the storms of an uncertain struggling life, and to have been taught by rough and bitter experience to long for the calm amidst which I now repined!
But rough and bitter experience is not far away, when she meets the owner of the house, Mr Rochester, twenty years her senior. He’s a man in exile, trying to repent from a troubled past in the West Indies, but he’s brought some of that trouble home with him. Several twists later and the infamous line “Reader, I married him” arrives at last, but it is won at great trial and cost to Jane and Mr Rochester, including lost relations found, a literal stint in the wilderness and a bonfire.
Jane is endearing because she is rebellious for her time, and her feminist logic would not be out of place today. She writes:
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 too rigid a restraint, 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 …
Later she rails against the object Mr Rochester would make of her in romance, declaring, “I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart … I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will”. She is all too aware of her beloved’s misogynistic tendencies, telling him that he is “sourly disposed against men, and especially against all womankind”.
But her sympathies for the sisterhood do not extend to the pretty but dull ladies who court Mr Rochester, and especially to the treatment of Mr Rochester’s first wife, a Creole woman from Jamaica (described as having a “discoloured” and “savage” face), who has been imprisoned in Thornfield’s top floor due to madness. Her main sin? “Debauchery”. Jane has no feeling whatsoever for the woman’s trauma in being married only for her money, uprooted from her home and transported to cold England; only for her lover being sold a dud wife. Similarly in discussing the series of European mistresses Rochester has left strewn across the continent, Jane recognises that this is “the next worse thing to buying a slave”, not because slavery is inherently evil but because “both are often by nature, and always in position, inferior: and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading”. It’s an ugly reminder that Jane Eyre was written at the height of scientific racism and British colonialism: the pseudo-science of phrenology is discussed several times; another favourably described character dreams of bringing God to “Hindoostanee” heathens. In the end, it is all about God, with the same missionary granted the novel’s final line, and Jane rewarded for having made the correct decision not to stay with a married man and degrade herself (and him) as a mistress until the former wife is conveniently out of the way.
For all its social conservatism and godliness, their is something strikingly haunted, even occult, running through Jane Eyre. Jane has visions and is visited by fortune-tellers; there are countless references to the moon and her powers; Rochester calls Jane a witch on multiple occasions. Their meeting is described in fairytale terms; at a later encounter Rochester is not sure whether Jane is “a dream or a shade … she comes from the other world … and tells me so when meets me alone here in the gloaming”. Although Brontë’s writing about nature, whether it is the orchard at Thornfield or the moors of northern England, is imbued with the sublime beauty of God’s immanence, there is something else tantalisingly inexplicable going on as well.
Gay rating: not gay.