In this my second month of re-reading I decided it was about time I caught up with my old friend Jane Eyre. We first became acquainted when I was very young, probably around eleven or twelve. I am now over forty, and in a strange way Jane has grown and aged with me. I am amused to wonder what I “got” from Jane Eyre –back when I was a seriously under achieving schoolgirl, the bare bones of the story no doubt and not much else. Yet Jane Eyre is a richly textured novel, which can be read on different levels and experienced in many different ways. I can’t remember when I last read Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, although I know this was the fourth time I’d read it. I know, as I said I was around eleven when I first read it – and I know I read it again in my early twenties, so it is possible I have read it in (almost) each decade of my life. If so I think that is a custom I should continue.
I suspect for most of us Jane Eyre is a story we could tell quite confidently, in the same way perhaps we could tell Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or The Pied Piper. It is a story we know or we think we know so well, due in no small part to the various film dramatisations of it. Yet to fully appreciate the brilliance of this work, one does need to read it, and re-read it.
On the surface Jane Eyre is the story of an orphaned girl, unhappily brought up in the home of her aunt who does not want her in the house, sent to a charitable educational institution, where she meets her one first friend, later leaving to become a governess and fall in love with her employer. As a novel, Jane Eyre is still, 165 years on, hugely readable, an emotional page turner like no other, a quite brilliant story, that keeps readers up at night, reading on into the small hours – even when one already knows what happens.
However it is also in many ways a deeply fascinating political and feminist novel. Published in 1847 while the working class Chartism movement was coming to its climax, and women had virtually no rights, so often seen as mere chattels, the novel has been seen as a feminist manifesto. Jane Eyre, which advocates personal independence, and raises the issues associated with poverty and the abuse of children in charitable institutions, is also passionate and at times angry. The voice of Jane Eyre herself, from that of the ten year old we first meet up curled up in the window seat with a book, to the nineteen year old who flees from the life St John Rivers would have her lead is both fiercely spikey and intelligent.
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. 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, to 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.”
Jane knows her own mind, and often, unfashionably for the 1840’s speaks it. She is often angry, frustrated and deeply grieved, and through her we can see the angry frustration of her creator, at the unequal world she found herself part of. Jane is passionate and not afraid to show it. We feel Jane’s pain, and can’t help but cry for her.
“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”
As a character, Jane Eyre is fairly conservative, even conventional at times. She shuns the impropriety of a relationship with the man she loves – even though she has no family to be harmed by it. Ultimately of course the ending is a conservative happy ever after – could we the reader have tolerated anything else? This is after all a story, an entertainment not a political treatise, and so I think we can forgive Charlotte her conservative ending, she herself while not wholly conventional, was not quite a banner waving radical.