Saturday, November 26, 2016

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

As with Great Expectations, which I reviewed a few months ago, Jane Eye is a 19th century coming of age novel in which the lead character looks back on their life and recounts the experiences they've had and the lessons learned.  There are a number of other similarities between these two great classics and differences too but I have to say, I much prefer Jane Eyre, a novel that touches on so many themes and which also presents us with a young woman, Jane Eyre, without friends or family trying to make her way in the world

When you consider that Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1846 that is remarkable.  One passage stood out for me in terms of the feminist aspects of the book.  Jane is 18 and a teacher at Lowood Institute the boarding school for poor girls where Jane's aunt had callously shipped her off to when she was 10. Jane has been at Lowood almost half of her life and though the school is much improved and Jane has a steady income she wants something different:

"What do I want?  A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances.  I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better.  How do people do to get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose; I have no friends.  There are many others who have no friends, who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?  I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response, and quickly ... I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.  A kind fairy, in my absence had surely dropped the sugestion on my pillow; for as I lay down, it came quietly and naturally to my mind. --Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the -- shire Herald."

After placing the ad, Jane receives an offer from a Mrs Fairfax who lives at Thornfield Hall and works for Edward Rochester, the master of the estate.  Mrs Fairfax is seeking a governess for young Adele who is a ward of Mr Rochester.  Jane accepts the job to teach Adele and comes to live at Thornfield and so begins the passionate yet rocky romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.

For me the main attraction in this novel was Jane Eyre who narrates the novel but I was charmed by Mr Rochester too, a brooding, Byronesque hero who says to Jane at one point: "Nature meant me, on the whole, to be a good man, Miss Eyre and you see I am not". But actually Mr Rochester is a good man, Jane would not love or respect anything less. Granted, Mr Rochester is flawed.  Life has dealt him a bad set of cards but he has admirable qualities too and a great deal of courage when called upon. He loves Jane and sees in her his salvation and he is right in this.

Jane Eyre when it was published was a phenomenal success with readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  The literary critic Elaine Showalter writes in her book A Jury of Her Peers that women everywhere were reading Jane Eyre and a kind of "Jane Eyre mania" took hold. A fascination developed as well with Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre and later with Emily Bronte who wrote the novel Wuthering Heights and that fascination for the Bronte family lives on to this day.  Having read both novels I can only marvel at how so much genius could exist among two sisters and their sister Anne as well who wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  I would say for anyone curious about the Brontes or anyone wanting to read a great romantic novel to start with Jane Eyre a reading experience you will not soon forget.

4 comments:

  1. I also read this and Great Expectations within the last several years. Both are indeed monumental novels as was Wuthering Heights. Ultimately I thought that Jane Eyre was the greater of the three. I actually think that it is one of the best novels ever written.

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  2. Hi Brian

    I think you are right. Jane Eyre may be one of the best novels ever written. I had the same experience when I read Pride and Prejudice a few years ago. Both are very different novels but in addition to being classics they are a pleasure to read. Great works should be an enjoyable experience.

    Interesting that Charlotte Bronte was not a fan of Jane Austen's books. I googled and I think Bronte felt that Austen's novels were rather dry. I don't agree but Austen and Bronte lived in different eras and different parts of England, Jane Austen the South of England and Charlotte Bronte the North with its roughr wilder climate which no doubt had an influence on the people who lived there. Interesting to speculate what Elizabeth Bennett would have thought of Edward Rochester and visa versa. I don't see it ending well.

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  3. That is great thought: Elizabeth Bennett meeting Rochester!

    My take is that Austen was the kind of writer who exposed wisdom is everyday occurrences and realistic people. She did this in unique way.

    I found that Jane Eyre was a monumental tale with monumental characters that dug into the meaning of life and the Universe.

    Each was a reflection of a different kind of genius.

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  4. That's a great way to put it, monumental characters that dug into the meaning of life and the universe. That is the experience of reading Jane Eyre and its why the book stays with you and can be reread years later and new insights gained.

    And maybe I should read Pride and Prejudice again because I finished Jane Eyre thinking that compared to Jane, Elizabeth Bennett comes off as a bit judgemental and too impressed with herself in comparison. Elizabeth Bennett doesn't see herself that way but I would gather that her concern upon meeting Mr Rochester would be, who is his family, where are his people from? I think Mr Rochester who read people well would see this in Elizabeth, a young woman who was quite sure of herself and for whom despite her education and wit, class mattered and who was unaware of what a sheltered and trouble free life she's had up to now.

    But Austen lived in a very different time and place than Bronte and as you say, both geniuses but different.

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