Everyone has a classic book that they’ve successfully managed to avoid. Jane Eyre is mine. After abusive Wuthering Heights left me fuming—f***ing emo Heathcliff—I binned all the Brontë sisters. I know now that I did wrong.
Strong and sensitive Jane Eyre is the progenitoress of Anne of Green Gables, Meg Murray, Lyra Belacqua, and Katniss Everdeen. Unlike any English novel prior to 1847, the story happens *inside* a young woman’s mind, giving the reader direct access to her thoughts, emotions, and observations. (The book couldn’t exist otherwise: her actions are usually unremarkable and the world finds her inscrutable.) Brontë alchemizes her life experiences into semi-autobiographical prose and clearly relishes playing with her young doppelgänger. Her frank assessments of the limited appeal of the Anglican Church, and wifehood in particular, are ballsy as hell:
But as his wife — at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked — forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital — this would be unendurable.
Jane strives to bloom where she’s planted but struggles to find a source of light. In her haughty aunt’s home, she attaches herself to servant Bessie; in her cold boarding school to angelic Helen; and, in her first job as governess to her boss Mr. Rochester, the anti-Darcy, a moody man twice her age who finds in Jane in his spiritual equal.
Whenever I encounter a Timeless Classic, I try to remember that it was once a fresh piece of pop culture, bobbing along in a saturated market with no expectations attached. This built-in check keeps me from dismissing genre-originating works such as The Lord of the Rings (don’t @ me, I just dislike road trips) or judging early entrants to a new medium too harshly. Jane Eyre needed no such disclaimer. It reads like a memoir written yesterday, albeit with Gothic landscapes, extended monologues, and untranslated French. The happy ending is a strange one, but Janes deserves it.
Recommended for everybody, always.