As part of CBR Bingo (plus I always wanted to read it a second time), my choice for the square “Classics” was Jane Eyre. A lot of my friends love this book, which made me want to read it critically to understand what it was about this that makes it so popular.
I tried hard to like it, but could only like parts of it. Right from the lead character (a 10 year old girl), to her family (created by the author to be as mean in mind and action as real villains), to the romantic lead (what on world she sees in Rochester, I simply cannot make out) to the unsympathetic mentally troubled woman in the attic, there is a not a character for whom I feel the smallest amount of sympathy.
The story follows the travails of a near-orphan (she lives with the Reeds, consisting of the widow of her uncle and her two children, and sundry servants etc) whose anguish at being unloved is palpable (TBH though, the way she is written one would be hard pressed to call her a lovable child, even though she is quiet & submissive) and is sent (as part of punishment for being “disagreeable” and “unmanageable”) to a private home for girls where she can learn a vocation and equip herself to earn her living.
Life has been hard on little Jane. No one loves her at her home, she’s the kind who gets bullied even if she stands up for herself, and her only friends at Gateshead are a few books and a couple of the maids. As a consequence of her refusal to be disciplined according to her exacting standards, her mean aunt decides to send her away to a school for girls, which is possibly worse than this home physically (it’s very cold and ill-equipped), but at least Jane isn’t bullied and unloved. She befriends and learns from a couple of remarkable characters here – especially a girl who exhibits greater patience and understanding of the world than most adults with great education do. At this school Jane faces a lot of physical and mental hardships along the way, finally becoming a teacher at the end and securing a job as a private governess by the time she is eighteen.
Jane sets out to the home of a Mrs Fairfax (caretaker/housekeeper of Mr Rochester’s home) and is to govern a young child of French origin, Adele; later Jane learns is the child of Rochester’s mistress. The sheer antipathy the British have for the French is visible in most interactions Jane has with Adele, who is, as we must remember, barely 7 or 8 years old and yet, Jane often “blames” her for being too French. As if her mother being a mistress will have any impact and is visible in a child of 7!! A fondness for fancy apparel and to be looked at is all it takes for Jane to label her and blame her French origin for this freakish behaviour. I am aware that Jane/Bronte must have been very Puritanical, but the gall of her to blame someone for wanting to look pretty was strike number eleven for me.
Jane can already “see her mother’s influence” on her as if being anything but British is a black spot. I get the political and the diplomatic backdrop of this scene, but it was blaming the child for the sins of the father, LITERALLY. I mean imagine if she really did become her dad, what a waste of humanity she would be. It’s horrible to be French but it’s alright to escape your mentally affected WIFE by crossing the Channel, assuming several pseudonyms and try and have as many affairs as possible; not including just a new wife which would sort of be justifiable if you had extensive property that you wished to keep within your own family vaults, and needed a genuine “authentic” heir. Oh no, this is okay but to be French is unpardonable. Wankers.
Here we meet Rochester, a character that I dislike most in literary canon, second only to Heathcliff (unsurprisingly penned by another Brontë sister, THE most terrible hero I have ever read). This man has zero qualities that recommend him; apart from the one act of kindness in bringing up Adele, which he can afford to do because he’s rich and lives very far off from a major city. He’s a brooding POS which as we learn more about him, instead of sympathising with him and about his lot, I only felt more and more annoyed. The trope of the mentally afflicted wife is never one that I found romantic, especially in this case where he seeks to leave her and used fake names to go have affairs on the continent. What made him still remain married to her, I cannot understand, if she was mentally incapable of taking care of herself, I’m sure he could have sought medical/legal help and gotten a divorce from her. To remain married to her in law and treat her so vilely in action, didn’t sit well with me. To Jane he boasts at long that he sought several affairs, many times did he seek to find “someone who would love me” but alas, his brooding self was attractive to no one save our Goth Emo heroine Jane.
In any case, she loves him, and after the usual trope of “I only flirted with that girl to make you jealous so you would know your own heart” that writers of poor romance so love to employ, Rochester and Jane are to be married. But, DUN DUN DUN. What would later spawn numerous memes of “mad wife in the attic”, Jane learns a little scarily that the unnatural cackles and events that take place on the upper floor were not caused by a deranged servant, but her avowed’s secret wife! Secret as in “I kept you unaware, Jane, the whole house knew of her. You understand me babe, I love you so much I couldn’t tell you the ONE thing that actually has a bearing on our wedded life forever, and should have been told you before you started to love me in earnest, or at least if I at all believed in the autonomy of a woman who could make informed decisions for herself. But I love you so it is all okily dokily fine.”
So this is the part where I grudgingly sympathised with Jane. After a lot of mental acrobatics, part of which should have included WHY he kept it secret and why he wouldn’t let her make the decision before this critical juncture arrived, why he wanted to see a version of her that wasn’t her clearly (buying expensive clothes etc) she decides to leave him and his home at the earliest, suffering exhaustion, loss of hope; operating with a complete surrender to Fate and to divine interference, until she finally meets a kind family who takes pity on her and provides succour to her in body, and over a period of few weeks, in mind. She doesn’t know that the people who have given her shelter are her extended family; once aware she is remarkably fair in sharing her monetary fortune (that a dead uncle bequeathed her) in an act of genuine warmth from finding herself a family to love after all these bleak years. She is now the small town’s school mistress; a calling that is perfect for her; and slowly begins the process to heal herself, tough as it is. We’re introduced to St. John, her cousin in relation, and a man of the cloth. He is all set to travel to India as a dedicated missionary, and proposes to Jane that she accompany him as his wife, insisting that he sees in her all the characteristics of a good sacrificing missionary and it is her bounden duty to make sure her endowments aren’t wasted in a life as a mere school mistress.
Jane is sensible enough to see that there is no way she could marry St John and undertake this mission as his wife, though she’s very much ready to dedicate her life for this purpose. St John is mulishly unreasonable about all of this, he repeatedly insists she can only be if use to God if she would marry him, and they take their individual leaves with suppressed rancour and a firm denial on Jane’s part to marry him. Because in the midst of arguing with St John, she can suddenly hear the inner lament of Rochester the Undeserved, calling out to her for spiritual aid, and she decides to return to Thornfield (aptly named) in search of him whom she has steadfastly loved despite all evidence of him being a self indulgent, brooding, selfish and inconsiderate prick. She ultimately finds him crippled in an accident, unable to see; his problems with his wife solved now that she has died in a blaze she caused herself and the story gets a HEA.
Well, boo. I don’t see the appeal in a person like Rochester who shows no actual character growth, and is merely there to be all dark and broody, though I accept different strokes et al.
The biggest issue I had with Jane and the character is the self-insert of Charlotte, making Jane say and do things that no 18-yr-old with such limited circumstances and life experience would have access to, endowing her with a sense far more superior than one in her situation would have gained. She literally moves in a limited circle of school girls and Lowood, where would she have gained all this knowledge of humankind? If only Charlotte hadn’t used a first person approach in telling this story, it would have been fine to hear it from the narrator, or third person.
The second issue I had was Jane is so EMO, I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes at her waxing on and on about her surroundings and her feelings and the descriptions and the attributes she endowed Rochester with! He too was a prosy brooding fool with little appeal to me and while I wish them happiness glowering at each other, I would spare myself this attempt at romanticising the treatment of a serious topic of a woman suffering mental illness that goes undiagnosed for so long, and her ultimate helplessness at her fate – married to one who doesn’t want to deal with any of this and also lacks the means/powers to let it be dealt with. There’s also a part about Jane revisiting her ailing aunt on her deathbed, who still showed no remorse over treating a little child so shabbily, keeping her unaware of her ascent to fortune and general grade A bitchiness, we learn about how little Jane’s cousins loved their mother and how poorly formed people they are, in character.
The Brontes can keep their antisocial heroes, I would much prefer the existential despair of Hardy or Dostoevsky, at least it’s peppered with a lot less self congratulation at being a “sensible good woman.”