Recently, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. I’ve been exhausted, and it seems to me I tried a bit too hard with my reading choices recently. I’m still working on La muerte de Artemio Cruz, and I think it’ll only be a matter of years until I finish The Book of Disquiet (which is excellent, but I can only take it in small doses). In other words, I needed some palate cleansers. Two books were chosen to perform this task: Jane Eyre and All the President’s Men. The latter is doing an excellent job and I’ll tell you all about it once I’m done. Jane Eyre was a bit more difficult to get into, but about halfway through the action picked up, and it turned into quite a good pageturner, actually!
Jane Eyre starts out a little bit slow with a poor orphan, Jane, who is forced to live with her rich relations. She knows of no other family she might have left, and her aunt and cousins treat her very badly. But Jane is headstrong, and she has a sharp sense of the injustice she’s suffering, so that doesn’t help her standing: she speaks up and gets punished even harder as a result. Her salvation occurs when she’s sent to school. Even though life there is hard, there’s sickness, hunger, and cold, she makes friends and is able to move forward, becoming first a very good student and later a teacher at the school. Jane, you see, loves books (a trait that endeared her to me).
She then goes on to become a governess at Thornfield Hall, and ere long – as the book would say – meets its enigmatic owner, Mr Rochester. As she grows to like him, and he seems to grow to like her, Jane Eyre becomes more exciting. Thornfield Hall, it seems, harbours some dark secrets, and so does its owner. But, of course, a budding love such as that between Jane and Rochester has to be put to some hard tests, before we find out whether the two are meant to be…
I liked Jane Eyre for the portrayal of an independent woman – within the confines of her time, Jane’s attitudes and some of her actions must have been unusual. She’s not afraid to speak her mind to superiors and, God forbid, men, when she disagrees or perceives an injustice. Although there is some social commentary on the circumstances of the time, I felt there was a lot missing in this department though – considering the novel is heralded as a pioneering work here. It seems to me that it is sometimes moralistic, and Jane has a strong character of her own that leads her to stand up to injustice, but other parts of the novel fail to question circumstances. Without having done much research on this, Charlotte Brontë seems to stick to a number of social conventions that show her as very much a child of her own time. The way Jane’s pupils are portrayed in the last third of the novel leads me to say this, for instance. They’re the daughters of poor farmers, and even though, as the novel explains, some of them are quite bright, it is never suggested that they should at all be able to progress beyond writing, simple arithmetic, and housework (while Jane herself, though an orphan, but from a relatively good background, is educated and speaks French, is studying German, and is a skilled artist). There’s no desire on her part to take her pupils beyond what is traditionally demanded of them. What a missed opportunity!
Also, while there is ample commentary on how matches between people of different income (“fortune”) levels are problematic, this “problematicness” is perceived in terms of impracticality rather than as critique of society as such. Granted, Jane’s match initially appears an unequal one (stuff, which I don’t want to give away in case other readers have been living under a rock like me and not read this before, happens to conveniently do away with this problem). However, this is never really discussed. For some reason, it just is. There’s no societal outcry at a governess intending to hitch up with a wealthy man, even though Rochester is – despite his enigma – well-rooted in parts of English society. It’s most strange. Jane Austen would not have missed the chance to comment on this endlessly, although Pride and Prejudice, for instance, precedes Jane Eyre by several decades. Did English society change so much in about 30 years that this was no longer a problem? Looking at English society today, I would say this is highly unlikely. It still hasn’t been overcome. So for all its feminist stewardship, I found Jane Eyre strangely lacking in other aspects. Am I expecting too much of a woman of the 1840s?
I know a lot of people admire Jane Eyre, and I’m very glad I finally read it. I can see how it’s an innovative piece of female writing, worthy of being read as an important part of the canon in this respect (the fact that Virginia Woolf remarks on it in A Room of One’s Own* originally brought me to it), but it won’t leave a huge passing mark on me. Sorry, fans.
* Another one of those pending reviews… coming up, promise promise.