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Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)


jane_eyre_smallRecently, 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.



Author: bettinathenomad

Nomad. International Relations geek. Reader. Feminist. Swimmer. Boulderer. Runner. Hiker. Not necessarily in that order.

14 thoughts on “Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

  1. Maybe there is a “societal outcry.” Who is telling the story?

    I will suggest that Jane Eyre has less in common than it does with The Good Soldier.

    • Hm, of course it may be that we’re missing a part of the picture because the story is told from Jane’s perspective. But she’s so perceptive that I think if Brontë wanted to comment on this aspect, she would’ve done so. For example, the scene where Jane and Adèle are invited to spend time in the same room as Rochester’s high class friends has Jane very perceptively commenting on their behaviour. So she would be equally perceptive on how her marriage was received if Brontë intended to make a point here. Hence my impression that she didn’t want to make that point or didn’t think there was a point to make.
      As for The Good Soldier, I haven’t read it yet. Would you recommend it to complement the picture?

  2. Well, the Ford novel is another book with a tricky narrator. Tricky in a different way.

    I seem to have omitted part of my comment – I meant to write “less in common with Austen.” Brontë’s books, as you have seen, are less social, more private.

    • “More private” is a good way of putting it. This is where some of its innovativeness lies, isn’t it? I actually enjoyed that aspect on the one hand, because I liked seeing Jane’s character develop as her narration goes on. On the other hand, it means that we get what “Jane” is prepared to give us, some things are made explicit, others aren’t.

      • The idea that privacy, in an author, might be innovative is an interesting one. Would you mind expanding that a bit? I think it’s true that the two authors go in separate directions — Bronte’s books are alembics in which the characters’ eccentricities are trained to seethe and intensify; Austen’s books are alembics in which the eccentricities are trained to dissolve subtly into a sensible level state.

  3. Nice review, Bettina. I found your review quite interesting because it was not the typical gushing review of ‘Jane Eyre’. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on some of the issues you had with the book. Whenever I read a 19th century novel which was celebrated, sometimes I had issues with it. For example, if the heroine is a strong character and questions and confronts the male characters in the story or questions the societal conventions of that time, I admired that, but when she ended up getting married to a rich guy or left her free-spirited, independent ways for the security of married life, I was a bit disappointed. (like it happens in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and in ‘Middlemarch’) But these days I think that the author wanted to give a happy ending which would make the readers of that era happy and she does that after raising some relevant questions. It is still unsatisfying for me, but I have decided to take things like this.

    I read an abridged version of ‘Jane Eyre’ when I was in school, and I enjoyed it as a story, but I think I was too young to appreciate its significance then. I should read it again one of these days.

    • Thanks, Vishy! I agree with you, these novels can be frustrating because the heroines usually have to compromise in one way or another. So in a way, they’re also a good reminder of how far we’ve come regarding the role of women in society. The thing is though, scarily, it’s actually still not so different today! Women still have to compromise a lot.
      I’d encourage you to read “Jane Eyre” again. I got a lot out of it, even if I wasn’t totally happy with parts of it.

      • Yes, that is really scary and worrying. I recently read an article about how women academics have to always compromise on their career after having children, while men academics didn’t have to. It is nice to look back and see how far we have come since the old days, but there is still a long way to go.

        I will try to read ‘Jane Eyre’ soon. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Hi Pykk (for some reason it won’t let me reply directly to your comment), and welcome to my humble abode! The reason I called it innovative was that while I’m not an expert, it seemed to me that at the time, putting the private thoughts of a woman onto paper and publishing them as a novel was probably something that hadn’t been done too frequently (that’s not to say that it’s not an alembic). Am I wrong? I’d be glad to be educated 🙂

  5. So would I, that’s partly why I asked. You’d had a couple of the classics by then, Clarissa (if thoughts in letters count), and Moll Flanders, but was it common in everyday writing generally or were women usually only referred to by male narrators or in third person narration? I don’t know.

    • That’d be my impression, but I also don’t really know (more reading to be done to find out). For me, the first person narration also helped the feeling along that the book is more “private” than others, although it does make the narration more unreliable.

  6. I don’t know either. It is an interesting question. Fanny Burney’s novels are a precedent, but the tone and setting are so different. As with Clarissa, her fictional letters are semi-private descriptions of activity in a social world. So they lead more towards Austen.

    A specialist in the Gothic novel might know more – there must be plenty of young ladies breathlessly describing their adventures in old Italian castles. But that is still pretty far away from what Jane Eyre or for that matter Wuthering Heights do.

    • Hey Tom, sorry – your comment somehow got stuck in the spam filter and I only just found it there. Young ladies in old Italian castles are definitely a far cry from Jane Eyre! If I ever get my hands on an expert in Gothic novels, I will ask them about this 🙂

  7. The nature of the narration helps too, I think. Jane is intensely private, and consciously private: she values her privacy and she can articulate it. She’s actively fierce, and she’s apparently willing to continue this privacy marathon until she dies. It’s a feat, like someone climbing Everest.

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