After working my way through Charlotte Brontë’s biography, it was a foregone conclusion Jane Eyre would be the next novel I picked up. How could I not? Charles Dickens was well-known for his turning of childhood traumas into literary devices that made adults sit up and take notice. According to the biography, Brontë was the first one to do it, Dickens being the second after seeing how successful the idea was. Brontë’s first published novel, under the pen name of Currer Bell, took the world by storm in its own time. After all, if it can command the page-turning attention of both Queen Victoria and a literary giant like William Makepeace Thackeray, this book most definitely had something to say. Jane Eyre continues to speak to us across time and place, both as a platform to expose social injustices, but also as a semi-autobiographical novel.
The novel opens with Jane as a 10-year-old, orphaned and living with her cruel relatives before being sent off to boarding school. It sounds stereotypical now, perhaps even “Dickensian,” but remember: this book got there first. After living through six years as a student and two as a teacher, Jane takes a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. Her student student is a young French girl named Adele. As a personal aside, I don’t speak French, and while I can get some context from vocal inflections in an audiobook, I’d have preferred a translation.
In any case, Jane rescues the lord of the house, Edward Rochester, with neither one knowing who the other is after Rochester falls off his horse on an icy road. It’s a bit of love at first sight, though Rochester comes across as an intolerable ass. Does he have a reason for this, or is he just simply a rich man with an unnecessary attitude? And does it matter, seeing as how he’s presumably getting married to the beautiful but catty Blanche Ingram? As it turns out, it does matter since he has no interest in Ingram, and goes out of his way in the most unorthodox manner to get Jane’s attention (probably my favorite scene in the book involving a visitor claiming to be a fortune teller). Seems like a clear path to the altar once the man lets his guard down.
It can’t be that easy, however. Thornfield Hall has no ghosts or hauntings as far anyone’s heard, but there are strange, disembodied voices. Upon investigation, Jane learns the source to be a violent madwoman who is locked away within the confines of the house. Her connection to Rochester stops the wedding, with all hopes of love dashed as revelations come to light. Jane flees in the night, ending up destitute and hungry at the doorstep of a group of siblings who turn out to be (surprise!) her cousins. The rich uncle she never knew dies, and she inherits big. Being the kindhearted soul she is, Jane splits the money with her cousins. One cousin, St. John Rivers, wants her to marry him and join him as a missionary in India, leading Jane to the epic position of having to actually make a decision for herself. What of Mr. Rochester? The man who haunts her dreams is suddenly heard calling to her from across the moors.
Just as I’m not revealing the madwoman’s story, I won’t spoil the ending. Some things just have to be experienced. Suffice it to say that on the surface, this book is far better than it has any right to be. It’s elegantly written without exploding into purple prose, which makes it instantly approachable and engaging. There are enough twists and turns that it kept me guessing until the inevitable conclusion. I’m pretty sure this book was a major influence on every other romance novel and soap opera of the past decades.
During and after the biography, my biggest concern was that I didn’t know enough about the Brontë’s works to appreciate how they drew their inspiration from reality. I shouldn’t have worried. If anything, getting to know Charlotte made me feel as if I’d known Jane as a person right from her introduction. There were times I could relate to her a little too well, given her level of defiance. At other times, I felt like she was far too submissive. Given the era, that’s more a case of it being true to life. Jane as a character is a thinly veiled wish fulfillment of her author. After all, the first rule of writing is to write what you know. Charlotte Brontë did exactly that, the end result scandalizing England and parts of the world as a direct result. How could it be that a good little Christian girl — the daughter of a parson no less — could come up with this… social horror? It was quite beyond the self-righteous of the age to understand, but as I say, it got people in all walks of life from the queen on down to read it. If this were video, one would say Jane breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the readers at interval, pulling us in with comfortable familiarity and shock in equal turns. With the exception of the over-the-top sappy ending, which was still written with all due elegance but was unintentionally comical for me, I found the entire experience to be everything I hoped it would be. Jane… sweetie… you can do much better. You deserve much better. Just saying. Jane Eyre is considered to be one of the very best novels ever written. I fully appreciate how and why that claim has persisted. I’m most definitely looking forward to (hopefully) repeating this experience with Charlotte’s tonally different sisters and with more of Charlotte’s work.
As popular as the novel has remained, I had my pick of a very large selection when it came to the audiobook. Ultimately, I opted for the Naxos recording, dramatically performed by Amanda Root, who played Miss Temple in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 film adaptation of Jane Eyre. Couldn’t have asked for better. She sounded to my imagination like possibly Brontë herself was behind the microphone. It’s an excellent production for the theater of the mind.