Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason
Penguin Classics 1996 (1847)
Charlotte Brontë’s breakout novel, first published in three volumes, is now such a well-known classic, its story often summarised, discussed, filmed, retold, that any attempt I now make to précis it is, frankly, redundant. So I shan’t even attempt to do that; what I will do is draw out themes and ideas that have struck me on a first reading, and sincerely hope that I won’t be doing the author an injustice by in any way misrepresenting her.
I shall here pass over any deep psychological analysis of the author’s possible wish-fulfilment in outlining Jane’s supposed ‘autobiography’ (a subtitle proposed by the publishers, not by her), a narrative that borrows freely from people and places that she knew, and from many of her own personal experiences: that’s for specialists to wax lyrically on.
What I shall instead concentrate on in this review is not Jane as a feminist icon — because that’s also beyond my competency — but as an individual with agency, one who asserts her individuality even as she struggles with the love of her life:
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me! I am a free human being with an independent will…
Let me list some of the ways she has agency.
- At Lowood School, where she is a pupil, she refuses the stern evangelical Mr Brocklehurst’s offer of a teaching post in favour of a position of governess which she has independently applied for.
- She continually defies convention: in childhood standing up to a bullying male cousin; entering Rochester’s bedroom to save him and remaining alone with him; walking alone on the Moor with St John; sitting on Rochester’s knee before they are married.
- She in effect refuses to become Rochester’s mistress for reasons of propriety (though she doesn’t seem to regard becoming a mistress as adulterous, merely a prelude to loss of agency as a kept woman, with likely loss of his respect). In leaving Thornfield she takes nothing that will bind her materially to the house.
- She refuses an offer of marriage to her cousin St John Rivers because there will be no love involved; though it is he, not her, who sees Jane going with him to India as curate in a sisterly role as improper.
- After nearly succumbing to St John’s appeals to her religious feelings (but after the mysterious appeal she hears through the aether, which proves the final turning point of the narrative) she dismisses her cousin, telling us, “It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play, and in force.” St John is unable resist her energy and meekly obeys her: she has mastered him.
- The strongest instance of her agency comes in the most famous phrase from the novel,”Reader, I married him.” Though Rochester had just proposed for the second time, it is Jane who is the active one here, a role she had struggled all her twenty years to assert for herself and one she finally deserves.
Like her fated friend Helen Burns at the Lowood Orphan Asylum Jane “cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements”, particularly ones designed to be cruel or degrading proposed on the apparent whims of others.
Jane Eyre is in many ways, therefore, an empowering novel, its protagonist easy for the sensitive reader to identify with. It’s not a perfect novel — can any work of fiction ever be? — but despite Jane not being an entirely reliable narrator (to me, at least) she remains someone whose fierce independence is not only admirable but inspiring.
As too are her sentiments with regard to emotion, an essential if one is to retain one’s humanity. Her cousin St John, a cold, hard man … cold as an iceberg, declares, “Reason, and not Feeling, is my guide.” Jane’s response is that “With me, it is fully as much a matter of feeling as of conscience: I must indulge my feelings …”
There is so much else that deserves more intense scrutiny, which makes Jane Eyre the great novel that it is — matters such as the repartee between Jane and her ‘Master’, the seasons as a reflection of the action, the relationship between Jane’s various cousins and Charlotte’s own siblings, the possible Belgian model for Edward Rochester, and the author’s employment of religion, literature and fairytale as commentary on the narrative — but these will have to wait for another time. But I will leave you with Jane’s righteous comment on her treatment when she came begging at the door of strangers near Morton:
“Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”
Nearly two centuries later it is a sad reflection on politics and society that there are still ‘haves’ (some of them claiming to be Christian) who believe that ‘have-nots’ are undeserving, despite their being poor and it not due to any fault of their own.
There will follow further posts on aspects of this novel that interested me, and will perhaps do the same for you