Classic romance with all the conventions, beauty, and problems of 19th century novels.
Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Publisher: Wisehouse Classics
Publication date: 2016 (original: 1847)
Type: Fiction, Classic literature, Romance
Characters: Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester, St. John Rivers
Ray’s rating: 4 stars
Jane Eyre is an engaging classic romance story that holds reader interest with cascading complications and immersion in a fictional world in the way typical of nineteenth century novels. It is told in formal prose that takes some getting used to, but is still readable (at least to the Baby Boomer generation).
THE LIFE AND FORTUNES OF THE TITULAR PROTAGONIST
The story follows the life and fortunes of its titular protagonist, Jane Eyre. Jane is introduced to us at the age of ten as an orphan being cared for by her rich aunt, Mrs. Reed. Jane is unwanted by her aunt and is picked on by her cousins. A reprieve to Jane’s miserable situation comes in the form of her aunt being rid of her by sending her to a low-end girl’s school. She is discouraged from returning home, even for holidays, and she doesn’t. But she does find education and friendship in the school. She even spends her last two years there as a teacher.
From this platform, Jane advertises for a governess position and is hired to tutor a rich man’s ward. That rich man is Edward Rochester who eventually becomes Jane’s love interest (not lover—this is the mid nineteenth century). Rochester keeps a dark secret, however, that drives them apart, forcing Jane to flee to the countryside where she spends a time destitute and starving. She is finally taken in by a minister and his sisters who turn out to be Jane’s cousins. The minister, St. John Rivers, also becomes Jane’s second love interest.
A CLASSIC WITH ECCENTRICITIES
Jane Eyre is usually praised for portraying its protagonist as a strong woman in a time when women were expected to be subservient. That is true and I suspect Jane’s independent strength of character was much more outstanding in the novel’s time-frame than is appreciated by modern readers.
Jane is also portrayed as religious. Actually most all the characters are unabashedly Christian and faithful to the English church of that time and place. It infuses the story with a feeling of morality that is absent in contemporary fictions.
As I’ve noted, the book’s language is quite formal and polished, evoking the educated language of the time. There are sections of dialogue depicting the heavily accented speech of the uneducated workers (common for novels of this time). In fact, there is a theme here averring the reality of class differences (i.e., levels of sophistication among people) but maintaining that all people have the same fundamental worth as human beings. Current political correctness might consider this theme “elitist,” but it is probably just honest.
There is also an odd obsession with looks. Jane is frequently referred to by others as “not attractive” or even “ugly.” Her small size is also brought out a lot, sometimes seeming a positive thing and sometimes not. Mr. Rochester, Jane’s primary love, is also spoken of as “ugly, square-headed,” and such. I don’t get the point of this. Jane seems to attract suitors wherever she goes, so she can’t have been too ugly. Rochester also has women fighting over him (though his fortune would probably play into that).
MORAL STANDARDS REVISITED
Jane Eyre is long by modern novel standards, but not so much by nineteenth century standards. Still, it does ramble in places which is also common in novels of that time. Even so, I found the narrative compelling and I never got bored with it. The main characters are compelling enough to keep the reader interested.
I see the characters of Rochester and St. John as interesting in their contrasts. Rochester is passionate and romantic, if a bit controlling and arrogant. St. John is highly intelligent and spiritual, though with a tendency to be cold. Both are good men and appeal to Jane from different aspects. The idea seems to be to prompt tension over which she will choose.
The novel does suffer from the common contrivances of the novels of that day. As such, it is predictable. The development of Jane’s love interests is not surprising, although what prompts her love for them is questionable, especially in the case of Rochester. Though St. John is cold, he actually seems more compatible with Jane because of his faith than does Rochester. Both men, though, are controlling in their own ways and this is what Jane resists. Her ending choice is made understandable, but I think she would have been better off without either of them.
The plot is driven by coincidence, gratuitous deaths, and hidden connections that stretch credulity but that I think were expected conventions by readers of that time. But then, this is not a thriller story. It is a character study as is suggested by the book’s title being the main character’s name. This is further emphasized by the intimate first-person viewpoint, taken to the degree of the protagonist actually addressing the reader at points.
And it is the character of Jane that makes the book a classic. Female protagonists in current dramas are practically nothing but independently minded, kick-butt women. This is OK as far as it goes, but few such characters are strong without being morally bankrupt (the same is true for modern male characters). But then, our time is one of rampant moral bankruptcy.
A VOICE FROM BETTER TIMES?
I can see why Jane Eyre is a ground-breaking classic novel. Though it contains the eccentricities of nineteenth century English novels, it also contains nuances in its characters that still strike chords with thoughtful readers. It is most valuable, to me, as an illustration of truly artistic, non-propagandized storytelling. Even its Christian spirituality is an acknowledgment of common morality rather than a promotion of doctrine. I see the story not so much as dated, but as a reminder of a world to which we have fallen behind.