Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë book cover
Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë is an empowering, erotic Victorian novel, brimming with Gothic tropes and explosive energy. Its eponymous heroine, an orphan, is brought up, alongside her antagonistic cousins, under the hostile care of her aunt, Sarah Reed. When Jane is sent away to Lowood School it seems that she has escaped a terrible situation only to be thrown into one more dire. Though she finds friendship at Lowood, the conditions are harsh, and when things come apart, Jane forges for herself another escape, this time to be a governess at Thornfield Hall. Her master there is Mr. Edward Rochester; a dark, brooding man. Though Mr. Rochester pursues another – Blanche Ingram; a beauty, with whom Jane’s plain features cannot compete – a bond develops between master and governess. Eventually, Mr. Rochester’s affections turn to Jane and he proposes marriage. But all is not well at Thornfield, a fact that Jane will soon discover. As secrets are revealed, Jane is forced from the house and it seems that there can be no union between her and the man she loves.

At its most basic level, Jane Eyre is a love story, between the orphaned and trapped heroine and her Byronic partner. All the Brontës seem able to tap into a visceral, wild passion that still stirs readers almost two centuries after their writing was first laid on the page. Doubtless it is this, coupled with the gripping unfolding of Jane’s love story, which forms the greatest reason for Jane Eyre’s longevity. But Jane Eyre – though it considers the different kinds of love, and indeed the absence of love – is much more than a romance. It is clearly a petition for the equal rights of women, even if it is a wholly complicated text: full of contrasts, its rebellious elements are counter-balanced with its conformist ones.

Throughout the novel, Jane has her voice quieted and her agency restricted yet she refuses to accept her own lack of independence, and insists on her strict sense of self as an individual. She develops this strength of character through a series of experiences, reminiscent, structurally, of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progess. It is Rochester’s eventual acknowledgement of Jane as an intelligent, genuinely caring person that allows her to fall for him. This too goes some way to navigating the difficult dynamic of their early relationship: that of master and servant. Increasingly, Jane Eyre has been read as a feminist tract, but this central dynamic – somehow reminiscent of that between Pamela Andrews and Mr. B in Richardson’s less progressive novel Pamela – creates a potential problem for a feminist reading. That Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolves from a typically patriarchal affair to something approaching a palatable equality allows room for the relationship to be read as a transformative one, rather than an oppressive one. With her sharpness of mind and stubborn individuality, Jane is set apart from her literary predecessors like Pamela Andrews and Fanny Price by her strong sense of self. Unlike heroines of manorial fiction past, she does not seek to assimilate into the culture of estate but remains apart from it, and it is this sense of Otherness that allows a more sympathetic reading of Jane’s conformist tendencies, and offset them against her rebelliousness.

Jane’s passion is not just for Mr. Rochester: contained in her small, unremarkable body is a fire that quietly blazes against those that seek to oppress her and constrict her agency. For Brontë as for Jane, life can only be satisfying when lived fully and on one’s own terms. This causes conflicts, both between Jane and other characters, and within herself. Similar to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, there is a clash between natural passion and reason, here blazing within Jane. As the novel progresses, Jane acknowledges that one must be tempered by the other: Rochester may be where Jane’s passion lies, but she must navigate the difficult path between a prudent match, and a fulfilling one, just as Rochester himself must have his Byronic excesses quelled. Certainly, in contrast to the other (potential) matches in the book, it is, eventually, a meeting of two independent people who value one another not for what they can offer but simply for themselves. But Rochester remains problematic. As a hero, even a Byronic hero, Rochester appears without merit for most of the novel: he is controlling towards Jane, hideous towards Bertha (his first wife), a serial bigamist/adulterer, and with a very short list of pleasant characteristics to balance these less desirable ones. Even as a character that appeals to the emotional, he lacks the unbearable passion that Heathcliff represents, and has no true redemption/revelation like Darcy. Instead, he maintains an odd patriarchal appeal; on a visceral level this works, but beyond it is problematic.

Jane Eyre met with a difficult critical reception on its publication. It was not, as might be supposed, the brooding and overt sexuality of Rochester that offended Victorian society but the refusal of Jane to submit to her expected role and perceived ‘anti-Christian’ sentiment within the book. As has been noted elsewhere, a (fictional) woman who desires a Byronic partner can easily be accommodated, but a woman who desires escape from much of what society holds to be ‘proper’ cannot. By representing a woman who combines these unrepressed passions, Jane becomes a dangerous heroine and one who was identified as such by many reviewers. Brontë defended Jane Eyre against claims of irreligiosity in an introductory note to the second edition, despite her own dim view of many facets of religion. In the novel, Jane encounters three religious characters – Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers – each of whom have their evident (religious) failings, which Jane rightly comprehends. Consequently, none are able convince her to share their views. She is aware, however, of the need to balance transient pleasure with moral duty. Her rejection of the religious characters is less a sign of her disavowal of religion and more a sign of her own autonomous morality. For Jane is in touch with her own, personal form of spirituality – a state common to many Brontë characters.

Throughout the text, Jane is silenced and has her own position identified, and history told, by others. Whether Jane is constrained by man or society, she feels a constant need to escape the sense of powerlessness and commodification of her own body and she achieves this by retaining control of her imagination, which carries her far from the hold of society. Jane fears that marriage will cause her to lose her identity and it’s not until this fear is assuaged that she can countenance the idea. However, her submission to marriage by the novel’s close, even seen through the active role she plays in the decision as typified by the novel’s famous assertion “Reader, I married him,” leaves Jane as typical domestic triumph – wed and removed from the independent life she has forged for herself. It is a carefully negotiated union, which re-positions Jane as a collaborator in the conceit, rather than an inactive object in it, but still a problem that feminist readings of the text must overcome.

Jane’s sense of self – perhaps of particular import to her as an orphan – is embodied by her strong narrative. She asserts the ‘I’ of her story and addresses the reader with a commentary on her own life, affirming the value of her own inner monologue. This strong sense of individual importance chimes not only with nineteenth century feminism, but economic individualism and political liberalism too. It was a period when the idea of the autonomous individual being as relevant as the state/society was becoming entrenched in Anglo-American society, and Jane Eyre’s narrative forces the feminine voice to intersect with this growing sense of the individual. It was a change that was reflected in literature, with the development of stream of consciousness narratives, which positioned the inner life of characters as more important than the outer life of the world. In this sense, Jane Eyre is a progressive character both in terms of her personality and her literary worth.

It’s odd to think that a novel of such potent feeling was first published under the pseudonym Currer Bell – Brontë was, after all, well aware that male authors were afforded a greater gravitas than their female counterparts. Almost two centuries latter and Jane Eyre is rightly considered one of the most thrillingly powerful novels of the Victorian period; a novel with feminist, individualist, and gothic charm in abundance. In a Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf would later write that Brontë was an author, who "had more genius in her than Jane Austen," but whose anger made her books “deformed and twisted”, but it is this wild, untameable passion that runs through Jane Eyre, which makes it so readable today. Certainly the emotions are both overwrought and overwritten, but Brontë’s writing sweeps the reader up in the tornado of dark emotions that run through the text, and gives them no choice but to continue on until the storm has abated and the last page has been turned.

I wasn't completely sure about this as I was reading, particularly Mr. Rochester, but it is clear why it remains such a popular book today.


Useful Links
Reviews of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)
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Television Film of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)
Television Film of Jane Eyre on Amazon (UK)

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