Publisher: Collector’s Library
Pages: 650 including Afterword (Hardback)
Jane Eyre has long been one of the most popular of all literary classics. It tells the moving and eventful story of Jane, an orphan entrusted to the care of her aunt by her dying uncle. The aunt cares greatly for her own children, on whom she lavishes praise and attention, but dislikes Jane, whom she ignores and unfairly punishes. Jane escapes by being sent to a strict Evangelical school where, despite the austerities of the environment, she finally meets pupils and teachers who nurture and encourage her. From there she goes to work as a governess at a large country mansion, where she falls in love with the mysterious master of the house, the Byronic Mr Rochester, a charismatic character with a troubled past. Part fairy tale, part Gothic horror, part love story, Jane Eyre is the archetypal account of an orphan’s progress through a confusing and often cruel world.
A wonderful book, spoiled, in part, because I already knew the story. It’s (deservedly) a very famous book and the plot is one that is hard not to know, even if you’ve never read it. Normally this isn’t a problem for me, I read classics I know the story to or have seen on film/tv/stage all the time. The problem is that with this book, like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Rebecca, knowing the basic plot essentially robs you of the ‘aha!’ moment when the twist is revealed, and all the uneasy suspense and questioning you should be doing leading up to it. It worked for me in the same way rereading does; knowing the big twist, I could spot the hints and the foreshadowing, and appreciate just how good a writer Charlotte Brontë was and how well plotted and put together that bit of storytelling is – but I felt robbed of that ‘first read’ feeling and as a result the book wasn’t an unputdownable five stars.
In fact I found the middle section quite tedious. Without that mystery and suspense to sustain me I found the Jane and Mr Rochester relationship rather lacking and some parts of the dialogue downright irritating. What works so damn fucking beautifully in Jane’s narration simply doesn’t when put into dialogue – nobody needs that much extraneous detail when having a normal conversation. I could totally buy why these characters fell for each other and the immense attraction of their opposing personalities – but I felt it more natural and real when reading each other’s thoughts on the other than I ever did in any of their scenes or conversations. In other words, for once, the ‘telling’ was much stronger and more effective tool than the ‘showing’.
But that’s a small quibble. Whatever you may have heard about this book I do not think it is, primarily, a romance. It has a hell of a lot of romance in it but, essentially, it’s about Jane herself; the story of her progress from an unloved, orphaned, child into a strong, confident, and happy young woman – the romance is only a part of that, albeit a major one. The first ten chapter glimpse into her childhood shows how much her character’s journey goes from a girl who lets her passions best her to a woman who, though still passionate, knows how and when to temper them and when to speak out. I will put in a disclaimer here though to say that I loved this look at Jane’s childhood a lot more than my friend who was also reading the book did, she saw it as a slow start to overcome before she could get to the good bit. Personally though I adored how Jane (though her dialogue sounded a bit too articulate for a ten-year-old at times) so totally summed up the childhood frustration I always had (and still have to some extent now) of being unable to find words to express thoughts as correctly and coherently as she would like.
I’ve said before that Jane’s narrative voice was ‘damn fucking beautiful’, so I’ll elaborate here. I have genuinely not read a first person narration that allowed me to understand the character in this much depth and detail before. Jane is an amazingly fully fleshed out character and she tells her story beautifully; even when I didn’t agree with her actions or would do a different thing myself, I could understand completely why she would make them. She also acknowledges her faults – and the faults of those about her – without ever falling into angst, self pity, or petty bitching that so often seem the hallmarks of first person narration. She might seem passive and mild when first compared to other women in the story, but she’s as passionate as any of them and braver and more decisive to boot – she’s just less showy about it. The action she takes partway through the book would have won me over to her completely, had I not already been on her side, for the sheer guts of it.
It’s a genuinely brave and unselfish decision and it leads to some real suffering – not least to her meeting with the absolutely vile St John Rivers. While I was underwhelmed by Rochester (according to my edition’s afterword one of the strongest characters in English literature) I was overwhelmed by St John. Whilst I flagged in my reading of the Thornfield chapters I could not put the book down in this later section, so fueled was I by my desire to see St John get thumped – unlikely as I knew it was to happen. I haven’t hated a character this much since Theon Greyjoy (which was admittedly only last month) and I hate St John even more than him. Jane might have some affectionate words to say towards his better qualities but I have none; for someone who purports to be doing god’s work he’s a cynical, bullying, selfish, hypocrite and I don’t believe he has any redeeming qualities at all. That Charlotte Brontë makes the man who’s lived a life of sin and cares more for himself than others the hero, and the missionary vicar who puts aside love for duty an emotionally abusive villain is one of the best twists in the book.
And it’s a book surprisingly full of social issues – not just the difference between preaching a Christian life and actually practicing it (St John’s not the only vicar attacked for that) but the treatment of orphans and te vulnerable, the shameful Victorian cost-cutting measures taken at the expense of human lives, the way higher classes (even Jane, on occasion) look down on the poor, the difficulty for a woman to exert her independence in a male dominated society. It brings up traditionally villanous or buffoonish traits – alcoholism, sexual temptation, infidelity and treats them sympathetically. Jane’s a moral character but even she does not see things in black and white – that’s a trait solely reserved for the hypocrites on the book (just like in real life). I will say that there is some unfortunate but generally mild ‘England is best, ra ra!’ patriotism (mostly at the expense of the French) and I don’t like the implication Rochester, at least, makes that Jane is the paragon of womanly virtue and any woman who doesn’t have all of her qualities is deficient – but I can accept that the character has that opinion.
The treatment of a certain character does distress me, and I will be reading Wide Sargasso Sea – a prequel by another author depicting Rochester’s early life – as soon as I’ve finished my massive to-be-read pile, to see another angle than the one portrayed in Jane Eyre. But I’ll save my discussion on this aspect for people I know have read the book.
In short though and without getting into spoilers, I thought this was a wonderful book with a quietly charismatic narrator and, despite not loving it enough for five stars I really enjoyed it and will be putting the rest of Charlotte Brontë’s books straight onto my wishlist.