Orphaned and packed off to a charitable educational institution by an indifferent relative and benefactress, Jane Eyre has rarely experienced feelings of belonging or having the comfort of a home. When she comes of age and advertises for a place as governess, circumstances bring her to Thornfield Hall where she finds friendship among the staff and with her young charge, Adele Varens. The arrival of the master of the house, Edward Rochester, introduces Jane (with some difficulty) to the pleasures of requited love, but there are sinister and unexplained happenings at Thornfield Hall. Rochester’s enigmatic behavior and past threatens not only their burgeoning relationship, but Jane’s emotional health and safety.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s writing is immediately compelling and accessible. Right away she establishes an unshakable relationship with and sympathy for Jane through the justness of all the she endures with the Reeds and at Lowood, and through Jane’s decidedly temperamental personality which reaches for justice. I had a hard time putting it down because I wanted to see what Jane would do next and what outcome fate had in store for her. While I didn’t find that there was much depth to her character, her random outbursts and passionate nature gave her just enough edge for me to be intensely curious about her progression through life.
In spite of my intense interest and curiosity, there is no doubt that this is not a book to which I see myself returning anytime soon. I would have to let it rest for a few years before seeing whether I would find it to be less frustrating and with more to offer, but I did read it at pretty much break neck speed. In a book where I could vaguely sense what was coming next from a prior reading and popular culture, the story held surprises in the details, and for the most part held my attention.
My issues with Jane Eyre are not the storytelling (well, most of it), but that Bronte fails to set up more than a minimum motivation for her main character. I get that Jane craves love and a home life because of the circumstances in which she was raised, but I never really got any more than that from her. She spends most of her time in a corner watching Rochester, and the rest running from him. I almost want to just say that even though she wants to confirm and be sure of Rochester’s love for her (and they are both a little nauseating in that respect), hers for him seems to be a result of the fact that he is the first interested man who had been put before her. Sure, she is able to reject St. John later on, because in his own way he is also a crazy person, but it is only by comparison with the way Rochester needs her and communicates love to her that that she finds him lacking. Had she not had that comparison, I think that she would have thought St. John perfectly acceptable.
Earlier in the year, some poll or another indicated that Rochester was the romantic hero over Darcy (from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice). I didn’t really understand it then with only a vague recollection of Jane Eyre, and I certainly do not understand it now. I was very skeptical of their relationship, just like poor Mrs Fairfax. Beauty is, after all in the eye of the beholder, so pushing aside that Rochester is not attractive, I was at a loss to see what else he had to offer. He was overbearing, had a violent temper, was deceptive and a bully, and when he can’t come to terms with his wife’s mental instability he locks her in an attic with only a drunk to watch over her. And, on top of that, he feels totally justified in carving out a life that is more acceptable than the one he is obligated to and blithely plans to make his “beloved” a bigamist, after she escapes his first wife’s attack in the night unharmed. Can you see signing a girlfriend up for that? Encouraging her to be with him? I failed to get the romance. It’s crazy. Darcy was handsome, rich and a little conceited but he didn’t lie to Elizabeth or have any crazy attic wives coming after her either.
As tightly written and sensible as the first sections of the book are, the last third drifts off into coincidence and cliché. Jane is a very smart cookie yet she suddenly runs off in the night with almost no money, and spends every last shilling that she has on coach fare to the middle of nowhere. She couldn’t save a few shillings for some food or a room at an inn, or look up the long lost relative that was just waiting to die and give her money? She then goes on to “starve” for two or three days before being welcomed into the bosom of a family who coincidentally turns out to be her long lost relations, whom of course, she adores. Within the space of six weeks she finds a job at the same salary that Rochester paid her, and a week after that she is an heiress. Really Charlotte Bronte? You can do better than that, can’t you? I just got the feeling that this story needed to be over when Bertha Mason was unveiled – either leave or stay with him. The wandering around the countryside to magically become Rochester’s equal, well – after he has been blinded and maimed, just struck me as ridiculous and a little lazy.
And, I get that both Bronte and Jane were both totally radical and badass back in the day, but I was never able to get over the fact that Jane was an emotionally sheltered child with ZERO experience with men, painfully out of her depth. Nothing would ever be able to even out her relationship with Rochester. Even by 1847 standards Mrs Fairfax thought he was to old for her, and I agree, though it wasn’t the actual age difference that bothered me, so much as that she was not a match for him in any real way, in any way shape or form. It was just gross. Bronte knew that she was out of her league, and so did Jane on some level, otherwise they both wouldn’t have had to work so hard to bring Jane up while pulling Rochester down to her level. Like I said, totally compelling but equally WTF? by the end.