This is probably my third or fourth time reading “Jane Eyre,” but my second time in the last couple of years–and I also just finished the miniseries on Amazon with Timothy Dalton concurrently as I listened.
Man. Definitely up there with my top five books of all time, if not #1 (though I would have ranked it #1 for several years.) The Bronte sisters are very much like Jane Austen, I think, except that they’re gothic and bittersweet, where she is tongue-in-cheek and happily ever after. I love both, and I do think bittersweet can go too far, nor am I huge into horror. But “Jane Eyre” straddles the line perfectly, I think.
The story follows Jane, orphaned at a young age, and adopted by her Uncle Reed, who then passes away and wrests a promise from his wife to raise Jane as her own. This Aunt Reed definitely does not do–and Jane’s earlier life is basically a Cinderella story, where everyone is cruel to her, including at her aunt and cousins, and even their servants to some extent. But unlike Cinderella, Jane isn’t cowed by their treatment into submission; she has an innate sense of self-respect that enables her to come to her own defense. Her directness leads Aunt Reed to send her to Lowood School, a charitable institution where the children are at first equally abused, and religious instruction is legalistic to the point of cruelty. But then we skip on ahead: things improve, and Jane stays at the school until she is eighteen, first as a pupil and then as a teacher. When her only friend marries and moves away, having no resources of her own, Jane advertises for another situation. She is hired as a governess for a little French girl at Thornfield Hall, thinking that she is the daughter of a single wealthy woman, Mrs. Fairfax.
But it turns out that Mrs. Fairfax is just the housekeeper. Instead, Adele is the ward of Mr. Rochester, whom Jane doesn’t even meet for months, because he is traveling. This is where the story really begins–everything until this point is back story. The dynamic between Jane and Mr. Rochester is incredibly compelling, because they are both such unique characters, and would be so poorly suited to anyone else. Mr. Rochester is physically ugly, sharp-tongued, abrupt, and prone to soliloquizing in hard-to-follow metaphors… but he also seems to fixate upon Jane. Jane is plain, obscure, poor, and his servant–but again, that innate sense of self-respect causes her to respond to him with equal frankness. She falls in love with him, and despairs, because not only does the match obviously appear impossible to her, but he and everyone else soon leads Jane to believe that he is to marry a beautiful and titled lady. We later find out, though, that Mr. Rochester loves Jane too, but believes Jane to be indifferent to him, so he has spread the rumor of his impending marriage in order to incite her jealousy.
Meanwhile, a strange wailing woman wanders around Thornfield, eventually attempting to burn Mr. Rochester in his bed, and attacking a visitor to the home. Jane comes to the rescue both times, believing the wailing woman to be one of Mr. Rochester’s servants. But Mr. Rochester will tell her nothing about why he does not dismiss her, and Jane later comes to suspect that the wailing woman is not the servant at all, but someone else entirely. Mr. Rochester’s secret comes back to haunt them just on the brink of their happiness, causing Jane to flee penniless and attempt to start her life over elsewhere. But a series of coincidences and minor supernatural occurrences conspire to bring them back together in the end.
In less skillful hands than Charlotte Bronte’s, some of these occurrences would seem too convenient–and in the miniseries version, they did come off that way. But in the book! Oh, the prose is just so gorgeous, and the characters so insightful, and the pacing so perfect that I can easily suspended all my disbelief. We do get our happily ever after in the end, though everything is not too perfect… and in a story like this, it really can’t be, or it wouldn’t seem to belong to the same universe as the rest of the tale. “Jane Eyre” is by far the best of the Bronte novels, at least the ones I’ve read–though I’m rereading the others again too, hoping to find other hidden gems.
My rating: *****
Language: none, obviously
Sexual content: none, obviously
Political content: none