That’s my review of Jane Eyre, summed up in one sentence, vintage newspaper headline-style. I’ll elaborate, if you’ll be patient.
I’ve always loved the idea of the Brontës—three sisters who each wrote a classic novel and took on masculine pen names alliterative to their actual names, who all died tragically and romantically young before knowing real fame and recognition (Anne – 29, Emily – 30, Charlotte – 38).
As it happens, my mom and her family are from Yorkshire, England, shire of the famous moors and heather and gloomy countryside as seen in The Secret Garden and, more relevantly, Jane Eyre. When I visited the home country with my mom and my gran in 2005, we had a lot of tea, ate a lot of pasties, and saw a lot of sheep. We went to a series of adorable Yorkshire villages—Holmfirth and its yarn, Whitby and its boatyard, Skipton and its castle, Harrogate and its rain. And we also visited Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters and the Brontë Museum, tastefully situated in the old Brontë house and the family patriarch’s church.
Even then, I didn’t read a single Brontë (and have, as of now, still read only a single Brontë) until a couple months ago when I finally picked up Jane Eyre. Fittingly, it followed my first reading of Jane Austen, with whom I’ve always associated the Brontë sisters, if only for their gender, era, and reputational longevity. It also followed my viewing (on a tiny screen embedded in the back of an airplane seat) of the 2010 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and my celebrity boyfriend Michael Fassbender.* After years of picturing all 19th-century British middle-class women’s novels as high society romps and rom-coms with social dances set to tuneful Baroque quadrilles, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there was darkness and a decided lack of superficial beauty in this north country story.
*One buried, forgotten news story about a girlfriend who pressed charges against him for hitting her, later dropped, qualifies my every admiring statement; without knowing more about what happened, it’s like the Schrodinger’s Box of celebrity crushes, he’s simultaneously dreamy and a dealbreaker.
First of all, Jane is plain, and Rochester is ugly. Or to put it more conservatively, neither are handsome. This made me realize that I very rarely have to envision a female protagonist who is not at least marginally attractive, and a romantic interest who is likewise, and actually had some difficulty doing this.
Second, Jane’s life kinda sucks. She’s raised by her horrible aunt, tortured by a mischievous cousin, and eventually sent off to a girls’ school that basically starves its students. The film version dramatizes this more than the book, bringing to bear modern attitudes about child abuse– Jane herself keeps a fondness for the place in spite of it all– but it was definitely a harsh place to live, echoing Charlotte’s own experiences in boarding school.
When Jane is eighteen, she leaves Lowood after placing a classified advertising her services as a governess (a low-tech Craigslist, with no spammers). She finds herself the companion to a vain, silly little French girl—aptly evoking British attitudes towards French people, in general– who is the ward of the estate’s master, Edward Rochester.
Jane notices right away there’s something strange about this house– she hears laughing and shouts in the middle of the night, which the housekeeper blames on a servant named Grace Poole. Mr. Rochester is away most of the time; at one point, when he comes back, he is nearly burned alive in his bed by mysterious means. Jane saves him; he thanks her profusely for saving his life, and for good measure gives her a few of his piercing, stormy, furrowed gazes she comes to know and love.
Thus begins the story’s central romance. Rochester is in his late thirties, a rich man with seemingly his pick of attractive noblewomen, particularly one long-necked Blanche Ingram. Jane is his quiet, slight, ever-serious governess, the hired help, and only eighteen. Aren’t they the unlikely pair? Let’s break down the good, the bad, and the plain of this crazy relationship:
1) It’s an incredibly romantic idea, finding that someone who you thought was out of your reach—in this case, your richer, more worldly employer—has become completely enamored with you.
2) Rochester is interested in Jane not for her looks, but for her mind and her conversation. He falls in love with the way she challenges him and even teases him; it seems pretty clear that his attraction to her is not superficial.
1) I mean, he’s way older than her, so kinda ick? Though I’m realizing that a slew of favorite films, books, TV shows, and songs outside of Lolita consist of older man/teenage girl relationships (most recently I’ve been rewatching best-show-of-all-time “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and am like, wow, Buffy is like 16 years old when she first meets Angel and on top of that he’s not 20 like a normal statutory boyfriend, he’s like 240, which makes it even worse that he’s still into a teenage girl, right?)
2) Rochester is a little unbalanced. He’s hopelessly and desperately in love with Jane and turns borderline threatening when she leaves him. Fassbender portrayed this very well… hopefully because he’s a really good actor (truth) and not ’cause he’s really like that.
3) Here’s the spoiler: There’s a madwoman in the attic.
1) They’re both kinda plain?
So the haunted house aspect of the book is resolved when we find out that the strange noises, furtive goings-on, and occasional violent happenstances are all due to Rochester’s wife, a Creole woman from the West Indies (hey Said, here’s some empire-as-background!), who is locked up in the attic because she’s stark raving out of her mind. Jane doesn’t find out about the first wife until Rochester tries to marry Jane in the shortest, most depressing wedding ceremony ever.
We enter a kind of second part—or even, a very long interlude—when Jane flees the manor, and finds herself taken in by some distant relatives in a distant county. These cousins of hers include St. John, an annoyingly pious and self-satisfied minister whose dream is to dedicate himself to helping poor little lambs in India (empire-as-background, again).
After months of living in the same house, St. John—who is in lust with a pretty rich girl up the way—decides that he wants to take Jane as his wife. The other girl is only an earthly temptation, he says; and while he feels no attraction whatsoever to Jane, she’s good, smart, sturdy, and would make the perfect missionary’s wife. It’s all so sensible. Jane admires St. John deeply; but ultimately, she refuses his offer.
I don’t share Jane’s admiration. To me, St. John comes off as a sanctimonious ass. He’s domineering, distant, and selfless to the point of absolute selfishness. Given a choice between cold, imperious St. John and unbalanced, baggage-laden Rochester… well, I think Jane made the right choice. He’s at least the lesser of two evils.
For all of the downcast glances Jane makes around Rochester, for all of the words she never says out loud, for all the fact that she starts learning goddamn Hindi to please St. John, she is ultimately, for what it’s worth, a surprisingly strong, independent heroine.
When Jane makes up her mind to leave Thornfield after learning of Rochester’s wife, she comes up with this little piece of proto-self-validation, a kind of “don’t need no man” testimonial:
“…while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitor against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’
“Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now… Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” (403)
In 1847, I feel like this was a big deal. Plain single girl makes her own way, survives countless hardships, submits to no man, and acts on her own decisions. And ultimately, empowered, her own agent, she lives happily ever after with brooding old Mr. Rochester. Who, if he actually looked like Michael Fassbender, would not be so bad at all.