Plain Girl Makes Good: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

That’s my review of Jane Eyre, summed up in one sentence, vintage newspaper headline-style. I’ll elaborate, if you’ll be patient.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte book

Purchased at Alexander Book Company, San Francisco. Transatlantic Press, 2012.

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.

Donkeys in Whitby, England

A view of Whitby, 2005.

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.

Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre (2011).

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.

Harewood House

Harewood House near Leeds. Maybe Thornfield looked like this?

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:

THE GOOD

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.

THE BAD

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.

THE PLAIN

1) They’re both kinda plain?

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

Hollywood: Take plainness factor described in book, add +2 attractiveness.

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).

The Yorkshire moors. Sheep.

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.

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7 responses

  1. Hi, since you’re clearly a monster Bronte fan, why not follow us on Twitter (@BronteParsonage) or Facebook (Bronte Parsonage Museum, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bronte-Parsonage-Museum/292485174126770)? You can keep up to date with all the latest Bronte news & events, and we’d love to see you there!
    -The Bronte Parsonage Museum

    1. Well there you go! This is the lovely little museum I visited when I went to Haworth 7 years ago. Of course I’d love to go back next time I’m in England, especially now that I’ve actually read a Bronte novel (and plan to read more).

  2. Have you ever read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys? It’s from the woman in the attic’s point of view, and interesting if you want another perspective.

    1. Thanks for the tip! That actually sounds really interesting, I will add to my To-Read list :)

      1. Hope you enjoy it.
        It’s not exactly a happily-ever-after, but you can relate to the first Mrs. R. She doesn’t get many breaks in life.

  3. Hi, love your summary I was just looking for a picture Thornfield-like and hated what I saw until I saw your photo. Anyways, I’ve just finished reading it in English (I’ve read it twice before in French) and I agree with you: she really had a harsh life and I simply hate this St. John (by the way, what does St. stands for?) he is falsely selfless and good, he may be a powerful oratory but other than that he has no human feature.

    But I think what really makes this book great is that although they both (Mr Rochester and Jane) had dreadful lives that I wouldn’t wish to my worst enemy, they wouldn’t be who they are if not for them. Mr Rochester often tell Jane such things as “you were not made to be like this if not for your childhood, no more than I was if not for my wedding”. And yet in this they still found happiness. Because that is actually his moody self that helps Jane being herself without being afraid of disappointing her master. Knowing his defects, and hers, she can feel equal to him and speak to him as she would to herself. She tells us when they first met: something like “if he would have been nice to me I would have left him there” and then as much as she admires St. John (God knows why) she does not like him she “scorns his love and him”.
    Jane Eyre is a story about accepting what you cannot change such as your past and try to do the best with what you can change that is yourself or your future. If Mr Rochester hadn’t married a mad girl he wouldn’t have known what was missing to him: a girl who wouldn’t flatter him, true, and with wits that he could respect. If he hadn’t married that woman he would have married another most likely opportunist like Blanche Ingram.

    Anyways I loved this book and loved Jane Eyre because she is so honnest with us, she tells us exactly how she feels and it seems true. To me the way of writting makes me thing of Elisabeth Gaskell’s in North and South (great book by the way you should read it or at least see the mini series of the BBC).

    Hope you had the courage to read to this point if so tell me what you think

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I agree, there is a “damaged” quality to both Rochester and Jane that makes them suitable for each other in a way… it’s definitely not a fairy tale, though it kind of has a fairy tale ending. And I also really liked Jane herself. Though again I don’t get why she was so admiring of St. John! (I think it stands for “Saint.” It’s a weird name, anyway.) What a jerk. Anyway– I’ll add North and South to my reading list. Thanks for the recommendation!

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