I will be very honest here: I tried to read Jane Eyre as a high schooler and failed. I never made it past the Red Room. This is a common theme in my life, and in recent years I’ve revisited classic books that I either didn’t like or couldn’t finish (or couldn’t finish because I didn’t like) when I was forced to read them in school. Jane Eyre was no exception; I originally started reading it at summer camp because it was on my summer reading list.
But many of my friends love this book, and when Tracy at Fanserviced-B recommended it on Instagram, I decided it was time to revisit it (incidentally, I think I’ve loved every book recommendation I’ve gotten from Tracy). So I went to find it for Kindle, as most of my reading time happens in the dark after putting the baby to bed. And it turned out, I’d actually attempted to re-read the book a while ago because it was already on my Kindle (no, Amazon is not yet so creepy that it can predict that I’d be getting around to re-reading Jane Eyre soon… I don’t think).
Anyway, the book. If you are concerned about spoilers for a book that was written over 150 years ago, well, you probably should leave now. Yes, I recognize that not everyone has read the book, and some people might be genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot, but really, elements of the plot have become commonly-referenced literary tropes (ones that I’ve referenced even when I’d never read that far in the book).
The story follows the life of Jane Eyre, an orphan who was sent to live with her aunt and their three children, including their oldest, John. After being neglected and abused until the age of ten, she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is infamous in it’s poor treatment of its charges. While there, she befriends a girl who later dies of consumption, and a teacher, who doesn’t. She makes her way through the trials and tribulations of the school, eventually becoming a teacher there, and then leaves at 18 to take a position with a man who is looking for a governess for his young ward.
Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to find a motley assortment of characters, including her pupil, a very silly French girl named Adele, who may or may not be her employer’s illegitimate daughter. She eventually meets her elusive employer, Mr. Rochester, when his horse throws him while passing her in the street. Their relationship is very reminiscent of the Disney “Beauty and the Beast” montage of Belle and the Beast. All the while, there are strange goings-on, including a fire from which Jane saves Mr. Rochester, all of which Jane attributes to the servant Grace Poole, whose job is not made immediately obvious, and who apparently has a taste for strong drink.
After Jane saves his life, Mr. Rochester starts to act more warmly towards Jane, and she starts to wonder if she might be falling in love with him. But shortly after, he brings in a pretty heiress who is speculated to be a potential new wife for him. Jane is jealous, which Mr. Rochester can sense, and uses this jealousy to get her to admit her feelings for him, at which point he proposes marriage to her and she accepts. But the strange events escalate, with a mysterious woman coming into Jane’s room to rip her veil apart one night. And during the wedding ceremony, a man arrives to announce that Mr. Rochester cannot marry Jane because he is already married, though his wife has a congenital disorder that results in erratic behavior and has been imprisoned in the attic of the house. It is therefore revealed that Grace Poole’s job has been to guard her, and they mysterious incidents are the doing of Mrs. Rochester when she escapes.
Despite Mr. Rochester confirming his love for Jane and offering to live with her as husband and wife in another country, Jane refuses him and leaves. At this point, I realized that I didn’t really know all that much about the book, since I never really thought about the fact that there was plot outside of the “mad wife in the attic” reveal, but it was here that you see Jane’s character start to anneal and become stronger. While her early life is certainly hard, it is almost entirely the result of other people doing horrible things to her. At this point, she makes a decision for herself, and chooses not only to leave Thornfield Hall, but to leave it immediately, with little preparation and no notice to anyone else.
And she is immediately beset with surprisingly realistic troubles. While she has a little money and brings along a bundle of belongings, her money does not get her as far as she had hoped, and she ends up losing her belongings on the coach she takes away from Thornfield Hall, so she finds herself sleeping rough on the moors, nearly starving. She manages to find a village, where she is generally refused by the inhabitants of the houses she approaches, but eventually finds the house of the local clergyman and is rescued. Once again, she has a new life into which to settle, until she learns that her elusive uncle, who never knew of her ill treatment at the hands of his wife and children, had previously found her at Thornfield, and later died and left his sizable fortune to her. Not only that, but the clergyman and his sisters, with whom she has becoming close, are her cousins. She shares her new fortune with her newfound cousins and continues to live with them.
But eventually, her cousin the clergyman thinks that she would make an ideal clergyman’s wife, and proposes marriage to her, despite being in love with another. Jane refuses him at first, but when she considers accepting, she mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice echoing over the moors saying her name. In the one moment of “deus ex machina,” Jane returns to find that Thornfield has been burned to the ground, and Mrs. Rochester died by suicide while it burned. Mr. Rochester has been gravely injured, and though he still loves her, he fears his injuries make him too hideous for her. But, in a moment of impeccable sass, when he asks Jane if she finds him hideous, she replies that he is, of course, as he always has been. And thus, the two lovers, neither particularly pretty, are together in the end.
I love this book because Jane is flawed and impulsive and naive and makes mistakes, but is ultimately led by a strong moral compass. Though I don’t necessarily share her faith or morals, I admire how she doesn’t compromise them, even to achieve happiness. She also has a strong need to care for other people, but tries her hardest not to lose herself in the care of others, as evidence by her interactions with her cousin St. John when she knows he is proposing a loveless marriage for the sake of having a useful wife on mission with him.
But I think the best part of this book, and one that is supremely overlooked in pretty much all of the film and television adaptations, is that both of the romantic protagonists are explicitly said to be not very attractive. While the story is told from Jane’s perspective, so it could be excused as overmodesty on her part, it is referenced by other characters. And Mr. Rochester’s coarse appearance is also commented upon throughout his parts of the story, which gives the story more of its “Beauty and the Beast” feeling. But while Rochester is aloof, he doesn’t cross the line into abusive or cruel, even alleviating Jane’s jealous virtually as soon as he learns of it. And when they reunite, it is clear that it is Jane’s choice to be with him and care for him.
I love the agency that Jane has, despite having some real tribulations befall her. While she is somewhat forced into some very nasty situations, she neither despairs nor blames fate and instead chooses to make her own way as best as she can. It’s a remarkable book and one that I’m sad that I never read sooner. Like many “classic books” that I was assigned to read in high school, I feel like it is the kind of book that benefits from the insight of age. I highly recommend everyone try to re-read a few of the books that you hated when you were forced to read them in school. You may find some new insights.