"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 21, 2011

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte (Book review)

The story of Jane Eyre, told in the first person, starts at Gateshead where she is a 9 year old orphan who fights the mistreatment by her heartless aunt. Next she is sent to Lowood, a charity school with a harsh regime under a hypocritical minister. The little rebel manages to survive on a starvation diet, but her friend Helen Burns dies in her arms of tuberculosis. This leads to reforms in the school regime and in the end Jane becomes one of the teachers. Her natural independence and spirit have been strengthened by these childhood experiences.

She then obtains a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she asserts her equality with her sardonic employer, the patrician Rochester. She loves and is loved by him, but at the wedding it is revealed that he is already married - he has locked up his lunatic wife in the attic of the Hall. Jane is forced to make a choice by the discovery of this secret - and flees from Thornfield.

Starving and reduced to begging, she is taken in at Moor House. The two young ladies and their brother, a vicar, who live there, even turn out to be family of Jane. Next Jane inherits a fortune, but shares it with her newly found family. Relations with her nephew, St John, turn bad when he wants to marry her and take her to India as a missionary's wife and assistant. Jane escapes this deadly marriage (St John is anyway already "married to his church") and returns to Thornfield which she finds as a burned-out ruin. Rochester, blinded and mutilated, lives at a nearby farm, Ferndean, and as his wife has perished in the fire she started, he now is a free man. "Reader, I married him."

You do not usually think of classics as page-turners and often read them more as duty than pleasure. Not so Jane Eyre. To my surprise it read like a piece of modern fiction, and an extremely well-written one at that. What a passion! No wonder this book caused a storm, even though being published under a pseudonym, to hide that the author was a woman. The book was subtitled "An autobiography," as if this were a real account of the burning passions hidden in the country houses of northern England. Most of all, people were scandalized: a young, plain governess falls in love with her Byronic employer, attracted by his dark mien, his violence and his power. He answers her feelings and they are even on the point of marrying, when the truth she was unaware of comes out: he already has a mad wife locked-up in the attic. That accounts for the ghostly shreaks and laughter she heard sometimes at night...

This is a sublime book because it is about freedom, equality and human dignity. Jane Eyre fights for equality, not only as a woman, but as a human being (the only black spot in the eye of Charlotte Bronte are the British colonies, which still have to wait a century for that same equality and freedom). Jane struggles successfully to find the place in the world that she deserves and does so with great passion. That is a message important in all times, for all people.
Librivox recording of the novel. Jane Eyre on Gutenberg. I read Jane Eyre in the Penguin edition.