Books Every Woman Should Read: Jane Eyre
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
This week’s book takes us all the way back to 1847 – the year Ireland starved, the US and Mexico had a war and an extraordinary young woman from an extraordinary family signed her nom de plume on one of the most enduring classics of English literature.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre attracted controversy on its release. The Quarterly Review spluttered, “We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”
The novel challenged notions of social class and religious morality. Witness the judgemental St John Rivers, or the conditions the orphans at Lowood endure while their benefactor lives in luxury. Even more shocking, Jane considers herself – and women in general – to be the equal of men in intellect and deed. Even more than 160 years later, the novel has the power to challenge the reader. Not only that but Jane’s hypnotic narration soon pulls the reader into her world and before long, they are entranced.
Jane’s journey through life is not an easy one. She is an orphan and raised by her horrible, uncaring aunt Mrs Reed, bullied by her cousins and if she misbehaves she is locked in the horrible ‘Red Room’, where the ghost of her late uncle is supposed to haunt. The chilling scenes in the Red Room foresee the gothic Thornfield Hall, where Jane later becomes a governess. It is her time here that really turns the novel from the standard Victorian fare into something more. Jane’s developing love and mutual respect for her employer Mr Rochester is subtly undermined by the nightly strange events at the house.
While almost everyone knows what the secret of Thornfield Hall is, it’s a testament to how well the story is crafted that the revelation of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’, still has power to shock. There, is of course, the Victorian fondness for outlandish coincidences (the convenient death of Jane’s extremely wealthy, childless uncle being the most egregious) the modern reader will be struck by the freshness and richness of Jane’s character. She is a thoroughly engaging narrator, with a strong and defined sense of self, which would be more at home in a twentieth or twenty-first century setting.
Jane Eyre is a perfect example of a novel being ahead of its time. The introspective narration and meditation on what it means to be a human being has influenced countless writers, including James Joyce and Marcel Proust. For feminists, Jane Eyre is a seminal book. Jane’s self-respect and independence has been held up as an example for young women. Her refusal to marry St John out of duty is out-of-kilter compared to common Victorian morality tales, the authors of which would have doubtlessly seen Jane punished for aiming above her station. Much has also been made of her marriage to Rochester and how he has to be physically maimed before he can be seen as Jane’s equal.
Analysts have also had a field day with the character of Bertha Mason. She represents everything from a Freudian repression of Jane’s sexuality to British shame at their imperial adventures abroad. The fact that our romantic lead has locked his first wife in the attic is one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, and inspired Jean Rhys’ wonderful novel Wide Sargasso Sea.
Whatever Charlotte Brontë might or might not have meant in Jane Eyre, there’s no doubting it’s one of the most intriguing and captivating novels ever written. To quote Jasper Fforde, author and Brontë fan; “Governments and fashions come and go but Jane Eyre is for all time.”
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