Jane Eyre: An Autobiography ‘edited by Currer Bell’ (Charlotte Brontë), was published in 1847 and became an immediate success, and is to this day a popular choice around the world amongst readers, whether they fly solo or discuss it in groups.
The story of Jane Eyre is as classic a Bildungsroman as they come: an orphan, placed with an unjust aunt who begrudgingly makes a promise to her husband on his deathbed to keep her safe, is shipped off to a (horrible) charity school to toil and endure a bleak faith in the temperamental English countryside. Very Brontëesque, the weather plays a symbolic role in this constancy of inner and outer rebellion and feelings of injustice across the board. Injustice as to the way you treat an orphan, injustice as to how you educate children, not with pedagogical means but terror and the fear of an avenging God imprinted on their minds. And most of all injustice to women, how their station and role in life is predetermined and how this constantly and thoroughly impairs their independence.
As a young woman, Eyre leaves the school to become a governess for a little French girl at (da-da-da-da) Thornfield Hall, where dark and enigmatic master Rochester sits by the fire challenging this fresh and untainted, yet determined, addition to the house. Eyre becomes more and more infatuated by this Master – not just as you would expect in a romantic fashion, but more importantly as an equal. In the course of the story events and eerie sounds around the house, however, make her question daily life at Thornton Hall, and the peak of events which will send her spiraling in a new direction is just around the corner…
So what does Charlotte do when she does what she does to you and me through Jane?
For one thing there is a constant toying with perspective. The narrator (Jane) every so often directs her speech at you, involves you in the scenes, breaking down the wall between her life as a series of events and your comfortable situation as voyeur. She disarms you by presenting herself as a plain, working woman – let your guard down, no threat here, feel free to read on – but in reality the very fact that she is NOT that, is fascinating and, I think, part of the reason she gets under your skin as a narrator. The reader is not just a spectator, but one who lives through and with the narrators’ situation. She guides you through the story, and you build up a sort of special interconnection between you and her because of this narrative change.
This way, it’s like I, being the reader here, can invest emotions and bond with the experience on another level than the laid-back reader, cruising in and out of the pages. I know it sounds cliché, but examining the emotional/moral/ethical levels of the story, you are there in the moment, and the moment may as well be 2012 as 1847.
And this leads me to another interesting aspect, which is the philosophical discussions Eyre and Rochester spend many a page debating, as well as the many layered and complex issues otherwise presented throughout the novel. Unlike your ‘tacky’ romance novels with very little to offer on the contemplative side, Jane Eyre is not merely a story of two people from different standings in life that end up emotionally and passionately attached. For sure there is that too – and descriptions of their emotional connection in spite of their stature reaches toe cringing cheese-levels at times (just remember it’s mid-1800’s literature). But Brontë still manages to interlace this rather corroded theme with sharp socioeconomic critique, the question of human value and equality of the sexes in a 19th century melting pot that might just as well apply to current debates. What does it mean to be a responsible and ethical person, and how do the theoretical high-level terms of intellect and reason stand up when you have to get up from your chaise longue and apply them to daily life choices.
To me Brontë presents us with a type of girl who grows up to be a combination type of heroic-stoic-plain woman, hellbent on questioning these power plays, and notions of justice, meticulously picking her battle grounds and rhetorical weapons, and in just the ‘right’ situations answers them with a kindness that verges on the point of sacrificial behaviour. But she is not without fault, nor is she the self-sacrificer per excellence. Eyre is Rochester’s redemption, but not on his terms as one would expect in the power display that is very evident from the first meeting on. Jane is very much her own, an Individual – not property, or a mere employee. In the character of Jane Eyre we are presented with someone who is very much aware of the injustice towards her, and signs of power plays that complicate the notion of simply ‘getting along’ and respecting your fellow human: be it child, man, woman, peasant, servant, they all face unjust authority plays, lain on them by a system, other people or most challenging of all: one’s self.
Of course, many of the choices and situations throughout the book are irrevocably connected to religion or religious rhetoric/ethics – more precisely the Christian faith – and so issues of self-sacrifice, redemption and belief in a just power higher than that we can experience from any personal and worldly gain are abound. Nonetheless there are what I would deem to be universal humanistic features that go against that pious attitude displayed by for instance St. John, a clergyman with whom she does the epic battle of wills with: can she, a plain governess, really turn down marriage that will be based on duty to God? It comes down to a core element of proto-feminism: the fundamental right to decide one’s faith and worth.
I could highlight many more points, whole sections of dialogue in fact, that tickles my brainstem. It says something about the test of times, when you think of the language which is altmodisch in general, and yet manages to suck in a 21. century reader just as easy as modern-day narratives. And I know that many too have had this experience of immersion I have had with Jane Eyre, in spite of different time periods, and antiquated language, when I mention the book, and another replies ‘aahh, Reader, I married him‘, and smiles in the sort of ‘we-share-the-same-experience’-way.