Can I get a little Bronte sister love here, people? Jane Eyre was a reread for me, and, along with Wuthering Heights is one of two Bronte sister classics that I read years ago. I chose this as a reread because I want to read more by the Brontes and I had such a limited memory of this book that I thought it would be a good place to start.
At this point, all I can really say is “wow.” Jane Eyre is a marvel of a book. I am still plugging away at Les Miserables, but I whipped through Jane Eyre in less than a week. I had splurged and bought the Norton Critical Edition, which contains all sorts of excellent extra content – information about Charlotte’s education at the Cowan Bridge School of Clergyman’s Daughters (upon which Lowood was based), some of her letters during the time that she was a governess at Roe Head, and, even, her response to a criticism of Jane Eyre published during her time.
The book opens with an injustice perpetrated upon Jane by her cousin and this aunt, which leads to the cruel incident where she is locked in a room and basically terrorizes herself into a state of hysteria. That incident, terrible though it was, results in a couple of positive changes in Jane’s life – her acquaintance with a doctor and with Bessie, two people who show her some genuine kindness.
From there, the novel moves quickly through her years at Lowood School, spending some brief time on her acquaintanship with Helen Burns, a young woman who dies of tuberculosis, in the same fashion that she lost two sisters at Cowan Bridge School. Lowood School begins as a place of deprivation, and ends as a place of refuge. Jane tells of those years:
During these eight years my life was uniform: but not unhappy, because it was not inactive. I had the means of an excellent education placed within my reach. A fondness for some of my studies and a desire to excel in all, together with a great delight in pleasing my teachers, especially such as I loved, urged me on. I availed myself fully of the advantages offered me. In time I rose to be the first girl of the first class; then I was invested with the office of teacher; which I discharged with zeal for two years; but at the end of that time I altered.
From Lowood School, Jane goes to Thornfield, where she takes her place as a governess to Adele, the ward of Mr. Rochester. So commences the love story of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the mystery of Thornfield Hall. Told in the first person, the reader experiences her falling in love with Mr. Rochester, the anguish of believing that he loves another woman who is unworthy of his regard, and then her experience of learning that her love is returned and that he wishes to marry her. All the while, the strange happenings at Thornfield throw her off balance, confuse her, and make her wonder what is true and what is her imagination.
Jane Eyre can be roughly divided into three sections: the pre-Thornfield period, the Thornfield period and the post-Thornfield period. Charlotte Bronte, a clergyman’s daughter, uses Biblical quotes and allusions to great effect in the novel, and a well-footnoted edition is helpful in understanding the book. The Thornfield period is a gorgeously gothic: mysterious and foreboding. Jane, upon learning that her beloved is married and has deceived her, responds with integrity and self-abnegation, by leaving him. She consistently behaves with integrity and compassion, even to the individuals who have arguably wronged her. The post-Thornfield period is critical in understanding the deeply compassionate and passionate nature of Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre is a remarkable novel. I loved basically every word of it, and I highly, highly recommend it. I’m planning on a follow-up post where I discuss some of the additional content in the Norton Critical Edition, including Charlotte’s response to her critics.