Book review: Jane Eyre – not who you think you she is

Jane Eyre’s character is the reason why a 19-Century romance novel is still relevant reading material for the 21st Century.

 

Welcome to my first book review

No sooner was I taught to read was any publication safe from my hungry eyes: medication inserts detailing side-effects and contraindications, to ingredients and warnings on food packaging, and of course the well-loved book. Novels and non-fiction alike, I devoured with gusto.

I want to share this passion and connect with like-minded souls in a love for all things literary by writing book reviews. I want to share something of myself with the greater world that doesn’t demand me to be something I’m not. YouTube and Instagram-influencer are on the wrong side of the camera for me.

I rely heavily on recommendations and reviews to sort through the universal toilet bowl of the Information Age. And save myself from the disappointment of reading a tiresome book, selected only for its well-designed cover, right to the end. Enduring through predictable plots and bad writing with the dim hope that it would turn out to be part of a more ingenious storytelling style – and being completely wrong. I hope to contribute my tiny voice to the thousands of reviews out there on your next BookBub recommendation.

What better way to start than with a classic: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte.

Admittedly, I do not read classics much. Let alone romance novels. Mystery and crime, general fiction, world war novels, anything but romance. I’m not a fan of romance because it is mostly based on unrealistic ideals that draw no parallels to real hard-knock life. Maybe also because I devoured romance as a teenager and have had my fill of it. Jane Eyre is not your traditional romance story. I’m glad I read this book at a more mature age where I know what obstacles and frustrations pave the path of life. I don’t think I would have understood it at thirteen.

 

A 21st-Century heroine in Victorian Quaker dress

Charlotte Brönte published under the pseudonym, Currer Bell. She was one of three sisters known as the Brönte sisters, who published under male pseudonyms out of a desire to be judged objectively in a time when the works of female writers were not taken seriously or criticised simply because of the author’s gender. After the success of Jane Eyre, Brönte revealed her true identity and gender. Brewed in a mind such as this, you can safely bet that Jane Eyre was not going to be your damsel in distress.

Published in 1847, the novel pleasantly surprised me by echoing sentiments and beliefs I held firm and resolute. Feminist views. Brönte expressed difficulties and thoughts that many women still struggle against today. It was advanced for its time in its ideas of feminism and social constructs making it relevant reading material for the 21st century. That is, if you can get past the older English language and writing style. At first, I laboured through it as I would reading a foreign language but eventually, I got the hang of it.

Whenever I read historical novels written by 21st-century authors, I presumed the author took some liberty in creating a female character so advanced for her time in beliefs and behaviour. I didn’t believe the character to be realistic of the times. I imagined the author created a modern character and transported her back in time.

Whilst reading Brönte’s novel I kept reminding myself that this notion couldn’t apply. This was a 19th-century novelist writing about 19th-century life, expressing views such as this that I encountered many times in contemporary fiction:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

 

Despite whatever liberties the feminist revolution bestowed on women, modern society in general still half-expects women to retain a certain role or adhere to specific ideas of what constitutes femininity. Subjecting women everywhere to codes designed for them by others. The above quote acknowledged no difference between genders and put them on an absolutely equal footing in mind and body; something society still struggles to reconcile with its perceived ideas of masculinity and femininity.

 

This seemingly out-of-place quote captured my feminist attention and I became instantly attached to Jane, wanting to know what would happen to her and what kind of life would she have?

 

What is the story about?

Jane Eyre was an orphan who grew up with an aunt and cousins who abused her. Both her parents died when she was an infant and her paternal uncle took it upon himself to raise her. Misfortune struck again when he passed away and although he made his wife promise to take care of his niece, it was a responsibility accepted with resentment. Jane had no other family as her mother was disowned for marrying someone below their class. Since her father came from a poor family nobody cared to know, there was no information about them. After suffering a final abuse, the attending doctor took pity on her and facilitated on her behalf to allow her to go to school.

The main character recounts her tale from the age of ten onward leading us through an ever-winding path of her younger years. Together with Jane, we meet new friends and acquaintances. People she learned a lot from and who helped to shape her character. Helen, an older girl whom she met in a boarding school for orphans, introduces to her and the readers the theme of God and religion. And stoicism in the face of adversity.

However, most of the story occurs when Jane is eighteen. Inexperienced, she emerges from her sheltered life into the great world beyond all she has known into the role of governess for the rough-handling and moody, Mr. Rochester. Predictably Victorian, through getting to know him she secretly falls in love with him setting the emotional wilderness she is forced to wander.

 

A literary first

Although the sexual tension is mild it keeps us turning the page right to the end. This isn’t a revolutionary classic for no reason, mind you. It was one of the first books to show in-depth character growth. Jane struggles with her own nature; her passions against reason and morality. She is a passionate, intelligent, and courageous woman. Imaginative, impulsive, and adventurous she is an independently-minded woman. This is apparent in her partiality for solitary long walks sometimes at night – an activity that ladies didn’t do often. And in the way she speaks her mind almost without any filter in an ardent desire to communicate honestly and directly.

 

Perhaps it was the neglect she experienced in childhood that allowed her to be so free-spirited at heart, turning convention on its well-bonnetted head. The lack of parental approval and influence, those invisible chains clasped together by a child’s own love for her parents, allowed her to become more associated with who she truly was. Her mind could roam freely unrestricted from any parental influence which is usually all the more powerful because of the emotional bond. She had no family expectations thrust upon her. No future plans laid out for her other than those she formed for herself.

 

By no means was she a neglectful and careless person. She was respectful enough of social conventions to earn a respected place in that society for her class of servitude in which she rose to the highest rank as a governess. Brönte ensured her character had her flaws. We are constantly reminded of how plain she is. Having no beauty to set her apart from the others. Yet we see how she attracts potential suitors with her character and mind and abilities. We are constantly reminded of her position in society, lacking money and family. Yet she manages to maneuver in society and find her place.

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The author makes us question, what is true beauty and what is true wealth in the eyes of the spirit? Beauty fades, wealth can be lost. True spiritual beauty and wealth can never be taken away.

 

An improper book – even by today’s standards

As we follow Jane’s story, we follow her inner conflict and turmoil in trying to do the right thing and make the right choice.  Undoubtedly, there is an overarching theme of love but romantic love is only part of the story. There is love for fellow men and women despite social standings and appearances. There is familial love; a great foundation of spiritual wealth. There is divine love; love for the Master whom we may call God and whom we traditionally serve through religion and duty, and then there is divine love in the form of true companionship or true love. Today, we may call such people and partners soul family. Soul mates from our soul tribe. A love placed in the heart that looks beyond physical appearance and material possessions.

Above all, there is self-love. Cloaked by the constant overcoming of self to do the right thing. I was struck by the main character’s self worth. I never expected to encounter a woman born and bred two centuries before my time to harbour such a strong sense of self. Honestly, I think I learned a thing or two reading this book. She once asserts that whilst she has no relatives who may care what she does or where she ends up, she cares about herself even if that doesn’t mean much to anybody else.

She says and does things like this all the time, during a period where women didn’t have any of the legal rights we enjoy today, much less the ability to stand up to men and deny them their authority over her being. In fact, in 19th-century England this book was deemed inappropriate reading material for young women due to the character’s independent mind.

 

She lays claim to her mind, heart and soul and takes responsibility for it too. She chooses to do right by herself rather than submit to the passions and desires of other people as difficult as this may be for her. For better or for worse, she remains true to who she is. Even if it thrusts her into loneliness, destitution, or heartbreak.

 

People she loved dearly often exerted their forceful opinions on her. Opinions of who they want her to be and the choices she should make. Many others in her position would have bent to their will to please the other and bask in the shine of their approval at the cost of their true desires.

 

Why it may not be popular with modern readers

Patriarchy and feminism

Modern readers, and staunch feminists in particular, may find the men in the book very outdated and inflaming. Mr. Rochester by today’s standards would prove a controlling manipulative man more suited to a bad romance many women would have the common sense to walk away from.

But compared to the other male characters we see that overbearing authoritativeness over female submissiveness, was the norm for males of that time. Ie the 1800s England was a patriarchal society. His shining quality was his generosity shown by his choice to adopt a destitute foreign child for whom he employs Jane as governess. His own story contributes to the themes of God-centred morality and overcoming of self.

But such is the author’s mind that even if patriarchy was the norm, I feel that Brönte found it unacceptable.  To have such vision beyond the society she lived in was exceptional.

One pet frustration continuously irked me throughout the novel. Jane often referred to Mr. Rochester as her master. Needless to say, I was not impressed. I thought perhaps it was because he was her master as in ’employer’ while she was a governess. But she continues to refer to him as master even in her innermost affectionate thoughts. I couldn’t help but wonder if the expected female-submissiveness of the time leaked through in the author’s words.

Interpreting this together with the theme of love, it’s worth nothing that Brönte later contrasts romantic love with love for God, where God is the Master. In light of this, Jane’s use of the word may mean that he is master of her heart in that she cannot help but love him.

Though, whether she becomes slave to this love or not is the silent question implanted in the reader’s mind throughout the story.

Rigid religious codes

The many religious references uncommon in today’s literature may turn off modern readers. Brönte isn’t about preaching a rigid moral viewpoint. While religion contributes to the moral attitudes in the story, it isn’t a hidden agenda of the author to impose religious views on the reader. Religion serves as a background, another moral code outside of Jane’s own moral code forced upon her. Another layer of confusion thrust upon her while she feels her way through life’s turning points marked by choices good or bad.

Unconventional plot

The plot is of an unfamiliar type. It doesn’t follow the Hollywood movie plot we are used to. Rules are broken, and at first, feels like a cheat on the author’s part. But it serves a purpose.  I don’t want to elaborate on this in case it inadvertently reveals a spoiler. The flowery elaborate description proved very tedious and tiring for my squirrel-mind. Yet her words were not pointless. They served to portray emotion, lure the reader into the character’s innermost thoughts and gratifyingly captured an expression, a rolling field or a stately mansion.

 

Timeless classic

Through whichever socially-encoded lens you view it, feminism, religion, romantic ideals, 19th Century ideas, or 21st-century liberties, it gets to the heart of things that social constructs ignore: the human heart. And the fact that much of the richness of life is experienced through the spiritual lens of the heart. The inner struggles and conflict that Jane faces are the same struggles we face today. The push-and-pull of human emotion amidst shifting social attitudes and conventions persists no matter what age you live in.

Jane Eyre was harshly judged by 19th-century conservatives for being too liberal in heart and mind, and by 21st-century minds for basking in the glow of what seems at first to be an outdated patriarchal-type love.

If anything, Jane Eyre proves that women are subjected to harsh judgement no matter what they do and no matter what ideology they follow.

 

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****Available for free at Amazon or visit that dying human relic – your nearest library – under the Classics section.

**** Still frame of the movie Jane Eyre, sourced from Rollingstone.com

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