© 1847 Charlotte Bronte
Years ago an online quiz declared to me that of all the characters in English literature, I was most like…Jane Eyre. It may have been a quiz intended for women, but I had an awful lot of spare time on my hands in high school. Regardless, since that I’ve had a faint interest in reading Jane’s novel, and since I’ve instituted April as English Lit month, why not? Jane Eyre is the story of a young orphan who must find her way in the world, overcoming both temptation and self-righteousness. Jane is probably the most personable of the classics I’ve read, using as it does the first-person perspective and beginning not with a storied introduction, but with a seemingly mundane episode in Jane’s life that will set her on her own course. Charlotte Bronte combines a happy talent for description with wisdom that is neither strident nor impotent.
Jane begins as a ward of her uncharitable aunt, a woman who bemoans the fact that she has been made the guardian of her niece. Rather than bringing Jane up as a member of the family, she instead attempts to reduce Jane to an abused servant. This injustice so distresses Jane that she collapses in nervous sorrow, and on the advice of a doctor, is sent away to a boarding schools for indigent orphans, where she encounters a saintly young girl who is an exemplar of virtuous patience and long-suffering. The young girl perishes, as is the way of saintly mentors, and Jane quickly grows to become a teacher at the school herself. The real story begins when she, craving something new, advertises for and lands a job as a governess. Her new home is a gloomy place with an absent master and strange goings-on, some of which won’t be explained until very late in the novel, but presently the owner arrives and things grow steadily more agitated. Though Jane has no money, no familial connections, and no great beauty, she develops feelings for this Mr. Rochester. Unknown to her, but fairly obvious to the reader from his wide array of pet names, Rochester also has feelings for Jane….but things aren’t quite that easy. Rochester isn’t the man he appears to be, and Jane must choose which she prefers: love or honor.
“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad — as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth — so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am quite insane — quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
Mad though she may be with love, since her friend ‘s death she has attempted to live rightly, and it is that habit of seeking the Good, not merely what feels good or can be rationalized, that keeps her beginning a new life with a mistake. From there she flees into the country, with resources and again fixing for herself alone, winning friends and admiration for her character and kindness. She discovers long-lost relations and encounters a different kind of proposal before returning to where the story began, for a marvelous conclusion.
Readers today might praise Jane for being an independent woman in the Victorian age, but truth be told she is a remarkable character even in today’s age. She is independent, but not self-obsessed. From an early age she is aware of her own dignity, and respects that of the people who antagonize her; even when she denies them, thwarts them, she is doing it as much for their sake as hers. Thus we have independence, but not egotism. Jane’s strength is her character, her compassion. Unlike Pip, another literary orphan, she is not possessed by her wealth; it leads her to embrace and strengthen her bonds with those “who knew her when”, not push them away in search of social status. (She did have the advantage of having escaped her youth, I suppose. Pre-Helen, Jane might have made Pip’s same mistakes.)
Jane Eyre was for me another happy surprise. I intended on reading A Classic. I found myself immediately attached to an admirable and lovely young friend in Jane.