This book was a pleasure to read from start to finish. It’s a shame it took me so long to pick this up now knowing it has many things I would’ve liked to read while I was growing up. I’ve always enjoyed Gothic novels, delighted in opinionated female characters, and enjoyed beautiful, descriptive writing.
After finishing the book, I was browsing its Goodreads page to see what others thought of it, as I’ve been wont to do because I am nosy and enjoy mentally agreeing/disagreeing with other people’s judgments about things I like. A lot of people hated it, but many others loved it too, sometimes as much as I did though not in the same way. One very poignant review passionately pointed out that she “… could bang Mr. Rochester like a screen door ’till next Tuesday.” Interesting. In another review, Jane’s plainness and sob stories were found boring, and Rochester was found to be insufferable, immoral and uninteresting.
I never really viewed Jane Eyre as a romantic novel. I vehemently refuse to experience it as a love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester because Jane is so much more than her romantic relationships. I also think Rochester is gross, and her admiration for the man ludicrous.* I understand when people are put off by this romance because I hated it too. (Full disclosure: I’ve read Jean Rhys’ prequel Wide Sargasso Sea years back and thus have already formed negative opinions about Rochester before reading Jane Eyre).
If you allow yourself to look past that ridiculous May-December love affair, you will appreciate Jane’s education – from her difficult time at the hands of the Reeds to her training at the Lowood Charity school, which fed her hunger for a life outside of those walls leading her to the most important part of her coming-of-age at Thornfield Hall. You will love her spunk, and you will enjoy her comebacks to people who did her wrong. You kind of expect Victorian ladies to be all coy and modest but not this Jane. I’ve done far too many mental hellsyeah! every time she tells people off. When her cruel aunt told her cousins to stay away and not associate with her as she is not worthy of notice, she remarks, “They are not fit to associate with me.”
In Lowood, Jane meets saintly Helen Burns, who preaches about submitting to punishment even if it is undeserved, that it is not violence that best overcomes hate- nor vengeance that heals injury. Jane respected Helen, she loved Helen but she will continue to resent the people who are cruel to her. When made to suffer unfairly, she “embraces the impulse of fury that bounded in her pulses”. She was no Helen Burns.
I dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly.
I am no Helen Burns.
Throughout the novel, Jane did what she wanted to do even if it seemed too uptight, too risky, or even too dumb. Jane did what she wanted even if I and many other readers didn’t think that was what she ought to do – a trait that shows strength of character and something else that is so basic yet many feminists still fight for: Letting Girls Do What They Want to Do.
Society too often dictates what women should and shouldn’t be – she must be pretty and never age but cannot put too much makeup because she can’t be seen as someone who tries too hard. A woman must be smart but not too smart lest she threaten the man. She cannot show too much passion nor lust. Easy girls are unattractive, so she must be chaste and coy and pure but not too much because prudes are boring.
It’s difficult to know your inner truths as a woman, and even harder to practice authenticity because of societal pressures and the very human need to be liked and be loved. This feels like an age-old struggle because Jane, who was written 170 years ago felt this too.
“I daily wished more to please him; but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature”.
Jane was born plain and stayed plain, deciding early on that her beauty or the lack of it was not going to be the currency she will live by. She yearned for a freedom from the trappings her society has put on women in much worse degrees than our society places on us today. In 1840, it is probably far easier to just accept things as they were, but not Charlotte Bronte and not her Jane Eyre. She was smart, rebellious and brave, and the strength of her character dominates and cancels out all of the novel’s flaws.
I still wished I read this when I was younger. I would’ve loved growing up with Jane Eyre. I would’ve been better for it too – borrowing a little of her strength and her courage during my tumultuous and confusing youth. We all have a reader’s cliché where we relate so much to a character, and Jane Eyre is mine. I see myself so much in her even if only as an aspirational comparison.