Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Bounty Books, 2012 (1847))
‘Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? … Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!’ (p. 329)
This cri de coeur sums up the need to be recognised as a full-spectrum human being despite humble origins or social disadvantage. I read Jane Eyre for the first time last year; somehow it seemed such a literary giant that I hesitated for decades, even while catching snippets of the excellent BBC dramatization. If you have read it, then revisit some of its power, directness and intimacy through the quotations illustrated here. If you have never quite got around to reading it, I hope this will inspire you.
It has two thrusts: freedom and love. Freedom to think, to imagine, to be treated with dignity and as an equal, and to love. Love including simple human kindness as well as marriage unforced by social or economic demands.
Jane’s childhood is a catalogue of adult cruelty and a testament to stalwart resilience and spirited resistance to character-crushing abuse. The red-room scene, where she is locked in a dark, menacing place and kept there even when she begs to be released, captures the indelible imprint such torments can burn onto the soul’s negatives.
No severe or prolonged bodily illness followed this incident of the red-room; it only gave my nerves a shock of which I feel the reverberation to this day. (p. 19)
When she confronts her guardian’s lack of kindness in a burst of forthrightness, she renders the woman speechless – more from outrage at the child’s insolence than any contrition or self-reflection. One of the most interesting sub-plots of the book is that she never modifies her antipathy to a poor ward thrust upon her by a dying husband.
‘You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity.’ (p. 41)
In fact, her guardian responds to this accusation by simply off-loading her obligations to a pair of flint-hearted orphanage managers, including an aptly named housekeeper:
Mrs. Harden, be it observed, was the housekeeper: a woman after Mr. Brocklehurst’s own heart, made up of equal parts of whalebone and iron. (p. 90)
Mr. Brocklehurst, the orphanage director, seems to believe only a firm hand will keep the wretches as abjectly grateful as they should be. To underline this, an early encounter with Jane proceeds directly to threatening her with hell fire. Her response is wonderful but not calculated to soften him into forgiveness.
‘Do you know where the wicked go after death?’
‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.
‘And what is hell? can you tell me that?’
‘A pit full of fire.’
‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’
‘What must you do to avoid it?’
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.’ (p. 36)
Eventually Jane becomes a teacher in the same place, achieving some modest security until her spirit bursts through the circumscribed world in which she’s grown up.
I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped. (p. 108)
My thin crescent-destiny seemed to enlarge. (p. 190)
She walks away from security and familiarity rather than have her wings clipped, securing a position as governess in the home of Mr. Rochester. Early in their relationship the emphasis is on intellectual equality, along with the relative freedom she enjoys. Her spirit can stretch a bit and she can breathe even though she hasn’t quite found her place in the world.
I still felt as a wanderer on the face of the earth. (p. 296)
Love cannot be cornered or coerced, it comes of its own accord with its own conditions and Jane quietly departs rather than cut corners with principles, although she is fully aware of what she is leaving behind:
‘I have not been trampled on …. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in, – with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind I have known you, Mr. Rochester.’ (p. 329)
Freedom and love, and if you have to choose, choose freedom. Rochester understands this too late:
‘Of yourself you could come with soft flight and nestle against my heart, if you would: seized against your will, you will elude the grasp like an essence – you will vanish ere I inhale your fragrance.’ (p. 415)
‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will…’ (p. 330)
Wandering through a conspiring wildness of weather and landscape, she is rescued from destitution and probable death by a brother and his sisters. The women are strong, bountiful characters and become close friends. Diana, in particular, later released from straitening dependancy, comes into her own:
In her animal spirits there was an affluence of life and certainty of flow. (p. 458)
What a strikingly contemporary phrase to describe a luminous woman savouring unexpected freedom, that ‘life-giving elixir’:
The air of the moors, the freedom of home, the dawn of prosperity, acted on Diana and Mary’s spirits like some life-giving elixir: they were gay from morning till noon, and from noon till night. They could always talk; and their discourse, witty, pithy, original, had such charms for me. (pp. 517-18)
But despite, for a third time, having landed in relative security, with even more of the kindness and companionship she needs around her, longing doesn’t dissipate and sooner or later becomes overwhelming.
… it demanded him with ceaseless longing; and, impotent as a bird with both wings broken, it still quivered its shattered pinions in vain attempts to seek him. (p. 423)
Jane Eyre drills deeply into two fundamental human needs – freedom and love (or at least kindness) – with simple candour, surely part of its timeless relevance. The book was an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1847. Given its robust defence of a woman’s right to freedom and love in equal measure, and the tenacity of the heroine in demanding both without compromise of principle, it must have rocked the boat of Victorian primness and convention, and answered a need in a wide audience.
I haven’t mentioned probably the most famous quotation in the book, part of a wider element of Jane addressing the reader personally. I love books that do this, opening a hot-line between the reader and the author or narrator, even at a distance of 150 or more years. It makes me think about communicating with people over time, which is to say in the future, when you no longer exist. When I encountered this voice in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and in Jane Eyre, I had to wonder what we are writing or saying today that will speak meaningfully and intimately to people 150 years hence (assuming people still exist in any recognisable way).
The writing is magnificent: limpid, warm-hearted, sharp, funny in places, written by an ‘original, vigorous and expanded mind’. Strewn with original metaphors (see an illustrated selection below), but above all, the realism and strength of the characterization is so compelling that I struggle to believe Jane Eyre didn’t exist and would be long since dead even if she did. And I regret we can’t spend an hour in her company.
The power and realism also manages to render irrelevant the only reservations I could muster. Not even reservations, rather the observation that the plot turns on several instances of quite unbelievable coincidence. Setting aside the far-fetched idea of Rochester, a man of singular independence and intelligence, being duped into marrying a mental patient, there is a surprising degree of coincidence about the discovery of this marriage on the day of his planned wedding to Jane.
This is later followed by Jane’s rescue by Diana, Mary and St. John, who turn out to have such an affinity for her that they make their home hers after she recovers from her collapse – imagine finding a waif on your doorstep, taking them in, nursing them back to health and concluding you like them so much you want them to live with you; it’s possible but unlikely. There are other coincidences of questionable probability. But even when these struck me, I was fascinated by the fact they simply don’t matter because the narrative, heroine and writing are so mutually reinforcing they just sweep you along.
In terms of Bronte masterpieces, Jane Eyre is, in my view, the best of the brilliant bunch. As gripping and dramatic as Wuthering Heights but more mature in its emotions and protagonists. Possibly a fault in me, but when I read Wuthering Heights I regretted not having read it when I was 18, sensing I would have enjoyed it much more then. Its emotional intensity and violence seemed somewhat overdone and unconvincing. A personal reaction, no more.
If you read nothing else by Bronte, read Jane Eyre. It passes another test of fine fiction – you know it has a happy ending but that doesn’t spoil the story or make light of the struggle to get there. I have wondered a few times whether it may be much harder to write great literature with a happy ending than a dark one.
‘That depends on circumstances, sir – on your choice.’
‘Which you shall make for me, Jane. I will abide by your decision.’
‘Choose then, sir – her who loves you best.’
‘I will at least choose – her I love best. Jane, will you marry me?’
‘Yes, sir.’ (p. 584)
Note: citations are from the pocket-sized, fine-papered, sharp-printed edition by Bounty Books. As this publisher, or at least this series of classics, appears to have gone out of print, I also highlight some other beautiful new editions in the covers to the left, as well as the Kindle version for those who prefer e-books.
Note: see also a thoughtful perspective on Jane Eyre in the context of Covid-19 and its enforced solitude, by The Economist, 3 June 2020.