Jane Eyre follows the life of a maltreated orphan who eventually grows up in a charitable school under miserable conditions. I found the first quarter of the book hard to plod through and excessive in its cruelty to the point of unreality. The middle half picks up when Jane becomes a governess for the young ward of Mr. Rochester and falls in love with him despite their difference in age and social standing. During her time at Mr. Rochester’s estate, several mysterious goings-on occur for which any normal person would demand an answer. Jane, however--ever docile and submissive--doesn’t press for an explanation. The secret I won’t give away, but suffice it to say it is important enough to break apart their relationship and is revealed, in classic fashion, at the altar. This isn’t the only cliché to be found in the novel. In the final quarter, after Jane and Mr. Rochester have parted, Jane is sheltered by strangers she finds out are long-lost cousins, and of course, another long-lost uncle dies and leaves her a fortune. This whole sequence seems quite played out, but perhaps it is because I have read too many romance novels that follow in the same vein, although with an admittedly less-impressive vocabulary. At the end, Jane searches for Mr. Rochester, finds that the impediment to their relationship no longer exists, and they reunite somewhat blissfully, although in the intervening time he has lost his sight and one hand. No matter, this type of bludgeoning by fate is par for the course in Jane Eyre. In fact, it almost seems like the author had to somehow maim her protagonist to put them on an equal playing field.
But perhaps I’m being too critical. It always seems a little arrogant to criticize a work that has stood the test of time and which I don’t feel I could equal as a writer. A duller main character one cannot imagine, but it is a tribute to the author that the humble day-to-day activities of the character become absorbing. The language is rather florid, but I enjoyed the story immensely. It is the sort of thing you feel smarter after reading. I do have one complaint about Charlotte Brontë, and it is her tendency to intersperse French throughout the novel without any sort of translation or context clues to let you know what is being said (I found Villette to be even worse). More than likely people were more educated in England back in those days and knew French as a matter of course, but I still feel like she’s just showing off.
I know that Charlotte and Emily Brontë were entirely different in their style, but one can’t help but compare them in some respects. To me, the dark, starkly religious characters seem oddly similar, and upon reading a little of their history, it seems their minister father inspired these characters as he was also a strict, religious disciplinarian. Charlotte was also a governess, as was her main character, Jane Eyre. I found it interesting that all of her siblings died when she was 32 and she, herself, died at the age of 39, in 1855. Reading a little about her life made me realize that perhaps life during those times was accurately reflected in the harsh environment depicted in her novel and wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I initially thought.
In short, I thought Jane Eyre was a good read, and it definitely brushed up my vocabulary. And when it seems that many points of the storyline mirror hundreds of romance novels on the shelves today, I guess it is just a tribute to the author, who pioneered the material when it was still original.