In light of my recent ponderings about the great hubbub that is “classic literature”, I’ve decided to breathe life back into my withering reading tag and review some classic novels—what makes them “classics”? What made them stand the test of time and garner such acclaim? Are they deserving of it? What can they teach us about the past era they were written in? Can they be enjoyed as books or do they have to be academically dissected for all their merits to come to the surface? Will I ever truly get over my desire to punch their romantic heroes in the face?
Jane Eyre the person is, like Jane Eyre the book, wonderful, powerful and miserable. She begins as a bullied, neglected orphan in the care—to use the word loosely—of her relatives, Wicked Stepmother archetype and all. Her aunt would have turned baby Jane out on the doorstep, but her husband, damn him, used his dying breath to make her promise she’d take care of his niece.
Jane knows, with a ten-year-old’s wisdom and an impeccably strong sense of self-awareness that continues through the whole book, that she’s better than these people, who torment her and unfairly punish her. So, first chance she gets, she suggests going away to school. Her aunt, keen to be shot of her, thinks it’s a great idea, and so our little heroine goes off into the world. To deal with frostbite, famine, typhus and educational brutality.
Having fun yet?
Notoriously gothic as it is, I would argue that Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel (published 1847) is not a solely depressing story. Rather, it has a fairly consistent cycle of ‘everything is awful, oh, but everything is sort of okay, and now everything is looking pretty good, and now everything’s terrible again’. Which makes it engaging and exhausting to read at the same time, as you’re constantly wondering what in the world is going to go wrong next. However, when things do go to pot for poor Jane, you can cling onto that little lingering bit of faith that it’s going to come good again soon.
At this dismal, cold, and underfunded school, for example, she finds solace in her friendship with another girl and a supportive teacher. Said friend then dies of typhus, practically doing so in Jane’s arms. Loss permeates the novel—true to the time, on one hand, as these kind of epidemics wiped out a lot of young lives simply because medicine hadn’t evolved to combat it. Charlotte Bronte herself ended up dying of it, eerily enough, but let’s not dwell on the meta analysis of the whole thing lest things get really grim.
As I said, horrible things happen to her, but Jane refrains from feeling like a passive pinball protagonist. She moves the plot herself, effectively starting each new arc of the story with her decisions to step in a certain direction—for example when she decides, grown up now after an apparently irrelevant time skip, that she wants more from life and advertises her services as a governess. This lands her in the home of the gruff and grumpy and supposedly deliciously Byronic Mr. Rochester who she feels drawn to the more she understands him. As is to be expected from our dear little snakes-and-ladders formula, all goes up and down from there.
I have to say, unfortunately, the romantic element was not the part of this story that I was interested in. Perhaps it’s due to being spoiled (not that I should complain, it came out nearly 200 years ago) about the whole business of Rochester keeping his insane wife locked in the attic. Oh, it puts such a damper on things! If only he could run away with Jane, his sweet ethereal little darling, and be cleansed of the mistakes of his wicked and womanising past!
Yeah, yeah. I’ve seen it before, Rochester, get your 19th century manpain out of my visage. Though, to be fair, the archetype saturates media now, but at the time of publication I have no doubt it was a glowing new device. In a world full of Rochesters, it’s possibly cruel to direct my sneers at the original. Then again, he was keeping his mentally ill wife in the attic. And only sweet pure fairy-motif Jane can make him a truly good man in touch with his feelings! Bah.
I’m convinced Charlotte Bronte wounded Rochester deliberately so I’d feel guilty about wanting to hit him in the face. But I was willing to let the happy ending pass because, well, marriage to Rochester was Jane’s happy ending. The same way I didn’t even raise an eyebrow at the beautifully contrived Victorian coincidence of Jane falling near-dead and destitute on the kindly doorstep of a family who turned out to be her cousins, who shortly after told her she’d inherited a large fortune. Jane needed some outrageous luck at that point. I felt a great surge of relief as she fell into that sickbed in that welcoming house, just as I’d cheered for her as she fled Thornfield and the man who’d broken her heart.
You spend the book lodged inside Jane’s head, and it’s a lyrical and emotional place that you really do get to intimately know. Why has she survived so long in literary history? Because, I believe, she’s a fantastic character that the reader gets attached to, first out of sympathy for the beaten-down orphan girl, then gradually out of respect. Hell, I respect Jane Eyre like I haven’t respected many main characters I’ve read—I understood her character and her beliefs and her emotions, and I wanted power and happiness for her. By the climax I wanted, no, needed good things to happen to Jane Eyre or I might have become physically vicious with the book in my hands.
The introduction to my volume (pictured, with its reassuringly bleak cover and Blackwell’s sticker on it, because I’m still showing off) talks of Bronte’s era as one of the exploration and discovery of the self, literature in general making a gradual sway from omnipresent narrators to much more introspective stories. Jane Eyre is named so because that’s what it’s about—Jane herself, the “history of a woman’s heart” and adventure into her life and psyche. It’s not full-blown Realism yet, least of all with the whole business of hearing each other’s impassioned cries on the winds across half of England, but within it you can see a tonal shift: this was a book for people who wanted to exist inside one character’s mind, watching it grow and appreciating it as it stood smack in the middle of a lot of raging social issues as well as personal struggle.
Jane Eyre is an important character. She’s a young woman fighting for her agency, happiness and a sense of worth and place in the world, relatable and flawed, prone to depression and rage at injustice as well as tender, compassionate care. The traits coexist and weave together wonderfully into an intriguing and solid tapestry of a character who I enjoyed spending time with, even if I was staring into a dreadful abyss or sighing through my teeth at her love interest half the time. To have such an introspective and brilliant picture of a woman published, and highly praised by critics, in 1847 is a great achievement, and in that I can see why it’s considered landmark as well.
The love story I cared about was Jane loving herself and acknowledging her inner power and strength. “Who in the world cares for you?” chides a voice in her head, as she’s considering what to do after discovering that she can’t marry her beloved because, you know, he’s locked his mentally ill wife in the attic. “I care for myself,” Jane rebuts. “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” And part of me cheered. I say again, I ended up caring immensely for Jane over the course of the novel, and it tore me to pieces and put me back together again as a good book should.
So yes, this, I concede, is a classic: it captures a portrait (though again, slightly mystical occasionally) of the times (casual racism and religious saturation and all), and has provided a female lead never to be forgotten, whose struggles and triumphs and inner world are still relatable and perfectly able to touch modern hearts. Rochester’s okay, I guess. If nothing else, I can relate to his awe of her, though the reader will appreciate her much more as a human than an elf or pixie or whatever mythological reference he’s come up with that day to throw her into the a glowing unearthly light. She’s down to earth, dude, that’s her whole appeal. She’s real. But, like I said, if Jane is happy (she chose him, after all) with a man who looks at her with admiring half-blind googly eyes, all the more power to her.