Today we wish Charlotte Brontë happy birthday, she would have been the ripe old age of 197 so we are honouring this with a look at Jane Eyre.
Brontë was born on April 21 1816 and there were six Brontë’s altogether, five daughters and a brother. Charlotte was one of the three Brontë sisters who tried their hand at writing, and set forth the future where I forever get names mixed up. When I was younger I could never remember if Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë was the name of the book (I blame Jane Austen for adding to this confusion, but I am in part thankful for the other Brontë sisters for making me remember there was multiple Brontë’s) But that was teenage me, adult me read this book and was able to see Brontë has encapsulated rather well the life and thoughts of Jane.
It is interesting to see who gets remember from the family and for why. I must say I always forget about dear Anne, who had works published like her sisters, yet she does not seem to be as remembered. The sad thing about the Brontë family is that out of the six children, three died within ten months of one another. This was after the two eldest girls Maria and Elizabeth did not make it to adulthood. After that tragedy brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne all passed away, they were only in their late 20s or early 30s at the time.
Charlotte had Jane Eyre published in 1847, two years before the death or her siblings. What I found interesting about Brontë when I first was introduced to her was that she wrote Jane Eyre under the pen name Currer Bell. You don’t get many people using pen names these days, though I can name exceptions. But there is also not as much need these days, certainly not for the simple fact that a woman was writing a book. This was not her only pen name she had others as well, as did her sisters. Charlotte did reveal hers later on though, apparently as rumours spread the sister’s works were written by the same person.
Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity.
She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman’s passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.
The novel is written as a first person autobiography of a young girl through her years at school and to her older years working as a governess. Jane tells her story from her child years where she lived with her aunt and cousins and was abused, her education at Lowood school, her work as a teacher in the same school, and her move to become a governess at Thornfield Hall; all with the social commentary, emotional reactions, and themes of family, religion, forgiveness, and gender relations woven in-between.
I didn’t love this book and think it was amazing, but I enjoyed it and I can see how everyone says how powerful it is. People say being forced to read Jane Eyre is the worst way to be introduced to it, and really appreciate it. I didn’t study this in school, I studied it at University, so technically that was by choice. And I enjoyed all, well most, books I had to study so that can’t be why I don’t seem to adore it. Perhaps a reread will be needed to give it more appreciation, who knows.
Jane Eyre has also been classed as a romance novel and I do not see this at all. It is a realism novel and what little romance in this novel, is barely romance. What it is is a weird relationship between Jane and Rochester that has a strange affection and romance about it, but I still wouldn’t classify it as a romance novel. Besides, the ending seems like Brontë had to find a way to finish it with the conclusion she wanted, despite the peculiarness of it.
Jane writes, “Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’ My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth, — all energy, decision, will, — were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me”. For Jane, Rochester had an effect on her in a different way, his features were full of interest, an interest that overcame her.
I won’t be too harsh, they do have a good relationship, it is honest and classy and proper. It is a relationship about who you are as a person rather than the idea of you or what you look like. There is a line in there that says “I am not an angel, and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself”, and that is what these characters are: they are themselves. That is why I find this a realism novel, it is a snippet of Jane’s life and who she meets and what she does, all the thoughts and feeling of a diary entry with Jane’s knowledge that people are reading it. She is writing her story for us, and that is more wonderfully grand than romantic in my mind.
Anyone who has read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and the early sequels can see an excellent discussion about the ending of Jane Eyre, along with the fact Fforde can confuse the life out of you and what you thought you knew about Jane Eyre. He makes you doubt your own memories of the book, that is part of its brilliance, but he also addresses an excellent explanation for the end of this book, filling in the gaps of the mystery and, magically I suppose, part of the ending, which to me felt like a deus ex machina without the presence of a deity. But I do understand how it was supposed to be powerful and “romantic” but it just was weird.
What I found remarkable when I first read this book was that Brontë/Jane addresses the reader in her work. Jane is writing her story and she is writing it as if people are reading it (are they not?) but I remember thinking how at the time of publication that it must have been different, or perhaps reading at that time was different and that acknowledging your reader was normal, however I have found it in few others to see this possible. To give it credit, there are some amazing quotes that can be taken from this novel, the one that I always remember is the first line of the last chapter, won’t tell, big spoiler, however there are others, a favourite was always “I would always rather be happy than dignified”.
As a character and love interest Rochester isn’t the most handsome of people, this is brought up through the novel, about his looks. This I think holds a lot because of how Jane and Rochester’s relationship develops from her arrival to Thornfield. She sees him as a person, she is never smitten on his looks, and she is there for her job. I particularly liked Jane’s first meeting of Rochester, the way they meet gives nothing about their positions held, their duty to one another, or at least her to him. Jane never said he is unattractive however she says say of their first encounter “I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked”. He even asks her later if he is hideous and she tells him “Very, sir: you always were, you know”. This simple act of Brontë’s shows the kind of person Jane is very well, she is strong, honest, and independent of course, but she is also not afraid to speak what she thinks, and yet not in an obnoxious and forward manner either.
Jane narration is very descriptive; she has an excellent turn of phrase about her environment and the people she meets. This helps you create a rounded image of where Jane is at all the stages described in her life, as well as the people she interacts with. And of course must remember she narrates her whole life, the stories of her life with her aunt, and at school are a little bit confronting and painful, also a bit emotionally and confronting, but they are her memories, it was her life and that makes it easier to read, she is telling her story, and being a first person narration lets Brontë get away with giving her character a hard life. I didn’t intend on making this just about Jane and Rochester, there are so many more characters and stories she tells, but in the end I suppose it does come down to the pair of them. But I want you to know there are other characters and stories in jane’s life that make her who she is and influence her life. I may need another review one day to cover them, but for now we fell into the Jane/Rochester trap.
So it is on this day we say happy birthday Charlotte Brontë once more, thank you for Jane Eyre, it is a great book, people have loved it, I’m sure there are those out there who did not, but there is no mistaking it is a classic. We are here for the review but also for Charlotte, for the tough life she had losing all her siblings but she powered on, she kept writing and she has instilled herself in our minds, with characters that hold power and influence in the messages she was promoting, however intentional they were.