Recently, I got into a late night conversation with a friend via text message when she confessed to quite liking Richard Curtis films. Hmm. How to respond when someone who plays a large role in your life admits to liking something that you would rather eat toenails than sit through. With great restraint (in my opinion, she probably thinks otherwise), I said that whilst I quite enjoy romance (I am a practical romantic), I don’t enjoy mawkish sentimentality. To which she shot back that it couldn’t be classed as any more mawkish than Jane Eyre or any number of other classic novels.
Umm. Excuse me? Jane Eyre a quagmire of mawkish sentimentality?? Annoyingly it’s quite hard to rebut an argument like that via text message without it coming across as a) stalking and b) wine-induced bloody mindedness. So, now I’m sober and have a bigger vehicle with which to get my point across (i.e. I’m the one with the blog and she’s not), lets just address that shall we?
Yes, it’s very very easy to read Jane Eyre and come away with nothing but a faraway look and a sigh that no Mr. Rochester is on your horizon. It’s even easier to watch the endless, poorly done adaptations without even going near the original text and think it really is nothing but a bit of Gothic gloom and suffering and a grand passion of the grandest type. But that would be extremely lazy.
Starting from the beginning; Jane’s cruel and calculating Aunt allows the persecution of the child because she hates the regard her former husband felt for her. She indulges in the kind of mental cruelty that would now see a phone call to Childline by having her locked in the red room, known to be haunted by her uncle, refusing her food and saying “it is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you then.” The scene, whilst undoubtedly Gothic and highly wrought in tone, emphasises a point that will later become central to the book: this orphan girl is helpless, completely dependent on people who have no real care or regard for her. She is powerless. Unequal.
The infamous school chapters were directly influenced by Bronte’s own experiences of being a ‘charity pupil’ at a school for the daughters of clergymen. There at the same time as her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, she had to watch the both sicken, fade and die. The character of Helen Burns is Maria Bronte, dying with a patient suffering that’s still distressing to read now. The poor quality food, the restrictions on physical exercise and personal freedoms, the bad sanitary conditions, whilst all dramatically emphasised, were true, and what we get in these passages is Charlotte’s grief for her older sisters writ large. Once again, the powerlessness of the girls to change their situation for the better, provides the driving force, the bitter notes behind the words.
So now we move on to the part most people remember Jane Eyre for; her appointment as governess at Thornfield Hall, employed by the secretive, mercurial Mr. Rochester, and her slow falling in love. Even during this period, when she could have gone all out on the romance, the heady sweep of passion, Bronte retains her indignity about the lot of poor single women at the time and voices them. And here, it is worth quoting at length the words Jane spits at Mr. Rochester, full of frustration at her lot and despair, yet a determination to live on her own terms. She will not compromise her own feelings and moral compass just to fit with his plans.
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless?…if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. ”
“…for you are a married man – or as good as a married man, and wed to one inferior to you – to one to whom you have no sympathy – you sneer at her. I would scorn such a union…”
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you.”
We all know how this scene ends; Rochester’s declaration of love, her capitulation. It is beautifully evoked and only a monster wouldn’t be moved by it. And yet it is worth noting that even throughout the following chapters, even as “I could not, in those days, see God for his creature of whom I had made an idol”, she fights hard to retain her own identity, her own sensibilities. By refusing to be gilded with silks and jewels, by holding him at arms length, when the axe falls on their wedding day, she has managed to keep enough hold to refuse to compromise her own core self. “Still indomitable was the reply – ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself…I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad.'”
Of course there comes, many chapters on, the happy ending. After Jane has undergone trials, discovered family and money, found her true independence, she is strong enough to reject the proposal of St John Rivers on the grounds that she is worth more than his business-like proposition would allow her to be: “Consent, then, to his demand is possible: but for one item – one dreadful item. It is – that he asks me to be his wife, and has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock…He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all…Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous.”
It is because of her struggles that we forgive Jane Eyre its slip into slightly mawkish territory at the end: her reunion with Rochester, the mad wife conveniently dead, his sight returning, all married off and happy.
Jane Eyre is filled throughout with piercing attacks on the role of poor women in society at the time. It is now, although it was never conceived as one, a feminist text; written by a woman very much of her time, yet one who could see the unfairness of the narrow roles women had to play: wife or governess, spinster or mother. Bronte could only see two roles available to her and countless others like her: teach or marry, and she chafed against them. It was rare for a woman to break free of these societal confines (of her own acquaintances, only Mary Taylor managed it, emigrating to New Zealand and opening her own stores, running her life on her own terms). She wanted to live on her own terms, write on her own terms, and fought constantly against her work being judged on the basis of her gender.
We read it now with feminist eyes and see that, whilst our own boundaries have expanded beyond what she could possibly have imagined, we are still defined by the roles we take on: wife, mother, career woman. You only have to look at the way the highly intelligent, extremely successful Amal Amaluddin is now defined in the press as nothing more than the girlfriend of an actor, regardless of her high-profile work in humanitarian law. However, I’m getting off-topic…
To dismiss Jane Eyre as mawkish sentimentality is to denigrate both it and its author as being no better than the countless others, churning out and spawning cheap romances where the manly hero clasps the swooning heroine to his breast and overcomes her with the sheer force of his will, blah blah, bleh. Jane fights, at every step, for her right to be accepted, befriended, loved and married on an equal footing to those she meets. She will not be regarded as anyone’s inferior.
In summary: don’t ever reduce Jane Eyre to nothing more than a romance because it is so much more. It is an awakening cry, a call to our senses and a rejection of mores that still exist to this day. Certainly don’t do that in my hearing.
For a more reasoned, detailed account of the Bronte lives and works, see Juliet Barker’s excellent biography.
Bad bad bad bad. So bad.
Better. Much better. Watch this one.