October 25, 2009

Review: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Oh, Jane Eyre, how I do enjoy you. You've got everything: the plucky orphan, the brooding Byronic hero, the madwoman tucked up in the attic. You are great.

Now, does everybody know the story of Jane Eyre? It was first published in 1847 and has been made into a movie no less than 19 separate times, so I'm going to go ahead and spoil everything. Agreed? Yes? Excellent; we proceed.

So, once upon a time there is an orphan named Jane Eyre, who lives with her horrible foster family, the Reeds. And they are thoroughly awful, but at last she is sent to a boarding school, and is finally away from the awful Reeds -- except that everyone is starving at the school, and her best (only) friend dies of consumption. Tragedy! But Jane stays at the school -- goodness knows that the Reeds don't want her back -- and eventually becomes a teacher there. One day she decides that such a life is not enough, and at the age of eighteen she acquires a job as a governess for Adèle, the ward (and/or love child) of the brooding Mr Edward Rochester. And then Jane and Rochester fall in love, and are going to be married, except -- right at the altar -- Jane finds out that he actually has a wife already, and that she's not only alive, but she's crazy and has been tied up in the attic the whole time. Tragedy!

Jane runs away, therefore, and after nearly dying of exposure on the moors she falls in with a family of siblings, the Riverses, and their housekeeper. They give her a place to live, and eventually, a job as village schoolteacher. And then it turns out that they are actually all cousins. Coincidence! And they are very happy together, especially when Jane inherits a fortune from their mutual uncle -- whom none of them have actually ever met -- and splits it evenly among the. But then, St John Rivers, her drippy drip of a cousin, wants her to go to India with him as his wife, and Jane can't do that, as he is a drippy drip (and as she still loves Rochester, deep in her heart). Angst!

And she almost, almost goes off to India with dopey drip St John, but one night she hears Rochester's voice floating across the moors to her. So she re-runs away, and ends back at Thornfield Hall, Rochester's residence, only to find that, in the interim, it has burned right down to the ground, and its former inhabitants are gone. After some sleuthing, though, she finds Rochester again: he was severely injured in the fire and is now crippled and blind. Tragedy! But she loves him anyway, and crazy Bertha perished in the fire, and they get married (for real, this time) and live happily ever after. Relief!

There is the plot; and now that you have it out of the way, you will be able to concentrate on the writing itself, which is largely exquisite (and I don't mean that solely because it is filled with semi-colons, my favourite punctuation mark by far). The writing is both profound and beautiful, and I will give you two examples with which to whet your appetite:
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 keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad -- as I am now. Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I may break them, what would be their worth?' (p 280)

And again:
By this time he had sat down: he had laid the picture on the table before him, and with his brow supported on both hands, hung fondly over it. I discerned he was now neither angry nor shocked at my audacity. I saw even that to be thus frankly addressed on a subject he had deemed unapprochable -- to hear it thus freely handled -- was beginning to be felt by him as a new pleasure -- an unhoped-for relief. Reserved people often really need the frank discussion of their sentiments and griefs more than the expansive. The sternest-seeming stoic is human after all; and to 'burst' with boldness and good will into 'the silent sea' of their souls is often to confer on them the first of obligations. (p 329)

Is not that lovely? It is -- but even if you don't think so, read Jane Eyre anyway, so that you can go on to the reward of Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. You won't regret either of them.