Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Rating:  3 & 1/2 Stars

It needs to be said – ‘Jane Eyre’ is not the greatest love story in English Literature. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the best goddamn romance since pen met paper. So, where does that leave Charlotte Bronte’s 19th. century masterpiece? Somewhere in the top three, I would say, though my personal favorite is the other Bronte sister.

Misused and spunky little orphans have consistently proven to be a great windfall for story-telling. When we first see Jane at the age of 10, she is the lonely, barely tolerated ward of Mrs. Reed, the wife of her deceased uncle. Even then we’re charmed by her passion, undiminished sense of self-esteem, and fearlessness. It’s established in the very first chapter that here’s a heroine worthy of both our sympathy and respect. This is not someone to walk over.

When Jane turns particularly recalcitrant, Mrs. Reed packs her off to the Lowood Insititution for girls, a wretched charity school, where the penny-pinching manager, Mr. Brocklehurst enforces punitive lessons in patience and self-denial through a regimen of quasi-starvation, semi-indigence, and the ruthless squashing of any signs of incipient feminine allure. Even in these abysmal conditions, Jane finds friends, supporters, and some modicum of happiness. By the time she is eighteen, this bright and diligent young woman has been working as a teacher in the same school that she entered as a student. But by now she’s restless and longing to stretch her wings beyond the confines of the only world she has known. Not one to wait for life to happen to her, she advertises for the post of governess, the one respectable career for an educated woman in those days. She receives and accepts an offer at Thornfield Hall, and settles down there to teach Adele Varens, the little ward of Edward Rochester, the Master of Thornfield, and you guessed it, the hero of our story.

Jane’s meeting with Rochester turns the usual conventions of romance on its head. When they first see each other, Jane is no swooning damsel in distress in urgent need of rescuing by a handsome swain. Rather, it’s the masterful and imposing Rochester who’s caught in an awkward moment, and it’s Jane who goes to his assistance. Nor is it love at first sight. Jane is neither over-whelmed nor particularly drawn to her employer. She merely finds him interesting, though she does change her mind to fall irrevocably in love with him later. But there are very real obstacles in the way. Will Jane surrender all to the smoldering attraction between her and Rochester; or will she walk away, her integrity intact? More to the point, will these two ever wind up together?

It’s said that authors should write about what they know. Bronte must have believed this, because her descriptions of the boarding school, the circumstances of a female teacher, and the romance between a young woman and an older man, are all partly autobiographical. There’s a strong undercurrent of realism to much of the book. Her moral indignation at religious hypocrisy and social oppression would do credit to Dickens. The Gothic element is well-used but kept in hand, adding atmosphere to the narrative without being maudlin and over-powering.

One drawback to the book is that, really, no one else in the book is as convincingly characterised as Jane. The plentiful religious allusions put a damper on the spirit of Romance. It is noticeable that when the tone turns in that direction, the language too becomes ponderous and stilted. It’s probable that Bronte felt that all these pious sentiments would counter weigh the book’s portrayal of unabashed desire and ‘inappropriate’ behavior. That wasn’t a good judgment call. It didn't stop people from being scandalized when the book was published in 1847 under the pseudonym, Currer Bell. A renowned female reviewer of the day denounced the book and the heroine, and ominously hinted that if the author was indeed a woman, then she must be a ‘fallen’ one.

Still, a book is just as easily remembered if not for doing something the best, then for doing something else first. In Jane Eyre, the indomitable heroine is the delight – a strong unconventional woman, who will neither forgo her heart nor her self-respect, and who lives not by the narrow standards of society, but her own principles. Observe a skeptical Jane’s encounter with a self-proclaimed fortune-teller, who demands of her,

“Why don’t you tremble?”
“I’m not cold.”
Why don’t you turn pale?”
“I am not sick.”
“Why don’t you consult my art?”
“I’m not silly.”

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