Friday, May 15, 2009

In praise of Jane

This isn't a review. It's a gush. Or a hagiography as the journos would say. Great word.

I'll try not to give too much away here, but really, if you haven't read Jane Eyre (or at least not seen one of the many television and film adaptations) don't read my post. Go and read the book.

I love Jane Eyre. It's probably my favourite book, but I hate playing favourites. I read it first when I was twelve or so with the dictionary at my side. There's a few big words in there for people who aren't quite used to grown-up books. I've re-read it many times. It's one of my "comfort books" that I read when I'm sick or upset or fed up.

It's written by Charlotte Bronte, one of the astoundingly talented Bronte sisters who led unbelievably sheltered lives and managed to churn out some of the most torrid works of English literature. I'm not a huge fan of Wuthering Heights, written by Charlotte's sister Emily. It's too torrid for me. I like my romantic heroines to be bookish and thoughtful. Passionate yes, but not tear-your-hair-out-scream-at-the-sky passion. Then again, works by Jane Austen, in which bookish and thoughtful heroines abound, is a little too flounce-around-in-Bath-a-bit-and-then-live-happily-ever-after. Marriage is the ultimate goal for all female characters, and if you are too plain or ridiculous for a husband (such a Mary in Pride and Prejudice), you have failed as a woman. There is marriage in Jane Eyre, but Bronte holds independence and love in higher esteem. I would regard Bronte as a feminist, but I'm not sure about Austen.

Jane Eyre is the ultimate Gothic novel. Nobody flounces. Spooky, nasty childhood. Spooky, nasty school. Spooky, nasty old house with spooky, nasty thing in the attic. Plus an intellectual, arrogant, sexy (despite Jane's profession that he is not at all handsome) love interest. And what a great name, too: Rochester. Even the name is romantic.

My novel teacher a few years ago said disparagingly that Jane only wanted Rochester after she'd reduced him to a shell of a man. Well, that got me going! "Well of course a man would say that!" In traditional novels, what goes around comes around. If you act like an a-hole, expect some retribution, especially if your girlfriend is the heroine. Readers would NEVER forgive Jane if she married Rochester without him receiving some form of punishment for his dastardly (if well-meaning and heart-rendingly romantic) deeds. That's just how it works!

I've also heard the dismissive remark (also from a man--go figure) that Rochester is a "woman's man", i.e. he only exists in women's imaginations and romance novels. Rochester allows himself to be guided by his heart rather than his head, something that certain people would argue is intrinsically feminine. But Rochester is anything but feminine. A serial womaniser as a young man, he is tempered by an unhappy (to say the least) marriage and the responsibility of a child who is not his own. Entering into the autumn of his life, Jane is his last chance at salvation. One could argue that being guided by his heart isn't acting like a woman, but acting like an unhappy but finally mature man.

Jane is intensely moral, a result of her unfair and difficult childhood. Her self-respect prevents her from succumbing to Rochester even though it causes her intense suffering and degradation. But this period of separation for Rochester and Jane results in Jane's independence, unforseen rewards and a painfully sweet reunion. The ending is entirely satifying without feeling too neat.

And not only are there regular editions, but also Jane Eyre: The Graphic Novel and The Illustrated Jane Eyre (pictured), which are especially suited to the YA audience.


  1. I haven't read Jane Eyre, so I didn't read the post (as you told me to). I do have a paperback copy of it somewhere though, so I'll have to go and read it :-)

  2. This is one of my favorite "comfort" books too. Your review was really excellent.

  3. @Steph Let me know what you think when you do read it!

    @hopeinbrazil Thank you!