Jane Eyre is a gothic story of love and redemption that is both smart and honest. I found it far more accessible than Wuthering Heights, equally ambitious, and much more moral as well.
As a bildungsroman, the first-person narrative reveals a mind defining itself through obstacles faced. In the face of Rochester’s challenges, Jane declares with pride that “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Such words will speak to a modern mind who seeking self-definition. Where Jane is most interesting, though, is when she operates within expectations of Christian righteousness. She does this not for self-interest, but rather in order to oppose those who exploit. The language we see here does not sound Victorian:
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.
This is where the book is most challenging even now: true Christian ideals of promoting the poor sometimes mean demeaning tradition. Such ideals are a true challenge to some communities and authority, especially when done in such a highbrow fashion. The image of the mask and the face is constructed through two separate clauses, indicating how further separate and artificial the face of unjust authority truly is. Such frustrations and anger burn within her to an extent anyone with irksome family (i.e. everyone, including mine!) will appreciate:
What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill-usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.
Despite her railing against unjust authority purporting to be run under Christian virtue, Jane demonstrates true Christian virtues well. The heart of the bildungsroman is here: that a girl who has to rely on passion against others for survival can come to judge when to stop fighting for a wider and richer life. Simple quick victories against perceived slights, whether right or wrong, big or small, fall apart when faced against larger tasks. The only way, perhaps, to suffer the humiliations of being a low-born citizen in Britain of any modern age is to develop a judicious humility and seek real connections. Such connections are established early in the book, although not in Jane’s life. Upon Jane’s entry into the school, she is able to befriend of moral peer:
True, reader; and I knew and felt this: and though I am a defective being, with many faults and few redeeming points, yet I never tired of Helen Burns; nor ever ceased to cherish for her a sentiment of attachment, as strong, tender, and respectful as any that ever animated my heart. How could it be otherwise, when Helen, at all times and under all circumstances, evinced for me a quiet and faithful friendship, which ill-humour never soured, nor irritation never troubled?
Jane, despite her low self-esteem and lowly beginning, experiences real friendship. This is not transactional, nor is it a friendship that intends to grant status. It is a union of minds and deserves to be explored further and celebrated in our classrooms. The quietness of such friendship is something all of us desire at times!
Most notably, for me at least, is how Jane’s reflections of her life in school establish her character. Whatever missions schools have, and however they are affected by the pressures of capital in society today, they all need to care. That care or not is noticed by every child. Whether the classroom is strict or not does not matter: if there is care, everything else will slide. It is interesting that her teacher and mentor, Miss Temple, is described in such a physical fashion: ‘Let the reader add, to complete the picture, refined features; a complexion, if pale, clear; and a stately air and carriage, and he will have, at least, as clearly as words can give it, a correct idea of the exterior of Miss Temple.’ Here Miss Temple becomes the ideal mentor, or rather an idealised one. In a story where the heroine is purposefully plain, Miss Temple’s physicality manifests the beauty of her virtues. That she is a metaphorical ‘carriage’ for the transmission of values makes her mission beautiful, too. Her moral mission contrasts the actual physicality of the school buildings. Apparently reflected in Bronte’s own experience of schooling, the school’s poor exterior actually damages the health of the girls. It places education in a monastic tradition, and contrasts, again, the physical beauty of Miss Temple.
Outside the school, and over the remaining 3/4s of the 500 pages, it is Jane’s contrasting relationships with Rochester and St John that form the essence of her love. Does she seek passion, unchecked and fervent with Rochester, or reason, cold and immovable with St John? While Rochester is the Heathcliff of the piece, his male aggressiveness (once threatening implicit rape) is galling: “I have little left in myself — I must have you. The world may laugh — may call me absurd, selfish — but it does not signify. My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.” The objectifying language Rochester uses on himself to describe his ‘soul’ as moving his ‘frame’ against his will demonstrates the darker side of passion. Jane’s self-control elevates her past Rochester in the end.
That Jane has the self-control to choose her match at great personal cost forms the quality character. Her treatment of others is always equitable, even at that personal cost. Truth told, is that point where someone acts against personal interest we know that their virtue is true, and not just something used to appear pious. I have written at some length about ‘truth vs effect’ and we currently live in times whereby an emotional, effect-driven political discourse is increasingly popular. The term ‘virtue-signalling’ is even used in twitter-speak by some educators to disdain those who attempt to be good. Like fake news, such action exists but is too easily judged wrongly by others. Jane stands fast to her beliefs in a manner that makes her one of the most memorable characters and complex role models in British literature.
Bronte is able to present all these ideas, pertinent both at the time and in 2018, with a continual meta-narrative that I find fantastically engaging (‘reader, I married him…). Even the reflection of a new is drawn ‘like a new scene in a play’: when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe.
This reflection on the novel writing process contrasts with the realism elsewhere, as does the magic realism of some of her experiences of nature. It is indicative of a mind spent in literature. It was the kind of thing I wrote myself at university when, half-read, I wrote a creative writing dissertation. As many others have said, Jane Eyre is a novel well worth rereading and discussing.