I just finished Jane Eyre a week or two ago, but hadn’t had a chance to comment on it yet.
It was one of those classics I meant to get to “some time,” but my interest was peaked when I saw the Masterpiece Theater production of it which aired on PBS in January. It showed a lot of humorous exchanges between Mr. Rochester and Jane. I was surprised — I had thought Mr. Rochester was a moody, brooding sort of fellow. I had never read the book, but I had some dim memory of the story line (which I later remembered came from seeing an old film with a young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen, Jane’s friend at the orphanage) even before seeing a version with Ciaran Hinds as Mr. Rochester several years ago. I had really enjoyed that version, but with so many differences between that production and this new one, and those intriguing humorous exchanges in this newer production, that I put Jane Eyre on my winter reading list.
For those who don’t know (warning: if you have never read or seen Jane Eyre and don’t want any “spoilers,” you’d better skip this paragraph), Jane’s parents die when she is a young girl and she is sent to live with an uncle. The uncle then also passes away while she is still young and makes his wife promise, when he is on his death bed, that she will take care of Jane. His wife does not like Jane, makes her feel an obvious outsider from the rest of the family, and “takes care of her” only in the sense of providing food, clothing,, and a place to stay. Things come to a head there (I’ll leave some surprises) and Jane is sent to a boarding school with a strict, tyrannical headmaster. When she grows older she becomes a teacher at the school until she advertises for an outside position. She’s hired to be a governess by a Mrs. Fairfax for a young French girl named Adele. Jane later learns that Adele is the ward of an enigmatic Mr. Rochester. Jane is poor and is not beautiful and tends to speak her mind, all of which sets her outside the upper social circles of the time. But somehow Mr. Rochester, who is also said to be not handsome, likes the way she answers him, and they begin to have many conversations, which lead to Jane having a “crush” on her employer. She knows it is an impossible situation because of their different stations in life, which seems further confirmed by his seeming impending engagement to Blanche Ingram, a wealthy socialite, but sometimes she thinks she sees interest on his part as well. She does nothing to further his interest — she is not the type to flirt and would not in her circumstances anyway. Yet the undercurrent of interest does blossom into a romance: they are to be married until it is revealed that Mr. Rochester has a dark secret (I’ll leave that secret, too, for those who haven’t read it). Jane flees and eventually finds the Rivers family, a brother and two sisters, who take her in. St. John Rivers is single and headed for the mission field and eventually becomes convinced that Jane would make an excellent wife for him on the field, not because he loves her, but because of her temperament and work ethic. She almost does, but has a strong urging to see Mr. Rochester again.
I haven’t read much about the background of the Brontes or the reception of this book when it was published. I do wonder if Mr. Rochester’s scandalous past caused a stir — let me hasten to say, though, that there are no explicit scenes in the book. His past is mentioned and explained a bit, but we’re spared the intricate details (thankfully — a tale like this in the hands of a modern author would likely be one I couldn’t read). I also wonder what the 1840s audience thought of Jane’s outspokenness and independence: if it was accepted, I wonder if it was because of Jane’s circumstances and if it would not have been accepted if she had come from a upper-class well-established family.
I don’t know whether Charlotte Bronte was a Christian: I know she was in the world’s sense of the word, as meaning not-Buddhist or something else, but I don’t know if she was in the born-again sense. I did read somewhere that she was a minister’s daughter. But I was pleased to find many Biblical allusions and principles throughout the book, even the need for repentance and Jane’s telling Mr. Rochester he needed to find rest for his soul in the Lord. I didn’t read any reviews or commentaries of this book except just to skim some when I was looking for a short summary (I had planned to link to one instead of writing my own, but could only find longer ones), but one reviewer mentioned Jane’s aversion to religion. I didn’t find that at all in the book, unless the reviewer meant the type of religion modeled by Mr. Brocklehurst, the headmaster. There was one passage in particular that I thought was an excellent illustration of having principles in place ahead of time to avoid temptation when you can’t think clearly. Here Jane has learned Mr. Rochester’s secret and determined she must leave: he argues with her to stay, on terms that she knows she cannot yield to. She thinks to herself:
…while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. “Oh, comply!” it said. “Think of his misery, think of his danger– look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair — soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?”
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 the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor: stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth — so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane — quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
And yes, there were many humorous interchanges between Jane and Mr. Rochester. I was glad to see the book wasn’t all darkness and brooding. Here is one, in one of the first couple of meetings between Jane and Mr. Rochester. He is looking at some of her drawings and says,
“I perceive these pictures were done by one hand: was that hand yours?”
“And when did you find time to do them? They have taken much time, and some thought.”
“I did them in the last two vacations I spent at Lowood, when I had no other occupation.”
“Where did you get your copies.”
“Out of my head.”
“That head I now see on your shoulders?”
“Has it other furniture of the same kind within?”
All in all I did like the book very much. The recent PBS production is much truer to the book, but there are a few moments that I didn’t appreciate — a couple of cases of double entendre and an attempt to explain some things with the darker side of the supernatural that were not in the book (I’m being purposefully vague there so as not to draw the attention of search engines here by those terms.)
One last quote I especially liked had to do with Jane’s and Mr. Rochester’s relationship:
To be together is for us to be at once as free as solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.