Yes, it is certainly a bold move to decide to write about one of the most universally hated books ever. Bringing up a love for Jane Eyre is definitely socially questionable, trust me – I know. People’s reactions often feel like something similar to the response I imagine you would get after saying you have a gold-plated first edition copy of Fifty Shades of Grey hidden away in your wardrobe. Now, I don’t think this is the effect Brontë was going for and I am certainly sure that the novel doesn’t warrant such extreme reactions.
To me, studying literature is all about the discussion. English students just love to (poetically, aesthetically, heck, decadently) sit under trees and chat about all things books. Yet, with Jane Eyre there is never a discussion, only book-splaining; and by book-splaining I mean people proceeding to give you a lengthy sermon on exactly why Charlotte Brontë’s novel is the worst thing since (un)sliced bread. Alternatively, if you’re lucky, your peers will proceed to sigh and promptly leave.
Despite endlessly being told ‘you’re just wrong’, I have never fallen out of love with Jane. I could read the novel a thousand times – not-going-to-lie I probably will over the course of my life. I don’t think I will ever stop loving it; I just can’t see how I could.
As I write, I feel an overwhelming pressure to try and defend Jane, to prove her haters wrong, to inspire readers to give her a second chance. I hate that. Had I picked a more conventional ‘comfort’ read, it would be taken for granted that the book is worth reading and we would just be discussing exactly why it’s so great. Do you know what, I might steer the discussion that way regardless. If you have decided you hate Jane Eyre, my article is going make little difference, because hatred is a strong and intransient emotion.
So yes, I’m not going to defend her, she doesn’t need defending – she’s good enough at that on her own.
However, that is absolutely the last cliched insinuation I am going to make about how much of a ‘feminist’ (or proto-feminist, if we are being precise) Jane is. I find people get far too hung up on asking whether Brontë succeeded in constructing a strong independent ‘feminist’ figure in Jane. This is a convoluted question which I don’t think will ever be conclusively answered because Jane, like all human beings, is too complicated to be given a single identifying label.
I guess that’s what I really love about Jane Eyre. At the novel’s heart is an exploration in exactly what it is to be a human in this messy, confusing, often hellish, wide world. When I hear people talk (rant) about Brontë’s writing they often criticise how her characters are flawed: Rochester is manipulative, Helen Burns is too much of a zealous fanatic, the plain in ‘plain Jane’ stands for plain dull etc etc. It is these imperfections that actually resonate with me the most. We are continually taught not to expect perfection in our lives – because being perfect is as impossible as it is overrated – so why do we expect such qualities in our fiction? Brontë knows we shouldn’t; she has her hero voice as much,
‘I am not an angel…I will not be one till I die: I will be myself’
Of course, this doesn’t give a free pass on the certainly questionable deeds committed by every character in this book, particularly by everyone’s (least) favourite Byron wannabe Edward Fairfax Rochester. It is very important that we do not allow ourselves to romanticise his emotionally abusive actions, his gaslighting, his locking of wives in the attic. Jane certainly doesn’t,
‘Am I hideous Jane?’
‘Very sir; you always were, you know’
Although if we were to hate every single book which has a potentially problematic, maddeningly manipulative or just plain grim character at the centre…well, reading would be no fun at all, it would be so depressing, to be honest we would have nothing to read (except maybe those ‘fairy magic’ books every 00s girl read in library lessons).
Equally, Rochester isn’t completely beyond our empathy, nobody is. Brontë teaches the importance of forgiveness, of finding a way through the chaos when no path seems obvious. Of course, I am not saying the book offers a (patronising) sermon on the importance of moving on from trauma. Nowhere does Brontë insult our intelligence. Forgiveness in Jane Eyre is messy, it’s painful and the characters get burned (quite literally). The novel might end in marriage, as all too many Victorian novels do, but the foundations of Jane and Rochester’s union remain wounded. We see this realised through a simply stunning metaphor,
‘the cloven halves were not broken from each other…they might be said to form one tree- a ruin, but an entire ruin’
It is this emphasis on ruination which makes Jane Eyre so modern. Gone is the Austen-esque presentation of marriage as a victorious guarantee of future happiness. Jane works hard to find her place in a world which continually tells her she can never belong and remains true to herself. Yes, she goes back to Rochester – and maybe we might see that as the wrong decision for justified reasons – but she certainly comes back as her own woman,
‘Reader, I married him’
On the topic of marriages, many criticise Jane’s decision to isolate herself from society with Rochester, yet I think Brontë’s narrative decision couldn’t be more perfect. Society shuns Jane, fetters her down as a freak of nature, forces her to conform or die like Bertha Mason. She cannot love Rochester and remain a part of society, because society stops her from loving herself.
The novel finishes having come full circle; Jane begins and ends as the pariah. But gosh hasn’t she grown. As a child, she equated loneliness with ideas of punishment, of proof that she was a monster, a deviant; as a married woman, isolation becomes her freedom. I’ve certainly found myself returning to Jane Eyre while languishing in lockdown, searching for ways of reconsidering how I see my isolation.
I really, really could talk all day about how much this book means to me; just take a look at my battered copy if you need physical proof of the closeness of our relationship.
I won’t do that, because the power lies in the text, not in my words. If you came here as a Jane Eyre hater, I am sure you are probably leaving feeling the same. That’s fine, you never have to read this article, or the novel again. But if you do find yourself sneakily returning to the pages when unable to take a (socially distanced) walk in Uni Parks, maybe – just one time – try and look for the good in it, rather than endlessly picking apart the problems…