Chronicling the life of the orphaned Jane Eyre, the novel begins with a truly upsetting account of what can only be called horrific child abuse. We encounter Jane as she strikes back at her childhood tormentor--her cousin John--for the first time, after quietly enduring teasing, beating, and the hatred of her only family (her dead uncle's wife, and her 3 cousins) for the whole of her short 10 years. As punishment, she is confined to the 'Red Room', the room in which her uncle died. As the sun sets, and she's left in darkness, the terrified child has a panic attack, and her aunt advantageously uses the event to have Jane sent away to Lowood School--a change of scene to save her nerves.
We watch Jane grow into a passionate young woman, develop self-respect, a distaste for injustice, and her own strong sense of right and wrong. After completing her education, and working two years at Lowood as a teacher, Jane hungers for a new situation in life, so advertises in the paper, and is invited to take up a post as governess for a child, at a wealthy, private residence. Here we experience part spooky mystery, part love story, and see the world of Thornfield Manor through fiery and fascinating Jane’s eyes.
Jane Eyre is many things--a journey of self discovery, a love story, and a surprisingly progressive tale for its day. It holds some strongly feminist ideas, or perhaps more than feminist, ideas about justice, class systems, and equality. It's Jane, a relative 'commoner' who shows more backbone and self-respect than many of her high-bred 'superiors'. Social standing, graces, and superficial manners all come second to intelligence, self-respect, actually having character, and one's own mind.
It's mentioned (and constantly reiterated) that neither Jane, nor her suitor, are physically much to look at. The idea of true beauty coming from within, and beauty being in the eye of the beholder, is another strong theme here. Jane as a character is in strong contrast with others, such as the beautiful, yet shallow and capricious Georgiana Reed, or cruel and superficial Blanche Ingram. Where these women are admired in the highest regard in their upper class society, despite their lack of character, Jane is despised, but she is the better human being. I love that she KNOWS it, also.
We're also presented with a wonderful array of unique and colourful characters, very few of whom seem black and white. Rochester, most obviously, struggling to justify his actions before God and society, every bit as much as to his own self; wanting to be good, wanting to be a better man, but really--let's be honest—failing. He’s resigned to the fact he can’t be better without outside influence. We have a role reversal here: rather than our male hero being a knight in shining armour to a damsel in distress, Rochester views Jane as his saviour. Then characters like Bessie: sweet, but with a temper that will turn as quickly as the wind. She’s neither good, nor bad. The adorable, but admittedly vapid, Mademoiselle Adèle, and above all Jane, who lives by her own rules and sense of morality, rather than those of society... and really, whose are better, here? There are still clichés here, though. The lunatic wife, the wicked stepmother and stepsisters (In the shape of aunt and cousins)... But at the time, were these clichés at the time this was written?
Amidst all the romance and wonderful characters, it's easy to forget the wonderful gothic thriller/mystery at the heart of Thornfield, and for anyone new to the story, its heartbreaking conclusion. And the romantic tension between Jane and Rochester? It's as palpable--if not more so--than any modern romance I've read (here's looking at you Twilight), but for once we're dealing with a girl with backbone. This is nothing like a Jane Austen love story. We're not dealing with manners and moving within the bounds of acceptable society--this is unrequited love, people.
On an aside, for those who’ve read A Room of One's Own, and Wolfe’s criticism of both Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre, it’s interesting to see parallels between the two works: that a woman doesn’t need a man to define her; that having one’s own means is essential for any woman who wants to create (or maintain an independent mind); that it’s the value of human being’s heart and mind—not outward appearances—that is what gives them value (I’m thinking about Judith and William Shakespeare, here). Jane is every bit as good as Mrs and the Misses Reeds, the Ingrams, and indeed, a number of the men of this book. She is the intellectual equal of Rochester, and perhaps superior of St John, regardless of her sex.
Despite the time since it was written, Jane Eyre is not hard to read. I often struggle with older novel but it's far easier than Dracula, which was an effort for me, though not necessarily a good comparison. It's hugely entertaining, in parts absolutely heartbreaking, and there is a good reason why it remains popular, and a 'classic' over a hundred years later. It's an extraordinary work of fiction, beautifully written, and with just as much to enjoy now as it did when it was first published.