As part of a new series of Goodreads challenges, it was required of me to read Jane Eyre, and I wasn’t too thrilled. I’ve started it before and never penetrated too far. But it was in exchange for the other person watching half of Firefly (it’s a shared challenge – two of us read a book apiece in exchange for all the episodes), so … I will do a great deal for Mal Reynolds, I said.
I have a paperback, somewhere, but wound up reading it via literature.org for some reason – where, I should warn, there are a great many typos, and a startling use of all caps where I believe the original uses italics. It’s odd to see Mr. Rochester exclaim in the manner of a web post.
I was surprised at how very much I enjoyed this. The language has proven a barrier in the couple of times I’ve started it in the past – no patience for it, or something. But this time having to read it out of Browncoat devotion combined with the right mood and receptivity, and I clicked with it. The sense of humor of Jane and therefore of Charlotte Brontë was a wonderful surprise; there was a snark and sarcasm and a touch of simple silliness which for some reason I never suspected in either Brontë or book. My prejudgment of the book was purely as a girl’s dark and Gothic “tale of woe”, built with archaic language – and that is a big part of it, yes. (After all, Helen at fourteen is given lines like “she gives me my meed liberally” and “collecting all she says with assiduity”, which simply leaves me wondering if children actually did speak this way in 1847, and my goodness has civilization degenerated if they did). But it’s also fun, especially when Jane converses with Mr. Rochester.
“Am I hideous, Jane?”
“Very, sir: you always were, you know.”
“St. John dresses well. He is a handsome man: tall, fair, with blue eyes, and a Grecian profile.”
(Aside.) “Damn him!”–
Jane as a child: Poor little precocious wretch. She’s obviously much smarter and sharper and more thoughtful (in terms of giving thought to things more than solicitous; she is that, but not overwhelmingly so) than everyone around her – never an easy situation even for someone with a sweet disposition. Jane does not have a sweet disposition. This is undoubtedly due in part to how she’s been treated all her life by the Reeds, but she fights fire with fire, no question. She’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
And that’s kind of a surprise. I haven’t read so very much 19th century literature, but I have some familiarity with the stuff – and in my limited experience there weren’t very many pre-Jane heroines like Jane. I’m thinking of course of Little Nell, the sweet and uncomplaining little orphan of The Old Curiosity Shop, who may or may not be the archetype, and also the much put-upon Fanny Price.
Jane Eyre ain’t no Little Nell. In fact what just struck me is that she is, in many ways, identical to the pre-Hogwarts Harry Potter. (Someone somewhere has to have done a study of orphans in young adult literature, a comprehensive list and investigation into why they’re so prevalent. I can think of half a dozen immediately – Jane, Harry, Anne, Heidi, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield – and Pip. Seven. And then there are all the poor motherless ones, who are probably double in number.) Jane doesn’t blow up her aunt, but she does attack her cousin. Her presence was resented, only tolerated out of duty to the dead, and she was ill-treated by everyone in the house to one degree or another, particularly by her male cousin. School came as a surprising solace – at least I was surprised, because again the impression I had formed was a terrible one, all Snape and no Gryffindor. And it actually wasn’t. Even at its worst it was well-intentioned and there were positives; once it received reforming attention it improved drastically.
It is in some ways so very much a product of its time, with its solid Christianity and its xenophobia (“a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects”) – but Jane is a creature of the book’s future. Mr. Rochester was incorrect: Jane was not a fairy. She was a time traveler. (Now I want to write that version. Never mind Jane Slayr, this is better.) She is independent, or wants very badly to be, and she is strong in ways women are not expected nor really desired to be in 1847. She has wings, and wants to spread them; the horizon line is too confining for her. And somehow it feels very modern that she is uncertain of her footing when people are kind to her, that she is in some ways more comfortable with rudeness, and can stand up for herself quite well in its face.
A favorite passage:
A breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon.