Reading

Jane Eyre

Even people who haven’t read “Jane Eyre” know what it’s about. They know who Mr. Rochester is, they know about the mad wife in the attic, they know the heroine is a friendless governess. I found this out after writing an alternative erotic novella based on JE (called “Reader, I Married Him,” one of the book’s most famous lines)–and I showed it to a few other writers for critique. They immediately knew what it was about whether they’d read JE or not. (In my version, btw, it’s Mr. Rochester who’s chained up in the attic.)
It’s not my favorite Bronte–that’s “Villette,” also by Charlotte Bronte, a real kick-ass book that is even more brave, puzzling, difficult, and frustrating than JE (go to my website, http://www.janetmullany.com/aboutjanet.htm, to read my thoughts on that book).
I hate the fact that JE runs away from Rochester because he wants her to become his mistress–the fact that he’s lied through his teeth to her and taken advantage of her lowly status and lack of connections doesn’t really seem to bother her as much. The sexiest part of it is not the love scenes with Rochester (which I find cringeworthy), but life at Lowood. I remember reading it during adolescence and getting all steamed up in the early part of the book and bored with the rest of it, and couldn’t really understand why. Wasn’t it Mr. R who was supposed to float my boat? Although I have to admit that first meeting with the hound and the mysterious figure on horseback has a wonderful, mythic quality to it. The first sentence of the book is extraordinary for an era that specialized in purple prose (in which Charlotte Bronte did pretty well)–blunt, atmospheric, spare:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Very fitting for a book that is about repression, choices made from necessity, and the lack of opportunity for action.
My daughter, a tough, cynical sophomore (and English major) told me she was quite shocked by JE. Why? Well, there’s all that talk about mistresses, she said. It is an extraordinarily frank book in that regard–although of course all of Mr. R’s messing about took place on the Continent, where Englishmen went to behave like, well, foreigners. That makes it all the more shocking when he sets out to entrap Jane into a bigamous marriage. As for the fate of the first Mrs. R, it does make you wonder how many mentally ill female family members were quietly tucked away under the eaves. Better than sending them to a mental hospital, of course, but the same treatment could be meted out to disobedient or eccentric wives.
JE may be the first historical regency gothic. It was published in 1847, and is placed somewhere in the regency period. There are a few hints–a reference to a novel by Walter Scott, for instance–that place the novel anywhere in the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. I think Bronte is being deliberately obscure–it’s set in that period when England hovered on the brink of change that came about with the 1832 reform bill. It was a period that fascinated the Victorians–much of Dickens and George Eliot is set in the late 1820s–because afterward, everything was different. She’s writing about a time that is now history, from the perspective of the present, deliberately manipulating fact to fit fiction.
So, I really can’t avoid this: JE as a great love story. Well, yes, but… There’s Jane’s capitulation and surrender (on an emotional, not physical level) to Mr. R–almost–she’s always holding herself back, playing it safe, exercising caution and control. Jane is constantly reminding us of Mr. R’s brooding physical presence, his size, and ugliness, a Beast she cannot tame. It’s only when he’s debilitated by the fire that he become safe enough to domesticate. I don’t necessarily agree with the favorite theory that it’s more than his arm and eye that got damaged in the fire (and then how on earth did Jane get pregnant–I mean, I wonder anyway, but really, that’s just dumb…), but now Jane is the strong one, the heroine who makes the choice to begin her journey with him.
Comments, anyone?
Janet

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Cara King
17 years ago

Hmmm… You’ve got an interesting take on it, Janet.

As to Jane running away from Rochester — I think it’s not just because he wants to make her his mistress, but because she fears she may give in! So she’s running away to prevent herself from doing so.

As for the rest — I think I must have a very different mind than you do, Janet! I can see your point of view, I think, as you explain it, but it is very much not mine!

For instance — I never thought Jane capitulated or surrendered to Rochester. And you know, I’d never even heard the theory that Rochester was incapacitated in additional ways in the fire — for the reasons you point out, it makes no sense! 🙂

Cara

Megan Frampton
17 years ago

I gotta admit to loving Mr. Rochester. I love his alpha male ways, his ugly face, his desperate desire to have Jane, no matter what. I haven’t read Jane Eyre in years and years, but I still feel as if I know her.
It is an intense book, a 19th century Gothic chick-lit, with loads of sexual tension. I read it many, many times growing up, and I know I admired Jane’s strength of character, especially when faced with Mr. Rochester’s formidable personality.
I tried to read Villette ages and ages ago (probably back when I was a college sophomore English major), and haven’t tried since.

Cara King
17 years ago

Okay, Megan, what part of JANE EYRE do you think is chick-lit??? (I can see Jane Austen, but don’t quite see Jane Eyre!)

Cara

Elena Greene
17 years ago

Janet, you do have a fascinating take on this and I’d love to read “Reader, I Married Him” sometime! (And I never heard that theory about what else Rochester lost in the fire. But well, duh…) BUT I don’t see the story in the same light.

Of course it was wrong for Rochester to try to manipulate Jane into bigamy. He has to pay for that, and does. Kind of a shock therapy, I’d say.

The reasons for Jane running away are complex, I think. Maybe I need to reread it, but I think his attempts to manipulate her did have something to do with it.

When I first read the book, as a teenager, through more modern eyes I wondered why they couldn’t be together. It certainly wouldn’t make much difference to the first Mrs. R who was portrayed as evil even when she had periods of sanity.

But the way I came to understand it, Jane and Rochester would both have felt it was wrong to be together, and so because of that, it would really have been wrong. But beyond that, I saw Jane as a character who had been surrounded by people who manipulated her all her life, and this was her time to assert herself. Although I would have liked her to have made her escape in less melodramatic fashion (perhaps saving some money for food rather than spending it all on coach fare) the fact is she did come into her strength away from Rochester’s influence.

I did read “Villette” and it’s a brilliant book, dealing with many of the same issues. But I’m afraid I’m too much of a romantic. I much prefer a happy ending. Sorry about the spoiler–but I figure the book’s been out a while. 🙂

Elena

Megan Frampton
17 years ago

Cara:

I think it’s chick-lit because it’s written in first person, it’s about a woman trying to navigate her way through life, with or without a man, with the modern concerns about making a living, wishing she had pretty clothes, wishing she were pretty, making decisions that stay true to her character. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I see Jane as a modern woman using her intelligence to make her life choices.

Elena Greene
17 years ago

I see your point, Megan. The parts that feel especially chick-litty (have I cointed a new word?) involve some of the rather shallow folk Rochester invites to his home and their attitudes toward Jane.

Cristina
17 years ago

Hey there!

I’ve come across your blog and thought your post was really interesting – Jane Eyre being my favourite book ever.

In fact we have recently started a BrontëBlog to keep track of the news of this literary family. So if you like the Brontës perhaps a visit to http://bronteblog.blogspot.com/ would be worth it 🙂

Pam Rosenthal
17 years ago

Janet,
Swear to god, I did put Jane Eyre down after she left Lowood and didn’t come back to it for years. And I have to agree with you about it’s killer first sentence. I always imagine someone entering it into a romance-writing contest and some nasty grader writing a snotty little “p.o.v?” comment next to it in the margin. (Not to speak of what they’d have done with “it is a truth universally ack. . . “)
It’s not one of my favorite books, though I have read it through several times since that first try — one thing I’m curious about is why no one in romanceland ever speaks of Wuthering Heights.

Pam

Janet Mullany
17 years ago

Has anyone read “The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde? It’s very funny literary fantasy, about an alternate England where a government agency keeps books and their characters on track. It’s to do with an obscure novel called Jane Eyre that’s never really been very popular. It ends with Jane going off to Africa with St. John Rivers–until the characters start changing things around. I remember Mr. Rochester is also making a living showing groups of tourists around Thornfield, too. I wish I could remember it better.

Janet

Megan Frampton
17 years ago

1. I’ve read the Eyre Affair…I liked it, but wasn’t crazy about it.

2. Pam, I wrote my senior thesis for the Psychoanalytic Interpretations of Literature on Wuthering Heights. I did a psychoanalytic analysis of it–man, it has a lot of id and pre-adolescent sexual fantasies (not to mention the whole possible incest thing).
and

2a. The mommy-lit I’m writing now is inspired by Wuthering Heights. More on that later. No incest, though.

Janet Mullany
17 years ago

Megan: A mommy-lit inspired by Wuthering Heights???? the mind boggles. Tell us more…

I think people are scared of taking on WH altho god knows there are zillions of JE look-alikes. It’s somewhat equivalent to composers feeling quite happy at imitating or adapting Bach, but very few who would imitate Mozart.

Cara: I said Jane almost capitulates to Rochester–she holds back. And remember that when Rochester “calls” her she has no idea he’s widowed and legal, or what she’s letting herself in for. But it’s her choice, and one made freely. So can we assume that she was willing to enter into an adulterous relationship at that point? Or that becoming an independent woman somehow means she is now immune to Rochester? What if she’d returned and found everything as she’d left it?

Oh darn, I’m going to have to read it again.

Janet

Laurie Bishop
17 years ago

I read Jane Eyre years ago when I was quite young–I just don’t remember when–and I loved it. I loved the story of the poor unloved girl rising until she finds love and fortune. I did take exception to Rochester being maimed, though–but at the time I couldn’t appreciate the moral lesson. Not that I like people getting maimed in romances in particular….

As far as Jane’s actions in running away, that certainly was the only moral choice she had at that time–and it was complicated by the fact that she loved him and was badly hurt by his deceit. He, OTOH, suffered without love and felt the deceit was the only way he could finally have it. Still, he had done a terrible thing in Victorian eyes, and so he had to redeem himself/pay for the crime. This he did by attempting to save his insane wife while risking his own, and received the injuries–but he retained his life. [Big moral lesson!].

Jane, OTOH, discovered that love meant more to her than marriage to someone she did not love. Jane, like Rochester, had lived her life without love, and once experiencing it could not bear to lose it, imo, just like Rochester could not bear it.

Of course, Jane was an example of the good Victorian woman…sensible, unselfish, loving, generous, sacrificing. In that way the story was a commentary on the evil of society as well, with Rochester being the key character who recognizes the evil of his ways and the women he has admired in his past.

But his poor wife! There wasn’t a lot of compassion or understanding of the insane in those days. She was clearly classified as a thing to suffer and was treated (in the story) as disposable.

Jane returns, having decided to sacrifice herself for Rochester. She returns as his equal, however–she has an independent fortune of her own now, and can either stay or leave. But she does sacrifice, for he is not the man he was, and she stays and cares for him–loving him still–and he is conveniently widowed, so she is rewarded with a moral path to love, as is Rochester.

Well, that was kind of long, wasn’t it? I had no idea I was going to do that!

Laurie

Cara King
17 years ago

What a lot of interesting posts!

Janet, I have a close friend who’s been urging me to read THE EYRE AFFAIR — now I have another reason to!

Pam — I suspect folks in RomanceLand don’t talk about Wuthering Heights so much because we like happily ever afters! (And that doesn’t count “they’re happy once they’re dead” unless we’re talking vampires!)

Megan, your mommy lit sounds fascinating! Well, Wuthering Heights wasn’t my favorite book, but still, I’d be very interested in seeing what you do with it.

Cara

Cara King
17 years ago

Janet wrote: So can we assume that she was willing to enter into an adulterous relationship at that point? Or that becoming an independent woman somehow means she is now immune to Rochester?

Personally, I didn’t think she was considering becoming Rochester’s mistress at the end. When she was his employee, she was in the position of many many women — how can you say no to the man who pays your salary, who keeps you from the workhouse? I think her money made all the difference, in her mind at least. She had a big thing about their class differences earlier in the book…

Laurie wrote: But his poor wife! There wasn’t a lot of compassion or understanding of the insane in those days.

I agree, artistically speaking… But in the context of the novel, Rochester makes clear (and I do not doubt him) that his wife and her family all knew she was going to be completely insane within a couple years, and basically tricked him into marrying her so he’d have to care for her. I think this is his reason for being as little emotionally attached to her as he is… As to compassion and understanding — I suppose it depends whether we think she was by nature violent (in which case I think her treatment was as nice as could be expected — it was a nice attic 🙂 ) or whether we think she was only violent because of her imprisonment, or because of her (perhaps justified) jealousy….

Anyway, that’s my take on it!

Cara

Megan Frampton
17 years ago

Honestly, my Wuthering Heights tribute is barely recognizable now, but the germ of the idea sprang from watching WH with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon with my girlfriend while drinking wine. The less said about all that the better. I’ll spill details later, but am editing the thing now, and don’t want to tip my hand, such as it is.

Pam Rosenthal
17 years ago

Have any of you read Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys — told in the persona of the “mad” (by whose standards?) Caribbean Creole wife. I read it many years ago, and liked it then. I’d probably get more out of it now, though, after having thought more about 19th century women’s novels.

Megan Frampton
17 years ago

You know, anytime Jane Eyre comes up I have to bite my tongue NOT to mention Wide Sargasso Sea…I loved it. I started reading it without having read the back cover (a college assignment), and felt kinda gypped when I saw it was a spin-off of Jane Eyre, but then I got into the story and adored it. I tried not to think of Mr. Rochester as being a meanie, as Rhys paints him a bit. Like you, Pam, I haven’t read it in ages, but it is great, and is great inspiration for stories: like what might’ve happened to the egghead Bennett sister? And Mr. Rochester’s ward (I forget her name–starts with an ‘a?’), and St. John’s sisters (okay, a stretch), and other secondary characters from literature? Very fun.

Pam Rosenthal
17 years ago

The Egghead Bennet Sister, (Mary who has delighted us quite enough). Nice titles, both of those, imo.
And who was it that I read recently (Claire Tomalin, perhaps) who pointed out the pathos of poor Mary, the Bennet sister who actually cared to impress her father?

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