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.)
[Update: I did finally publish Reader, I Married Him, and it’s a finalist in Passionate Ink’s contest for pubbed books, The Passionate Plume. Huzzah!]
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.
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) [in 2005] 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.