At the Back Fence Issue #165

Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

August 17, 2003 

Looking Back at Jane Eyre

After the success of our recent Gone With the Wind column, we decided to occasionally explore other classic romantic novels. Robin Uncapher last wrote about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in the “all-nighter” segment of our July 1st ATBF and now leads us in a look back – with some help from our staff and readers – at this 1847 novel originally published under the pen name Currer Bell. Jane Eyre has remained in print since its first edition sold out in three months, has been made into nine feature films (including a 1952 Indian version), four TV movies, three mini-series, and is a favorite book of such disparate authors as Erica Jong (who wrote the foreword to Signet’s 1997 edition) and Joyce Carol Oates.

Do you remember the days when students were given literature textbooks to read for English class? These textbooks contained parts of great works of literature and poetry for students to study. Most of the literature segments were excerpts or abridgements, though some, like Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Silas Marner were included in their entirety. This enabled students and teachers to touch on the great works of literature without going through the drudgery of reading the whole book. (Though there was one notable exception, it is safe to say that few of my high school English teachers cared much for literature that was not American, and yes, did consider great literature drudgery.) And so in high school we read abridged versions of Dicken’s Pickwick Papers, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre – wow! This was my favorite book, the one I had spent countless hours reading under the blanket with a flashlight. To read it for school sounded wonderful.

From the day I realized that Jane Eyre was in our textbook I was thrilled. Finally a great book that I already knew and loved. To me, Jane Eyre was romantic, sexy and thrilling. I had read it not knowing what would happen from chapter to chapter and not knowing if Mr. Rochester would even turn out to be Jane’s love interest. Turning my old book club edition page to a flashlight illuminated picture of the mad wife with a knife in her hand was one of my most vivid memories.

I wanted to pass my love of Jane Eyre on to others. Gothics were becoming the rage and I was sure that my girlfriends, who loved them, would be delighted when they read this classic gothic. I told them all how excited I was to be rereading Jane Eyre and what a great time they were going to have reading it. How shocked I was when virtually every teenager in my English class groaned when we started to discuss the first chapter. How much more shocked I was to learn that after they finished the abridged version just about every student in the class hated the book.

Not only did the kids not like the book, my teacher hated it too, thereby reinforcing their feelings about it. She thought Jane was whiney and unchildlike. The class discussion left me with a sad, depressed feeling. I found myself feeling cranky and alone – the way you do when your friends hate your new boyfriend. Why could everyone not see that Jane Eyre wasn’t just good, she was great?

What had happened to my poor beloved Jane Eyre? She was gone with barely a trace. The prudish compilers of English lit textbooks had turned her story into that of a lonely orphan who mysteriously ends up married. The truncated love story occurred without the slow buildup. Everyone in the class had been told about Mr. Rochester’s wife and what would happen at Jane’s ill-fated wedding.

The columnist Russell Baker once wrote a brilliant column strongly recommending that children not be allowed to read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This, he said, was not to protect the children – it was to protect Twain’s masterwork, which is not written for children and is full of the kind of characters that children do not understand.

I have the same feeling that Jane Eyre needs to be shielded for all time from high school literature classes. Jane Eyre should not be read by someone trying to meet a deadline or write a paper. Jane Eyre is for people who need a book to keep them company, a book which makes them feel that no matter how much of a misfit you are, that you too can be loved to distraction by someone strong, witty, tortured and desperately attractive.

Here is why Jane Eyre means so much to me. I was 12 and in the sixth grade when I first read Brontë’s classic, a year that stands out as the worst and most stressful in my entire life. I had a dreadful teacher who taught half my classes. She detested me. The feeling was mutual. We were at war. Everyday I came home from school with two hours of homework. Every day I did not do it. Every day I told the teacher, in front of the class, that I had left my homework at home. I was too big (5’4′), too shy, too stubborn and most of all, I did not smile at the teacher. No one was friends with me because the teacher encouraged them to taunt me just as she did. My parents were in despair. I was failing every subject though my achievement tests showed that skill was not the problem. Today they would probably say I had ADD. Then they said I was in a lot of trouble – a lazy, antisocial child with a bad attitude.

My parents gave me an early bedtime but I could never sleep. One night I got a flashlight and pulled out one of my mother’s old college books. It was Jane Eyre – and it changed my life. Here was a little girl who was also a misfit, a girl no one listened to. Little Jane Eyre would not smile for people when she was unhappy. She would not be a nice girl. Little Jane Eyre didn’t change herself to please others – though she wished people would like the person she was. Little Jane Eyre wished she could be happy but she wasn’t willing to pretend she wasn’t. She saw adults as they were, and though she did not tell them what she thought, they suspected and they detested her for it.

And then, wonder of wonders, little Jane Eyre grew up and met a man who miraculously loved all the things in her that others hated. Is there any wonder why I would love this book?

Jane Eyre is the story of a little orphan girl who, after being treated cruelly in her uncle’s widow’s home, is sent to Lowood, a terrible school run by a religious fanatic. Jane is poor and small. Everywhere she goes she is treated badly, mostly because she is shy and does little to ingratiate herself to others.

Jane determines to make her way in the world . After surviving Lowood and spending a number of years teaching, she goes to the house of a mysterious man, Mr. Rochester, to be governess of his ward. Jane lives in Mr. Rochester’s big house and soon becomes completely fascinated by this stern man who often calls her downstairs for conversation. The house is filled with creaks and groans and strange unexplained happenings. One night someone tries to burn the house down. Jane is frightened. She falls deeply in love with Mr. Rochester, sure that he would never love her. Then Mr. Rochester proposes marriage! On the big day, the most horrendous thing happens: the wedding ceremony is interrupted by a man who claims that Mr. Rochester is already married! His wife is a mad woman who has been living in the attic all the time (and the source of the mysterious noises in the house). Poor Jane leaves the house terrified that she will give in to Mr. Rochester’s pleas that she stay and be his mistress. (Yes! This is a Victorian novel!)

Jane wanders and almost starves until her rescue by people who, coincidentally, turn out to be her cousins. One of them, St. John, is a missionary who later asks Jane to join him in a loveless marriage so the two can go be missionaries together. Jane stays. She discovers the truth about her parents. She finds she is not destitute and has a comfortable amount of money left to her by her parents. Jane even returns to her childhood home and nurses her uncle’s widow, Mrs. Reed, who was so cruel to her when she was a child. Then, when Jane’s life is almost perfect (but for her sadness over Mr. Rochester) she discovers that Mr. Rochester’s wife has died and that he is living alone, blinded by the fire that killed her. Jane returns to Mr. Rochester and with the words “Reader, I married him,” then lives happily ever after. We leave Jane with a new baby and Mr. Rochester discovering that his sight has returned.

This is the book my high school friends groaned over as desperately dull.

Thinking of this I asked some of my fellow AAR staffers about their first experiences reading Jane Eyre. Rereading it has shown me that though the book remains a favorite, it is not the easiest book to read, particularly when compared with another favorite 19th century romantic novel, Pride and Prejudice. For one thing Brontë’s style is wordy by modern standards. She takes her time telling the story.

Former AAR editor Marianne Stillings had a completely different experience than mine in reading the book. After having seen the movie, she knew what was to transpire each step of the way. She wrote:“I read it close to 20 years ago, and only after seeing the 1944 Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version on TV. I wanted to see how closely the movie followed the book. My reaction to the movie was that it was dark, gloomy, tense, and that Orson Welles wasn’t good looking enough for the part (not that Rochester was supposed to be handsome, but OW always looked so baby-soft). My reaction to the book was that it was dark, gloomy, tense, and that Rochester was a truly tortured hero.”

AAR Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill had an experience more like mine, in that she was young when she read the book. She first read it at age 12 after ordering it, along with Wuthering Heights, from the Scholastic Books brochure. She read it again, for school this time, in the 8th grade, and enjoyed it more, recalling that, “at 12, a lot of the romantic sub-text was lost on me.”

Reader Sharon was also young when she read the novel, and found it interesting that most of the readers who responded on our Potpourri Message Board seeking input on the book also read it at an early age. She read the book after her 8th grade English teacher lent it to her; that same English teacher had also taught Sharon’s mother.

AAR editor Jennifer Keirans first read the novel as a college undergraduate. It wasn’t an assigned book, but one recommended by “another student who I respected.” But she “didn’t think about it very hard or get emotionally into it. It was just one of the hundreds of books I devoured in college without taking the time to absorb them fully. [The] second reading was much more intense for me.”

LLB first read Jane Eyre as an undergrad as well, in a course on English literature, noting, “We read a lot of great books that semester, but To the Lighthouse and Jane Eyre stuck out as my two favorites. Not having read anything gothic to that point, my main point of comparison for the novel, oddly enough, was Dark Shadows. But I did find the whole thing terribly romantic even though Rochester scared the heck out of me as he barked at Jane… and especially at the end when she comes back and he is both autocratic and humbled.”

My fellow ATBF columnist Anne Marble read Jane Eyre in high school. Something tells me she did not get the abridged edition my class was forced to read because she too liked it: “I read it in high school, probably in my freshman or sophomore year. I was eager to read it because I had seen the made-for-TV movie with George C. Scott as Rochester. (While not British, he was certainly more appropriate as Rochester than some of the other actors picked for the role!) I loved it! It was great to read it right after the TV movie because the book has the richness of detail and interior monologue that no movie can copy. I was startled when I found out that ‘Sinjin’ was actually ‘St. John,’ though!”

Not only did new AAR reviewer Lynn Spenser like the book, but she was not at all put off by Brontë’s 19th century writing style. Lynn writes, “I liked that Jane was a normal-looking heroine who had spine and a great deal of sense. She seemed more centered than I was at 16 and was sort of a heroine to look up to.”

AAR editor Ellen Micheletti, who has written/edited several articles for our Historical Cheat Sheet on popular literature and culture in the 19th century, also read Jane Eyre in high school – she was in her senior year. She was impressed by many of the things that attracted me to Jane as a character, writing: “I was immediately struck by what a strong character Jane was. Back then, about all I had read in 19th century British literature was Charles Dickens. His female characters are mostly passive creatures who were either victims or angels. Jane Eyre was different [even if] her childhood was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. She had no powerful family, she was not wealthy, she was not beautiful. Jane was as powerless as a person could be back then. But what a backbone she had and how she insisted on her dignity as a human being.”

The only person I came across who did not like the book on first reading was AAR’s Technical Editor, Sandi Morris. She had never read the book before we decided to do this column and read it to participate. It did not go well and she was “bored to tears,” adding, “I think it took me longer to read this book than any book I’ve ever read.”

Much as I love Jane Eyre, part of me sympathized with Sandi’s feelings. Over the years I’ve discovered that I have to be in the right mood to read this book. For instance, Jane Eyre is not a book to read on a business trip, as I discovered some years ago when I tried to reread it while staying in a hotel in Bahrain. It was one in the morning, I was suffering from jet lag, there was nothing to watch on TV, and all I could find on the radio was Muzak. It should have been the perfect time to read… anything. But hard as I tried that night, Jane Eyre just wouldn’t do it for me. I have to be relaxed to read it, and completely undistracted by day-to-day pressures.

It may well be that part of my trouble rereading the book that night were those sad, early chapters of Jane’s life. Jane Eyre covers a surprising number of years, beginning with Jane as a child and ending with her as a married woman. This type of narrative was perhaps more common in 19th century literature; like David Copperfield it enables the reader to see the growth of an individual and how the early years shape character.

But unlike David, a gentle child who seems determined to make others like him, Jane clings to those qualities that make her unique. She seems to realize that she has only her own character on which to rely and that no matter what she must remain herself.

My favorite passage from the early part of the novel is the following exchange where the child Jane is interviewed by a hypocritical and cruel clergyman, Mr. Brocklehurst, in anticipation of her being sent to his miserable school, Lowood.

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.
“And what is Hell? Can you tell me that?”
“A pit full of fire.”
“And should you like to fall into that pit and be burning there forever?”
“No, sir.”
“What must you do to avoid it?”
I deliberated a moment; my answer when it did come, was objectionable. “I must keep in good health and not die.”

I just love this passage. As I mentioned in an earlier column on strong heroines, Jane’s words are amazingly forthright and would probably have irritated an adult from my childhood as much as they offend the 19th century adults in Jane’s story. One cannot imagine Dickens writing such a scene for his childish heroes without some additional commentary on the vulnerability and fear of the child. Not Brontë. She sees children as little people and admires courage as much as innocence.

Anyone familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s own life will understand the relationship between this novel and her own story. Like Jane, Charlotte was poor and had to earn her own living. Ellen points out other similarities in recalling the book’s early chapters. In her comments about the book’s early chapters when she wrote: “I think those chapters were a catharsis for Charlotte Brontë. She had gone to The Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge where conditions were horrid, the food was inedible and the headmaster was very cruel. She based her portrayal of Lowood in Jane Eyre on that school. Charlotte’s older sisters Maria and Elizabeth went to school there and they both died of tuberculosis. Charlotte based the character of Helen Burns on her sister Maria whom she evidently loved very much.”Ellen pointed out that young Jane had many things in common with Charlotte and her siblings, adding:

“Charlotte herself was a very precocious child as were all the Brontë’s. They did not mix much with the villagers and the children were close to each other. They began writing very early, Charlotte and Branwell with the Angria chronicles and Anne and Emily with the Gondol saga. The Rev. Mr. Brontë allowed his children to read very widely, and from reading biographies of them, I’ve always been struck by how precocious they were. Given this, I think Jane’s perspective is understandable.”

There are several wonderful biographies of the author in print, beginning with perhaps the most famous, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, written by novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a friend of Charlotte’s. My personal favorite is Margot Peters’ Unquiet Soul. Ellen recommends Juliet R.V. Barker’s The Brontë’s, which dispels the image of the Brontë children as delicate little flowers ignored by a distant father. She added: “Mr. Brontë was devoted to his children and did his best, on a very low salary, to give them a good education. The people of Haworth were very fond of him and he emerges from this book as a very sympathetic man and good father, not at all a distant eccentric. There are so many biographies of the Brontë family that one could spend over a year reading them. But one thing about the family is striking – it produced two writers who were geniuses (Charlotte and Emily) and one who was very, very talented (Anne). If Branwell had not destroyed himself with drink, would he have been as good as his sisters? And what about Maria, who died young? Family remembrances have her as the most talented of all.”

Biographies of the Brontë’s first captured my imagination in the early 1980s. Not long after reading Unquiet Soul, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Haworth, Brontë’s home town in England. Though now a tourist destination, the town is still a tiny stone village in the moors of Yorkshire. The parsonage has been preserved as a museum and visitors can see the house where the children were raised and even have a drink in the same pub where Branwell Brontë used to indulge. I have read descriptions that say that this town is now spoiled. While it is true that there is no shortage of gift shops in the area, my own feeling on visiting Haworth was pure enchantment. The moors which are beautiful hills covered with green grass, sheep and stone walls constitute the most beautiful scenery I have ever been lucky enough to visit. And there is something else about the place that hit me from the moment I arrived. Yorkshire, at least that part of rural Yorkshire, has to be the most romantic place I have ever seen. From the moment I arrived I found myself simply swept up in the beauty of the place and filled up with a kind of unexplainable longing. For years I have visited the homes of great and famous people – Dicken’s home in London, Balzac’s in Paris, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Only on one other occasion, while visiting Louisa May Alcott’s home in Massachusetts, did I get such an immediate and emotional understanding of the connection between a writer’s environment and her books.

What most people remember about Jane Eyre is the love story between the tortured, alpha hero, Mr. Rochester, and the small but incredibly strong little governess, Jane Eyre. Jane’s initial meeting with Mr. Rochester sets the tone of much of the story. She comes upon him as he is walking home with his horse, having been injured on his journey. Much can be gleaned about both characters in this scene. Neither handsome nor charming, Mr. Rochester does just about everything he can to frighten Jane. Here is our first look at him:

“Something of daylight still lingered, and the moon was waxing bright: I could see him plainly. His figure was enveloped in a riding cloak, fur collared and steel clasped; its details were not apparent, but I traced the general points of middle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked. I had hardly ever seen a handsome youth; never in my life spoken to one. I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.

I asked people their impressions of this meeting and of Mr. Rochester, the ultimate alpha hero. Marianne sees this initial meeting as a “metaphor for their relationship,” adding, “He seems to be the powerful one (rich, autocratic), but when they meet, he is injured in his spirit and his very soul. While Jane has had a terrible upbringing, she is heroic at heart; she’s the strong one. Rochester is a guilty man with a guilty secret that he doesn’t know how to deal with. When they meet, she ‘saves’ him, which ultimately, she does.”

AAR reviewer Donna Newman agrees with Marianne’s assessment and notes that it was a good vehicle to bring Jane to his attention. She writes, “Meeting her the way he did was so dramatic and brought her immediately to his attention, and when they met again at the house, probably made him more curious about her than he would have been otherwise. It was that curiosity, I think, which drove him to ask her the questions he did, and made him realize that she was a very different kettle of fish than what he was accustomed to, both from servants and from women.”

As most who read Jane Eyre discover, the author uses foreshadowing to dramatic effect. Reader Luthién points out that while it was unusual for a 19th century author to put a male character in a position of weakness to a female character, it was clearly deliberate: “It foreshadows the ending of the novel wherein Rochester once more (and evermore) is in need of Jane’s help and succor. And, I might add, is in her power.”

Though LLB had long been a fan of this novel, her interest in it and understanding of it – and Mr. Rochester – grew after a recent re-airing of the 1997 TV version starring Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds. “Hinds wears these immense mutton chops; he isn’t a hunk in the traditional sense. By being un-hunky, it’s easier to focus on him as a man. He barks, he angsts, he’s totally tortured. Jane didn’t know what to make of things as he sought her out, not only because of the difference in their stations, but because he treated her as though she had a brain in her head.”

There’s a slow buildup to Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester. As governess to his ward she lives in the house “between stairs,” neither a servant nor a guest. Mr. Rochester is often away from Thornfield, but when he is home he calls Jane downstairs for after-dinner conversations. These conversations fascinate Jane and soon she is in love. Mr. Rochester does not show his feelings. He seems to be playing with her. He invites a beautiful woman to a house party and gives Jane the impression that he will soon marry her. That part of the book is heart-breaking and the author lets us feel what Jane is feeling in passages like this one:

“I have told you, reader, that I had learnt to love Mr. Rochester: I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me–because I might pass hours in his presence, and he would never once turn his eyes in my direction–because I saw all his attentions appropriated by a great lady, who scorned to touch me with the hem of her robes as she passed; who, if ever her dark and imperious eye fell on me by chance, would withdraw it instantly as from an object too mean to merit observation. I could not unlove him, because I felt sure he would soon marry this very lady–because I read daily in her a proud security in his intentions respecting her–because I witnessed hourly in him a style of courtship which, if careless and choosing rather to be sought than to seek, was yet, in its very carelessness, captivating, and in its very pride, irresistible.

At one point Rochester has a party and dresses up as a fortune teller to fool Jane. Jennifer, who has mixed feelings about Rochester, doesn’t care much for the scene. She finds his actions were often immature and though he was “childish and cruel” in allowing Jane to believe he would be marrying Blanche, that scene leads to her favorite part of the book. She writes:

“Jane – even though she’s penniless, plain, a servant in his household, and believes that he’s about to marry a woman far her superior in beauty and position, defiantly declares her love for him, saying,

‘Do you think, because I am poor, and plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.’

“My mouth goes dry when I think of the amount of courage it would take for a woman to say something like that to a man, even today. Jane rocks.”

Reader Katherine notes that in a recent documentary, Jane Eyre was called the first novel to deal with “women’s desires, fantasies, and feelings from a woman’s point of view,” and wonders if this may be why it endures as a popular novel for women. She added that “it’s sometimes perceived as a ‘girlie’ book; my boyfriend has said that he never felt the least bit interested in reading it for this reason (I’m working on him!),” although, as Fair indicates, “a lot of literary men seemed to like it at the time it was published. I think they thought it was racy to read about – as you said – a woman’s desires and fantasies.”

But back to Rochester. The thing that redeems him for me is that the less subservient Jane is, the more he loves her. He loves her independent spirit, her intellect, her passion (and I don’t just mean physical passion, although that is definitely implied, but her highly emotional and passionate dedication to doing what’s right). In contrast to St. John, who wants Jane to be a voiceless servant to himself and his mission, Rochester encourages her to be his equal.

It takes me a while to warm up to him, but the moment I finally fell in love with Rochester is after the aborted wedding, after Jane knows all, when Rochester is trying to get her to be his “wife” in some villa in France. She refuses, and he just about goes wild with rage. He cries,

“Consider that eye: consider that resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage … Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it – the savage, beautiful creature! … And it is you, spirit – with will and energy, and virtue and purity – that I want: not alone your brittle frame.”

That’s when I saw that he loved Jane’s soul; he saw her soul as his soul’s equal and mate – and yet because she was as strong as him, he could not have her.

Reader Kerstin thought that even though “Rochester had a nasty manipulative streak,” he was “right for Jane,” adding, “Unlike so many romance novel heroines who are thrown together with alphas, she was tough and strong enough to deal with him. Name me just one romance novel heroine who would have had the guts and personality to leave Rochester?”

The dramatic climax of Jane Eyre comes at the wedding of Jane and Mr. Rochester when it is revealed that he is already married to a mad woman living in the attic of Thornfield. Most readers nowadays know what is coming and so this aborted wedding is no surprise. Those lucky enough to read the novel without this knowledge find it to be as amazing a scene as I did. Marianne was one of those lucky readers; she “never saw it coming.” She recalls not knowing “why the woman was in the attic, or why Rochester was taking care of her,” but was shocked when the truth was revealed. She declares, “Talk about a barrier to their happiness! Again, though, this plays back to Rochester’s injury when he first meets Jane. He’s the weak one; he needs her help. When Jane finds out he is married, she leaves him. She was strong enough to leave him even though the loved him, while he was willing to hide his secret and marry her without dealing with the truth.”

Blythe never saw it coming either. She says, “I was totally surprised and horrified. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it coming…after all, something had to be in that attic. I think if I read it today, as an adult, I would be considerably less shocked.”

But whether the reader is surprised or not by what happens at the wedding, the scene retains its sadness. Donna was horrified, not because of what was revealed, but because their “chance for happiness was destroyed so suddenly and irreversibly.” She recalls her sadness that “these two people, who had been so betrayed and mistreated by their families and could finally find comfort with each other, could not be together.” She remembers hating Mason for interfering, “because he was just as guilty as the rest of his family and Rochester’s family in deliberately misleading him, and his self-righteous attitude about Rochester’s responsibility to his wife really angered me.” And she also hated Jane’s sense of honor “because I could see myself in her shoes saying yes to Rochester’s idea of going away together to have a life.” She admits it would likely have ended “badly,” but was so “invested in what they had together and the obstacles just seemed so unremittingly unfair and beyond their control that I could have rationalized their ‘bending the rules’ for once in their own favor.”

I remember my own 12-year-old self was not only shocked by the wedding scene. I was also shocked that Mr. Rochester asks Jane to be his mistress. Yes, we read that all the time in romance novels today, but in a Victorian novel, a novel read in school, it was shocking. Not only could I not believe Mr. Rochester dared ask, I could hardly believe Jane’s response. Even at 12 I knew that I would have been ruined.

But Jane is not ruined. She runs away from Mr. Rochester, taking nothing with her. She wanders for days hungry and alone and then meets some people who, oddly enough turn out to be her cousins. This coincidence is so odd it has always seemed to me to be a 19th century convention. Blythe also found this a bit hard to swallow, writing, “The only 19th century aspect of the book that really bugs me is its reliance on the astounding coincidence (also beloved of Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe). After all, if you are staggering along, alone and ill, what are the odds that you would run into your cousin?” Reader Jenny agrees, recalling that she’d once read Brontë relied “too much” on the “long arm of coincidence.”

After living for some time with her cousins Jane receives what has to be one of the most unromantic proposals in English literature. Her cousin St. John, preparing to do missionary work in India, asks her to join him as his wife. His words are singularly cold:

“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must–shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you–not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”

Jennifer is annoyed by Jane’s admiration of St. John, and I must say that I agree. She argues, “Troublesome to me are the characters’ positive reactions to St. John’s horrifying hypocrisy, his passive-aggressive ways of control, his domestic tyranny in the name of God. Even at the end of the book Jane insists that St. John is a great man, where I thought he was a horrible jerk. But it all adds to the period feel. It is a Victorian novel, after all.”

Jane rejects St. John and eventually discovers the truth about her parents and even inherits enough money to live comfortably. It is only when all of her problems are resolved that Jane discovers that Mr. Rochester’s wife died in a fire – and that Mr. Rochester is blind and living alone. Jane goes to him and with the words, “Reader, I married him,” we learn of their wedding. The book ends with Mr. Rochester beginning to recover his sight.

I loved Jane Eyre but have always found Rochester at the end of the book to be a bit of a let down. I asked others if they felt the same way, but it seems that few did. Jennifer summed up what most readers felt when she wrote:

“I thought – and I imagine that Brontë’s Victorian readers would think – that Rochester needed to pay for what he’d done and attempted to do. After the abortive wedding, he was completely unrepentant. He believed that he deserved to have a future with Jane, and that if they could both just ignore the vows he made, they’d be happy together. He did everything in his power to tempt her to do just that, even though they both knew it was wrong. After that scene, Rochester needed to suffer in order to be redeemed. The descriptions of his self-sacrifice for his servants and for his wife redeemed him as no groveling scene could have done.”


As there have been several film and TV adaptations of the novel, I wondered which ones readers most enjoyed. Many particularly like the Timothy Dalton version though a few felt that Dalton might be a bit handsome for Rochester. After having watched a number of the adaptations, I believe my favorite features Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine. The only version I don’t care for is the recent William Hurt version. William Hurt seemed far too soft to be Rochester and Charlotte Gainsbourg seemed miscast.

That Jane Eyre continues to impact literature, authors, and readers today is evident not only by the fact that the book has remained in print for more than 150 years, but because other authors pay homage to it; after all, weren’t you surprised to learn that Erica Jong had written the foreword to a recent reprint? And then there’s Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel written in the mid-1960s from the perspective of Rochester’s first wife. In Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel, The Eyre Affair, a dastardly villain attempts to use the Prose Portal invention to alter and destroy literary works such as Jane Eyre. And reader Susan points to Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborn, an SF take on Jane Eyre.

I also asked people if they had additional comments on Jane Eyre. Both Ellen and Donna’s thoughts strike me as “just right”:

“I thought Rochester was almost scary when I read the book for the first time. He’s big, and powerful, and intimidating, but I was struck by how he did not faze Jane. She wasn’t intimidated even though he had all the power and she had nothing but her strong sense of her own self-worth.

“At the end of the book is Rochester diminished? No. Tamed? Yes.”In one of the critiques I read, the reviewer mentioned that one overpowering theme in Jane Eyre was how passion must have its proper sphere. Too much passion equals Bertha Mason Rochester, too little passion and you have St. John Rivers. At the end of the book, both Jane and Rochester have achieved a perfect balance.”

— Ellen “I have loved this book on reread as much as or more than I did on the initial read. It basically boils down to how simple love can be, and how it can enrich lives that have been barren, and heal souls that have been beaten down by the injustices of others, not because they were bad souls deserving of punishment, but because they were simple, unaggressive souls naïve enough to believe that they were entitled to be treated fairly. Rochester’s plan to deceive Jane and the world by marrying her while his wife was still alive was not a good thing, but it was very understandable to me. It’s like he was asking himself where following the rules imposed by society had ever gotten him, except a barren existence of responsibility (for his wife and his ward) and shallow people (Blanche). It’s not hard for me to see how he could rationalize what he was planning to do, and I find that I can’t really blame him for wanting what he wanted, even though he had not thought through how the truth would eventually destroy Jane and what they had. He more than paid for his sins, in the end, which is more than can be said for all the heartless people in his and Jane’s lives who had perpetrated such injustices against them.”

Time to Post to the Message Board

We hope you’ve enjoyed this in-depth look at Jane Eyre and will want to share your memories of the book and/or various feature film/television adaptations on our ATBF Message Board. There will be no questions in particular but hope the column jogged your memory and will encourage you to participate in further discussion. By hitting on many different aspects of the book we tried not to focus on any one in particular, and the background information on the author hopefully provides additional context. We look forward to chatting with you about the book and column over the next two weeks, and would love feedback on the idea of exploring classic romantic novels as well as suggested titles for (occasional) future columns of this nature.

— Robin Nixon Uncapher

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