Not So Plain Jane

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Jane Eyre was the novel that opened my eyes to literature. It was the first classic I picked up that I couldn’t put down. I read it from cover to cover in one heady weekend when I was 13: I had a nightmare about Grace Poole on Saturday night, and a sulk on Sunday afternoon when my mother made me put it down to talk to some cousins who’d come for tea. By Sunday evening I was done and I knew, with a certainty I still remember vividly, that literature was my thing . . .

In the months that followed I devoured Villette, Shirley, The Professor, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the juvenilia – any scraps of Brontë I could get my hands on. I joined the Brontë Society, ploughed my way through each issue of the Brontë Journal, Transactions, and made my long-suffering parents take me to the Parsonage at Haworth.

More recently, a few months ago, I was at a dinner at an Oxford college where the subject of life-changing books came up. Over half the literary women present cited Jane Eyre as their revelatory book. This got me wondering why it has had such an impact on multiple generations of readers and why it inspired quite such obsessive teenage devotion to all things Brontë in me. So I’ve been rereading it to see if I can locate the source of its extraordinary power.

Trying to do so is, of course, a bit like trying to be funny while writing about comedy: any attempt seems doomed to fail, and has stumped far more eminent commentators than me. From the moment of its first publication Jane Eyre was a sensation, widely praised by its original critics for its freshness and energy. G. H. Lewes, reviewing the novel in Fraser’s Magazine, thought it was ‘reality – deep, significant reality’ that made it so extraordinary. Virginia Woolf – no slouch when it came to literary criticism – wrote that rereading it paralysed her critical faculties. ‘We open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds . . . Nor is this exhilaration short-lived. It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting us lift our eyes from the page.’

Angela Carter testified to the novel’s compulsive readability when she wrote that ‘of all the great novels in the world, Jane Eyre veers the closest towards trash’ – a compliment, if ever there was one. Writing in 1997 Heather Glen, one of the most eminent Brontë scholars of her generation, crystallized the novel’s unique position in the canon: ‘If the readership for many major novelists is now created, through teaching, by the academy,’ she argued, ‘Jane Eyre, one suspects . . . would, without any such sponsorship, still be discovered and read.’

It’s no accident that three of the four writers I’ve just quoted are women. It may not be politically correct to say it (and there are many men among Brontë’s fans), but there is something about Jane Eyre which makes it emphatically a Girl’s Book: a novel which is discovered, loved and cherished with a particular intensity by young women, and by the older women they become. That something, I think, is Jane herself: the wronged child who grows up to become one of the most vibrant heroines of English literature.

It is integral to Jane’s charm that she doesn’t look like a heroine. As a child she is sallow and underfed, in contrast to her beribboned, golden-locked cousins, beside whom she stands as a kind of reproachful ghost. This is certainly how she appears to her cruel Aunt Reed, who is haunted on her death-bed by memories of the child she betrayed. Nor does Jane grow into a beauty. She describes herself as ‘plain’ and ‘puny’ and actively resists Mr Rochester’s attempts to drape her in jewels and satin, preferring instead to remain in the dull, Quakerish dresses of her governess calling. Only her eyes – so often a useful get-out clause for the literary creators of unbeautiful heroines – give some intimation of her passionate inner life.

Passionate, however, Jane truly is. Early on in the novel the saintly Helen Burns chastises her for thinking ‘too much of the love of human beings’, for being ‘too impulsive, too vehement’. Yet it is Jane’s capacity for love which makes her such a vital creation. She may be ‘disconnected, poor and plain’ but she never allows her emotions to become hedged or confined by circumstance. She knows absolutely that she has a right to love and be loved, even if she berates herself for dreaming of Mr Rochester, so far her social superior. It is significant that when Jane and Rochester finally acknowledge their mutual passion, it is she who claims him, not the other way round. ‘Do you think’, she cries, ‘because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? – You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!’

Again and again, Jane’s story bears out the truth of this. She will not compromise her own integrity by consenting to live as Rochester’s mistress, preferring to keep her heart untarnished by immoral passion. And she will not accept the bloodless overtures of her cousin, St John Rivers, who proposes a marriage barren of love and mutual affection. In the end, she triumphs because of her determination to remain true to both her heart and her morals, as she wins Rochester on her own terms.

Jane’s passions drive Jane Eyre, and point to one reason for its enduring popularity among the generations of young women who have looked to it for an articulation of their own burgeoning emotions. As intriguing, however, is Jane’s restlessness, and her cogently expressed anger at the plight of women. It is her desire for freedom and adventure that leads her to abandon her quiet life as a teacher at Lowood School and accept the position of governess at Thornfield, and even when she achieves her ‘new servitude’ she remains rebellious and unreconciled to her lot:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do, they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

The force of Jane’s argument, here and elsewhere, continues to strike a chord with young readers who, like her, are in the process of working out what they want to do, how they want to live, and who they want to be. Jane never relinquishes her right to make these decisions for herself, even when everyone around her refuses her permission to do so.

But Jane Eyre is not simply the tale of one woman’s emotional and intellectual awakening, dazzlingly paced and plotted and technically brilliant. It is also a difficult, contradictory novel, which reveals some rather unpleasant truths about human behaviour. The fortune that Jane so conveniently inherits comes from the slave-plantations of Madeira, and the depiction of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s mad wife, has made Brontë’s critics uneasy from the start. In the twentieth century literary critics grappled with the racial undertones of Bertha’s depiction as a wild Creole woman, ‘tall, dark and majestic’ when Rochester first meets her, but a vicious, grizzled creature by the time Jane encounters her at Thornfield. Others have noted that Bertha’s treatment by Rochester is at best inhumane and at worst lethally negligent of both her safety and her sanity, as he leaves her incarcerated in a cell with only a drunken crone (the nightmare-inducing Grace Poole) for company.

It all raises some tricky questions about Brontë’s hero, the Byronic Mr Rochester. He may be swarthy and powerful, but is he really worthy of either of his wives? He attempts to lie and cheat his way into a bigamous marriage with Jane, and has nothing but contempt for Bertha. He toys with the affections of beautiful Blanche Ingram, is dismissive of his ward, 10-year-old Adèle, and is rather too given to fits of violent emotion at moments of crisis. Jane is only permitted to marry him once he has become an emasculated shadow of his former self, maimed and blinded by fire.

Yet for all that there is something irresistible about Rochester, and about the highly charged nature of his relationship with Jane. He might not be an ideal husband and by the end of the story he has been ruthlessly stripped of his most overtly heroic qualities, but Rochester has nevertheless provided a template for the brooding hero familiar to readers of everything from Georgette Heyer to Mills and Boon.

Indeed, one of the things that makes Jane Eyre so luxurious to read is that it develops many of the literary types we now take for granted in popular fiction: the plain-spoken heroine, the enigmatic hero, the mad woman in the attic. If, as Angela Carter says, Jane Eyre veers delightfully ‘towards trash’ then that’s partly because ‘trash’ has taken its cue from Jane Eyre. (The novel has also, of course, inspired some very fine work, notably Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and, more recently, Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy.) Yet none of Brontë’s imitators get close to recreating the magic of her central romance or the power of Jane’s adventurous, intelligent voice. Rereading Jane Eyre now, that voice still feels contemporary, as does Jane’s quest for emotional fulfilment on her own terms.

*

On the Monday morning following my revelatory weekend with Jane Eyre, I bounced into school and informed my wise and wonderful English teacher of my discovery. ‘That’s lovely, dear,’ she replied. ‘But by the time you’re 21 you’ll realize that Jane Austen is even better.’ She was quite right. Jane Eyre was the book I grew up with and, in the end, grew out of. Returning to it now has been overwhelmingly pleasurable, partly because it is truly a great novel, and partly because it has made me remember my old devotion to it. It may not be the most polished novel in the English canon, and Brontë may not write with the subtlety of Austen or Woolf. But Jane Eyre was the novel that unlocked great literature for me. It held the promise of all the literature waiting to be discovered: literature which would move and inspire me in ways that, at 13, I couldn’t predict.

And at a guess, I’d say that this is why it was also such a crucial book for those literary women at High Table in Oxford, and for the generations of readers who have loved it from childhood. It opens a door on to a world of new experiences, a world where books fire your imagination, your intellect and your heart. Once you’ve stepped over the threshold of that world, you never look back.

© Daisy Hay 2013, Slightly Foxed Issue 40

Illustration © Mary Kuper


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