Jane Eyre was the book chosen for me in the Classics Spin in December. When I discovered that this was the one I’d be reading, I was delighted – it’s a book I love and which I hadn’t read for a long time. I immediately pulled my copy off the shelf to start my re-read and from the familiar opening line – “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” – I was drawn into the story once more. The gothic atmosphere of the novel made it a perfect read for dark December nights and I finished it just before Christmas.
I think I was probably eleven or twelve years old when I had my first encounter with Jane but on that first read I didn’t get past the Lowood School section at the beginning and more than ten years passed before I decided to try again. My second attempt was much more successful; being older and better able to appreciate the story and the quality of the writing, I read the whole book and loved it. This most recent read was my third. I was curious to see whether I would feel differently about it now, after another long gap, but although I did notice things this time that I don’t think I picked up on last time, my overall opinion of the book is unchanged.
Jane Eyre, for those who don’t know the story, is an orphan raised in the home of an aunt and three cousins who make it obvious that they don’t like her and don’t want her there. At the age of ten, Jane is sent to a charity-run boarding school for girls, another harsh and unwelcoming environment. However, Jane is able to take two positive things away from her time at school – a brief but much-valued friendship with Helen Burns, and the education which later enables her to find a position as governess to Adele, the young ward of Mr Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Jane soon begins to fall in love with her employer but when she discovers that he is hiding a dark secret, it seems that her chance of happiness has been destroyed.
*Spoiler warning: I will find it difficult to discuss the book any further without spoilers, so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I would advise skipping to the end of this post.*
I loved the experience of reading Jane Eyre again. Although much of the story was familiar to me from my previous reads and many of the scenes had stayed in my mind – including Jane’s imprisonment in the red room at Gateshead Hall, the tragic death of Helen Burns, Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy woman and the revelation of Bertha’s existence – there were other parts that I had forgotten and that I enjoyed discovering again.
I also loved being reacquainted with the characters. I know there are a lot of people who have problems with Mr Rochester and I can understand why – apart from his treatment of Bertha, there’s the fact that he lies to Jane and that he’s prepared to enter into a bigamous marriage with her, but despite this I have always liked him as a character. Jane is not my favourite literary heroine (although I do admire her for her honesty, integrity, inner strength and sense of right and wrong) and Mr Rochester is not my favourite hero but they both feel so real and I can believe in their relationship and their love for one another – a love that I think they both desperately needed.
Of course, there’s much more to Jane Eyre than just the romance. There’s also some social commentary, with the descriptions of conditions at Lowood School and with the exploration of class, gender and religion. It’s an interesting read from a feminist perspective, portraying Jane’s search for independence and depicting the options open to a woman faced with making her own way in life in the early Victorian period. Having read about the lives of Charlotte and the rest of the Brontë family (something I hadn’t done when I first read this book) I can see how autobiographical some parts of the story are.
My least favourite section of the book is still the part where Jane leaves Thornfield Hall during the night and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters. I remembered intensely disliking St. John on my last read, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because of the character himself or just because I was impatient for Jane and Rochester to be reunited. However, I didn’t like St. John any better this time round. I find him cold and controlling – Jane herself describes his nature as “austere and despotic” – and he doesn’t seem to care at all about Jane’s own opinions and wishes. Even though I had read the book before, I was still relieved when Jane rejects him!
*End of spoilers*
I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of Jane Eyre, if I haven’t already made that clear! I’ve heard it said that people can either love Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but not both – well, I do love both, but I have always preferred Wuthering Heights. I’m planning to re-read it soon too and it will be interesting to see if I still do like it more.
Since finishing Jane Eyre a couple of weeks ago, I have now read the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for the first time and will be posting my thoughts on that one soon. Then I have a copy of Lyndsay Faye’s new Jane Eyre-inspired novel, Jane Steele, which I’m looking forward to reading – and I also still need to read my only remaining unread Brontë novel, Shirley. It seems I’m having a very Brontë themed start to the new year!