This is something of a difficult book to wrap the mind around, as Jane Eyre, the title character, is such an enigma. She seems to be hopelessly romantic, in both the philosophical sense of relying on her emotional impulses to guide her behavior no matter the readily ascertainable consequences, and in the relationship sense of believing that true love will conquer all, all while being almost maniacally logical and objective in her observations and her engagement with the world. But she is immensely likeable, even if an enigma, both to the readers and to the many protagonists and antagonists she encounters along her way.
The book is written as a memoir of the early years of Jane’s life culminating in her marriage to Mr. Rochester, the owner of a grand English manor, who by the end of the tale when he finally marries Jane, has suffered devastating disability and loss from a fire set by his crazy first wife, who died in the fire. Told from the perspective of about ten years after the marriage, like all memoir, it vastly overstates the ability of the mind to accurately remember. But it is beautifully and vividly written—the prose is as compelling to read as the imagination conjures the pictures that Jane painted with brush and canvass in her spare time were to ponder. Bronte is an artist with a pen. She drew her character, Jane Eyre, as an artist in paint, a relatively minor piece of the Eyre puzzle. Bronte described her remaining attributes with brilliant clarity and detail, bringing her character to life in a manner that few artists, wielding either pen or brush, are able.
I found Bronte’s name for her title character a bit interesting. From what I could tell, Eyre is pronounced with one syllable, very similar to the manner that Southerners pronounce ‘air’, with an extra little lilt behind the ‘r’, which perhaps explains the spelling with an extra e at the end of the name. An eyre is also a circuit court held by itinerant royal justices in Medieval England, which is to say, before the setting of the book in the late eighteenth century, but perhaps within recent enough history that her 19th century readers could have made the connection. The word has a Latin root, iter, meaning journey. As Bronte’s novel is about the journeys, literal and emotional and spiritual, that young Jane takes along the path of growing from a child into a woman and then a wife, and the moral choices she makes along the way, the name seems fitting. But I haven’t the faintest idea if that’s why Bronte chose it, and frankly, if there is some conclusive scholarship on Jane’s last name, I’ve not been able to find it. Maybe an Eyre is just an Eyre, which was a common enough surname in England at the time the book was written.
The narrative opens with Jane an orphan, living with her deceased uncle’s wife and kids (Jane’s cousins). Jane’s parents died of typhus, as well her uncle, who made his wife, Jane’s aunt, promise to take good care of Jane on his deathbed. The aunt promised, but failed to deliver. She encouraged her children to ostracize and mistreat the ten year-old Jane. Jane’s first major recollection involved what seemed almost like torture, even of a psychosexual nature, with Jane being punished for hitting her male oldest cousin after he had provoked her. It was an all-around ugly affair, Jane’s turn with her aunt and cousins, but revealed for the reader the depth of Jane’s resolve to survive, and even so far as possible, thrive, no matter the circumstances, and her indefatigable will to abide hardship in order to do what her heart knew to be right.
Jane is revealed from this beginning episode to be nearly omniscient in understanding, at their time of occurrence, the motivations of her own heart and those of others. In actuality, it would only be in hindsight, and after much reflection, that she might have grasped how she felt and why during the episodes of brutality she suffered as a child. But it is fine to imagine that Jane is quite inwardly reflective, because the plot is only a scaffold upon which Bronte drapes the inner workings of Jane’s psyche. Jane Eyre is a novel about the human heart more than anything else.
I read the novel because of a Bronte quote about a different novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that was used in one of the two introductions (this one placed at the end) of the Penguin Classics publication of Austen’s most famous novel. Bronte was unsparing in her criticism:
What did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.
As Bronte’s assessment of Pride and Prejudice was poignantly close to my own, I figured I rather might enjoy reading Bronte in the stead of Austen. My instincts were sound. Bronte is a brilliant and engaging writer. Austen, while undeniably gifted, either hasn’t Bronte’s insights into the human condition or doesn’t much care to explore them. Pride and Prejudice is about the life and society and petty issues of England’s landed gentry in the late 18th/early 19th centuries told from the perspective of a coming of age female, which is to say, it is about how to create the specialized business partnership known as marriage in a manner that will profitably ensure an estate’s continuation while also be a pleasing matter for the wife.
Alas, a great deal of Bronte’s book also concerns marriage—Jane’s dismal prospects at the start of her adult life, and then her dizzying proposal and whirlwind near-marriage in the middle, and then finally the marriage to the man from whom she initially ran away at the end. Is there anything more to a young woman’s world than the striving to marry? Perhaps not, but Bronte put the striving to good use in exploring moral and spiritual complexities and ambiguities that beset everyone in all times, not just in young women striving to find a husband in manorial England.
Much ink has been spilled over whether either of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or Austen’s character, Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice were proto-feminists paving the way for a different sort of female role in society. I would say in both cases, no—that anyone trying to make out Jane or Elizabeth as proto-feminists is guilty of doing retro-history, applying today’s cultural mores to those of yesteryear. The revolution in female economic roles often improperly attributed to feminism did not come about until after the Industrial Revolution had reached maturity, and all its advancements were put to use through two world wars for doing what mankind has always been possessed of quite astute capabilities, i.e., the killing of his fellows, even before industrial automation so improved his efficiency at the task. Both of these novels were set in post-feudal, but still agrarian England, where all the wealth was tied up in land and all the land was owned by males because the land was also tied up in provisioning the King’s army and navy with male soldiers and sailors. Women of today look back at their historical sisters and imagine what an awful lot they had, but they fail to consider that females were not treated ‘equally’ back then in no small measure because an equal measure was not expected of them. They were not expected to do the hard, dirty work of living and killing and dying as the men were. Outside of the actual and unavoidable pain of childbirth, which admittedly was often a deadly affair prior to modern medicine, women were put on a pedestal. The men were in charge, to some extent, but they suffered for bearing the burden.
Bronte’s Eyre was fiercely independent and strong-willed, even to the point of foolishness. When she found out at the altar on their wedding day that Mr. Rochester was already married to the crazy woman living upstairs in his manor, she impetuously left him, even after he proposed instead that she be his mistress. She would be either his wife or nothing, and she very nearly died of starvation/exposure/hypothermia in her escape, before St. John and his sisters (who we later find out are her cousins) took her in. I don’t see where anything Jane did in that episode or others that was proto-feminist, unless it is imagined that there were no fiercely independent and strong-willed women in the world until Betty Freidan and her ilk came along, which is utter nonsense. History is replete with strong-willed, independent women, from Queen Victoria, shortly after Bronte’s age to Cleopatra and Joan of Arc well before it. And it can’t be imagined that all the women who don’t grace the pages of history were shy retiring wallflowers.
Bronte was perhaps a bit interested in dispelling myths common even today about women—that they are nicer, calmer, more agreeable etc., than men, always saying what people want to hear rather than the truth. Jane was frank and straightforward, unemotional nearly to a fault, and with nothing at all that could be considered flowery or flighty in her personality, just a rashness that led to her running away from Mr. Rochester that early morning. Jane told things like she saw things, in much the same manner as Austen’s Elizabeth, whose ‘liveliness’ (i.e., frankness and openness) captured Mr. Darcy’s heart. Elizabeth also impetuously left on a slight adventure when she heard her sister had taken ill. Hers was a 2-3 mile hike on roads and trails that left her petticoat a bit muddied, hardly comparable to Jane’s leaving with nowhere to go and no money and only a mind to run forever away from Mr. Rochester. Both instances could be conjured, if squinting real hard, as the acts of proto-feminists, I suppose. But I rather believe them to simply be examples of people acting impetuously in the circumstances, people who also happen to be female.
If anything, Jane Eyre doesn’t qualify as a proto-feminist because she seems to be actually more liberated than the liberated Modern Woman of today, though perhaps not in the way a Modern Women would imagine that they are liberated. Unlike the sisterhood of Modern Women, Jane put great stock in the sacrament of marriage, refusing to be her betrothed’s concubine after learning of his previous, and extant, marriage. Even though Rochester’s marriage was a sham because of the insanity of his wife, Jane turned out to be a stalwart defender of the legalities of the institution, steadfastly refusing to allow Mr. Rochester the pleasure of her company without the sanctity of marriage. And later, she adamantly refused St. John’s (her rescuer from exposure after escaping Rochester, and later found to also be her cousin) offer of marriage, as it was done solely for the practical purpose that she might follow him to India and help him in winning souls to Christ. (Thus also is revealed the Eyre enigma—she believed in the sanctity of marriage as represented by its legalities, but also that marriage could not be sanctified if not done out of love.)
She would be married, if at all, to someone she loved (Mr. Rochester), but she would not submit, even in a state of the direst need and dimmest prospects, to the life of a concubine, not even with a man whom she loved. She was not a whore, marital or otherwise. She wanted in marriage a loving, mature relationship that perhaps happened to include sex (the thrill she felt at Mr. Rochester’s touch was certainly of a sexual nature, but it did not seem that the love she felt for him depended upon her sexual attraction), not a sexual relationship that was more or less transactional in nature, which is the nature of the relationship that a great many Modern Women settle for, among both those who believe themselves to be liberated and those who do not.
Jane showed respect for herself by respecting the institution of marriage, in its character as a social institution whose contours are sketched in the law, and in its character as a very personal and private affair, a perspective which Modern Women might do well to emulate. Marriage is not meant to constrict and confine women nearly as much as it is meant to restrict and focus men. It is an institution created to serve the needs of child-bearing women, not the needs of the men who impregnate them. Often throughout history, powerful men have shunned marriage (at least of the monogamous variety) for the very reason: They know they needn’t confine themselves to one woman in order to get the main benefit (i.e., sex) that marriage offers to the man.
Jane agreed, prior to discovering Mr. Rochester was already married, to proceed from being his governess (for a child, not his, who he had more or less adopted) to being his wife, even before she had received the windfall from her uncle’s estate that provided her an independent means for life. She knew she was desperately in love with Mr. Rochester and could not have so betrayed herself to turn down his offer, but was still hesitant, as she knew she was negotiating from a position of weakness, and one that would only grow weaker upon entering the marriage. She did not want to become his possession, seeking instead to become his equal partner in life, but was not willing to betray her heart simply to eliminate the mere possibility that the power dynamic would fail her in a detrimental manner. If there is a more pro-female perspective (or, more aptly, pro-human perspective) than Jane’s, I challenge the modern feminist to provide one. Yet, does anyone think Jane’s perspective unique to her times? The male-female dialectic when it comes to marriage has always involved a battle of wills, and no, the battle was not always, or even not often, won by the man. The balance of power in marriage is always in flux (or in any other relationship, for that matter). There is always jockeying for dominance, in matters both great and small. Bronte shows that power always arises from within—there is nothing more powerful than a person with control over their own emotions and faculties, as was Jane,–and that once that sort of internal control is achieved, the woman (or man) can readily manipulate the soft levers of interrelationship power to ensure she is never run over roughshod by her mate. The key to power is self-control, and Jane had it in spades. And there is nothing unique in that notion to Jane Eyre’s era, or to the era that followed her, or to the fact that she happens to be female. Bronte’s observations are timeless and gender indeterminate.
Modern feminists like to imagine that they have cut Modern Woman from whole cloth as a result of their liberating agitations for equal treatment, particularly regarding reproductive rights; that before Roe v. Wade and the Pill, women were doomed to desultory lives as baby factories, their wombs being all they had worth selling. The mythology is balderdash. Women have never been any less vivaciously spirited, strong-willed, stiff-necked, meek, obsequious, and all shades in between, as they are now. Their wombs have always been important, but only so far as the individual women possessing them believed in their importance. There have always been sexually promiscuous women who thought little of the special obligations the ability to create life conferred; it is that only now they have easier ways to prevent their sexuality from having consequences, or to eliminate the consequences relatively easily. Different women have different personalities, just like different people have different personalities, but their essential character has not changed, not even in the face of changes wrought by industrialization and the relative decline in economic advantage it wrought to male physical prowess. There is still an aspect of the dialectic in male-female sexual relationships where the female’s trump card is access to her womb, and the male’s trump card is the willingness to support the products thereof.
Bronte’s Jane Eyre stands in testament to the timeless nature of the female experience. As much as today’s feminist movement likes to think it has impelled progress, it can only claim so by imagining a much worse past for women than actually existed, or by ignoring that much of its ‘progress’ has accomplished nothing more than to allow women to be treated equally as poorly as men. Feminists celebrated, actually celebrated, when the US Army and Marine Corps agreed to allow women to serve on the front lines as infantry combat soldiers. If gaining the ability to be slaughtered, as has happened to so many male infantry soldiers throughout history, is progress, one balks at imagining what regression or stasis might look like.
It was something of a convoluted chain of events that led to my reading Jane Eyre. I had known for some time that my daughter was a big fan of Jane Austen, and particularly of Pride and Prejudice. She and my wife suggested I read it so I might better understand her. The daughter will soon be graduating high school and attending college, and she’ll be expecting my help in deciding on which one to attend. How could I help her choose without really knowing her? So I read Pride and Prejudice, which felt like nothing more than a well-written Harlequin Romance to me. I failed to see the profundity of its insights, except perhaps those of the lead character’s dad, who did the bare minimum required to keep up the appearance that he was somewhat engaged in the silly affairs of his wife and their five daughters. But in the second Introduction to the book, this one printed at the end, there was the Charlotte Bronte quote, previously provided, of what she thought of the book. As it fit my opinion nearly perfectly, I decided I should read Bronte, who wrote during the same era as Austen, and in generally the same setting (manorial England). The contrast was stark and profound. Austen wrote of English manorial society. Bronte wrote of the human heart, using manorial England as the canvass for her pictures depicting it.
I was reminded of both the women in my life through Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Young Jane’s defiant stand against her older male cousin’s physical abuse made me think of what things must have been like for my wife when she was a young girl and suffered the same sort of abuse from her dad. I imagine she defied him as valiantly as Jane did her cousin. And when Jane impetuously left Rochester with no real plan and no money and no prospects for getting any, putting her own life in immediate peril, it made me think of my daughter, who is nothing but one tough cookie when it comes to demanding boys treat her with the respect she thinks (and rightfully so) she deserves. Though I would hope my daughter be more reasonable in her reactions, I could still see her responding with the same force of character in a situation similar to the one Jane faced. In short, I saw in Jane Eyre a woman who every woman would do well to emulate. After I told my daughter that Jane Eyre is a very good book, worthy of the time it would take to read, she spontaneously picked it up and started reading it one night. I hope she takes it to heart. I think everyone would feel inordinately blessed, like I am, to have as a daughter or a wife or a sister, a woman like Jane Eyre.