by Charlotte Brontë
352 pages, Penguin Classics
Review by Bill Kirton
In a previous review (of Madame Bovary) I wrote of the pleasure of revisiting a familiar text and learning new things each time. Well, in a strange way, I got the same feeling reading Jane Eyre for the first time this month. It was on the list of the many books which I OUGHT TO have read ages ago but didn’t. So how do you learn new things on a first visit?
Well, the thing about the classics is that we think we know them. I haven’t even seen any movies or TV versions of the novel but the names Jane Eyre, Grace Poole, and Mr Rochester are very familiar, as are the archetypes they represent. What I was unforgivably unaware of was the breadth of Charlotte Brontë’s genius.
Her mastery of the romantic register was to be expected – the book, after all, was a huge success when it was first published (until some people discovered it was by a woman and were predictably scandalised). She revels in the great surges and excesses of passion and the workings of the romantic fallacy as inner torments and true contentment alike are reflected in the weather. She wanders through a pre-urban landscape and feels Nature as a primal force in her daily life. Adverbs and adjectives proliferate as she conveys the dismal dreariness of life at Lowood school and the cruel pomposity and hypocrisy of the appalling Mr Brocklehurst. The house party at Thornfield sketches brilliantly the time-killing leisure of the wealthy and its reliance on an underclass of people with functions but no names. And, of course, the pangs and pleasures of love swell, subside and torment right through the narrative.
There are plot-advancing coincidences typical of the genre, nocturnal mysteries, madness, sinister grotesques, characters too good and too evil to be true, and many of the other extremes of early Victorian literature. But the voice of Jane/Charlotte transcends them and adds a poignancy that’s even more powerful than that of her fictional story. Despite her inauspicious beginnings and essential alone-ness for much of the book, Jane is a powerful character. Brontë endows her with her own intelligence and observational acuity so that she can see the subtlest inner moods and shifts from the shape of a forehead, the flick of an eyelid.
But she also expresses a set of attitudes many decades ahead of her time. OK, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman had appeared at the end of the 18th century, but in reality, little had changed as a result. So it’s refreshing, not to say revolutionary, to read of Jane’s restlessness and hear her say:
‘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.’
On the other hand, it’s interesting to see that she’s also aware of the class divide but has to work a little harder at reminding herself of it. She writes of the children in her school at Morton:
'I must not forget that these coarsely-clad little peasants are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy; and that the germs of native excellence, refinement, intelligence, kind feeling, are as likely to exist in their hearts as in those of the best-born.’
Romantic literature pulsates with earnestness and either self-loathing or self-esteem, so it’s always a pleasure to be reminded of the characters’ humanity, especially in the form of humour. Brontë’s dialogues are brilliant, and the way Jane teases Rochester could be quoted as a perfect ‘How to flirt’ article in Hello Magazine. Jane also excuses the (in modern terms, absurd) missionary zeal (as well as the self-deluding hypocrisy) of her religious maniac of a cousin, St. John Rivers, but her portrait of him and the exchanges between them are sprinkled with little hints that Brontë’s opinion of him is less forgiving. Astonishingly, as he woos Jane and proposes marriage, he tells her ‘You are formed for labour, not for love’. And if he’d really introduced into India the type of religion he advocates, the British Raj would have been kicked out before it started.
With Brontë there’s none of the cool, sardonic detachment of Jane Austen. The writer’s passion is as evident as that of the heroine; it surges in her words and yet she’s always in control. She was forced to live a constrained life, aware of the many possibilities she was gifted enough to grasp but would never be given the chance to experience. Jane Eyre is her triumph over all of it.
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