Saturday, June 18, 2011

:: Jane Eyre :: a book review

It's alright.  Go ahead and conclude that I'm a completely crazy woman for even attempting to review a classic like this.  Why am I doing it?  Well, after my recent ninth -or is it tenth or eleventh?- reading, I decided it was time to put my lazy brain into gear and analyse this famous piece of nineteenth-century fiction.

My first foray into Jane Eyre's world occurred when I was fourteen. [geek alert!] It was summer, and I was desperate for new reading material.  I loved to read, especially older literature.  Books were the only items that ever appeared on my wish lists. I had grown out of all the books on my bookshelf -well, actually it's probably more accurate to say I'd read them so many times I had entire passages memorised.  Little Women?  Read eight times, maybe more.  Any of Louisa May Alcott's books for that matter.  I had finished my perusal of the entire Nancy Drew classic collection -all volumes written up until the 1970s.  I'd just read Ivanhoe through twice. I had gone through every single story Conan Doyle had ever written about Sherlock Holmes. A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations had been finished a few years before. There seemed to be nothing left.  Nothing... until I started poking around among some incredibly dusty volumes I found on the top shelf of one of our family's many bookshelves.  I selected one, settled myself on a sofa in the midst of our noisy, busy home and sank into another world.

It was not a world I was immediately drawn to.  The grey suffering of Jane's childhood was distant and boring to me.  I read quickly, as usual, trying to figure out the plot early on.  It was impossible.  This was like no other book I'd read.  Just when I thought I'd guessed everything, another twist would throw me off, and I'd find myself back at the beginning.  

This was no cutesy Ned and Nancy, Little Women-esque romance. The developing relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester was a surprise to me, one I hesitantly warmed up to. The idea of  intelligent, eighteen-year-old Jane in love with a grumpy man in his late thirties seemed strange and unpalatable. When it all unravelled, I felt relief at her escape from his clutches.  As the story continued, I couldn't believe that she was still in love with him.  And she did not fall for the golden boy, who, in my infinite fourteen-year-old wisdom, I considered to be the much better catch.  

I finished the book feeling somewhat disappointed, and yet intrigued.  I had this sense -just a slight suspicion- that I hadn't quite understood the story.  This feeling began to gnaw away at me.  Anyone who knows me knows I can't stand to get it wrong.  I have to erase, revise, re-do, and re-write until I think it's right.  

So I started the book all over again.  After a second reading, Jane Eyre shifted, in my eyes, into a better light. Meaning, it moved to my annual re-reading list. Why? Well...  As Jane's positive character qualities became more obvious, I began to identify with her even more than I had with dramatic, writing Jo from Little Women.  I saw myself in Jane, as countless girls have done before and since, and wanted to be like her.

by Charlotte Bronte

Friendless and forsaken by her only remaining family, Jane Eyre, an orphan, is sent to a severe boarding school at the age of ten. She emerges from her time there shaped by her early experiences: fragile and small due to malnutrition yet strong in mind and spirit. How strong?  Her entire story is a carefully calculated measure of her strength.

She advertises as a governess and procures a position for herself in the home of a wealthy man, Mr Rochester.  Her charge, a young girl named Adele, is his ward.  She withstands endless dull days in an isolated country residence with only a housekeeper, servants, and Adele to keep her company.  She meets Mr Rochester upon his return home and gradually, slowly, begins to spend time with him.  He seems to appreciate her friendship, and a closeness develops between them.

Suddenly, the story shifts -what we thought was happening is not happening at all.  A group of Mr Rochester's well-connected friends descend on his house in an extended visit.  We begin to believe that Jane's increasing attachment to Rochester is futile; he seems to prefer one of his visitors, a wealthy, proud, beautiful woman.  Jane once again is friendless.  She fortifies herself against her feelings for Rochester and goes to spend a month in the home of her aunt, the guardian who forsook her as a child.

Upon her return, the plot does an about face, throwing us off course completely.  Jane and Mr Rochester appear to be sailing off into a happily-ever-after ending.  Just when we wonder what on earth the remaining one-third of the book is going to be taken up with, another cosmic shift takes place.  This time, it has devastating consequences, leaving Jane in a heartrending position.  But her incredibly steely inner and moral strength surfaces yet again, and she refuses to be bound by the wishes of anyone, Mr Rochester included, and strikes out on her own.

I'll stop there.  I'm aware that this has been a plot-spoiling review for those of you who have never read it.  But with books like Jane Eyre, it's practically impossible to give a general overview in a way that makes the story sound appealing to those who aren't geeks lovers of old literature without revealing a bit more than usual.

What eighteen-year-old girl doesn't need to read about moral courage?  What young reader doesn't benefit from a sharper understanding of the serious results of immature, foolish choices?  There is so much life wisdom contained within these old-fashioned pages; this 164-year-old story still resonates with its newest readers.

There are wonderfully written scenes displaying Jane's sharp mental acuity as she and Rochester converse as intellectual equals, but do not assume you are about to read another  Pride and Prejudice. There's really no comparison possible. Jane Austen was a writer with a gift for detailing social attitudes through wit and clever observation. Charlotte Bronte's novel digs around in the darker depths of the social condition.  Full of psychological complexities and possessing as many layers as an onion, it makes for a compelling re-read every time.

If you managed to make it through this review, you should have no problem completing the book.  Go for it!


  1. You make me want to start reading it again right now! :)

  2. Read it before we go watch the movie in Sept! :)


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