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Saturday, 25 June 2011
By Charlotte Bronte
I first read ‘Jane Eyre’ as a fourteen year old looking for a rollicking gothic adventure story. I can remember the excitement of turning the pages, desperate to find out the ghastly secret of Thornfield Hall. Each evening, for a week or so, I took myself into our chilly front room, drew the curtains, stuck the gas fire on and lay on the sofa, immersed in the narrative. What hideousness lurked in the attic, threatening Jane and the very fabric of the house itself? Oh my God, a secret wife? Really? Wow. When the revelation came it did not disappoint. But alas, Jane herself did. I couldn’t believe she would be so Victorian in her reaction. I wanted her to stick around, not run away; boot Bertha off the premises and then live in glorious sin, stuff convention. I just didn’t get the heroine at all.
The next time I read the novel I was a loved-up eighteen, and all I cared about this time through was the romance element. The way Jane and Edward’s affair was played out at top pitch made it, I decided, so real . This was proper love: pain and frustration and telepathy and characters starving in hedgerows and buildings burning down. Still I couldn’t fathom why Jane allowed cold piety to get in the way of a passion that surely transcended everything else. Love made its own laws. A life of bliss was hers for the taking, and yet she turned away and chose instead the stony path of righteousness. Fool.
It wasn’t till I got to university I began to see 'Jane Eyre' as a feminist text. Suddenly the penny dropped: Jane wasn’t simply being perverse and playing the martyr. Edward asking her to live as his mistress was actually deeply insulting. Just because Jane was lowly and poor didn’t mean she should jump at a chance to play the kept woman. Would he have dared make the same offer to the rich and well-connected Blanche Ingram? Of course not. He treats Jane as he does because he knows he can get away with it. Flashing his cash only makes the proposition shabbier. So on this read, when Jane says “I care for myself,” I was cheering. It’s a turning point. She steps out alone and practically penniless into the world, but soon manages to find herself friends, family, accommodation and a decent career, and later on even has the confidence to turn down the attentions of a second emotional blackmailer in the form of St John Rivers.
Then there’s the spiritual journey Jane makes. Right from the beginning of the story, Jane is surrounded by hypocrites and bullies. She has to work hard to sift true belief out of the confused moral messages crossing and re-crossing around her. All through her childhood she struggles to deal both with personal bad fortune and her own anger management issues. So by the time I was an adult, the central thread of the novel for me had really become an exploration of the ways we can balance our need for humility against the need to stand up for ourselves: how to convert natural human resentment at the trials of life into something more positive, fruitful and stoical. Christianity is the frame in which the narrative is set. The novel ends not with “Reader, I married him”, but with St John Rivers’ cheerful acceptance of his approaching death, and the anticipation of heaven.
At other times, 'Jane Eyre' has been for me a story about power struggles within relationships; about ways we cope with loneliness and poor body-image; about the unfairness of the class system. My latest read reminded me it’s a novel which includes disability issues. Because my own husband was seriously injured in a road accident last year, I really felt Rochester’s vulnerability in those final few pages, and sympathised with the difficult line Jane was left to tread as his parner.
And I know I’ll come back again to the story and read it through a different filter, at which point I’ve no doubt it will have another new message for me. In the meantime, Bear up! and Respect yourself! will do me just fine.
Reviewed by Kate Long
Kate Long is the bestselling author of 'The Bad Mother's Handbook', 'Swallowing Grandma', 'Queen Mum', 'The Daughter Game' and 'Mothers And Daughters'. Her new novel 'All About My Mothers' is due to be released by Simon and Schuster in Spring 2012. You can find out more about Kate on her website and you can read my interview with Kate about her writing in this month's Writers' Forum magazine.