Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Until I read or re-read Jane Eyre last year all my memories were from the 1943 Orson Welles movie with a young Elizabeth Taylor (above right) as Helen Burns. I didn’t write a review straight away because I was going to discuss it with my family who all seemed to be holding strong views. But then, Covid.

So, I’ve been listening to it again. Unfortunately when my last trip ended I was only up to Jane lying starving at the door of Moor House. But I’ve made some notes, which my family can discuss at our various do’s over the next two weekends – which of course have now passed if you’re reading this.

If you’re reading this, isn’t that a famous way to begin. If you’re reading this, they’ve come to get me, as a concerned friend wrote privately to warn me after I expressed the wish that Kirribili House be bombed. I didn’t mean with the Prime Minister’s family in it, but just as a reaction when I learned it was Scotty from Marketing’s official residence though we pay him to live in and govern from Canberra. I really must learn to be more temperate (in the last few years left to me).

So as I was saying before I chose to interrupt myself, if you’re reading this then Gee, Milly, I and anyone else who joined in, have if not reached a conclusion, then at least have had a say. Here are my notes:


Jane Eyre is apparently the first novel ever to follow the consciousness of a first-person protagonist.

My interest is in the way that Brontë regards employment for young middle class women as natural, and posits that they may prefer to be employed than to be married, or may continue their employment after marriage (see also, The Professor).

Gateshead Hall

JE aged 5-10 is bullied by her 14 yo old cousin John and by her Aunt Reed, whose daughters, Eliza and Georgiana, about Jane’s age, generally follow her (their mother’s) lead. I got the feeling, though it was never anywhere stated, that the danger from John would soon be sexual, and that she was well out of there.

Bessie the nursemaid is short tempered and this obscures from Jane the real affection Bessie has for her.

Jane demonstrates her inner strength (and surprising command of language) by speaking out to her aunt about the unfairness of the way she has been treated.

Lowood Institution

Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood, is a bully and a misogynist (eg. his hatred of curled hair which inflames his lust, which otherwise seems to have had little outlet if he has been restricted to just two offspring, now grown). But after two years at Lowood, he is the last bully Jane has to contend with.

Jane is loved by Helen Burns and by the Superintendent, Miss Temple, although they both leave her. But over the next 8 years, lightly passed over, 6 as star pupil and 2 as teacher, she seems to have gained a healthy (ie. normal) self esteem. Jane already has another friend by the time Helen Burns dies and we may therefore assume she had friends throughout her time at school; but it is still good that Bessie calls on her before she leaves to remind her that she has friends in the wider world.

Thornfield Hall

Jane slots in easily to her role as governess to Adele; and slowly falls in love with her master, Edward Rochester. Brontë the vicar’s daughter seems quite comfortable writing about Rochester’s mistress, the mistress’s various lovers, and Rochester’s subsequent mistresses.

A theme comes to its head here which draws comparison with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and that is Jane’s susceptibility to ghost stories. The shrieks which she assigns to Grace Poole in the room above hers of course don’t help.

Gateshead Hall

Jane comfortably deals with her cousins as their equal, indeed their superior in intellect and moral development. The spoilt and selfish Georgiana goes on to a socially successful marriage (Brontë doesn’t bother drawing a moral from her behaviour); Eliza eschews marriage for the nunnery and a life of contemplation and there too Brontë comments on neither the ‘goodness’ nor the sterility of her choice.

What I am trying to say is that Jane is growing into a self-assured young woman, and that the comparisons with Georgiana and Eliza demonstrate she is probably taking the path that suits her best.

Thornfield Hall

Rochester proposes, Jane accepts, and the marriage is aborted at the altar by the revelation of Rochester’s youthful marriage to the mad Bertha.

There are elements of racism here, in references to Bertha’s mother being ‘Creole’ and also in an earlier instance where Jane unnecessarily refers to ‘Jewish usury’. The madness is portrayed as a moral and perhaps even a racial failing and not as an illness.

Interestingly, Brontë has Jane give serious consideration to becoming Rochester’s mistress and then has her feeling guilty about the pain she is causing R by fleeing.


Spoilers. As I said, my trip ended with Jane prostrate at the door of Moor House. Leaving aside the ‘Gothic’ coincidence of the occupants of the house being her cousins, and this is to some extent a gothic novel, this chapter of Jane’s life is characterised by her ability to support herself as a teacher, and the pressure her cousin St John Rivers puts her under to accompany him to India as his wife and assistant (more bullying?). But Brontë clearly doesn’t intend Jane to be a martyr. She inherits and shares with her cousins a fortune (which as she was a minor, should have been impossible) and returns to Thornfield Hall.

Gee wrote back as soon as she had my notes to say that she thought Brontë lost her nerve in this final section, that Jane Eyre was a potentially great Independent Woman brought down by an inconstant author:

The idea that a young poor friendless woman would be enough for a rich handsome man, simply because he likes her personality is unacceptable to the writer.

My own first thoughts were to compare Brontë and Jane Austen. Snippy Elizabeth Bennet was never going to be other than a rich man’s wife, whereas Jane Eyre, like JA (and almost Ch. Brontë) may well have stayed unmarried. The best comparison for Jane Eyre is Uncle Gardiner. They are both plain, reliable and self-sufficient. Jane is slightly above him in birth and he of course is well above her in wealth.

I am not so unhappy as Gee that Jane chose marriage – I’m a sucker for love stories – though I agree it was unnecessary to make her and Rochester more equal. I envisage Jane going on to a productive life improving the villages around Thornfield and of course, funding and supervising schools.

.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, first pub. 1847.

As you can see, none of us, over the course of two long weekends, looked up from our food and drink long enough to engage in bookish discussions.

57 thoughts on “Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

  1. I have read this book several times so far and found a different story each time.
    At 13 I thought it was a miserable boarding school story with a mean, nasty aunt and people living and dying in poverty and grimness.
    At 20 I was shocked to discover it was a love story, although the age difference between Jane and Rochester felt a bit icky.
    At 39 I was fine with the age-difference romance, but found myself responding very strongly to Jane’s independence and quiet strength of character. Although, the line ‘reader, I married him’ resonated strongly at that particularly time in my life.
    At fifty-ahem-cough-cough-something, I am long overdue for another reread to see what I can see from this perspective.

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  2. Count me among those who were disappointed that Jane got married. I’ve never been able to see the appeal of Mr Rochester, and I always wanted her to stay independent and single. However, I don’t think I’ve read this since I was a teenager or maybe in my very early twenties – it’s possible I would have a different reaction reading it now!

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    • Lou, you yourself are such a strong, independent woman that your answer doesn’t surprised me in the least. The movie version I saw, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, definitely made it seem like Jane and Mr. R. were in love with each other and that he had been badgered into marrying the “mad woman in the attic” even though he did not love her.

      To respond to Bill’s point about the teen boy’s behavior possibly becoming sexual assault if Jane didn’t get out of the house, the Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender movie made it seem like yes, he was on the verge of sexually harming her.

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    • Lou, if you were a practical person (yes, I know you are!) you’d have to say Rochester was the only man Jane had ever met, of course she was going to imagine herself in love. I think it’s quite likely Bronte thought that a novel must have a love story at its centre, but that she was much more interested in writing about young women (of her own class) making a go of life.

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    • I was a romantic (like Bill) in my youth so was happy to see her married, but in older age, I find the novel much more problematic. This is an interesting issue because some books don’t last because their values are no longer ours. In some ways, the values of Jane Eyre are no longer ours, because it could almost be seen like Rochester groomed Jane (albeit not intentionally at the start), so why so we still like it? We are supposed to forgive Rochester for lying to Jane? I need to read it again. (Of course, the fact that Charlotte Bronte was very negative about Jane Austen has nothing to do with my criticism here.)

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      • That is a really good answer WG. Jane was alone in the world, totally inexperienced, and (by our standards anyway) underage. So it’s worth arguing Rochester had a duty of care not to have her fall in love with him. I didn’t take my own point (to Lou) that far but I think I should have.
        Overlooking your biases, I wish, a little anyway, that CB had JA’s scornful attitude to the tropes of Gothic novels.

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      • I wasn’t aware that Bronte was very negative about Austen! I did know though that she was instrumental in burying her sister Anne’s books, especially The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is easily my favourite Bronte novel – so I’ve always resented her a little bit for that.

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      • You learn something new everyday Loulou (Lou?)! Sisters, eh? Austeb’s sister destroyed a lot of Austen’s things including letters, which are sure to have solved some mysteries. We resent her for that.

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      • Lou, I think that was just me trying to say that Jane Eyre made Eliz Bennet look like a slacker. But I really must get to the bio.
        I’ve listened to The T of WH without thinking about it. It’s on a memory stick somewhere, I must listen again.

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      • WG. You and Lou both have posts up overnight. I thought I might have today off but I’m already (8am) down at the steel mill loading. I will make time for responses as quickly as I can

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  3. I’d love to be around a table arguing about the themes/issues etc in this novel with you. Interesting that you mentioned instances of bullying by Brocklehurst and Rivers. I think Rochester is guilty of that behaviour. He doesn’t come out of the novel all that well initially – deliberately giving her to believe that he is going to marry Blanche; not standing up for J when his guests make some desparaging comments about governesses while she is sitting in the room and then, after the shambolic marriage ceremony, trying to press J into being his mistress.
    But the ending makes me uncomfortable – is Bronte saying he had to become blind in order to be her equal?

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    • Karen, you’re right – I let the whole Blanche thing slip. Rochester’s behaviour was wrong in relation to both women. The whole ‘equalisation’ at the end seems to me to be unneccessary, unless perhaps you look at it as Bronte saying she herself would refuse to marry ‘up’.

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      • I schooled in mid Michigan so everythjng was American Lit except for English poets. It all had a religious jndertone. Scarlet Letter, Billy Budd popular, Grapes of Wrath banned. Our biology teacher in grade 10 sacked for sharing Origin of Species in class. If the churches didn’t accept it, we didn’t read it. I wasn’t aware of the restrictions until I left school and moved away afterwards. Criminal really.

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  4. Like Brona, I read this as a teenager but I might have been a little bit older because I liked the romance of it.
    In subsequent readings I focussed more on the social inequities and the cruelties that are laid bare.
    And I really liked JA spurning St John Rivers…

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    • Bronte is an old small l liberal, in the Australian sense (I forget what the Liberals stood for in England) in that she obviously believes in the duty of the well off to raise up the less well off. And of course her particular interest here is to educate the girls of the “finest peasantry in Europe”. I think though she’s happy enough with the class system the way it is. Interestingly, although she’s writing well after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution she does her best to ignore it, unlike say Eliz. Gaskell.

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  5. BTW I like Gee’s comment that “Gee wrote back as soon as she had my notes to say that she thought Brontë lost her nerve in this final section, that Jane Eyre was a potentially great Independent Woman brought down by an inconstant author” What good discussions you must have.

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  6. I’m glad you overlooked my biases Bill! Very generous of you. I do have to say that I have never quite got over CB’s blindness to JA, but I do forgive her a little on the basis of her times. I love that Virginia Woolf admired her immensely.

    I do give that Charlotte was a good writer – I remember than from my last reading. However, what about St John? He’s a scary character too.

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    • St John, definitely one-eyed! If he’d wooed Jane just a little she’d have gone with him. My guess is that Bronte had someone (or a type at least) in mind when she wrote him. Hopefully Gaskell’s bio will shine a light, though I understand she goes out of her way not to be personal.

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  7. This is an interesting discussion going on in your comments, but I also find it distressing. I like the love story in this book, but I also agree with these objections to it I’m hearing. I feel like I should be standing up for Jane and telling her not to fall for Rochester, but on the other hand I want her to fall for him! Gah!

    The CB versus JA discussion is good, too. Your got me thinking about that, and I am hastily going to say that I think I prefer JA. But I do love Jane Eyre.

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    • Australians right at this moment are finally being forced into a discussion about the power imbalance between men and women (following a series of rape allegations in Federal Parliament) – an imbalance, I will admit, I was only very slowly brought to acknowledge by my (ex-) wife and daughters.
      I can imagine that to read any old and much loved love story through this lens might be distressing. To go on with JA, the imbalance there is that the women – whom the very young JA pictures as being motivated entirely by love – must marry in order to eat. The humiliating option of falling back on a brother, as she and Cassandra did, she does not allow them.

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      • I always get from JA, though, that she’s frustrated by this fact and that she thinks it’s unfair (which is obviously is). I don’t think I’ve read enough of CB to have a similar opinion of what she’s writing about…

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      • Re CB, reading JE and The Professor on top of each other made a big impression on me. i might have to make CB a mini-project (poor old E Gaskell keeps getting pushed back)

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  8. Well, a couple of things re “I’m finding them [Bronte’s characters] interesting because they are much more self-reliant. JA’s women would starve if a man didn’t feed them”. Firstly, that was part of Austen’s protofeminist point. Women were in trouble if they didn’t have a man or independent income. It’s the foundational issue in P&P. It’s why Charlotte marries Mr Collins; it’s the point Lady Cathering makes when she tells Elizabeth that her family’s estate isn’t entailed. It’s in other novels too. Women’s options were limited.

    Secondly, characters like Elizabeth was prepared to starve – at least she thought she was – rather than marry someone she didn’t love and respect.

    Thirdly, is self-reliance a precursor to being interesting? For me, “interesting” covers many things, including the much-maligned Fanny Price whom most people don’t see as interesting or self-reliant, in fact, but she’s prepared to be sent back to her impoverished home rather than being bullied into marrying that cad, Henry!

    Do you want more??!! Haha.

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  9. I remember watching that version of JE when I was about twenty and thinking it was just everything. (I also loved the Merle Oberon version of Wuthering Heights.) I know you’re a Dale Spender fan, too, and your comment about how unusual it was for a first-person narration from a woman’s pov makes me wonder that there was not even one other book in her Mothers of the Novel that used the first person in those early works. Wow, that’s quite a thing. Jane Eyre isn’t one I’ve felt called to reread but you’ve made me think about it this wet, cool spring evening.

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    • I’m an Elizabeth Taylor fan, or was, and was amazed when I first saw her in this, more or less unannounced. My favourite ET is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But as I say, it’s a long time since I last watched it.

      I’m glad I was able to make you think again about JE. I think it would be very easy for a young reader to read it as “the adventures of” JE but there’s a lot more in it than that. And I’m becoming more impressed with Ch. Bronte (and less with Jane Austen) that she argued so well her own case really, that independence and self-support was an option for middle class women.

      As for first person, prior to JA many novels are epistolary which give the impression of being first person. If I ever finish Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) which is third person and not epistolary, I will have to make a bit of a survey. And do early authors describe thoughts at all, or just actions? Opening Radcliffe at random I see “Schedoni was not in a humour which rendered him fit to encounter difficulties…” Does that describe his thought? It’s certainly some way short of JE’s “‘I can keep you [Rochester] in reasonable check now,’ I reflected, ‘and I don’t doubt to be able to do it hereafter.'”

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