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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.