Friday, 26 September 2014

Reading the Classics: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

WARNING: if you don't know the story of Jane Eyre, there are plot spoilers.

Week Two of my MOOC* The Fiction of Relationship is the one I've been most looking forward to.


Like so many, I first read Charlotte Brontë's classic novel at school. I didn't instantly take to this tale of the orphan who must make her way alone, but that says more about the English lessons at my all-girls' grammar, and my attitude towards them, than anything else. Since then I've grown to love it, and rereading is a perpetual delight.

Is there anybody out there who doesn't know the story of Jane Eyre, even if they've not picked up the book? As well as numerous film and TV dramatisations over the years, the novel has been adapted for the theatre; earlier this year Bristol Old Vic staged a stunning two-part production.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane Eyre in Bristol Old Vic's production

There's also a new, intriguingly pared-back version, part of Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre's Brontë Season, in the South-West of England right now. 

Butterfly Psyche and Livewire Theatre's Brontë Season

I'd love to be able to read with unknowing eyes the story of Jane's miserable young existence with cruel Aunt Reed and and the torture of the Red Room. Or of her time at Lowood School under the regulation of Mr Brocklehurst, with only the friendship of Helen Burns to sustain her. To be unaware of how her unfolding relationship with Mr Rochester might develop, or the cause of all those strange noises in the attic of Thornfield Hall.

Excepting a bout of amnesia this isn't going to happen, so the next best thing is to re-examine the novel through the prism of relationship, with a bit of expert guidance from Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University.

The Good Prof

In 1847, Jane disturbed her readers. It was an era which witnessed the rise of socialism, failed revolutions in Europe and the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Unlike the standard heroines of the day, Jane isn't demurely beautiful, but little and feisty and plain. She has fire within her soul; when first she meets Helen Burns at Lowood, Helen tells Jane she's too angry for this world.

The novel is sub-titled 'An Autobiography' and, in Jane's evolution, we uncover the building of a human being through her own eyes; her moral, emotional and spiritual development. This doesn't follow a linear path; there are many forks in the road and she has difficult choices to make along the way. 

Jane's first years are lacking in love; she's treated cruelly and repeatedly abused by those who have power over her, from Aunt Reed and her cousins at Gateshead Hall to Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood. Even when she develops a mutual attraction with Mr Rochester, it's an unequal relationship because of the difference in their backgrounds. The power is all Rochester's; Jane is his employee, the governess, and she calls him 'Sir'. He toys with her mercilessly, often teasing her about his potential marriage to the beautiful but callous Blanche Ingram.

Jane is described as being 'a ridge of lighted heath' and in childhood, rage often overcomes her. Mrs Reed and Mr Brocklehurst both cast her as the 'bad animal', but later, it becomes clear that the real 'bad animal' of the novel is Bertha Mason; the very stuff of a Victorian gentleman's nightmare. 

Brontë repeatedly uses the imagery of Jane looking in the mirror. Could Jane and Bertha be mirror images of each other? Bertha, of course, has her own preoccupation with fire. Professor Weinstein argues that, in her first person narration, Jane obscures some aspects of herself from the reader. Frequently, we don't recognise the Jane we think we know in the descriptions of others; like Aunt Reed who, on her deathbed, professes her lifelong fear of the child. 

Toby Stephens, possibly a little too good-looking as Mr Rochester in the BBC TV mini series?

Whether Brontë intended Jane and Bertha to be read as mirror images of each other is doubtful. But Professor Weinstein argues that art is created and then released into the world for others to interpret as they see fit. It's a fascinating concept.

Jane establishes her own principles to live by, based on independence, love and forgiveness. She rejects the prospect of a loveless marriage with St. John Rivers, but, for the ending to be a happy one, there needs to be greater equality in the match between Jane and Rochester. And so, Rochester is reduced by his injuries in the fire, while Jane rises up because of her new-found family and wealth. In the conclusion, 'Reader, I married him', we hope she has finally found a place to call home.

Now for something completely different. Week Three; Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno by Herman Melville.

*Massive Open Online Course

Jane Eyre is published by Wordsworth Editions. Available in the UK from Hive or internationally from Wordery
Photos courtesy of Bristol Old Vic, Butterfly Psyche and the BBC.
Professor Arnold Weinstein's thoughts on Jane Eyre are included courtesy of Coursera.

3 comments:

  1. Great to read all your thoughts about the many manifestations of Jane and the history of the book's reception. Strangely, I only read this book for the first time a few years ago and instantly fell in love - hurrying off to watch every film version and also finally read Jean Rhys' Wild Sargasso Sea - which I also loved.

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    1. This was my best rereading ever - the novel just improves with age. And you've reminded me I've only read Wild Sargasso Sea ONCE - overdue for a reread I think!

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