Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Jane Eyre - forgotten classic re-read and loved again

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a book I first read long ago in my teens. I have seen many television productions of the book as well, but forgot over the ensuing years how much a television production necessarily leaves out of a book. So I thought I knew Jane very well, when I picked the book up two weeks ago. Immediately, on the opening page, I remembered why I love Jane so much: "A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room. I slipped in there. It contained a book-case: I soon possessed myself of a volume..." That, and the fact she has talked back to her aunt who's husband has taken in the orphaned child. I like Jane; in many ways, she is how I saw myself growing up - not parentless! - but plain, dark, stubborn, prone to tears and always, always reading. I also have a temper which makes it hard for me to be silent when it would save me a lot of problems. So, from the first page of Jane Eyre, I felt like I was rediscovering someone I had forgotten. When I closed the book last night, it was knowing that I will be back again soon. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I think that Jane is a complete heroine, a well-rounded character, as are most of the characters in the novel. Because Jane is so forthright and honest and gives her opinion fearlessly, she is able to be as direct about everything she sees in her world, to us the reader. 19th century England comes alive in a very personal way in this book. Every time Jane walks on the moors, or watches the rain fall, or looks at the sunsets, it is brought alive through her eyes. There are no balls, only one long house party, and plenty of remote country houses and walks in nature. If I had my way, I'd live Jane's life - well, not the bad and poor parts, but certainly I want to live in a remote country house and walk in nature every day!

I really felt this time reading Jane Eyre how much Charlotte Bronte loved the moors and the countryside of West Yorkshire. I've been to Haworth Parsonage, on a cool spring day in May 2001. My husband took a picture of the moor opposite Haworth Parsonage that had a slight mist upon the top, which is a typical Yorkshire moor with fields marked with hedges and stone walls, dotted with farmhouse, the occasional barn, and plenty of sheep. No people, just countryside with the mist on the top. It's one of our favourite scenes and we have it framed on the wall. We didn't have time to walk along the moor that the parsonage is directly placed on; we had to time our bus and trains back to York. As I walked along the cobbled road, the steep one road that led through central Haworth, it was just like being back in 1820's England when Charlotte and her sisters and brother walked along the same stones. It's all grey there, the stones used in the buildings and houses, as it is in much of Yorkshire all over. A grim grey I often thought in the winter, unrelenting, forcing the eye inside to warm, to light, to shelter. Charlotte Bronte makes use of light all through the novel, when she first arrives at Lowood School it's at night, and the same with Thornwood Hall. She is always arriving at night, and coming into the light. When she is starving and close to dying outside Whitfield Cross, she sees a light: "The light was yet there; shining dim, but constant, through the rain I tried to walk again; I dragged my exhausted limbs slowly towards it.....This light was my forlorn hope: I must gain it." The light is of course, Moor House, where she finds her first true home and belonging. This determination to live no matter what, is what makes Jane such a strong heroine for me.

Jane is a modern heroine; it struck me on reading Jane Eyre that one reason I enjoy her so much is that she is willful. She has such a hard time submitting to anyone or anything. What does make her submit is love and gentleness. From Helen Burns, her first and very best friend in the Lowood School she is sent to, to the first teacher she loved best, Miss Temple, to Diana and Mary, St John's sisters whom she loves dearly, Jane finds people to emulate, to show her kindness exists, who are thoughtful when she is judgmental. One of the wonders of this book is that people are mixed. Helen would be insufferable if she didn't also suffer with such dignity her final illness with faith. Throughout Jane Eyre the idea of faith is one that I now can see is a result partly of Charlotte Bronte's upbringing. Her father was parson. She attended a girl's school for daughters of poor parsons that was the basis for Lowood school in the novel. She worked as a governess before her death. The religious tone through the book in previous readings did bother me; but now, with enough time and distance from my own religious strivings and spiritual yearnings, I can read and enjoy the many biblical references Charlotte uses in the novel. I am glad I read the Norton Critical edition, which greatly aided me in understanding when and where in the Bible was being referred to, and why. Of course Jane Eyre can be read simply for pleasure; I just found that knowing when there was a reference and why Charlotte put it in there, helped enrich my understanding of the novel better. I also found I appreciated her struggles with faith more now that I have been through my own. Religion is meant to be used to guide us through life; at least, that is how Jane Eyre is written, also. Completely not preachy, at all! But Jane is so spirited, and throughout all is the ideals of religion held up to the world around her: who is truly Christian? who sacrifices out of love willingly? Who loveth the man and not the riches? Who understands charity, and forgiveness? All these ideals are held up to the society Jane (and Charlotte the writer) found themselves in, and I really admire how Charlotte uses both terrible acts and good deeds to flesh out her characters and the action. I enjoyed the use of religion in this book because it is an integral part of the novel: Jane wouldn't be Jane if she didn't have Helen Burn's selfless love as an example, if she didn't have God to turn to when she was angry, or humbled by loss, or understanding that she can't love Rochester more than God. For once I can say the use of religion enriches a novel and opens up a view on what role religion played 1830's northern England.

I do admit to dreading the part where she flees Rochester after he reveals the existence of his previous wife. Not because of the drama, but because I dreaded her meeting St. John, who I remembered as a religious freak from the last time I read the novel. Gentle Reader, time has changed me, time and life, because reading how she is with Rochester, the natural affinity between them, and then reading later how St John tries to force her to his will, to bend her, I was horrified. It was abhorrent to me, and I am so glad she said no to him. I wish this little section would be read to any engaged woman, so that she could see if she were guilty of doing this, because I know that in our desire for love, sometimes it is easy for women to do even in today's modern world, in order to please everyone around them:
"As for me, I daily wished more to please him; but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature, stifle half my faculties, wrest my tastes from their original bent, force myself to the adoption of pursuits for which I had no natural vocation."
What is incredible, and wonderful, about Jane Eyre, and the Bronte women, is their spirit. They were independent, willful, spirited, and their heroines reflect that. They chafe under the idea that women were meant to be the helpmates of men only, and not to have their own ideas and dreams and desires. I understand now, that when Jane says no to St. John, it's not just because she already knows love because of Edward; it's because she knows she can't be herself with him, that he does not love and accept her for herself. And what a modern idea that is.

And what about Mr Rochester? the redoubtable, scandalous, towering figure of a man, Edward Rochester? Their romance is a delight, the way they talk to each other is funny and very realistic, and he is as infuriating and romantic as I always thought he was. I much prefer him to Heathcliff, although I always want to soothe Heathcliff and make him feel loved, Rochester is someone I think I could like as a person. Isn't that an amazing character for Charlotte Bronte to create in 1848? Edward is Jane's true partner, in every way, but she can only see this after St John tries to convince her she should have a life of duty and pursue a higher calling of serving God. That religious fervor must have been something Charlotte encountered in her life, because St John is an incredible figure - the pure Grecian beauty of his face, the hardness of his soul, the determination to get his own way with Jane, and his absolute cold fury when she does not bend to him. Although Jane understands him in the end, I do not. I think he is a fearsome man! and he makes Edward Rochester look like a pussycat in comparison. At least Edward is flesh and bone and loves; St John loves only God, and sees only God, and all else fails in comparison.

This is such a powerful novel, and one that I appreciate more deeply each time I read it. It's incredible to me that Charlotte wrote this when she was age 30. There is nothing quite like it in English Literature.

Here is a link to the Bronte's museum in Haworth:
Haworth Parsonage
trips to West Yorkshire - in case you are dreaming of visiting and walking along the moors too, this is a good site to start planning (or in my case, just dreaming.....)
Haworth Village some good photos of the interior of the parsonage, as well as lovely wallpapers of the surrounding countryside including Top Withens, the moor closest to the parsonage.

Two quick notes:
Best Books of the Decade
Over at the Guardian they are reviewing the best of the 00's; there is a link to the best book of each year of this decade. What is your choice? Did you have a favourite book that year? Do you agree with the editor, and those writing in? I may do a post on this soon, but for now, it's giving me something to think about. What books stand out for me this decade? And where did this decade go??

Advent Tour
The other is what is fast becoming one of my favourite blog events of the year: the annual virtual advent tour. There is still time to join! I've just joined, myself. I'm busy thinking of what I would like to do this year. I had so much fun last year, both doing the cookies, and then visiting everyone's blog up until our trip to England. Because we had no computer available for the holidays, I couldn't keep up with the tour, and I am so looking forward to visiting everyone all through the advent tour this year!! So please, don't be shy: even if you post a picture of what December looks like in your home town, or the nearest bookstore (since we are about books, here! lol), or share a favourite memory or tradition, I can say for myself, that I really enjoy discovering what all of you, our Gentle Readers, enjoy about this festive season.


Jeane said...

I have not read Jane Eyre since I was a teen, and most of the things you mention here I had forgotten. What an excellent review! I think this is one of those classics I will have to tackle again someday; surely I can appreciate it better now as an adult.

Kaye said...

Hi, just popping in to wish you and your family a most happy and blessed Thanksgiving. Enjoy your day!

Table Talk said...

Jane Eyre is the only Bronte novel I've ever really been able to enjoy, but I tend to avoid it as I find myself speaking and writing in Charlotte's voice for days after. As a student I lived just down the road from Haworth but we accoisted it rather more with the local covens than the Brontes. You didn't go out on the moors up there at night, I can tell you.

Susan said...

Jeane: thank you! I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed reading it this time. I can hope the same will be true for you! I'm curious to see....

Kaye: thank you so much! I was wishing all of my readers in the US a happy Thanksgiving too, yesterday.

Table Talk: I wouldn't go on the moors alone at night either, well, maybe under a full moon/clear sky night, but it's not a place for walking alone in the dark. I really responded to the wildness and the closeness to the heavens that the moors have - it surprised me, the feeling that there wasn't much between me and the sky. Did you live in Keighley when you were a student? And how many covens were there?

I'm looking forward to reading Wuthering Heights to see if I have the same reaction as before, to see if I prefer Jane Eyre to it, like you do. Also to reread the book because it's been even longer since I read it! Interesting that Charlotte's voice is so strong for you. I can sense it too in her writing, but surprisingly it doesn't affect me as much as strong fantasy writing does!

Anonymous said...

Great post, I have a great fondness for the Bronte's. I think both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are books that kind of grow with you, you read them when your young and then as time progresses and you come back to them you see more and more with each reading. I convinced my daughter to read them when she was in grade seven, her last year of primary school. At a second hand book sale she bought herself a compact hard cover edition of Jane Eyre that she carried around in her pocket or bag for the next couple of years, it was her favourite book for a long time.
I also heard and interesting interview with China Mieville recently where he talked about his favourite books, one of which was Jane Eyre. He talked about how rich the book is and how it stands up to reading over and over, with each reading giving up something more.
Wuthering Heights also seems to grow with you, as you re-read it through the years.
I found visiting Haworth and the parsonage seemed to de-mystify that book a little for me, some of the more gothic moments seemed perfectly understandable given the setting of Emily's home. They truly were remarkable women, who wrote remarkable books. And what a great post.

Mrs. B. said...

This is one of my favourite books! Your post and review reminds me that I really should re-read itagain. Have you seen the latest BBC adaptation with Toby Stephens? I think it's the best one so far!

Anonymous said...

Now I feel like walking in a moor. I recently read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and it has an interesting premise in which Jane Eyre ended differently - Jane and Mr. Rochester married other people and the heroine, Thursday Next, somehow contrived it so they ended up being together in the end.

Susan said...

Book pusher: thank you for your lovely compliments! I think you're right, once we see Haworth and the moors, we realize the Brontes were writing about what they knew. It is bleak and it is wild and it is lonely, in West Yorkshire. In the North Yorkshire National Park too, which I often saw because we went to Whitby so often. I'll have to see if I can find that China interview, that sounds really interesting. I have to read Un Lun Dun and Perdido Station still. I think it's great you convinced your daughter to read it and it became her favourite books for a time!! what a lovely book to read over and over! I will be reading this again, much sooner than 20 years from now! lol

Mrs B: No, I haven't seen the latest adaption with Toby Stephens! I'll have to check and see if it's on any of our channels soon. Or PBS - we get the Watertown NY one. Thanks! I can hope it'll be on soon! I think you're new to my blog, I'll come visit you. Thanks for leaving a comment!

StephanieD: Isn't the Eyre Affair really good? I love the premise, a book detective, making sure the story doesn't stray! And how she alters the ending, gets in trouble, but then the book courts agree the ending is better with Rochester and Jane together!!! I've read most of the series, I think there is one left for me to read to be caught up. And I always want to go walking on a moor, also!! :-D

Marg said...

Thanks so much for posting about the Virtual Advent Tour!

One of these days I will read Austen.

jspeyton said...

This was a wonderful review! I love Jane Eyre and, though I haven't read it in years, you've reminded me why I loved it in the first place. I do remember being scared of St. John. I thought he was incredibly intimidating, despite his angelic features. Could two men be more different? Rochester with his rough looks, but kind heart and St.John with his beautiful looks and cold heart? Looks, Bronte seems to be saying, are often misleading windows into a person's character. I think even Jane Eyre the character is a testament to that.

Anyway, great review. It makes me want to drop everything and reread Jane Eyre again. :)


Diane said...

It's been a while but I really like Jane Eyre.

Kailana said...

Thanks for the Virtual Advent mention! Did you decide what day you wanted?

I really need to read Jane Eyre...

Daphne said...

Oh Jane, I love Jane. I will re-read her someday (again)... lovely review.

I hadn't heard of this Advent thing -- I will check it out!

Susan said...

Marg: you are so welcome, I love the idea of the tour for the holidays. :-D

js: you are right about Charlotte Bronte writing about how looks can be deceiving! I never thought about it that way, but that is true. Although I think she plays with it again, by having Rochester rich (and the courtesan who plays him for a fool), and St John who turns down a rich woman because, even though he lusts for her, he is all about denial of the body. There's alot to this book, like Book pusher says, every time the book is read another layer is revealed! I'm just so happy I enjoyed it so much.

Diane: I know, Jane Eyre seems to be a book girls read as teenagers, then a large gap of time goes by. I am surprised by how much more I found to enjoy in the book this time. It won't be so long before I reread it again - not 20 years! lol

Kailana: I just sent you the email yesterday, so I'm happy I got the day I wanted! :-D and if you haven't read Jane Eyre, you are in for a treat (I think so anyway!)

Daphne: thank you! It's been fun to see how many people my age have read Jane Eyre, and how many women in their 20's and thirties who haven't read it yet. Another forgotten classic that I hope will make a comeback. I'm surprised at how accessible it is, more than I remembered it being!

And please join the advent thing, it is so much fun :-D