The pressure of reviewing a book that has meant so much to you is incredible: what to say exactly and where to start? I read this book for the first time when I was twelve years old, when I was a troubled and defiant little girl and people thought very little would become of me. So let me introduce you to this wonderful classic through my favourite quote in the entire book. At the start of the book, Jane Eyre is a little girl, very much like I was, and the awful Mr. Brocklehurst, supervisor of a boarding school, gets called in to give Jane a good scare with the image of her burning in the pit of hell for being such a sinful little girl. And he asks her:
‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’
‘What must you do to avoid it?’
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.’
And here my love for my heroine Jane Eyre was born.
Jane Eyre is an orphaned little girl, taken into the household of her Aunt Reed and her aunt’s horrible son John, who bullies her mercilessly. After yet another fight, basically Jane just defending herself from John’s abuse, Jane is sent up to the room where her uncle died and frightened out of her mind with the image of his ghost coming down the chimney. Eventually, she is sent away, taken by the aforementioned Mr. Brocklehurst to Lowood boarding school for orphaned girls. The conditions at this school are horrific, with complete disregard for the girls’ feelings and cold, starvation and humiliation as punishment. Especially horrendous is the punishment of cutting off hair, supposedly to remove their vanity and individuality. Many girls die of typhus or consumption, as the living conditions are so bad, like Jane’s only friend at the school: Helen Burns.
As Jane grows up, she is able to leave the school and advertises her services as a governess. She then finds a position at Thornfield Hall, where she teaches a young French girl, by the name of Adèle Varens. The mysterious Edward Rochester is apparently the master of the house, and an arrogant man at first, but they learn to enjoy each other’s company and a romance ensues. But then things get really interesting, as odd things start to happen around the house: noises upstairs, a woman laughing in the distance and a sudden house fire, but I won’t spoil that wonderful part of the book. Complicated family bonds are revealed and Mr. Rochester proposes to Jane, but that doesn’t really work out. Then he asks her to run away with him without them getting married. Jane refuses to go against her principles and tries to find other employment, almost dies on the moors in the process, but is saved by a clergyman. Yet another proposal follows, a possible trip and life in India, and then, a sudden plot twist. In the end, all is well, though not in the way you might have suspected.
The author, Charlotte Brontë, grew up on the moors in Yorkshire in the 19th century, where she and her sisters banned out the cold and depressing environment through their writing. Many aspects of Jane Eyre are based on her real-life experiences, especially Jane’s childhood. Firstly, the dark setting of the moors is in every part of this book. Charlotte Brontë grew up in the middle of nowhere, looking out on a graveyard, which does very little for your everyday mood, I’m sure. This entire vibe is evident in the book. Jane’s friend Helen Burns was based on Charlotte’s sisters Elizabeth and Maria, who both died because of the bad conditions at the boarding school they attended. Also, Mr. Brocklehurst was based on the evangelical minister who ran their Clergy Daughters School. Thornfield Hall was most likely based on North Lees Hall, with all its stories of a confined lunatic upstairs. John Reed’s decline into alcoholism was based on her brother Branwell. And lastly, Charlotte became a governess herself. In many ways, Charlotte Brontë is Jane Eyre.
Some read this book as a great romance novel, but I do not and never have. It’s a bildungsroman, following the emotions and experiences of a young heroine. There are many characters I could explore further, but for this short review I’m just sticking with Jane. It’s the story of a strong woman, and most of all an independent woman: she can take care of herself, as she was forced to learn this early on. The things she encounters would make a lesser person give up a lot sooner. Remember that this was written in a time when women had very little means to ever be independent, let alone the will to do so. Society frowned upon it like we can’t even imagine now. But Jane clings to her independence, as well as to her morals. At first this may make you think of her as old-fashioned and boring, but that takes a lot of strength! When she doubts marrying Mr. Rochester for the first time, she does so because she is also wise: gentlemen do not marry governesses, and it puts her future and integrity at stake. Even when she is little she has the intelligence to recognize injustice when it occurs and to stand up for herself. Her refusing to run away with Mr. Rochester to live in sin shows her self-worth. In conclusion, Jane Eyre is a woman with her own opinions, her own mind, morals, self-worth and wisdom. She goes beyond the gender as a Victorian female and she actually stays true to herself, always.
The variety of themes in this novel is incredible and one of the main reasons I read this book almost every year, and it never bores me. There’s the element of abuse and childhood neglect, with a rebel girl in the middle of it all. There’s Victorian romance, with strangely erotic vibes through their polite conversations only, and the effect of society on how people behaved. We even have the horrible aunt, in a big old Victorian house, with even more horrible cousins. There is mystery and even a little bit of horror, with an insane woman up in the attic and characters suddenly waking up in a bed in flames. There’s the importance of money, appearance and family connections, as is always a wonderful element in these classic novels. There’s the power of the rich and the powerless of the poor, or women. There’s religion, heaven and hell and standing by your morals. And there’s love, but mostly life.
English Classics often have a bad reputation for being boring, slow-paced and about caged women in society. More than anything I hoped to get across that if you feel this way, read Jane Eyre! It will open the entire wonderful world of English Classic for you. Each time I read this book, another theme stands out and I notice something new. If I were to write this review again next year, it would be a different one entirely. But one thing remains: Jane Eyre is a strong-willed and admired heroine, which, in my opinion, makes her to this day one of the best role models a defiant twelve-year-old girl can have.
Introduction into Classics Award, because this book would be my choice as a starter
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London, 1847)