I’d not read Jane Eyre before; but in my usual way, I had read The Professor and Villette.
Jane Eyre seems to me that curiosity of a novel, in that its middle is far better than its beginning or its end. Its good passages (which are indeed very good) coincide with the absence or presence of Mr Rochester, though this is brought about not by the forceful personality of Rochester as such, but by the relationship between Rochester and Jane – wherein lies any of the novel’s claims to greatness.
The early passages are a typical portrait of a miserable Victorian childhood: a girl, orphaned, is looked after by a hateful relative, then sent away to school. I happened to be reading at the same time as this a biography of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, whose real childhood was very similar to Jane’s – only way, way more extreme (his mother was a prostitute; dumped on his relatives, they tired of the expense of looking after him and sent him away to the workhouse; he had just turned six). The later passages, after Jane’s split from Rochester, are concerned with the temptations of asceticism and the denial of the flesh. I found both these parts – especially the latter – quite uninteresting; I was even thinking of giving up on the book. I can see how the asceticism passages fit in with the overarching structure, and appreciate they may heighten the meaning of the novel – they serve a purpose of building up to the ending – but this doesn’t stop them from being on the whole quite tedious. (I remember The Professor being on the whole quite uninteresting as well).
As usual, what alienates in Victorian literature is the virtuousness of its characters. People – by which I mean moral narrators, by which I mean Jane Eyre – conduct themselves in an ideal manner. We like our heroes a bit more equivocal; a bit more complex – just as they did too in the days before the Victorian Age (I’m meaning, some time in the early c18th, though you get oddities like Tristram Shandy). There’s an element in all this of the worst of social realism (taking the definition here not as realism as such, but as an idealisation of how the world and the people in it should be, such as will likely transpire in our communist utopia). The Victorian Age was much like this; – though, of course it wasn’t, as the life of Stanley reminds us. (Restoration Comedy, I am once again reminded, has so much less restraint). I suppose a darker world is hinted at in Rochester’s past.