Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

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.


11 thoughts on “Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

  1. “The early passages are a typical portrait of a miserable Victorian childhood.”

    Why did this make me chuckle?

    Jane Eyre is one of those novels I enjoyed more than I expected.

  2. my reading is a bit different to yours in that I find the exchanges between Rochester and Jane interesting in terms of the power dynamics. the part I wasnt too interested in concerned her discussions with John Rivers

  3. There cannot be many readers who want more of St. John Rivers. Amazingly, it turns out there are readers – I have come across them on the internet – who want more of Helen Burns.

    Against Eyre’s virtuousness I would set her constant outrageous lying, but it seems that is not a common interpretation of the novel. I should reread and write up my idea. Or reread and give up my idea, depending on how the reading goes.

  4. I’m not sure if I enjoyed Jane Eyre more than expected. I enjoyed the middle more than I expected from having read the beginning. But the last CB novel I’d read The Professor I really didn’t enjoy much (and Villette, which I had enjoyed, I’d read so long ago I’m not sure I trusted my judgement anymore – I think I used to have a much higher boredom threshold), so my expectations weren’t necessarily that high, tempered by the notion that JE was her best novel.

    I don’t think we disagree about Rochester power dynamics / Rivers boring. Power dynamics in Rochester/JE relationship is interesting / playful – worth a few essays for those studying it I don’t doubt.

    Helen Burns – was she JE’s interesting friend at school? I thought she was ok.

    It does seem in retrospect odd that JE found it impossible to travel to Europe with Rochester as his mistress (to the extent that she was prepared to take actions which might have killed her), and yet couldn’t comprehend St.J-R’s view that he must marry her if she was to travel abroad with him and couldn’t just pretend to be his sister or something.

  5. My favorite part of the book has always been the fortuneteller chapter. The sheer weirdness of it made me fall in love with it, conventions and all. No wonder it has never been included in any film version of the book (to my knowledge).

  6. I actually enjoyed the entire novel – even the St John rivers chapters, which i hadn’t expected to enjoy. i think this was partly because I was struck by the connection between St John Rivers and Ibsen’s Brand, and this gave a surprising Ibsenite perspective on things. St John’s insistence on All or Nothing, in his refusal to compromise, and his asking Jane to do likewise, gives us, I think, a new perspective on Jane’s virtue: up till this point, Jane had sacrificed her own personal happiness for the sake of her moral integrity, but at this point, faced with a character who takes to extremes Jane’s sacrifice for the sake of moral rectitude, the question arises: How far is she prepared to take this?

    I found St John Rivers a fascinating character – an extreme manifestation of puritanism, a man with a fanatic glint in the eye. A man who, for the sake of sainthood, denies humanity – both his own, and that of others. In other words, Ibsen’s Brand.

  7. What fortune-teller chapter? – I thought I remembered one, but it turned out it was actually from George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (which I was also reading at the time). I forget things quickly.

    Yes, I normally like fanatical characters too; – just not St John Rivers. Brand is an Ibsen play I’d be interested reading, but I’ve never seen a copy of it. Peer Gynt too, which I have.

  8. When Rochester throws a party and disguises himself as a gypsy fortune-teller in order to engage in his favorite activity, teasing his daughter’s governess.

    The guy was a lunatic. Or the narrator etc. etc. you know how this works.

  9. Yes, I remember now, though I already have no recollection of what the point of the episode was or what fortune was told.

  10. Hah, I thought, Ah Jane Eyre, I’m familiar with that, read it a couple of times, enjoyed it. I’ll be able to contribute something but after reading the comments I find that some schematic elements remain in my mind but all the details have fled. I did enjoy it, though, or so I think.

  11. Never mind. As above, there’s bits of it I can’t remember and I only read it last month. It must be something to do with the Brontes, because I’ve read Wuthering Heights twice but have only the vaguest memory of what it’s about.

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