When I confessed to never having read Jane Eyre (#3 on the BBC book list) a few years ago, my good friend Cyndi could not believe it. Her astonishment was so genuine and great, that I decided then that I must read it. However, when I mentioned my intent to my boss, who has a Ph.D. in English and focused his dissertation on Victorian literature, he dismissed the novel as a mishmash of different styles and literary devices.
Well, I ignored him and finally read Charlotte Bronte’s romance novel. I have to say I enjoyed every minute of its 452 pages. It even caused me to lament, “I wish I had more time to read!” I guess a compelling romance in which the lovers are separated is an easy way to get my attention.
And Mr. Rochester sure got my attention. As soon as I realized his first name is Edward, I immediately realized where Stephenie Meyer may have gotten her inspiration for the even longer Twilight series. Bronte’s descriptions of Rochester as having a “grim mouth, chin, and jaw” and “granite-hewn features” reminded me of Edward Cullen, the pale, brooding, and stone-cold vampire boyfriend of Bella, a girl who is clumsy, unaccomplished, and not all that pretty (116, 127). Bella seems to be a modern-day Jane Eyre, who is plain, spirited, and penniless. That’s not much to offer in those days, yet Jane manages to capture the undying affection and love of wealthy Mr. Rochester.
But wait! He has a secret, just as Edward Cullen has a secret. Rochester already has a wife, a lunatic who bites her own brother at one point and is described by village lore as vampiric. Doesn’t that sound like Mr. Cullen’s secret? In addition, Mr. Rochester is some 20 years older than Jane, a young governess just out of school. And, although Edward Cullen seems to be a high school student just like Bella Swan (a fitting name for an ugly duckling), he is actually some 100 years or so older than her. These two stories are suspiciously similar.
Okay, okay. Enough about Twilight. Let’s discuss the value of Jane Eyre. I’m going to focus on the Biblical value, and Charlotte Bronte teaches us that there are two ways to use Christianity: for selfish reasons in order to control and manipulate other people, and for moral reasons in order to make correct decisions for oneself.
Mr. Brocklehurst is a good example of one who pretends to be pious but is truly miserly and selfish. He runs Lowood, a school for orphans, where Jane ends up after quarreling with her vindictive aunt. When one of the teachers feeds the children more than Mr. Brocklehurst thinks they should have, he invokes Christ and the scriptures as a rebuke. He says, “Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!” (58). His declarations are ridiculous, as we know he only wants to save money for himself, rather than be truly helpful to the orphans of his supposedly charitable school.
The issue of school food (especially at a girls’ school) caused me to think that Bronte foreshadows and perhaps informed Virginia Woolf’s famous quote: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (238). When describing the food at Lowood, Jane says, “I found the mess to consist of indifferent potatoes and strange shreds of rusty meat, mixed and cooked together. . . . I ate what I could, and wondered within myself whether every day’s fare would be like this” (46). She later complains of small portions. Despite this difficulty, Jane earns an education and eventually becomes a governess.
Jane’s cousin St. John is also portrayed as a man of God, but he too tries to manipulate Jane through religion. When she refuses to marry him because she knows that they do not love each other, he angrily says, “Your words are such as ought not to be used: violent, unfeminine, and untrue. They betray an unfortunate state of mind: they merit severe reproof: they would seem inexcusable; but that it is the duty of man to forgive his fellow, even until seventy-and-seven times” (412). He is trying to force her into doing his will, and when she won’t, he acts holier-than-thou. He pretends to bear her unacceptable behavior patiently, although he is anything but. These tense scenes reveal the same idea as the scenes involving Mr. Brocklehurst, that sometimes those who outwardly act holy are not righteous at all.
The novel also addresses gossip. Engaging in gossip is a guilty pleasure, but it never ends well. Somebody always gets hurt. When Jane is the target of the gossip, spread by her aunt to Mr. Brocklehurst, she weeps because, “I had meant to be so good, and to do so much at Lowood; to make so many friends, to earn respect, and win affection” (63). This poignantly tells us the real danger in spreading gossip. We steal from others the ability to change, to mature, to grow up, and to repent. I find it hard myself to forget the wrongs I see committed by others, yet it is so easy to forget my own faults. Jane’s words really dissect the problem with focusing on others’ faults and telling those faults, rather than being gentle and allowing a person to change.
Another scriptural reference used to give hope is when Mr. Rochester confesses the sins of his youth to Jane. He laments, “Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre: remorse is the poison of life” (132). He has made mistakes and his most effective way of combating future temptation is to dread the remorse that follows. However, Jane, ever his equal and even his better, reminds him, “Repentance is said to be its cure, sir” (132). She rejects Rochester’s notion that first, one must live with remorse, and second, that one must always suffer for one’s mistakes. She knows that people can change, an idea related to her former life at Lowood and the second chance she had to prove herself.
From these scenes, we learn that Jane is a religious woman and that she has strict moral beliefs. She employs these values without fail when temptation falls most heavily upon her. Even if you aren’t a religious person, there is admiration in her convictions and in her willingness to carry them out when times get tough. This happens when she discovers that Mr. Rochester has a lunatic wife living in the attic. He suggests that she stay and live happily with him (as a mistress) until his wife finally dies. Although this is appealing to Jane, who loves Rochester, she does what she believes to be right, no matter the cost. “Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours” (314). He continues to appeal to her romantic side, but she stands firm. She says, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour: stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth” (315). Wow. What conviction! What strength! I admire Jane for her courage and her ability to do what she believes is right in a difficult situation.
Jane again proves her worth during a time of ease. She inherits money and discovers that she has cousins. She is happy at the news of the inheritance, but ecstatic at having family. “Glorious discovery to a lonely wretch! This was wealthy indeed! – wealth to the heart! – a mine of pure, genial affections” (384). Jane is pure of heart and loves people more than money. She proves this by sharing the inheritance with her cousins.
I’m glad that I FINALLY read Jane Eyre. Although I’m not sure Cyndi’s emphatic response to my not having read it was completely justified, I enjoyed the novel and find myself enthusiastic about its contents. Perhaps I am too old to completely appreciate the story. I do wish I had read this as a sixteen-year-old girl.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Everyman, 1998.
Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Volume 6: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Ed. Joseph Black. Toronto: Broadview P, 2006. 231-79. Print.