Reviewing Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre'
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre has been labelled as one of the most significant pieces in the history of English Literature. Having never read it before, I was intrigued to see if my experience of the novel was as positive as other reader's.
I was fascinated by the layers within Jane's character. We feel sympathy for her from the start, a lonely character who seems intelligent and daring yet is perceived as devilish and unworthy of attention, which is all she desires from her family. It is as if Jane has been born in a shroud of hate, so that onlookers automatically perceive her as evil and unworthy. Yet as the novel progresses, we find a maturing young woman who prizes her individuality and independence, not wanting to fit in with the rest of society.
I was interested by how the house Jane inhabits at the start of the novel acts to restrict her, as well as the people within it - she is banished to the solitary nursery and ridiculed by her family, so that she seems a nuisance rather than a young girl who has ambition. The school she attends seems to restrict the girl’s educational flourishing, the strict routine and darkly coloured uniforms evoking a sense of mechanicism and robotism that reflects society’s regret that female education is being prized. However, the two fragments of the slate (p.77) foreshadowed how Jane wishes to inhabit two personas, two bodies, two minds.
I found the novel was conflicted between wanting to defy the desire for women to ‘conform to nature’ and in favour of training and educating the girls as inhabiting one space, one body and, arguably, one sex through the school’s ‘systematic arrangements’. Moreover, Brocklehurst's claim that he has ‘again and again intimated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly.’ suggests Jane's school wants girls to fit one mould, speaking for the male patriarchy that compromised the female experience. Whilst I like how he wants the girls to look plain and simple which allows people to focus on their intellect and ability rather than their appearance, I feel uncomfortable with his dictatorship of their appearance.
'Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings...It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.'
It is as if Jane takes one step forward to then be forced to take two back by the male presence in her life. The image of the ‘female Brocklehurst’s’ suggests the girls are becoming the man, following his lead by his dictatorship. The weather, often described as cold, wet, icy and uninviting, almost rejects Jane and her female companions from leaving their confines, banishing them to the inside. It is the typhus epidemic within the house that leads them outside, exiling Brocklehurst and finally giving Jane the moment she needs to shine.
The warped concept of restriction is continued outside the walls of Jane's school. The workers of Thornfield are described as ‘Inmates' (p.144), as if they are prisoners to their work and their master. Furthermore, Bessie is referred to by her married name, Mrs Leaven, noted as the commitment to the male ideal. This captures the spirit of Victorian courtly rituals - women are often portrayed as belonging to a different sphere to men, and as their unworthy counterparts.
The final moment that grabbed my attention was when Helen, Jane's friend, declares "We are, and must be, one and all" (p.69). This really captures the current state our world is facing - in the event of crisis, it is only then when we truly realise how we are all one humanity, and we must remain bonded together.
Brontë's novel brings to life a time long forgotten in the past, but not so unlike the world we live in today. When you get over the heavy description and density of the novel, your eyes will be opened to a time of class difference, gender divide and prehistoric marital ideals. For lovers of du Maurier's Rebecca, this is a natural successor.