In recent years, I’ve been trying to catch up on my 19th century novels. I’ve tackled a number of them so far, never with great anticipation, and yet have enjoyed them all. When I chose Jane Eyre as my next conquest, it was merely because I had a copy of the book on my shelf. But, it has proven a timely choice. First, in the Morgan Library and Museum‘s excellent new show, The Diary, there are two wonderful manuscripts by Charlotte Bronte. One, written in her famous minuscule handwriting, is a two page story that flows effortlessly between her lived experience and wild invention. The other is a small note jotted in her geography text book–a complaint about how she misses her siblings, how miserable she is at school, and how there is but one person there worth her time. They are stand-out pieces in the show.
Second, as I discovered this week at the movie theater, there is to be a film version of Jane Eyre released in March. As we watched the extremely dramatic preview for the movie, Dan asked, “is the book really that exciting?” to which I answered, “absolutely.” This was a truly suspenseful, salacious, exhilarating read. Love affairs! Ghosts! Destitution! Arson! Feminism! It has it all–500 pages of very satisfying entertainment. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it.
At the novel’s start (it was billed as an autobiography when released in 1847), Jane is a little orphan of ten years old, living under her cruel aunt’s roof, relentlessly tormented by her evil cousin and mistreated by all. In the book’s next section, she is a pupil at Lowood charity school, where her treatment is often not much better, although she is able to form a few positive relationships. During her formative years, Jane develops a strong sense of self. Despite such adversity, she has confidence in her abilities and her worth. She explores and exploits her options, finding for herself a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, at which point the story of the adult Jane kicks in. It is filled with intrigue, horror and love. And, of course, loss, which sets Jane adrift–in the forth section of the book she becomes, as she puts it, “an independent woman,” (483). She is a schoolmistress at one point, holding forth on the merits of her poor country pupils and their potential. As the novel wraps up, circumstances twist and turn to deliver the reader with what I felt, at least, was a nice compromise of a happy ending.
A few elements of Jane Eyre shocked me. First was the point of view. The notes in the Penguin Classics edition I have tell me that this is the first example in English literature of a first person child narrator. In a novel where so much rests on mood, secrets and suspense, in the protagonist’s head was definitely the place to be. I was terrified when Jane was, fell in love at the same time she did and often found myself perplexed and wondering, as she did, what the hell was going on.
Second were the occasional jumps in tense. The book is written predominantly in the past tense–Jane reveals at the end that she’s narrating it from ten years past the end of the action. But, in times of great excitement, Jane gives us the blow-by-blow in real time. I couldn’t believe the first time it happened. The technique definitely served to render the moments it was employed more riveting and urgent.
Third was the use of idiom. In terms of narrative technique, I don’t think this necessarily qualifies–what surprised me about it was that so many cliches of today were in use back in 1847. Among others, we get on page 197, “to her heart’s content,” and on page 281, “you have hit the nail straight on the head.” Mr. Rochester, the novel’s looming love interest, also constantly exclaims “what the deuce!” which I found hilarious.
Jane is a such a remarkable, strong, smart character. I certainly don’t need to write a thesis on her proto-feminism–I’m sure a million of those exist–but I do want to close with this quote which completely awed me. It is the rejection of an endearment, amazing because it isn’t a rejection of the man who bestowed it–she loves him–but an effort to reshape his perception of her as something precious, to be adorned and admired. From page 292:
“I am not an angel,” I asserted, “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself…”