Reader, it’s no secret that my favourite author of all time is Charlotte Brontè, and that my favourite novel of all time is her 1847 masterpiece, Jane Eyre. It might therefore seem strange that I’ve never dedicated a post to it, but perhaps that’s simply because I love it so much and there is so much I could write about. I’ve been attempting to a long overdue re-read of the novel for a couple of years now and I was determined to achieve it this year. In 2021, I set myself a few reading challenges like I always do; one is to read twenty new books and another one is a list of tasks including by certain authors, books with names in the title, etc. It’s all a bit of fun and helps to open up my reading habits a little. This year I set myself a third list of challenges which consists of 11 books to re-read. Jane Eyre is on this list which you can read by clicking here, and I was determined to achieve it. One of the tasks on my second list was to listen to an audiobook which I’ve already ticked off thanks to a wonderful reading of Natalie Jenner’s lovely The Jane Austen Society which is brilliantly narrated by Richard Armitage (Brontëites can be Janeites too). After listening to this as I bustled about daily or stopped for half an hour or so of peace, I wondered what an audio version of Jane Eyre would be like. I found a wonderful version on Audible narrated by Juliet Stevenson, and I loved every second of re-discovering Jane’s story.
Jane Eyre is a book that I seem to read differently every time I pick it up; certain things stand out at other times, others fade into the background, more connections to Charlotte’s juvenilia crop up, and my feelings towards certain characters change as I grow older. Below are some of my thoughts on Jane and co. after my re-read/listen. There are spoilers below. Reader, enjoy.
Jane Remains an Inspiring Heroine
Headstrong, intelligent, determined, and true to herself, Jane remains an inspiration for me and many other readers around the globe. In many ways she reminds me a lot of Charlotte (or what I imagine Charlotte to be have been like). She does what she thinks is right and backs away from that which is perceived to be wrong, and is willing and able to put herself first if necessary as demonstrated when she flees from Rochester and then St. John. Jane is honest, generous, and hard-working and that’s why so many readers rejoice at her happy ending. The novel follows Jane as she grows from an angry, passionate, and unloved child to a strong, educated, and more level-headed woman. I’ve read some critics comparing her to Elizabeth Hastings from Charlotte’s Angrian tale Henry Hastings due to her status as a governess/teacher and her refusal to be Rochester’s mistress just as Elizabeth declines a similar offer from Sir William Percy. Jane has a sense of independence that Elizabeth, whose devotion to her wayward brother Henry leaves her blind to all else in life, lacks.
The Structure is Amazing
The novel is a bildungsroman which takes us from Jane’s early life with the Reeds, through her trials and tribulations at Lowood, Thornfield, and with the Rivers’ family, to married life. I continue to be amazed at how well the novel is structured, how the reader is pushed and pulled in various ways emotionally, the suspense, the unease, the drama, the romance, and the comedy (Jane’s comment about not dying so she will never go to hell still cracks me up). We’re there with Jane every step of the way, even though St. John actually gets the final word of the novel (a bold move from Charlotte). I continue to be in awe of Charlotte’s talent as a storyteller.
There Are Shades of Zamorna in Rochester
Modern opinions on Jane’s love interest and eventual husband, Edward Fairfax Rochester, are divided with some branding him a romantic hero, some a tortured anti-hero, and others a cruel villain for locking his mentally ill first wife away in Thornfield. It seems that there is nobody else quite like him in literature though. Or is there? I’ve already mentioned there being an echo of Elizabeth Hastings in Jane due to her refusal to be Sir William’s mistress, however, there are shades of Zamorna to be found elsewhere. For many years, the anti-hero and focus of Charlotte’s juvenilia was the Duke of Zamorna, son of the Duke of Wellington, former noble solider and poet turned libertine and power mad King of Angria. Rochester’s wild ways in his youth bear some resemblance to Zamorna’s womanising lifestyle with mistresses, money, mansions, and an early form of jet-setting excitement. Zamorna had more wives than Rochester, greater wealth, more power, and more enemies too, however, although he developed a debauched way of life, his portrayal in Charlotte’s final complete extant Angrian text, Caroline Vernon, demonstrates some remarkable similarities to aspects of Rochester and Jane Eyre. At the beginning of Caroline Vernon, Zamorna is ageing and more settled than formerly depicted, however, his roving eye remains and eventually turns towards the teenage protagonist, Caroline. Remember that Jane is just a teenager when she first meets Mr Rochester. There is a scene in Jane Eyre which mirrors one in Caroline Vernon. Rochester returns to Thornfield and informs Jane that he has thought little of her since his departure which is similar to a scene in which Zamorna expresses the same sentiment to a besotted Caroline. Both men toy with the protagonists’s feelings before revealing their attraction to them. There are also times where Rochester almost betrays himself with Jane and reveals his feelings; ““Good-night, my-” He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.”” Simialrly, there is a scene before Caroline leaves for Paris and Zamorna realises he is attracted to Caroline and almost betrays his feelings when Charlotte writes, “‘Dark yet comely’ muttered the Duke involuntarily, for he looked down at his ward & she looked up at him … Zamorna did not tell Miss Vernon what he thought – at least not in words, but when she would have ceased to look up at him … he retained her face in that raised attitude.”
There is also a theory I have come across which purports that Caroline is an early version of Adele due to her status as Zamorna’s ward in the text. Caroline ends the novel by tracking down Zamorna and becoming his mistress whereas Adele, thanks to the care and attention of Jane, grows up to be an amiable and intelligent young woman. However, Rochester is never attracted to Adele (who may well be his illegitimate daughter) in the way Zamorna is to Caroline. It is actually Jane who comes closest to Caroline’s fate of becoming a mistress, although she very firmly refuses this offer. Caroline is a passionate, headstrong, determined girl whose father believes her head has been turned by the Byron and novels she reads and bears more similarities to a young, feisty Jane before she is moulded/checked by society. Caroline and Zamorna may be an early version, or a what could have been version, of Jane and Rochester had Jane not been shaped by her experiences at Lowood.
St. John Rivers Remains a Fascinating Character
I confess that St. John is actually a favourite character of mine. He’s often labelled as cold hearted and narrow minded, but I think he’s quite the opposite. Yes, we know that he’s a foil to Rochester, but every time I re-read the novel, I get caught up in the whole will they, won’t they? between Jane and St. John. Good-looking, educated, with a strong sense of morality, a desire to do good in the world, and a belief that he can bring out the true potential of people, there is a lot to admire about St. John, and he is in many ways superior to Rochester. St. John rejects the woman he loves, the heiress Rosamund Oliver (a rare example of a woman in Charlotte’s works who is both attractive and good-natured) in favour of pursuing Jane as he believes they can go forth together to spread the word of God and do some good in the world. Is St. John really cruel to Rosamund though? He certainly never encourages her and does not toy with her feelings in the way Rochester does with Jane. St. John’s passion for Rosamund demonstrates that he is far from cold-hearted, and his rejection of her shows that he has a greater insight into people’s character than many give him credit for. He knows that he and Rosamund will never be happy together, and that she can be happy with someone else. He is proven correct when she becomes engaged to a wealthy man after meeting just two months earlier. St. John does not love Jane and is extremely strict with her, but this is because he believes she can be something more than she is and desires to help her achieve this. It can also of course be read as an indication that he believes she is simply not good enough for him yet. More than a foil and a mere plot device, St. John is an extremely complex character and I always enjoy reading the parts in which he features. Perhaps Jane flees from him towards the end of the novel rather than simply looking for Rochester, perhaps he also helped her to realise her true feelings for Rochester though. Jane also would never have inherited her uncle’s money without St. John’s curiosity and investigations into her past so she has a lot to thank him for.
It Has Some of the Most Inspirational Lines of All Time
There are so many uplifting and inspiring lines in the novel. A lot of them have been very relevant to us within the last twelve months and the horrendous pandemic that we are living through. One of the most famous quotes of all time is “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” It’s a sentence which has helped many readers during lockdown, and I am no exception. I could go on and on about Charlotte’s writing having a new kind of relevance in the pandemic but instead I’ll simply leave you with two more of my favourite quotes for you to enjoy and remember, “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs” and “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”
Stay safe everyone.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
All Caroline Vernon quotes are taken from Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings. Ed. Christine Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
All Jane Eyre quotes are taken from Jane Eyre. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.