Reviving the classics: Jane Eyre

‘I am not an angel, […] and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.’[1]

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is definitely one of my favourite books. When I read it for the first time, I was around 20-years-old, and I saw it only as a romance novel. After rereading it as a BA English student and then again for MA in Victorian Studies, I understand it so much better.

Jane is an orphan girl, who grows up in the household of her wealthy, but cold and demanding aunt, who uses the first opportunity to send the girl away to a school. Although a charitable institution, Lowood Institute proves to be only a slight improvement to Jane’s situation, as the pupils are half-starved, inadequately clothed, and forced to follow strict discipline. On the other hand, the necessary education is provided, and as the rules are relaxed in the wake of the tragedy, Jane spends in Lowood ten years as a pupil and teacher. The next natural step seems to be finding work as a governess, and the offer comes from Mrs Fairfax concerning little Adele, the ward of Mr Edward Fairfax Rochester from Thornfield.

I simply love this book: the writing style, the plot, the characters and the chemistry between them. I love how strong and independent Jane is, despite being ‘poor, obscure, plain, and little’.[2] In the Victorian era, women were supposed to be meek, docile and satisfied with the domestic role appointed to them by the patriarchal society. Charlotte Brontë shocked the contemporary public with a heroine who thinks for herself and acts according to her own will and not some preconceived rules and notions.

For the Victorians, especially women, the opinion of society was essential. People were expected to follow the elaborated guidelines that regulated the accepted behaviour in every aspect of life. Nonconformity led to social exclusion, which could have catastrophic results. The slightest doubt in a person’s good reputation could mean a loss of friends, employment and a gradual fall into poverty, crime or prostitution.

The ideal woman of the nineteenth century was later called by Virginia Woolf An Angel in the House. She was calm, selfless, spiritual and strictly controlled by customs. Brontë shatters that image in her novel. Through her portrayal of Jane, she presents a passionate young woman, which is in itself a transgression of the Victorian ideal of female behaviour and a rebellion against the constraints the patriarchal society put on women by depriving them of means of self-expression.

Brontë mentions that ‘women are supposed to be very calm generally’[3], but it does not mean that they actually were. According to prevalent contemporary opinion, rooted in John Ruskin’s work Of Queen’s Gardens, women were believed to be destined ‘for rule, not for battle, — and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for ‘sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision’[4] and her public duty should be reduced to assistance ‘in the ordering, in the comforting and in the beautiful adornment of the state.’[5] In general, woman’s role was limited to the domestic sphere. Brontë in Jane Eyre created a heroine, who is longing for ‘a power of vision which might overpass the limit’[6] and to ‘reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen’.[7] Jane wants to be able to control her fate, to travel and explore, meet new people and grow as a person. Brontë tries to convince her contemporaries that ‘women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do’[8]. It seems that in Jane’s characterisation, she managed to do just that.

I rate this book at ***** 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to literally everyone.

[1] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London, Penguin Books, 2006), p. 300.

[2] Brontë, p. 292.

[3] Brontë, p. 129.

[4] John Ruskin, ‘The Queen’s Garden’ in Internet Archive [accessed 26 December 2020] (p. 20).

[5] John Ruskin, p. 42-43.

[6] Brontë, p. 129.

[7] Brontë, p. 129.

[8] Brontë, p. 129-130.

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