Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the most well-known heroines in English literature, but the reasons why I love her story are entirely personal.
The book, styled as an autobiography, is the story of the orphan Jane, and follows her through her unhappy childhood and schooling to adulthood, when she becomes a governess to the ward of Mr Rochester at Thornfield Hall. Jane and Rochester fall in love, but when they attempt to marry it is revealed that he has a wife already living, who has gone mad and is confined in the upper rooms of the house. Jane obeys her conscience and leaves Rochester; and she must go through much – including destitution – before she re-establishes her life. It is only when she receives a marriage proposal from her cousin, St John Rivers, that she must decide what she really wants.
My first reason for loving Jane Eyre is its most famous element: the love story between Jane and the ‘grim’, brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester. What Brontë makes clear is that Jane is no ordinary heroine; she is not beautiful, but ‘poor and obscure, small and plain’, and her relationship with Rochester is one of mental connection, as well as physical attraction. Their conversational duels are witty, poetic and transcendent. But their relationship is also surprising and complex; as she thinks how to manage him in an emotional crisis, Jane feels ‘an inward power; a sense of influence…the crisis was perilous; but not without its charm’. They are spiritual equals, and he sees past her exterior to who she really is (‘a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high’). Her anguish as she leaves him is desperately painful to read – when I last read it, I had to put the book aside.
Before we get too breathless with romance I should mention that another thing I love about the book is its combination of the gothic and hard-headed realism. True, there are mysterious fires, shrieks in the moonlit night, and the first Mrs Rochester attacks people with gusto (‘she sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart’). But the admirably practical Jane grounds everything: she does not faint at the sight of blood and remains composed in situations where, frankly, I would have become hysterical. ‘Oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!’ she tells us. There is also a delicious tartness to her even in the midst of chaos (‘only an idiot would have succumbed now’, she notes, in the midst of the harrowing scene when she leaves Rochester). When St John tries to emotionally blackmail Jane into marriage, using religion as the tool, she delivers a killer put-down: ‘God did not give me my life to throw away.’
The strong voice of Jane as survivor is the core of the book. I feel her strength infuse me as I read it: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself’. But it is also about a woman yearning for love and freedom. ‘Women feel just as men feel…they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.’ Whether you come to the book for entertainment, escapism or self-help, there is always that voice; the voice of a seeker, and a survivor. It transcends time, and speaks directly to us. Sleeping rough on the moor, Jane sees ‘with tear-dimmed eyes…the mighty Milky-way…what countless systems there swept space like a soft trace of light’ – and it is as though we are standing beside her.
I have many favourite books, and the list will change with time, I’m sure. But I will never cease to love Jane Eyre. I have read and re-read it at every stage of my life, and found something new each time. And you will too. Because in Jane, Charlotte Brontë created a heroine who is vivid, passionate, complex; and speaking to you.
This article first appeared on the WH Smith blog website.