In honour of the new movie opening this week (there have been no less than 17 movie adaptations internationally in the last hundred years), I am choosing to write about the gorgeously gothic Jane Eyre.
This book – titled after its protagonist written in the first-person – follows the young life of Jane tossed about the sea of a stormy life, while maintaining her upright morality and Christian heart throughout. Opening on a scene of domestic punishment, we are introduced to a beleagured Jane who is teased and tortured by her step-mother and half-siblings after her father’s death up until the point she is consigned to an orphanage. Once in the orphanage, Jane recounts the poverty, hunger and cold that all girls there are subjected to by heartless overseers who neglect conditions to such a degree that typhus breaks out among the children, killing many of them, including Jane’s best friend Helen who dies in her arms. Fortunate not to have contracted any illness, Jane strikes out to become a governness at the completion of her education and finds herself a position at the fated Thornfield Hall. Here she meets the mysterious and dashing Mr. Rochester who is lord of the manor and responsible for the child (Adele) who Jane is educating. Much hand-wringing about Mr. Rochester’s impending marriage ensues until the point at which he discloses his true love for Jane and asks her hand in marriage.
But this happy ending is not to be as Jane discovers that a series of mysterious goings on in the house are the responsibilities of Rochester’s living wife – a madwoman who he has locked in the attic and cared for in order to avoid scandal. Jane rushes from the house upon this discovery, leaving all her belongings behind, and travels around England as a pauper until she is finally taken in by the kind Rivers family. During her time with them Jane discovers they are all cousins to each other, and is also the recipient of a large inheritance upon which point she leaves her kin and travels back to Thornton Hall. Upon her arrival she discovers the Hall in ruins, and hearing that Rochester’s wife has burned the house down and committed suicide she rushes to his side. Although he has lost a hand and and been blinded in the attempt to rescue his wife, Jane sees beyond his deformities and pledges her undying love. Shortly after this, they are married and the book ends on the happy note that Rochester is regaining his eyesight and the two have had a son together.
Through gothic passions and intrigue which compel the book – Brontë explores many of the deep social questions of her day. Through Jane she explores the balance between Godliness and earthly living, the injustice of class discrimination, the struggling role of women within the confines of patriarchy, the right to independence while still desiring home and family, and forgiveness. The death of Helen in the orphanage was drawn from Bronte’s own family horror which saw two of her sisters die of preventable typhus while away at school, due to poor living conditions.
Jane Eyre was a ground-breaking piece of literature, one ahead of its time in terms of the portrayal of women and their ability to act autonomously. While Jane is subject to the whims of a traveled life, she is never portrayed as weak or as a “damsel in distress” – and in fact she falls in love with Rochester precisely because he treats her as an equal. The fact that Jane Eyre is written in first-person is integral to Brontë’s feeling that women have their own viewpoint and path that they are able to interpret in an unmediated fashion – thus we hear from the heart of Jane Eyre as she journeys towards her final destination of home and family. Informed by autobiographical elements, Jane’s path follows closely some of Brontë’s own life story – one tragically cut short during her pregnancy at 38 from either consumption or typhus. Jane Eyre is a classic coming-of-age story not unlike the gothic romances that have risen to prominence in the last five years – though of course, written to a much higher standard!