The most important thing to remember when one reads old classics is that it was written in a different era and setting and that there is no point getting worked up because the hero is a brusque man in the throngs of midlife crisis, who eventually turns sickly soppy as week-old gulab jamun, and the heroine is a strong willed young girl with principles and maturity far beyond her age, who finally finds happiness in keeping house for the man who ill-treated her at the start of the novel. Beauty and the beast, anyone? The codes of literary romance are baffling – I hope no young girl in the late nineteenth century read Jane Eyre and found being asked to be a man’s mistress, romantic.
Jane Eyre is a romantic comedy (comedy not as in “humour” but of the all’s-well-that-ends-well type) that portrays the tension between passion and reason. Jane herself, is an unusual depiction for women of her times (or perhaps all times?) – bold, passionate and sure footed in life, despite her childhood misfortunes. As a young orphan girl who socks her bullying cousin, she is a stark contrast to Dicken’s Oliver Twist, who pees his pants just asking for more gruel. She is strong enough to face the consequences of her rebellion and braves the next decade of her life in the boarding school for the poor and its hardships. A life full of promise of independence and achievement.
She finds work as governess to the ward of a rich man on whom, she naturally develops a crush. She is a teenager and has, for the first time in her life, been put under the same roof as a testosterone-pumped middle aged man ( of “middle height, and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features, and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth “) – its fairly obvious that she would fall for him. But of course, in literature, nothing is a “crush”, but always “true love”- except in Anna Karenina (God, I love that novel), where Kitty has a crush on Vronsky.
The novel has been written as first person account of Jane, and hence, we get a peek into her romantic emotions (“fan-girling” in modern teenage parlance) concerning Edward Rochester, and they play the game of cat and mouse for sometime, trying to outwit each other, while keeping their amour hidden. Rochester then employs underhand measures to worm her love out, and proposes to her. Pretty annoying, I say – I’d rather have my man propose upfront and face the risk of being rejected than elicit my jealousy and then propose to me, thus ensuring rejection. Jane, however, accepts and discovers at the alter that the b*****d has a mad wife in chains in the attic of the house, and is pulling a bigamy on her. He seems to have no regrets, and proposes that Jane be his mistress (not in so many words, of course) in the continent, far from the prying eyes of the prim English society that chose to offload a mad woman on him. Thankfully the rightly mortified Jane refuses and runs away from her “true love”.
St. John Rivers, Jane’s rescuer and as we discover later, her cousin, has been better characterized than Rochester. A young, restless pastor, he hides his youthful energy behind the severity he imposes upon himself on account of a profession that he has unwillingly adopted. He believes himself to be a “cold hard man”, and proves it to himself by asking Jane to be his wife in order to help him with his pastoral duties in India rather than for love.St. John was probably a reflection of the author’s disdain of the patriarchal, prudish society that considered marriage a matter of duty rather than love*.
Despite his apparent lack of emotions, St. John does not seem (to me at least) half as repulsive as the fiery Rochester. Of course, Jane doesn’t quite share my sentiments, and marries the blinded Rochester, whose wife has conveniently died in a fire she caused. In literature, there is nothing as attractive to an apparently sensible woman, as a man who can deliver a lengthy impassioned monologue of platitudes and mush, even if he hasn’t got much scruples left in him. Not that I would have wanted Jane to marry St. John either. For a woman who started off being strong, principled and clear headed, it would have been logical if she shunned both of them and moved on. But then, Jane and I have a couple of centuries between us, so who am I to judge.
Of the briefly appearing supporting characters, Ms. Temple, the superintendent of the boarding school, stands out because of her balance of compassion and independence. She is more real and warm than Jane herself, who, despite her intelligence and independent mind, lacks the kindness that makes one human. For all her indignation to Rochester that she is “not an automaton”, Jane Eyre appears to be one, when compared to the kind and gentle Ms. Temple, who goes on to marry and settles happily, and the reader is both happy at her fortune and unhappy for the poor school that has lost her.
As with all good classics, the narrative style is beautiful. Descriptions of the landscape, the house, the weather and emotions are vivid. There are a few sentences in French during conversations involving Jane and her pupil, which put me off because I would rather not be google translating sentences when I am reading the book. Perhaps English readers of the 19th century were well versed in French as well, so the fault is not the author’s, but mine.
Some romantic quotes are beautiful, if a little too sentimental. E.g. “He made me love him without looking at me” brought tears to my eyes with the familiarity of the sentiment, as syrupy as that sounds. Others are plainly cringe-worthy at this time and age – “Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear.” I hope no one says things like that to their loved ones anymore.
Any bibliophile’s must-read book.
* As George Mikes would say: “If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world, that she has something in her, something peculiar and individual which only a few hundred thousand other women have and that he would be unable to live one more minute without her. Often, to give a little more emphasis to the statement, he shoots himself on the spot. This is a normal, week-day declaration of love in the more temperamental continental countries. In England the boy pats his adored one on the back and says softly: ‘I don’t object to you, you know.’ If he is quite mad with passion, he may add: ‘I rather fancy you, in fact.”