I approached Jane Eyre
as a sort of literary castor oil, something I knew I should read one of these days but didn't feel much enthusiasm for. I already knew the basic story, and I'm really not into wish-fulfillment women's fiction, even if it is classic Victorian literature.
To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it, in large part because I think I'm just developing a fondness for the elegiac wordiness of 19th century British writers. Charlotte Bronte's writing is even more ornamental than Dickens's:
“You,” I said, “a favourite with Mr. Rochester? You gifted with the power of pleasing him? You of importance to him in any way? Go! your folly sickens me. And you have derived pleasure from occasional tokens of preference—equivocal tokens shown by a gentleman of family and a man of the world to a dependent and a novice. How dared you? Poor stupid dupe!—Could not even self-interest make you wiser? You repeated to yourself this morning the brief scene of last night?—Cover your face and be ashamed! He said something in praise of your eyes, did he? Blind puppy! Open their bleared lids and look on your own accursed senselessness! It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her; and it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown, must devour the life that feeds it; and, if discovered and responded to, must lead, ignis-fatus-like, into miry wilds whence there is no extrication.
Also, the first two thirds of the story are put together quite well, with background exposition, characterization, and gradually building elements of suspense and romance alike all coming together towards a climax.
That said, a modern editor would probably have cut much of the last third of the book, in which Jane flees from Thornfield Hall after learning Mr. Rochester's deep dark secret, and then spends many chapters with her new family, the Rivers, and not much happens except that a fortune falls into her lap, she has to entertain a marriage proposal, and then she goes off to find Rochester again and discovers him conveniently widowed and in need of an angelic woman to nurse him back to health. So they live happily ever after, the end.
Okay, there are some more details to the last part of the book that make it worth reading, like the studied contrast between the good and noble but cold and severe St. John Rivers and the hot-blooded romantic bad boy Edward Rochester. I did not like Rochester; he's not as big an asshole as Heathcliff, the romantic bad boy created by Charlotte's sister Emily in Wuthering Heights
, but I think both Bronte sisters had some seriously warped ideas about what made a man desirable. Crazily, passionately in love with you and otherwise amoral and willing to destroy anyone and anything that gets between you? Yes, you can probably blame the Brontes in part for this trope that persists in romantic fantasies to this day. Jane Eyre
is totally wish-fulfillment for women who want a Rochester or a Heathcliff to obsess over them. But it's a classic and well-written and while I wouldn't say Charlotte Bronte's understanding of human nature was particularly broad or even enlightened, she had a fine eye for the detailed personalities of her small cast of characters in the little world she created.
So, is Jane Eyre
worth reading? Definitely. I still prefer Dickens, but I wouldn't flinch at the thought of reading another book by Charlotte Bronte--whereas I am not too disappointed that sister Emily only ever wrote one.