Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

"I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold on to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad-as I am now. Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?"
~Jane Eyre's conscience

This was a second reading of Jane Eyre for me, & a much more painstaking one (I confess, when I was younger, I skimmed it). At my first reading, I was not very interested-the most vivid memory I have of the book from my younger years was the death of Helen Burns at Lowood School, which completely creeped me out at the time, & the rest of the book was rather a muddle-Jane loves Rochester, Jane leaves Rochester, yada yada yada. I enjoyed Charlotte Brontë's masterwork much more the second time around. I still don't love it. Brontë-wise, I still like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall best. But I prefer this to Wuthering Heights.

To give it its due, Jane Eyre is well-written. Charlotte Brontë has a wonderful turn of phrase, whether she's vividly describing nature or Jane's rich emotional life (see above, or how about her thoughts on travelling to India as St. John Rivers' "female curate" rather than wife-"...My heart and mind would be free. I should still have my unblighted self to turn to: my natural unenslaved feelings with which to communicate in moments of loneliness. There would be recesses in my mind which would be only mine, to which he never came; and sentiments growing there, fresh and sheltered, which his austerity could never blight, nor his measured warrior-march trample down"). Charlotte Brontë's writing can get slightly fevered in its intensity & a little verbose, but most of her prose is beautiful to behold.

As you might imagine, the titular character, & all her emotions, principles, & opinions, is the heart of the book. The reader-or at least this reader-can forgive Charlotte Brontë some missteps in plotting, such as the ridiculous gypsy scene, or the pat manner in which our heroine is delivered into the laps of her relatives-of all the manor houses in all the world, she has to walk into the one owned by her cousins!-because Jane is such a well-drawn characterization. Her life runs a course full of ups & downs-& either very up, or very down, which can start to seem a little far-fetched-but Charlotte Brontë never fails to summon a true, thoughtful voice for Jane; & the author, as skilled with the written word as her heroine is artistically, has drawn an unforgettable portrait. I'm not planning any more Brontë reading in the near future (unless I take up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall again), but I have a new appreciation for this tome.

Fans of Jane Eyre might also consider reading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which gives a voice to Bertha Mason, "the madwoman in the attic". I see that, more recently, there has also been at least one other book written about another minor character (Adèle: Jane Eyre's Hidden Story by Emma Tennant) & I have Becoming Jane Eyre by the always amazing Sheila Kohler at home-though it seems this Jane hasn't quite become the cottage industry that Jane Austen & some of her characters have. Yet. Plus, I would also like to recommend, if you aren't put off by its massiveness, Juliet Barker's excellent biography, The Brontës, which is completely fascinating.

If you have been following my Victorian reading challenge foibles this year, thanks for checking in! I only have 100 pages left of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret & a rather sizeable chunk of Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives & Daughters to make it through for a last minute finish of my 12-book goal! Check out the blog in January for next year's reading challenges!

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