Child neglect, near death, a dash of magical realism, the power of love, the powerlessness of the poor, sexual rivalry, mystery, madness and more. It is as powerful as ever - but is it really a love story, given Rochester's Svengali-tendencies? His downfall and her inheritance make them more equal, but is it really love on his part? I'm not sure, which is what makes it such a good book (just not necessarily a love story). I also like the tension between it being very Victorian in some obvious ways, and yet controversially modern in others: an immoral hero, a fiercely independent and assertive heroine, and some very unpleasant Christians (it's not that I think Christians are bad or like seeing them portrayed in a nasty way - it's Bronte's courage in writing such characters I admire).
About the first quarter of the book concerns the tremendous hardship and abuse that Jane suffers growing up. It's often heavily cut from film, TV and stage adaptations, but despite the fluff about this being a great love story, I think there is merit in paying attention to her formative years as an essential element of explaining what makes Jane the person she becomes.
The Red Room, where young Jane is banished shortly before being sent to Lowood, is a very short episode in the book, but its significance is probably greater than its brevity implies. The trauma of the Red Room is not just because Mr Reed died there, but because of the associations of red = blood = death, compounded by cold, silence, blinds that are always closed and a bed like a sacrificial altar. Is it also some sort of reference to Bertha's attic?
Jane endures dreadful hardships: she is orphaned; her aunt says she is "less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep" and invokes the wrath of God who "might strike her dead in the midst of one of her tantrums"; she endures injustice as she strives to be good, but is always condemned, while the faults of her cousins are indulged or ignored. So, she is sent to Lowood, where she sees the hypocritical tyranny of Brocklehurst, survives cold and near starvation and witnesses her best friend's death. Nevertheless, "I would not have exchanged Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries." There is a dreadful irony in the fact that the first time a relative demonstrates any interest in her (John Eyre), it seems to ruin everything.
VILLAINS AND CHRISTIANITY
Who is the worst villain: John Reed, Aunt Reed, Mr Brocklehurst, Blanche Ingram, St John Rivers or even Rochester?
Christianity gets a very mixed press in the book: Mr Brocklehurst is cruel and comically hypocritical (curly hair is evil vanity in poor girls, who "must not conform to nature", but fine for his pampered daughters); St John Rivers thinks his devoutness selfless, but is actually cold and selfish (his motive being to gain glory in Heaven for himself); Helen Burns is a redemptive Christ figure who accepts her punishments as deserved, helps Jane tame herself ("Helen had calmed me") and, of course, dies.
Jane's own beliefs (or lack) are always somewhat vague (though she's very moral) and controversially feisty. When, as a small girl, the nasty Brocklehurst asks her what she should do to avoid going to Hell, she replies, "I must keep in good health, and not die"!
Aspects the way Christianity is portrayed may make it more accessible to modern readers from more secular backgrounds, but might have been shocking to devout Victorians. Perhaps they were placated by the fact that despite the cruelty, Jane forgives Aunt Reed for trying to improve her errant niece, even though "it was in her nature to wound me cruelly".
MALE POWER, FEMINISM, AND RELEVANCE TODAY
Men had most of the power and respect in Bronte's time and often Jane has to go along with that. However, Bronte does subvert that to some extent by making Jane so assertive, determined and independent.
The story of Jane Eyre has parallels with the story of Bluebeard, albeit with a very different ending, in which the woman takes charge of her own destiny. Bluebeard was well-known in Victorian fables as a rich and swarthy man who locked discarded wives in an attic (though he killed them first). He took a new young wife and when she discovered her predecessors, he was about to kill her, but she was rescued by her brothers, rather as Mason wants to rescue Bertha. Jane even likens an attic corridor to one in "some Bluebeard's castle", so Bronte clearly knew the story and assumed he readers did too. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebeard#Plot_summary.
Despite her minimal contact with men, right from the outset Jane instinctively knows how to respond to the man she describes as "changeful and abrupt". When they first meet in the house and he is quizzing her, she consciously mirrors his tone ("I, speaking as seriously as he had done") and "His changes of mood did not offend me because I saw I had nothing to do with their alteration". Like many bullies, he enjoys a bit of a fight, rather than the nervous, prompt and unquestioning obedience his manner normally elicits, and Jane isn't afraid to answer him back and speak her mind. It isn't long before she can say "I knew the pleasure of vexing him and soothing him by turns". When Blanche arrives, Jane realises "he had not given her his love" and that "she could not charm him" (as she could). At this point, she realises her self-delusions in overlooking his faults and merely considering them as "keen condiments".
What should modern women make of this book? Bronte is radical in that neither Jane nor Rochester is conventionally attractive (it is personality that matters) and Jane is fiercely independent and assertive, even when she gives the impression of being submissive. She even says, "Women are supposed to feel very calm, generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint... precisely as men would suffer." On the other hand, Rochester's treatment of Jane, Bertha, Blanche and Céline is hard to justify (other than the fact he keeps Bertha alive - why not kill her?). Does disappointment and disability truly changed him, and does that, coupled with her independent wealth make them equals? Will they live happily ever after?
What were Rochester's plans and motives for his relationship with Jane? Why does he insist that Jane appears in the drawing room every evening while Blanche and friends are staying, even though he fully understands and comments on how depressed it makes Jane? And would Rochester have married Blanche if Mason hadn't turned up, making a big society wedding impossible? If so, was Jane always in his mind as a mistress and backup in case marriage to Blanche was not possible, or did he only decide to marry her much later? What sort of basis for a happy marriage is that, and can the equalising effect of his later disability and her inheritance really conquer it? It's true that Rochester tells Jane "I feigned courtship of Miss Ingram, because I wished to render you as madly in love with me as I was with you", but that is after Mason's visit, so is it true?
In a society which condemns divorce and cohabitation, is Rochester's planned bigamy justifiable? As Rochester hints to Jane early on, "Unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules". He also knows that Jane's integrity means she must be unaware of the details if he is to be with her (he says that if he asked her to do something bad, she would say "no sir... I cannot do it, because it is wrong"), though in fact there is a bigger tussle between her head and heart than he might have expected. Later, he ponders the fact that she is alone in the world as being some sort of justification, "It will atone" and extends to the more blasphemous and deluded "I know my Maker sanctions what I do. For the world's judgement - I wash my hands thereof."
Jane's bond with St John is very different, and she realise it, "I daily wished more to please him; but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature". His proposal is positively alarming, "You are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary's wife you must - shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you - not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign's service"!
The strangest element is the small but hugely significant ethereal message from Rochester that might now be called magical realism. It sits oddly with the rest of the book, but I can never decide whether this is it a strength or a weakness.
WHO KNOWS WHAT?
A constant theme is "who knows what?". Is Aunt Reed ignorant of how awful Lowood is and has she truly convinced herself that her treatment of Jane is appropriate? How much does Mrs Fairfax know (and tell) about Rochester's wives, current and intended? Does Rochester know whether or not Adele is really his daughter, and what does Jane believe? Blanche appears to know very little, but is she only seeing what she wants to see?
Overall, there is so much in this book, it is well worth rereading, but I am not convinced that it is a love story. It is the easiest label to apply, and although Jane certainly finds love, I am not sure that love finds her.
Incidentally, I first read this book at school (a naive mid-teen enjoys and appreciates it for very different reasons than an adult). One day, we were at a point when Jane was with the Rivers and possibly being courted by St John. We were told to read to page x for homework, so I turned to that page to mark it and saw the famous words (not that I knew they were), "Reader, I married him" and was shocked to assume it referred to St John.
I finally read Jean Rhys' prequel "Wide Sargasso Sea"
, reviewed here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/711331732