Reader, I’m assuming that you're familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (if you haven't read it, you've probably at least seen one of the numerous movies). It is often seen as a sort of proto-romance novel, about a mousy governess who falls in love with her hunky boss, the whole thing draped over with swathes of dreary Victorian morality.
That’s … not untrue, exactly, but it’s an extreme oversimplification. Jane Eyre is a novel about a powerless person, and her struggle to remain true to herself and her passions, in spite those who try to dominate, manipulate, and change her.
I love Jane Eyre, and I think it’s worth reading again (and again, and again).
Jane is not pretty. She has no money. And, crucially, she has no family. In 1840s England, there were no secular social services to help the disadvantaged: no welfare, no child services, no police. If you got sick, or lost all your money, or were the victim of a crime, the only social structure that existed to help you consisted of your family and friends. (Or the church, to which, interestingly, Jane never turns for help.)
Jane Eyre is repeatedly described as “friendless.” As an orphaned child, she is the ward of a family that actively dislikes her. They try to scold and frighten her into becoming a different kind of child. Jane straight-up tells her aunt that she is going to hell for being such a terrible adoptive mother.
As an adult, Jane gets a job working for a wealthy man, Mr. Rochester, with whom she falls hopelessly in love. When he commits his crime against her, she can’t just resign. Aside from the fact that she loves him, she has nowhere else to go.
But she does. She quits. That’s who Jane is. In spite of her insignificance, Jane has a knotty, stubborn, not-necessarily-attractive personality, one that refuses to compromise to those who try to manipulate her.
For all Rochester’s many faults, this uncompromising spirit is what he loves about her - which is why his attempt to trick her into betraying her principles is so heinous. When Jane defies him, he cries,
“Consider that eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage… It is you, spirit – with will and energy, and virtue and purity – that I want: not alone your bitter frame.”
And that’s when she leaves him.
I’ve read it at least five times, and I’m likely to read it again. I never stop enjoying watching Jane forgive, but not capitulate to, her bullies.
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