Feminist Classics: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
7th May 2014
We all know Jane Eyre, even if we’ve never read it. A young orphan, brought up by a cruel aunt and sent away to an even crueller school, grows up to become a moral, determined and intelligent governess. In her first posting, she meets the brooding, hot-tempered and dark haired Mr Rochester. The rest is history.
Charlotte Brontë’s first novel is a given in any “Greatest Novels” list, a staple of university curriculum and regular fodder for directors itching to give us all a well-needed, rare treat of a period drama.
Not surprising, then, that Emma Donoghue ends her introduction to this edition from the Folio Society with the assertion that Jane herself is “the mother of all heroines.” It’s a statement which speaks volumes about the novel’s status: the teenage protagonist with a taste for the sublime is now, for many, a safe, comforting figure. Jane Eyre is an oil-painting covered Penguin Classic. It’s canon. It’s establishment.
It is of course anything but the sort. Clasped close to the breast of cravat-wearing Telegraph readers Jane Eyre might be – but they’re reading it wrong. It’s one of the most radical and eternally relevant books ever written: nearly two centuries old it’s still as weird and wonderful as Carter and as strident as Adiche. It’s a book for the bolshy.
Critics didn’t miss this back in 1847, and fell over themselves to condemn it. They called the novel “immoral” and “sordid”, only stopping to praise the depiction of Lowood school which, despite accounts of hair cutting, whipping and public humiliation as punishment they mystifyingly saw as “philanthropic.”
This edition includes an introduction from the author herself in which she fiercely and eloquently takes the “carping few, ..in whose eyes whatever is unusual is wrong” to task. “Conventionality is not morality,” she writes. “Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.”
The words could have sprung straight from the mouth of her heroine. Jane, as O’Donoghue points out in her introduction, is a born rebel. And she’s the best kind of rebel: one with a cause. Her determined protests are never made without stating why. Even in a blazing row with Rochester, who as she shouts these words has just hurt her badly, she can’t resist bringing egalitarianism into it:
“Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?... we [stand] at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!Equality, and justice aren’t just Jane’s pre-occupations, but Brontë’s: they’re what the novel is all about. The pages team with underdogs: prostitutes, orphaned “French bastards”, lonely old widows, terrorised children. There’s not a single authority figure that isn’t flawed: Jane’s headmaster is a tyrant, her benefactor Aunt abuses her, landowner Rochester is bad-tempered, manipulative and condescending, and even the saintly curate St John Rivers is controlling and sexist.
Yet Jane never lets a bad world stop her trying to be good. She cannot quietly accept the cruelty of her Aunt Reed or her teachers, even though it earns her more abuse. Her flight from Thornfield Hall breaks her heart but she does it because it will strengthen her soul. By the end of the novel, it barely matters whether or not she marries Rochester or not – she has become her own woman, assured of both her own personality and of her own morality.
And it’s this – not just the rebelliousness and the two fingers up to unquestioned authority – which is why the book is still so relevant today. It’s not just about the rights and wrongs of society, but where we find ourselves within it. No-one who’s ever struggled, as themselves, against the world will never fail to find solace and inspiration in Jane Eyre.
Who can fail to relate to newly adult Jane’s first foray into the world, “cut adrift from every connection, uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted”? Or to fist pump the air when she turns up towards the end of the novel saying quietly “I told you I am independent, sir… I am my own mistress”?
Brontë creates Jane as an individual so well that even the big old attic-dwelling contentious parts of this book – which we won’t explore here in case of spoilers – don’t sit uncomfortably, but rather in opposition. We feel free to question them because we are invited to. Jane addresses her reader throughout the novel, and her story is not a dictation but a dialogue.
As long as there are rebellious, determined young women making their way in the world, the mother of all heroines will still have someone to chat to. This isn’t a feminist classic: it’s a bloody feminist essential.