While traveling for work last week, Mr. A.M.B. mentioned someone named “Jane” repeatedly in the emails and text messages he sent me. Was he talking about a colleague? Or the person sitting next to him on the plane? No, as it turns out, he was talking about Jane Eyre, the protagonist of the eponymous novel I recommended he read after he finished Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which he reviewed on this blog in Persuasion: Is It Better With Age? He took the audiobook and also an ebook version of Jane Eyre with him to San Diego.
I’m glad to say that my husband has developed a deep appreciation for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, just as he appreciated the merits of Jane Austen’s work (while Charlotte never thought highly of Jane Austen’s novels).
This is what Mr. A.M.B. has to say about Jane Eyre:
I’ve seen two relatively recent movie versions of Jane Eyre and neither did much for me. When A.M.B. recommended Jane Eyre as the next book for me to read, my response was, “isn’t it really gloomy?” I don’t mind a good tragedy — one of my favorite movies is La vita è bella — but Jane Eyre struck me as depressing without many redeeming features.
As I remembered the plot from the movies (1996 & 2011), we follow the tragic backstory of a cold, difficult orphan who comes to know a cold, difficult rake. Lacking any other suitably morose and misanthropic candidates for one another, Jane and Rochester plan to marry, but their marriage is thwarted by his own tragic backstory. Jane flees in confusion, but returns out of a sense of ennui, finding Rochester living under tragic circumstances. They marry, the end. Who wants misery for the sake of misery?**
The problem with the movie versions is that Jane Eyre is a contemplative novel. The plot is dreary and depressing. It’s the details in the story, particularly the details about how the characters think and act, that give the reader, to quote Jane Eyre, “real knowledge of life amidst its perils.” There’s simply no way to compress that kind information into a movie or even a prolonged mini-series. The audiobook is just under 20 hours long, and there’s not much to leave out if you truly want to understand Jane.
So, having now experienced Jane Eyre as Brontë wrote the story (as opposed to how screenwriters interpreted it), here is some of what I learned:
(1) Brontë Really Knew How To Inveigh
In my review of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I wrote that “If the English language was a hammer for Hemingway, it is a Masamune samurai sword for Austen.” For Brontë, the English language is the HMS Dreadnought, loaded with cannonballs:
Georgiana, a more vain and absurd animal than you was certainly never allowed to cumber the earth. You had no right to be born, for you make no use of life. Instead of living for, in, and with yourself, as a reasonable being ought, you seek only to fasten your feebleness on some other person’s strength: if no one can be found willing to burden her or himself with such a fat, weak, puffy, useless thing, you cry out that you are ill-treated, neglected, miserable.
That’s just the opening salvo of the fusillade, which continues:
Then, too, existence for you must be a scene of continual change and excitement, or else the world is a dungeon: you must be admired, you must be courted, you must be flattered — you must have music, dancing, and society — or you languish, you die away. Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts, and all wills, but your own?
It gets worse from there, as Eliza advises her sister Georgiana to “go on as heretofore, craving, whining, and idling,” and thus “suffer the results of your idiocy, however bad and insuperable they may be.” Then Eliza says, upon their mother’s death, she will continue on as if they never knew each other, then ends, for sport, “if the whole human race, ourselves excepted, were swept away, and we two stood alone on the earth, I would leave you in the old world, and betake myself to the new.”
The book is loaded with similar stemwinders* delivered by multiple characters against people, circumstances, ideas, and, tellingly, against themselves. In less capable hands with themes that were not as good a fit, this would feel preachy (see, e.g., Atlas Shrugged), but here it flows in an introspective, conflicted way — the way a real human consciousness does, or at least the way a particularly insightful and disciplined consciousness flows.
It takes some time to get into the style and rhythm of the book, but, once you do, it’s richly rewarding. The book is carried far more by its prose and its characterization than by its plot, which is why neither of the films I’ve seen have done it justice.
(2) Edward Fairfax Rochester Isn’t As Weird As I Thought
Having only seen the movies, I bought the line — one repeated on Wikipedia and in hundreds of “sample essays” online meant to be plagiarized by high school students — that Rochester was a “Byronic Hero,” a moody, mysterious outcast of high passions and principles. Having read the book, however, Rochester didn’t seem nearly as weird or obnoxious as he has been made out to be.
The scene where Rochester pretends to be a gypsy is unbelievable and just plain weird. But I must admit that I see the point of it: to show that Rochester, who is able to toy with everyone around him, is incapable of drawing anything out of Jane that she does not want to give up.
As unromantic as his marriage proposal might be — e.g., “you strange, you almost unearthly thing!” — it makes sense in the context of their relationship.*** He is captivated and vexed by Jane’s extraordinary intellect and self-control, and is inescapably drawn to it. When they talk, he’s constantly asking her what she thinks (despite caring not one bit about the thoughts of anyone else) because he knows she has some sort of piercing remark, and yet she also has the ability to hold back and restrain her impulses. This quality vexes Rochester greatly, which is why he repeatedly refers to her as having come from the Devil, but it’s also why he’s so intrigued by her, and so desperate to understand her and to win her love.
[spoiler alert--Does anyone interested in this novel actually need one?]
Consider one of their final interactions, after he’s been blinded and partially crippled in a fire that destroyed his home:
“Am I hideous, Jane?”
“Very, sir: you always were, you know.”
“Humph! The wickedness has not been taken out of you, wherever you have sojourned.”
This is all in playful jest between them, and it’s part of why Rochester’s remarks about her are so odd and unromantic — it’s the only way he can express how fascinated he is by her.
All in all, like the Jane Austen books, it’s not a book I would have fully appreciated in high school, or perhaps even in college. I’m glad I finally read it. More men should. It has at least as much to tell men about life as the book the teenage girl who sat next to me on the plane was reading, one of my personal favorites: Fight Club. (So much for gender stereotypes.)
* “Stemwinder” came into vogue a generation after Brontë’s death, meaning “first-rate,” particularly “a stirring speech.” It is a bit of a Janus word these days, though, because of misuse of the word to mean a long, boring speech.
** That’s how I felt about Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, one of the finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: it was a sad story, but nothing more. I recommend it to no one.
***My wife thinks it’s one of the worst marriage proposals she’s ever seen in literature; it’s a good thing I didn’t use a similar line on her at any point. I wouldn’t have been able to get away with it.