by Charlotte Brontë, available from various publishers:

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!!!!! 

This was originally written as an e-mail to my former friend Richard.  I then adapted it for an online book forum, where it got so much praise that I put it here on my website.

I have just read Jane Eyre for the first time since high school.  The first time I read it, it was so engrossing that I read 80 pages in one day–quite a feat for me.  Then I got my mom into it, and she read it even faster.  I read it at least once or twice more, probably saw the Orson Welles movie, and even saw the BBC miniseries of it on A&E’s “Classroom.”

I loved the book so much that it became the hallmark of good books. Being next to or near Jane Eyre in my bookcase was an honor.

Orson Welles fit the character of Rochester perfectly, even physically, and the movie is full of Gothic overtones to match the novel, but I still prefer the BBC miniseries.

Sure Timothy Dalton does not fit the physical description of a plain man that the pretty women only want for his money.  But the miniseries took the time to include a great deal of the original plot and dialogue, unlike the Welles movie, which completely cut out the part with the Rivers family.

Also, Jane was supposed to be plain–a major part of her character because she wasn’t used to getting attention for beauty–but the movie version cast Joan Fontaine in the role!  The miniseries found a more appropriate face, Zelah Clarke.  I do believe Zelah Clarke can be pretty, but for the miniseries, she was made to look plain.

Not knowing the standards of beauty of the time, when women often didn’t wear makeup and it seems even plain women could find pioneer husbands, I wasn’t sure if Brontë’s description of Jane’s face was supposed to look like a bushy-browed buck-teethed girl, or more like Zelah Clarke.

I recall that Zelda Gilroy (of Dobie Gillis) was supposed to be 50s-plain, but even my dad said she was cute.

In our country, even the plain girls usually aren’t ugly, at least not in the Midwest where I live.  Ugly meaning bad teeth, horse face, that sort of thing.  Even plain girls can be cute with a sweet smile and maybe a little makeup.

Zelah Clarke fits that version of plain: not at all unpleasing, just not model-pretty, more like most young girls look.  But was that the English standard of the time?

I’ve also noted that Charlotte’s description of Jane matches a description I read of Charlotte herself from a writer or publisher who met her in person.  So Jane is probably modeled on Charlotte.

From descriptions I’ve read of Charlotte Brontë, she herself was considered plain; this was noted in the fact that she loved Professor Heger, but his wife was so pretty he’d have no reason even to look at Charlotte.

Though, from the best painting of her, she looks pretty to me.  If that’s what they considered plain, then yes, Zelah’s is the face to bring to mind as I read.

…In case anyone believes that women were perfectly happy in their lot as homemakers with few opportunities for a career, or as submissive wives, until feminism came along and put ideas into their heads, it isn’t true.  We have many examples that it isn’t.

Not only is there George Sand, who preferred to wear men’s clothes and live more like a male libertine than the conventional wife’s life.

Not only is there Anna Howe, Clarissa Harlowe‘s dearest friend and closest confidante, who was written by a man in the eighteenth century, but speaks as if she were born in the twentieth.

Not only does Clarissa herself prefer living as a single, independent woman to pledging obedience to a man she cannot respect, no matter how handsome or rich or well-connected that man may be.

Not only is there Laura Ingalls Wilder, who is gratified to find that Almanzo, her pa and her pastor do not believe in making her say “obey,” which works because she wouldn’t have said it anyway.

Not only does Almanzo reply, “I never knew [a wife] that [obeyed], nor any decent man that wanted her to.”

Not only were there the suffragettes.

Not only is there the Wife of Bath, who wants to take over control of her husbands.

But we also have Jane Eyre, a book written by a woman more than 100 years before the feminism of the 1960s and 70s:

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.

Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot.  Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth.

Women are supposed to be 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 constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex (p. 129).

Jane is also a feisty little thing at 10 years old, refusing to bow down to those who offend her sense of justice.  Her friend Helen is the opposite: angelic, bowing down and even agreeing to the injustices.

Helen is right that Jane’s anger against various people needs to be tempered with Christian love and mercy, but I think Helen carries it too far, becoming the one who willingly submits to abuse, the enabler.

Jane at 10 realizes that she’s probably disliked by her rich aunt because her dead uncle made the aunt take her in, and because she doesn’t act like many other children.  If she were pretty, clever, laughing, running around all the time, she probably would have been welcomed into her aunt’s little family circle.

Not only does this remind me in some ways of myself as a child, but I can’t help imagining if Wednesday Addams were taken in by a family of rich blondes from Addams Family Values.

Or remembering the way Wednesday is treated at summer camp, looked on with suspicion and dislike because she doesn’t act like the other children–until she is finally forced into the Harmony Hut with the happy children’s movies and the *gasp* pictures of Michael Jackson:

I have noticed an odd tendency in old British books to print lines of French, but not translate them.  The writers seemed to assume the reader would understand.  I wonder if French was just a common part of English education in those days, as expected as reading and arithmetic, since France was just across the Channel….

In the miniseries, I was struck by the acting of Dalton and Clarke: When they first conversed in the parlor, they seemed so stilted as if they were acting badly, with no feeling or passion for the characters.

But as the miniseries progressed, their familiarity and comfort with each other increased–showing that first conversation was deliberately acted that way.

It showed two people first getting to know each other, not at all comfortable with each other yet.  Later on, their comfort increases along with their regard for each other.

It’s very familiar to me, since I often feel the same way on first meeting someone, very shy and quiet, but if we hit it off, I feel much more comfortable in their presence.  Even if I already “met” this person online, the first meeting is usually like this.  So this part of the miniseries certainly rings true.

Since the miniseries is one medium and the book another, the scene can’t be quite the same in both.  But the book still shows an abruptness and unease in the way they talk with each other:

Mr. Rochester blames Jane for the fall that twisted his ankle, as if she were a fairy who put the ice on the roadway and bewitched his horse.  He asks her questions, but it’s more grilling than getting-to-know-you.  She’s not afraid of him, as she would be if he were polite and refined, something she’s not used to.

He’s impressed by  her portfolio, which has several watercolors which are not at all your typical Victorian schoolgirl landscape: They’re surreal, with brooding supernatural beings.

I can’t help but wonder if the very thing that made Mr. Rochester upset at her–his idea that she is a fairy who bewitched his horse–is what finally attracts him to her.

Since the pretty drawing room flowers–that is, the rich women in the neighborhood–could hardly compete with a mysterious fairy who somehow survived eight years in a charity school.

The descriptions of Mr. Rochester fit Orson Welles much better than Timothy Dalton: middle height, broad chested, dark face, stern features, heavy brow, about 40, granite-hewn features, gloomy but with eyes “not without a certain change in their depths sometimes, which, if it was not softness, reminded you, at least, of that feeling.”

Of course, Brontë probably had in mind either her brother (a wild and brooding young man) or the great (unrequited) love of her life, the married Professor Heger.

Heger was (from the accounts I’ve read) a stern man himself, given to fits of pique, but an excellent, attentive and caring teacher–Though after you stopped being his student, he apparently forgot about you, which troubled Charlotte Brontë to no end.

It seems she mistook his care for his favorite student as something else.  She didn’t understand why he lost interest in her after she left Brussels for home, and rarely responded to her letters, certainly with no fondness or indulgence.

Her disappointment seems to have followed her throughout the rest of her short life: She kept re-making the whole story in various ways in her three novels, turning the Professor’s sweet wife into spiteful old women, and turning the Professor into unmarried characters who fell for her Mary Sues (Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe).

Pictures of Prof. Heger–though he hardly fits the word “ugly” often used for Mr. Rochester: Here and here.

Mr. Rochester finds Jane fascinating because she’s not subservient or artful, but rather tells it like it is.  When he asks if she finds him handsome, instead of coming up with some polite evasion, she simply says, “No, sir.”  He also tells her,

Know, that in the course of your future life you will often find yourself elected the involuntary confidant of your acquaintances’ secrets: people will instinctively find out, as I have done, that it is not your forte to talk of yourself, but to listen while others talk of themselves;

they will feel, too, that you listen with no malevolent scorn of their indiscretion, but with a kind of innate sympathy; not the less comforting and encouraging because it is very unobtrusive in its manifestations.

As a quiet person myself, I know this is true-to-life.

I love how Brontë describes Jane’s feelings so well, so masterfully.  We see how Jane goes from finding Mr. Rochester ugly, to a deep, passionate attachment.

We see it’s because he starts treating her as a friend, seeking her out, and she believes she sees something more in his eyes.

When she discovers she may have a rival, Blanche Ingram (merely based on the fact that a beautiful and accomplished young upper-class woman is in his circle of acquaintances), we also see how she forces herself to stop thinking her plain and lower-class self can possibly make him think anything for her other than friendship.

Sure she’s gained in health, ruddiness and weight since she came to Thornfield, which is much healthier than the institution she left, and her appearance has improved.  Sure men do occasionally fall for their secretaries/maids/etc. (though Jane doesn’t actually think of this).

But she believes her feelings for him are impertinent and must be squashed.  It doesn’t work, but when she hears news of him coming back to Thornfield, she tells herself there are other reasons why her hand is trembling and her face is flushed.  Brontë has (had) a gift for describing a woman’s inner thoughts.

Mr. Rochester invites over a bunch of local upper-class people for a few weeks.  He pays attention to Blanche Ingram, as if he intends to marry her.  (In the miniseries, she’s played by the first Romana, Mary Tamm, who’s perfect for the part.)  [Update 5/18/14: RIP Romana.  🙁  ]

Now that Jane has encountered Blanche, and been forced (by Mr. Rochester) to stay in the drawing room every night as his guests assemble after dinner, she knows that Blanche is haughty and arrogant.

Blanche is proud of the ways she tormented her governesses; her mother speaks of governesses with contempt; she’s horrible to Rochester’s sweet little French daughter; Mr. Rochester sees it all.

Jane can see that he has no passion for Blanche, yet he seems to intend to marry her anyway, for family or political reasons, as upper-class marriages often were in those days.  The very thought burns her inside with what isn’t quite jealousy, she writes.

It reminded me of an ex-boyfriend who had to choose between me and a girl he didn’t love, but initially chose the girl he didn’t love.  I knew I held his heart, and a few weeks later he finally decided to follow his heart.

But until then, I had to endure him calling some other girl he didn’t love his “girlfriend,” and him telling me that people with no passion for each other who were “just friends” could be successfully married.

So I know how Jane is feeling.  I also understand her saying that if he had loved Blanche, she would have felt far differently about his marrying her, than she did knowing he did not.

If my ex had loved the other girl, I would have understood his choosing her.  But he loved me and only saw her as a friend.  So my heart burned then just as Jane’s is burning now.  The book has become far more real to me than it was in my inexperienced teens.

Even though Jane Eyre is a little Quakerish woman who refuses to do anything she perceives as “inappropriate,” and the social mores of the time would prevent a respectable English novel from being explicit, the middle part of the book has a strange erotic flavor to it.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but Brontë describes Jane and Mr. Rochester’s emotions and expressions so minutely and completely that the air flashes with sexual tension.

When Mr. Rochester confesses that he loves Jane and not Blanche Ingram (though he gave blatant hints here and there that only Jane could miss), and they no longer pretend with each other, the tension increases.

The housekeeper is surprised, and warns Jane to be wary of her master wanting to marry his governess.  She doubts his real intentions.  But she had noticed that he treated Jane as a “pet.”

I especially love that term right there, treated as a pet.  It seems to fit, with the way he loved to tease her for being an imp and a fairy, while she teased him back, refusing to mince words for the sake of politeness or his position as her employer.

When he gives her money for travel to her aunt’s deathbed, he fears she’ll stay away too long, and tries to take it back.  She keeps it from him, rather than surrendering it like a dutiful servant.  They had such a close relationship that she felt comfortable asserting her rights and teasing him.

This also reminds me of one of my former bosses, whom I would tease one moment, and the next insist that he pay my wages (since he was often late with them).

Then when they go from master/servant to engaged, Jane teases him even more, taking the housekeeper’s advice and keeping him at a distance until the wedding day.  It stirs him into a passionate fury, but she can tell he enjoys it.

It’s enough to make me wonder if Brontë had some other romance in her life that no one ever knew about, since she writes like someone who has experienced it.  Yet at this time of her life, the closest thing to “romance” anyone knows about is her unrequited love for Prof. Heger.

However, the devastation she feels, when on her wedding day she learns that Rochester is married to a madwoman in the attic, is probably taken from Brontë’s realization that Prof. Heger never felt anything for her.

The next part of the book is a sweet little bit that got cut out of the Orson Welles movie: when she finds out about Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, and runs away to avoid becoming his mistress instead of his legal wife.

After several days of desperate need, thanks to a parcel of money etc. forgotten on the coach, she finally comes upon a little house with a few caring souls who take her in.  She gets along quite well with the two young sisters, and their brother, St. John, is a blond Apollo and a Calvinist preacher.

He gives Jane a job as a charity schoolteacher.  She soon becomes his confidant when she discovers his secret love for a local heiress, who returns it, and whose father would bless the union.  But he has made up his mind that he is to be a missionary to India, and this beautiful but weak girl would never last in harsh climates.

Jane discovers that she has inherited a small fortune–and that these three new friends are her first cousins.  At long last, she has a loving family.  But then St. John decides she must become his wife and help him be a missionary to India.

St. John is strict and passionately Calvinist, unlike Jane, and he believes that he KNOWS God’s will for Jane.  And that will is that Jane MUST go to India and MUST marry him (to avoid scandal, not for love), or else she will burn in hellfire forever.

The exchange between Jane and St. John reminds me very much of an Evangelical church we once attended.  This church began to teach that everyone should go on missions, even though not everyone felt the desire or ability to go.  In the same way, St. John wonders why not everyone around him burns to go into missions.

Jane replies that not everyone has his powers, and it would be foolish for the weak to march with the strong.  He says that when the right people are found for the job, they must be stirred up; Jane asks, wouldn’t their own hearts tell them first?

But St. John takes it upon himself to speak for her heart, and badgers her into submission.  For every objection, he’s already prepared an answer, making it impossible for Jane to be “right.”

Jane very nearly gives in, when the voice of Mr. Rochester is supernaturally transmitted to her across the ether, as if to show that even God disagrees with St. John’s concept of Jane’s destiny.  It’s as if Brontë wants to show that Calvinists don’t have it all figured out, after all.

In fact, a strong antipathy to Calvinism runs through the whole book, from the abuses of Mr. Brocklehurst, who insists on unhealthy conditions for the girls of the Lowood charity school, for the “good of their souls”; to the unloving austerity of Eliza; to St. John’s fiercely moral and ambitious (but not loving) character.  Helen is the opposite of this, with her loving ways and universalist beliefs.

Even Mr. Rochester’s wild ways seem more desirable to Jane than the strict rules and predestination of the Calvinists around her.  In the end, it is Rochester she runs to, and she finds God and salvation are both there with him.

For a more complete treatment of this topic, see Rochester vs. St. John Rivers: or Why Jane Eyre Preferred a Cynical Sinner to a Religious Zealot by Peter Bolt.

Amazing how the book has new levels of meaning for me as time goes on.

[December 2009]