Jane Eyre Review–Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

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]

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