By Charlotte Brontë
Having been orphaned at a young age, Jane Eyre has been raised by her wicked aunt, Sarah Reed, in the company of her ugly cousins. No matter how much Eyre tries, she can never please her aunt, who eventually packs her off to school after Eyre rebels against Mrs Reed.
Lowood school is run by the parsimonious Mr Brocklehurst, who maximises profits and minimises nutrition until typhus devastates the place, leading to the reform of the institution. Helen Burns, who accepts all the unjustified criticism which is levelled at her, duly succumbs like the good Christian martyr she is.
Eyre thrives in the school and eventually becomes a teacher before seeking a position elsewhere as a governess. She goes to Thornfield, the house owned by the well-built but ugly Mr Rochester, where she tutors Adèle Varens, the bastard daughter of one of Rochester’s mistresses. The house is the centre of local social gatherings, but it also harbours a secret which is a danger to the occupants.
Eyre duly falls in love with her master, who shares her feelings, and they’re about to get married when it’s revealed that Mr Rochester is already married to the mad Bertha Mason, the secret in the attic of Thornfield who tried to barbecue her husband and eat her brother.
Eyre flees, disappearing into the wilds of northern England where she becomes destitute and reduced briefly to begging until she’s taken in by the Rivers, a family with whom she has a remarkable affinity. In fact, anyone would think they were all related.
Oh, that’s right. They are related.
The true story eventually comes out, with Jane learning that she’s inherited £20,000, which she shares with her cousins. While the sisters Mary and Diana are personable, their brother St John is religiously cold and austere. He wants Eyre to marry him so that she can assist him in his missionary work in India, but she has no interest in following him.
No, because she’s still thinking about Mr Rochester. When she gets back to Thornfield, Eyre finds a ruin, the house having been burnt down by Bertha Mason, who fell to her death during the conflagration. Mr Rochester did not escape unscathed, having lost an eye and a hand to ensure everyone else escaped safely.
Eyre finds him in Ferndean, where they rekindle their love, get married, and live happily ever after.
Jane Eyre is a Bildungsroman, the story of Eyre’s life over a period of about ten years as she goes from being a child and dependent to a financially independent woman. Like Cinderella, she wins Prince Charming, although unlike the fairytale character, she gains financial independence as well.
Jane Eyre is a Gothic-style novel with the mystery of the mad woman in the attic, and the remoteness of Thornfield and Ferndean, and Whitcross. However, it’s not principally a Gothic novel, but the elements are present.
Jane Eyre is a romance with Eyre falling for the athletic, but unattractive Rochester, who likes his plain Jane. This contrasts with St John Rivers, who has the physique and the looks, but lacks the personality or humanity, and is too concerned with his grand plan to annoy people in India with his religious views.
Jane Eyre is semi-autobiographical, appearing to be based in large measure on Brontë’s own life from the ghastly aunt to the dreadful school to her affection for a man who did not return her feelings. (Well, the novel is semi-autobiographical.)
Jane Eyre is probably wish fulfilment because unlike Brontë, Eyre gets her man, rejecting the blandishments of Rivers in favour of returning to her true love, who is largely dependent on her because of his injuries stemming from the fire that destroyed Thornfield.
Jane Eyre is a tale of incipient penury-to-riches, and, therefore, financial independence. Although Brontë may not have liked Austen, the concerns seem to revolve around financial security for the genteel classes.
Religion also plays a significant part in the novel, but is not always portrayed positively, and for the most part, the piety seems to be about a century or so too late to be convincing in an age when, I get the impression, the populace were mostly Sunday Christians or, if they weren’t, they were regarded as slightly cracked.
There is also quite a lot of parallelism. Helen Burns is what Eyre probably ought to have been in contemporary eyes at the time – a quiescent little creature forever accepting she is at fault. The Reeds and Rivers contrast with John, Eliza and Georgiana contrasting with Mary, Diana and St John. John Reed fritters away his inheritance and eventually commits suicide, while Eliza becomes a nun, and Georgiana, who has morphed into a lardy, marries well. Mary and Diana Rivers become good friends with Eyre while St John, mirroring John Reed, wastes his life in another way.
Jane Eyre is a book of its age, being somewhat windy and turgid at times. It’s one of those books where a lot of nothing happens (which can be safely skimmed), but the reader knows when it’s worth paying attention, and when he or she can go and have a shower, come back, and find they’ve missed nothing in the interim. It also stretches credulity where it turns out that Eyre and Rochester have fancied each other all along, but the revelation is so abrupt that it lacks plausibility, and Eyre never ceases to sound like a governess. Her flight from Thornfield into destitution is also somewhat ridiculous because unless people of the period were already half-starved, they were at no risk of dying of hunger within a couple of days or even collapsing from it, but Victorian-era women did seem to have a habit of wilting at a moment’s notice.