Friday, March 06, 2009

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Jane Eyre’

When I’ve written about Charlotte Brontë previously (on Tales of Angria and The Professor), it has been in the light of Villette, her best novel. It is always such a pleasure to re-read, so sure is it of its ground: how hard it is for shy and sensitive people to find true and reciprocated affection, but how rewarding once the struggle is over. Going back to the earlier novels, it is always surprising to find them less sure of themselves – but they are, and Charlotte seems to have worked her way towards her masterpiece in the same tentative way that its protagonist Lucy Snowe makes her way in the world. Jane Eyre, of course, is her most popular book, but I have never understood why. It is wilder and more single-minded than her other books, but if you want that from a Brontë, Wuthering Heights is probably a better bet. It makes more sense if you flip it around: shyness as a popular subject is almost a contradiction in terms. If the media is constituted of people who aren’t shy, then why would they celebrate a book which evokes so perfectly that condition? But equally, it is not constituted of idiots, so how could they ever be taken in by Mr Rochester?

And, OK, it makes sense too because Jane Eyre is written from the point of view of a fiercely independent woman, whose plain speaking was, at the time it was published, refreshingly provocative (or just provocative, to some). It was noticeable in Tales of Angria that characters were described largely in negative terms, and it is true here too:

Mrs Fairfax turned out to be what she appeared, a placid-tempered, kind-natured woman, of competent education and average intelligence. (p. 113)
This is someone Jane likes! Though not someone she could be induced to like very much. The housekeeper at Thornfield Hall (Rochester’s residence, where Jane is to be governess to his ward Adèle) is one of very few people to have shown Jane kindness by this stage in the novel, but she is not influenced into a higher estimation of the lady’s character than is deserved. Prior to this there have been only two characters who have gained Jane’s affection: Helen Burns, the saintly pupil at Lowood, where Jane receives a schooling under the most deprived of circumstances, and Miss Temple, a teacher there, who is a mentor to Jane when she becomes a teacher herself. When she leaves, Jane remarks:
It did not seem as if a prop were withdrawn, but rather as if a motive were gone: it was not the power to be tranquil which had failed me, but the reason for tranquillity was no more. (p. 88)
Which is rather poignant, and an indication that Jane can be fiercely affectionate as well as fiercely independent. The contrast between the way she regards Miss Temple and Mrs Fairfax prefigures the difference in her feelings for Rochester and St John Rivers, to which much of the novel is devoted after Jane leaves Thornfield, about halfway through. St John is a clergyman, of the active, restless variety, bored of life in a small parish and determined to go and do good work somewhere foreign and deprived. He is passionate about this objective, to the extent of denying himself a marriage to someone with whom he is besotted, but which he recognises would preclude his emigration. And indeed his admission into heaven, which he regards as contingent on going to India and saving a quantity of Indians from their poverty-stricken and / or non-Christian ways. He tries to talk Jane into marrying him, so that she can accompany him as a support worker. There is no talk of love on either side, and, because she has some sympathy with his plans, and because she simply can’t imagine loving anyone other than Rochester (to whom she believes she is lost forever), she is almost tempted to agree. But she eventually comes to this realisation:
I was almost as hard beset by him now as I had been once before, in a different way, by another. I was a fool both times. To have yielded then would have been an error of principle; to have yielded now would have been an error of judgement. (p. 441)
So – not to yield because of a principle is foolish? It depends on whose the principle is – society’s, or one’s own. Jane is saying nothing new here: she is recognisably still the little girl who unhappily judged her cousins inferior, though they were her only companions, and who stole into Helen Burns’ death bed, so that she would not die alone. The point is that her character has remained constant through all kinds of struggles and tragedies, and the chief trait of that character – strong personal affection – is shown in contrast to St John’s absolute lack of it. He may be a good man (that is what his arguments are supposed to convey, though they are outdated now), and Rochester may be a bad one, but Rochester’s first duty is to the person he loves, rather than the species. This is the basis on which Jane makes her choice.

Watching a (very good) BBC dramatisation of Jane Eyre from 1983 some time ago, one line stood out, and it was good to be able to track it down. It occurs during one of Jane and Rochester’s heated debates, in chapter 11:

I mentally shake hands with you. (p. 141)
Delivered by Timothy Dalton with the utmost earnestness, it is laugh out loud funny. This is not his fault – it is a terrible line. It is certainly not a line of naturalistic dialogue. But Jane Eyre is not a novel in which characters interact naturalistically. It is more a series of dialogues, through which Jane develops her thoughts about independence and interdependence. The characters who share these dialogues are not fleshed out, are not important for anything other than helping Jane make her journey. Rochester seems particularly ridiculous because he is the most prominent. I was a bit harsh in the first paragraph: Jane Eyre is very far from being un-moving, or a bad book. It is an interesting stepping stone, but Charlotte still had to learn to trust other people enough to let them into her fiction: she is the only character here.


Anonymous said...

sorry for intruding on your blog.we are hosting an all day noise fest at droothys on 9th may and are looking for someone to do some short readings between the bands.would you be interested?
mark wildhouse

Chris said...

An interesting response to a novel about overcoming reserve! Thanks for the offer, but I would be too terrified.

estelle said...

I love this book fiercely and am always perplexed when people don't like it as much as I do -- don't take that as a narky criticism, I find it weird how closed-down I get about Jane Eyre. I haven't read Villette but I know I've got a copy lying around somewhere.

I think I like it for the reason you mention -- Jane's journey. When you are a 13-year-old Catholic girl reading about how you get rewarded (though weirdly, if you consider getting to marry a partly paralysed man a reward) for having convictions you'd hold unto hunger and death, it's really quite titillating.

Now I feel crazy!!

Chris said...

Why titillating? Are Catholics not supposed to have strong convictions? I thought that was Protestants.

I know that a lot of people do love 'Jane Eyre', and that's great, but I've never quite seen it myself. I can see that it is an attempt at showing a courageous individuality, but I don't find the context for it convincing. Rochester and St John seem to be stooges, there to prove a point from various angles.

Actually, you could say exactly the same of Dr John and M. Paul in 'Villette', but - I like them more. It is the best book in the world, by the way.

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