Allison Reads Bronte: Jane Eyre, Part One

Reader, you could say I’m a little obsessed with the Brontes.  I’ve been rereading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, mostly after having written a “LEAVE MR. ROCHESTER ALONE” rant based solely on memory and Wikipedia. Since I love ranting about Bronte books, I think I’ll use this as an opportunity to post a long, blow-by-blow review of Jane Eyre as I read it.  I’d apologize for boring and inconveniencing you all, but I’m not sorry in the least. 😛

At the moment, I’m in the book’s early chapters.  So far, the story’s chronicling Jane’s unhappy childhood.  She is bullied frequently by her cousins and aunt-by-marriage, and the servants tend to turn on her in any familial conflict.  (More on that later.)

In these early chapters, we’re introduced to a shy, quiet girl who loves to read and has some really novel perspectives on the world she lives in.  This is the Jane whose character captivated me as a reader.  At this point, I’m seeing the beginnings of the proto-feminist “strong female character” modern analysts praise (despite the book and character’s seemingly counter-feminist shortcomings later on).  When I read about this young Jane, I want to be this kid’s friend so badly.  I want to be a superhero trio that smashes injustice with her and Helen Burns (her friend you’ll meet later).

I think one of my favorite parts of this period is when young Jane mouths off to Mrs. Reed for the way she’s been mistreated.  Her aunt has just slandered her to the intimidating and hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, and Jane lets all that pent-up resentment out.  It doesn’t get her anywhere, except that now the entire family avoids her.  Bronte describes the surge of elation, “this fierce pleasure,” as Jane stands “winner of the field” in this “battle.”  And then, Charlotte Bronte lets that victorious joy die down and makes Jane feel remorse.

Way to spoil the moment, Charlotte.

On the one hand, this seems like the goody-two-shoes version of the “I hate you, Mom and Dad” scenes we get in present-day stories featuring young people.  I don’t like books where the angsty youth disrespect their parents/guardians for no good reason, but I feel like Jane’s behavior is valid.  She’s endured so much at the hands of Mrs. Reed, who looks the other way when her aesthetically pleasing children pick on small, somber Jane.  I don’t want her to feel regret for this.

What I see going on a lot so far is Jane is that fierce, strong woman character modern-day feminist analysts adore, but every time she has a moment to shine, goody-goody Charlotte Bronte suppresses her again with self-doubt and pangs of remorse.  On that vein, I had forgotten how preachy Charlotte can be sometimes, about good behavior and religious values.  This story isn’t religious fiction, but there are definitely religious overtones, more than I remember.

A lot of the time, I’m seeing Charlotte call out other people in her faith who misuse their religion as a pretext to persecute others, but tries to preach to her readers about how awesome her faith is when it’s being practiced with purity.  Basically, all the cool kids are doing Christianity (also some uncool kids are too, but we all know they’re losers) so the reader should too.  Um, no thanks.  I’m told Anne Bronte was a lot heavier with the religious themes, but I could be wrong.  I think Emily Bronte, on the other hand, used the most “profanity” and secularity in her writings.  Her characters were just characters, and gloriously messed-up ones, at that – not allegories to positive, faith-based messages, or whatever.

Anyway, back to Jane.  And speaking of Jane, let’s talk about Bessie.  When we first meet Bessie, she’s holding Jen back as Mrs. Reed chews her out for something she didn’t do.  Bessie calls Jane names and is quite unsympathetic to the young child’s anguish and fear at being locked in the dark, shadowy room where her uncle died years before.  I really didn’t like Bessie at this point.

But suddenly, after Jane’s great mouthing-off to Mrs. Reed, Bessie becomes more sympathetic.  Her cruelty is quickly written off as her being stressed and taking that stress out on Jane the easiest scapegoat of the nursery.  After all, if she were to lash out at beautiful little Eliza or Georgiana Reed, Mrs. Reed would likely fire her.  So Jane, it is.  And yet, Jane and Bessie become kindred spirits for the rest of the book, if I recall.  I find this very hard to believe.  Maybe it’s because I’m reading it from the perspective of a modern woman who is not quick to forgive child abuse, even from an era where kids had no rights.

Also following the Great Mouthing-Off, Jane is sent to school.  The school she’s been sent to is poorly funded and there’s definitely a lot of institutionalized corruption.  The girls attending the school live in utter squalor, while the teachers have some comforts like access to toast, butter, and tea.

It’s also here that Jane meets Helen Burns, an older girl whose true potential is stifled by the school’s hostile environment.  She does well in classes where the teacher accords her with the dignity and respect due every human, regardless of their class or stature.  But she loses her momentum completely when she’s with a particular overbearing teacher who only sees her flaws.  I think we have all been Helen Burns at one point in our lives.

One of my favorite scenes from Jane’s schooling is as follows: Brocklehurst, the school’s director, comes to observe the place.  He claims that deprivation will make the girls hardy and … better religionists?  (Meh.)

When he sees a girl with curly hair, he insists that she’s some kind of promiscuous sinner and cites verses old and new, right and left, to justify his claims.  Then he starts picking on Jane, because Mrs. Reed told him she’s a serial liar and how she must be ostracized and even, implicitly killed, to atone for this.  But then Brocklehurst’s wife and daughters come in.  They’re so pampered and privileged and oh look, their hair is artificially curled!  Good job, Charlotte, for excelling at the showing-not-telling thing in this particular scene.

I don’t know if I’ll have time to finish the book in the time I have it from the library, but it’s these early scenes in Jane’s narrative which have always appealed the most to me.  These scenes tend to be glossed over in abridgements, especially on-screen.  Even if I don’t reach the end this time around, I’m still enjoying these early chapters on Jane Eyre to the fullest.

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