Sunday, February 7, 2021

Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

 Rating: 3/5

There is almost a way to read Jane Eyre in which you interpret our heroine Jane as an unreliable narrator who refuses to recognize her relationship with Mr. Rochester is emotionally abusive. I say almost - I think simply rewriting the last two-thirds of the final chapter, the one that famously starts with "Reader, I married him," would get you most of the way there. Indeed, the chapter, in which Jane happily announces her marriage to her friends and they each react in turn, starts promising enough. House servant Mary could possibly be restraining herself from communicating her severe misgivings.

"Mary, I have been married to Mr. Rochester this morning." The housekeeper and her husband were both of that decent phlegmatic order of people, to whom one may at any time safely communicate a remarkable piece of news without incurring the danger of having one's ears pierced by some shrill ejaculation, and subsequently stunned by a torrent of wordy wonderment. Mary did look up, and she did stare at me: the ladle with which she was basting a pair of chickens roasting at the fire, did for some three minutes hang suspended in air; and for the same space of time John's knives also had rest from the polishing process: but Mary, bending again over the roast, said only —

"Have you, Miss? Well, for sure!"

A short time after she pursued — "I seed you go out with the master, but I didn't know you were gone to church to be wed;" and she basted away.

But it all quickly goes downhill from there. Mary's husband John reacts by "grinning from ear to ear" (one could argue that, having watched Mr. Rochester  grow up from a boy, John is unable to see Mr. Rochester as the abusive spouse he is). Cousins Diana and Mary "approved the step unreservedly." Even spurned lover St. John largely ignores the matter, saying only that he hopes Jane is "happy, and trusts [she is] not of those who live without God in the world, and only mind[s] earthly things." Adele doesn't have an opinion at all and speaks only of her own happiness - but that is Adele for you. 

Jane next extols the wholesomeness and intimacy of their love:

I hold myself supremely blest — blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward's society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character — perfect concord is the result.

Finally, Jane's patience and love of Mr Rochester is rewarded - an act the characters attribute to divine benevolence. Struck blind during the fire set by his abused first wife, after two years of marriage to Jane, he regains his vision. 

It is a wholly unsatisfying ending, because I find it impossible to read Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester as anything but creepy and unhealthy (even if setting aside the fact that he locked up his wife in the attic with no concern for her comfort or happiness and refers to her almost exclusively with terms like "monster" and "wild beast!").

Mr. Rochester, cognizant of Jane's attachment to him, dangles Ms Ingram in front of her. ("Well, I feigned courtship of Miss Ingram, because I wished to render you as madly in love with me as I was with you; and I knew jealousy would be the best ally I could call in for the furtherance of that end.") When that fails to provoke sufficient response, he threatens to send her to Ireland.

[Rochester] “You’ll like Ireland, I think: they’re such warm-hearted people there, they say.”

[Eyre] “It is a long way off, sir.”

“No matter—a girl of your sense will not object to the voyage or the distance.”

“Not the voyage, but the distance: and then the sea is a barrier—”

“From what, Jane?”

“From England and from Thornfield: and—”


“From you, sir.”

I said this almost involuntarily, and, with as little sanction of free will, my tears gushed out. I did not cry so as to be heard, however; I avoided sobbing. The thought of Mrs. O’Gall and Bitternutt Lodge struck cold to my heart; and colder the thought of all the brine and foam, destined, as it seemed, to rush between me and the master at whose side I now walked, and coldest the remembrance of the wider ocean—wealth, caste, custom intervened between me and what I naturally and inevitably loved.

 When she asks for time off to visit her dying aunt, he becomes irritated and clingy.

“Promise me only to stay a week—”

“I had better not pass my word: I might be obliged to break it.”

“At all events you will come back: you will not be induced under any pretext to take up a permanent residence with her?”

He gaslights Jane repeatedly regarding her encounters with Grace Poole with his wife.

"The creature of an over-stimulated brain; that is certain. I must be careful of you, my treasure: nerves like yours were not made for rough handling."

His demonstrations of love show no understanding of who Jane is - her character, her dreams and her desires. For example, for their wedding, he wishes to drape her in jewels and finery:

"This morning I wrote to my banker in London to send me certain jewels he has in his keeping,—heirlooms for the ladies of Thornfield. In a day or two I hope to pour them into your lap: for every privilege, every attention shall be yours that I would accord a peer’s daughter, if about to marry her.”

“Oh, sir!—never rain jewels! I don’t like to hear them spoken of.  Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange: I would rather not have them.”

“I will myself put the diamond chain round your neck, and the circlet on your forehead,—which it will become: for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow, Jane; and I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy-like fingers with rings.”

This makes Jane incredibly miserable, which he seems not to recognize at all.

Glad was I to get him out of the silk warehouse, and then out of a jeweller’s shop: the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation. As we re-entered the carriage, and I sat back feverish and fagged, I remembered what, in the hurry of events, dark and bright, I had wholly forgotten—the letter of my uncle, John Eyre, to Mrs. Reed: his intention to adopt me and make me his legatee. “It would, indeed, be a relief,” I thought, “if I had ever so small an independency; I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester, or sitting like a second Danae with the golden shower falling daily round me."

When she protests these displays of wealth, Mr. Rochester's reaction is to laugh at her patronizingly.

He chuckled; he rubbed his hands. “Oh, it is rich to see and hear her!” he exclaimed. “Is she original? Is she piquant? I would not exchange this one little English girl for the Grand Turk’s whole seraglio, gazelle-eyes, houri forms, and all!”

This is the height of their romance! The honeymoon before she discovers he is already married! At the wedding altar, he reacts this way in response to the accusations that he is not legally able to marry Jane:

Without speaking, without smiling, without seeming to recognise in me a human being, he only twined my waist with his arm and riveted me to his side. 

This abusive nature seems to be highlighted specifically by Bronte in the carriage scene where Adele joins Jane and Mr. Rochester on a shopping trip. Mr Rochester muses that he shall whisk Jane away and live with her alone on the moon. Adele reacts with horror and confusion, eventually concluding “She is far better as she is. Besides, she would get tired of living with only you in the moon. If I were mademoiselle, I would never consent to go with you.”

 Perhaps all this could be somewhat mitigated, given the right redemption scene. Instead, Jane hears of his injuries, and of his wife being dead, and rushes to him at once, eagerly agreeing to marry him. It is only after this point that Mr. Rochester acknowledges his failings in his treatment of her and understanding of her sense of morality. ("I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me.") His physical injury alone appears to be enough justice.

 And this is frustrating to me because I love Jane so dearly. She is fiercely independent, smart, introspective, and brave in following her convictions. Her narration is dramatic and vivid. She sees the world so imaginatively, often finding both beauty and destruction or power and peace within the same sight. I love these contrasts!

I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow; in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies. How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow!—when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down ing and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck! That beck itself was then a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest on its banks, that showed only ranks of skeletons.

Have I not described a pleasant site for a dwelling, when I speak of it as bosomed in hill and wood, and rising from the verge of a stream? Assuredly, pleasant enough: but whether healthy or not is another question.

That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded schoolroom and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital.

Were it not for this unfortunate relationship I would read this book over and over again!

So, how would I remedy the ending? The most parsimonious approach would be as I suggested earlier. Re-write just the last part of the final chapter, in which Jane reacts defensively that all her friends were horrified at her elopement, deluding herself, and coming up with excuses about how no one understands their love. The challenge would be to make it obvious enough that the reader is clear the author believes the romance to be a twisted evil thing, while still remaining faithful to Jane's character voice. A particularly modern flair would be to end the novel with a sort of Handmaiden's Tale-style epilogue, describing how this account is entered into evidence as to why Mr. Rochester should not be able to take some poor hapless lass as his third wife. I can't imagine a happy ending for Jane without script-doctoring in at least another five or six chapters. And then it becomes really quite another tale.

So where does that leave me? Frustrated, heartbroken, unsatisfied. Oh Jane, I want so much better for you.


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