(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Jane Eyre (1847)
By Charlotte Bronte
Book #33 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Originally published in 1847 under the masculine pen-name "Currer Bell" so that it'd be taken more seriously, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is in fact a largely autobiographical coming-of-age tale, or at least when it comes to the particulars and attitudes that inform this wholly fictitious storyline. In it, we watch our stubborn, nerdy titular hero progress from the age of eight to twenty, first as a put-upon orphan being raised by cruel relatives who don't want her there, then as an even more put-upon orphan at one of those notoriously harsh and unsanitary charity schools that the early Victorian Age is now so known for. But Dickensian reform comes to the school in Jane's teenage years, making it a much more pleasant place, eventually leading to her getting a decent education and even a few years of student-teaching under her belt; and that leads us to the meat of the story and the situation that takes up the majority of the novel's text, Jane's time as a governess at the dark, spooky, possibly haunted Thornfield Manor, which is where she meets for the first time the brooding master of the house, one Edward Rochester. Severe yet oddly compelling in appearance, cynical and brusque in manner, Rochester has been spending the last decade wandering among the artists and elites of continental Europe, trying unsuccessfully to find a romantic partner worthy of his keen yet sociopathic intelligence (in fact, this is how he ends up in custody of the French moppet who Jane is in charge of tutoring, the child of a dead opera singer who Rochester once had a torrid affair with); but it is plain ol' Jane who actually seems to be the very first person in Rochester's life to realize that what he really needs is someone who will simply stand up to his haughty intimidation, and serve back the same kind of witty repartee that he's so fond of dishing out, leading to entire chapters sometimes consisting of nothing else but flirtatious banter between the two, loaded with literary references and dripping with sexual tension. And thus do the two eventually admit their love for each other and make plans to marry, leading to what looks like will be a prematurely happy ending about halfway through the book.
(CAUTION: The next paragraph reveals important information concerning the end of this book.)
Ah, but this is a Victorian novel we're talking about -- of course there's to be no happy ending halfway through! Oh, and did I mention that it turns out that Rochester's actually already technically married? To a violent psychopath? Who's secretly kept locked in the attic for the sake of everyone else's safety? Well, of course he is! And thus does Jane react the way that most compulsive, upset 19-year-olds would under the circumstances, which is to leave all her possessions and run off in the middle of the night, using today's equivalent of her last twenty bucks to ride a random carriage as far as her money will take her, which turns out to be near the Scottish border; and it's there that she lives the life of a homeless beggar for nearly a week, until finally being taken in literally on death's door by a local liberal minister and his two fun-loving sisters, who slowly nurse her back to full health. And thus does Jane spend the next year of her life as the head of her own rural charity school, slowly bonding with the three until feeling that they are her own family; oh, and by the way, they are, when through an insanely improbable series of circumstances it's revealed that Jane has not only recently inherited today's equivalent of a million bucks, but that these three random friends are in fact her long-lost cousins. And so is Jane forced into a tough decision -- head off with her austere cousin to a life as a chaste missionary in far-off India, entering a loveless in-name-only marriage with him as a way to travel as a young woman without Victorian fingers being wagged? Or heed the ghostly voice she hears one night and rush off with her newfound money to check on the status of Rochester, just to find out that his crazy wife burned down the mansion six months ago, killing herself in the process and leaving Rochester blind and one-handed, but at least now in a position to finally consummate his still-burning love for Jane once and for all? Well, Dear Reader, this after all is known as one of the greatest love stories in history; which option do you think she chooses?
The argument for it being a classic:
Fans claim that there's a simple reason Jane Eyre should be considered a classic -- it's one of the best examples ever of the Victorian Novel (otherwise known as the Romantic Novel), one of those early success stories that in fact helped define what the term even means. (Abused orphans! Byronic heroes! Gothic mansions! Proto-feminism! Lunatic women locked in attics! Ridiculously convenient twists of fate! Criticism of the British class system! White Man's Burden! Subliminally erotic dialogue comparing one's lover to pagan mythology! Anglican colonial missionaries with chiseled good looks! Holy crap, this book's got everything!) But on the other hand, in many ways this book is everything the typical Victorian Novel is not, which fans argue accounts for its longstanding popularity even while most other books from the period are now virtually forgotten -- it's not a simple morality tale, not designed to support the upper-class status quo, has a surprising amount of critical things to say about the abuse of organized religion, and in no way at all ends with our hero doing the "sensible" (i.e. "right") thing, unlike that dowdy ol' Jane Austen. (And in fact, although only 50 years separate their work, Bronte in many ways considered herself the "anti-Austen" -- she considered the former to be the last great writer of the rational, reserved Enlightenment, while considering herself firmly in the vein of the moody, emotional Romanticism so popular during her time.) And of course no conversation concerning this novel's strengths is complete without a mention of the beguiling Edward Rochester, considered by many to be the greatest romantic hero in history (or as one carried-away online reviewer put it, "I'd jump him like a stalled car any day of the week"), the ultimate "bad boy" archetype that has heavily influenced everyone from James Joyce to James Dean to those stupid "Twilight" books. If you want the ultimate example of why Victorian literature was so great, claim its fans, as well as a clear snapshot of what life in Great Britain in the mid-1800s was like, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this very definition of a literary classic.
The argument against:
Ironically, the main complaints that are made by critics of Jane Eyre (and they're out there, believe me) have little to do with the book itself, but rather are more critiques of Victorian literature in general -- like the fact that the day is ultimately saved by a ridiculously contrived deus ex machina ending ("Really? The random strangers in the random town where Jane randomly ends up at just happen to turn out to be the biological cousins she's never met? Really?"); or that Jane has a remarkably poor attitude about both race and the mentally ill; or that this was the novel that started the bad trend of legitimatizing the falling in love with abusive boyfriends under the justification that they're the only ones who "truly get him," that they will be the ones to mend the wing of this broken dove and allow him to soar in the way he was always meant to. But like I said, none of these things are really criticisms of Jane Eyre per se but more of all literature from the mid-1800s, so I'm not sure how valid they are as an argument against the book being a classic.
So I have to confess, reading Jane Eyre for the first time this month really brought out my inner 12-year-old girl, and I found myself literally swooning during big parts of this in a way that made me freaking disgusted with myself. And really, if you want to understand the almost supernatural popularity of this book (for example, as of today it's still the 900th most popular book on the planet according to Amazon, even as this year it celebrates its 162nd anniversary), simply understand that Bronte's masterfully subtle prose precisely brings out the inner 12-year-old girl in all of us -- the part of us that's in love with the very concept of love, the part of us that can look at the "I hate kids and I hate the rich and I hate you too" bluster of a passionate, misunderstood soul like Rochester and make us think that we too are the only ones who truly "get" him. (And in fact, all three of the Bronte sisters who survived into adulthood eventually became known as masters of Romanticism, creating a literary triumvirate that has fascinated the general public ever since -- for example, also scheduled for review a little later in the CCLaP 100 is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights from the same exact year, just as famous as Jane Eyre and containing just as obsessively passionate a Bryonic hero at its center.)
Now combine this with all the exquisite Victorian details already mentioned, stuff that delighted audiences even then and that just continue to become more and more historically quaint with every passing year -- the echoing halls of centuries-old Gothic Revival mansions, the cold beauty of the northern moors, the desperate conditions of Jane's childhood orphanage, a time when people still died of things like "consumption" and "the humours." There's a very good reason this is known by many as the ultimate Victorian novel, even while it's quite factually also very atypical of what at the time was the average Victorian novel, the kind of flowery claptrap that long ago faded into out-of-print obscurity -- because both of these seemingly clashing facts actually end up feeding off each other, creating at the end both a fine historical document but also one that stands the test of time, precisely because of the unique details that hold together the stereotypes like glue. It's one of those books you don't simply read but literally get lost in, the kind that can literally shut off the distractions of the real world around you; and this is why people become fans of literature in the first place, why the novel format became so popular during the 19th century to begin with, because of its almost magical ability to shut out the real world in a way that nearly no other artistic medium can, to transport us to a place where our imaginations are free to run far and run wild. Bronte was an undisputed master at this; and in our visual, postmodern age where more and more artists are losing the very ability to do such a thing at all, such mastery over storytelling simply becomes more and more important to those who still love sitting down with a great book, accounting not only for Jane Eyre's continuing popularity but explaining why books like these are more important these days than ever before. Like its fans say, it is literally the definition of a classic, a designation I don't see it losing anytime soon.
Is it a classic? Verily, I say unto thee
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
The Castle, by Franz Kafka
The Ambassadors, by Henry James
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
(And don't forget, by the way, that the first third of the CCLaP 100 essay series is now available in book form!)