Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Precursor to every modern romantic trope and an entire genre of infinitely inferior imitations. And Mr. Rochester is almost as big an asshole as Heathcliff.

Jane Eyre

Published 1847, approximately 187,000 words.. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.

Initially published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre erupted onto the English literary scene, immediately winning the devotion of many of the world's most renowned writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray, who declared it a work "of great genius."

Widely regarded as a revolutionary novel, Brontë's masterpiece introduced the world to a radical new type of heroine, one whose defiant virtue and moral courage departed sharply from the more acquiescent and malleable female characters of the day.

Passionate, dramatic, and surprisingly modern, Jane Eyre endures as one of the world's most beloved novels.

To be honest, I expected to hate this book.

I did not much like Wuthering Heights by Charlotte's sister Emily, and I was expecting another tedious melodrama of unrealistic, unreasonable people filled with the sorts of inhuman passions only a secluded vicar's daughter with little actual experience of the world could write. But that was unfair; Charlotte is not Emily, and while there is certainly a lot of drama and some unreasonable passions in Jane Eyre, I found it to be a much better work.

I liked the prose. I liked the story (up until the part where Jane returns to Rochester), and I liked Jane, who is truly spirited, intelligent, strong-willed, generous of spirit, and deserves better than an embittered, sardonic asshole old enough to be her father who locks his crazy wife in an attic.

Jane Eyre is a gothic romance, and you can see its shadows on the entire genre, especially the theme of an unpretty, unloved girl falling for a "bad boy" and taming his wild, bestial heart that beats for her and her alone. Wish-fulfillment, unrealistic fantasy, and kinda fucked up in all kinds of ways if you look at it closely? Yes, absolutely, but it was saved from me going "Blyech!" because it possesses that one virtue for which I will forgive almost any book: it's a good read. Also, Jane is a doughty, likable heroine, not a spineless, lovestruck waif. I was rooting for her... to not end up with that asshole Rochester. (Even though I'd seen a couple of movie versions so I already knew how it ended.)

One of my favorite scenes (and evidently a favorite of everyone else, as this is one of the dialogs found in every one of the film versions):

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”

Little Jane is such a brat. I loved her. She's a willful, spirited child who stands up for herself and can't keep her mouth shut when she's being treated unjustly. She beats up her cousin (an older boy!) after he hits her on the head hard enough to draw blood. She's subjected to all the indignities and cruelties children usually are in Victorian novels, but unlike, say, Dickens's young protagonists, who usually just submit and suffer in silence, Jane never yields.

Jane is an orphan being raised by her father's sister, who when Jane becomes too much of a handful, sends her off to a "charity school," where after a miserable childhood of cold porridge and best friends dying of typhoid, Jane graduates and advertises for a position as a governess. This leads her to Thornfield Hall, and Edward Rochester.

Team Edward is all Brontë's Fault

Jane Eyre is superior in a thousand ways to most romance novels, but the heroine marries the dick in the end. And Rochester is a typical Byronic bad boy; he's rude, sardonic, secretive, selfish, self-pitying, and once he falls in love with Jane, he turns into a control freak. But then, this is a guy who locked his wife in an attic and tried to keep her a secret. We're supposed to sympathize with him because he was "tricked" into marrying a woman with a history of mental illness. Now, granted this was the 19th century and there really weren't a lot of humane options for dealing with violently insane people, but Brontë's description of poor Bertha Mason is really quite horrible:

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.

“Good-morrow, Mrs. Poole!” said Mr. Rochester. “How are you? and how is your charge to-day?”

“We’re tolerable, sir, I thank you,” replied Grace, lifting the boiling mess carefully on to the hob: “rather snappish, but not ‘rageous.”

A fierce cry seemed to give the lie to her favourable report: the clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind-feet.

"It," Ms. Brontë, really?

Even Jane tries to defend this poor woman and points out to Rochester that it's not her fault that she's mad, whereupon he defends himself with a long tirade about how Bertha was a nasty, dirty, stupid, ugly slut even before she went completely stark raving bonkers. He puts it in slightly more genteel terms than that, but the gist is that Bertha apparently was able to pretend to be a human being until just after they married, whereupon she promptly started behaving like an animal and got progressively worse.

The best character in Jane Eyre is Jane herself, whose moral fortitude and perseverance makes her a heroine truly worthy of admiration. Edward Rochester was barely more than a cartoon to me; Brontë wanted us to see him as a tormented, romantic figure and we're clearly supposed to root for Team Edward when she introduces St. John Rivers. Yet even giving us a smarmy, jealous, whoremongering, would-be-bigamist asshole as her male protagonist and then tossing us an Option B who we know never really has a chance, Brontë is superior to her imitators. St. John is magnificently developed as a foil. Jane first meets him as a compassionate, charitable man who takes her in when she's half-dead. And he is a noble, virtuous man. He's also a self-righteous, fanatical demagogue. By the time he gives her his speech about how she'll burn in hell if she doesn't marry him, it actually makes sense from his point of view and he still doesn't seem like as big an asshole as Rochester. Brontë contrasts the two men perfectly for her purposes: St. John Rivers is noble, selfless, virtuous to a fault, and also a bullying self-righteous prig without a romantic bone in his body. Edward Rochester is an angry storm of passion and desire who has no virtues at all other than being love-crazy for Jane.

Seriously, Jane deserved better than either of them.

I loved Jane Eyre up until the point where Jane leaves Thornfield. The endless trek across the moors, Jane almost starving to death, Jane being snotty about being thought a beggar when she was begging, and her constant worrying about "my master" -- it was almost as if Jane was becoming a different person, so I wasn't surprised that St. John almost talked her into marrying him and going off to India to convert the heathens. The entire last third of the book was unnecessarily long and tedious, and Brontë plowed more unrealistic wish fulfillment into it than most any other author could get away with.

Jane Eyre was a great book, but certainly not the greatest 19th century novel I've read. Brontë could have used some editing. And Rochester is a fucking asshole.

Jane × 8

If you've been reading my book reviews for a while, you know that when I read a classic novel, I usually go and watch whatever movie adaptations are available.

Usually, Netflix has three or four versions of an old classic.

For Jane Eyre, there were eight.

I am nothing if not obsessivededicated.

So, after eight versions, patterns emerge in the adaptations. All of them include the foiled wedding and the crazy-wife-in-the-attic climax. Most abbreviate Jane's childhood and her time at Lowood; some omit them entirely. Likewise, the time Jane spends with the Rivers after leaving Thornfield is usually abridged or cut. Some adaptations include St. John Rivers's marriage proposal and some don't, but almost none of them include the whole subplot with Jane being the Rivers' cousin and inheriting a fortune from their uncle.

Like all film adaptations, these vary in quality but are mostly pretty true to the novel. None, however, capture all the details that made Jane Eyre more than just another romantic heroine and Brontë's writing worth preserving.

Jane Eyre (1934)

Jane Eyre (1934)

Virginia Bruce as Jane Eyre (1934)

Looks more like a "Brynhildr" than a "Jane" if you ask me.

The first "talkie" version of Jane Eyre features a very Nordic, very blonde Jane who is even more of a spitfire than she was in the book. The child who plays young Jane was adorably bratty for all of the five minutes we see her, and then we fast forward to 18-year-old Jane calling the headmaster of her school an "ugly old crocodile" and being dismissed.

This was an awfully short movie, barely an hour long. Unsurprisingly, it compressed the story a lot, dumped a lot of exposition in stiff dialog, and was obviously made in the early days of filmmaking. With only 62 minutes to cover Brontë's entire novel, much is wasted on Jane singing and Adele capering about. It's kind of a cute movie and you can see the source material in it, but it's not really Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre (1944)

Jane Eyre (1944)

Considered by many the "iconic" film version because it starred Orson Welles as Edward Rochester, this version set my teeth on edge initially by interspersing scenes with a narrator reading from the pages of Brontë's novel... except it's not Brontë's novel! They made up some ham-handed exposition to print on a page and call it Jane Eyre. Whyyyyyyyy?

Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns (1944)

Elizabeth Taylor: Anyone this cute must die.

Despite that, this was a good movie, and as dark as anything Orson Welles ever directed, though technically he was not the director. As Mr. Rochester, he was a perfect brooding asshole - indeed, probably the best portrayal of Rochester of the bunch. I was expecting this movie to be an artistic but loose adaptation, but in fact, fake Brontë passages notwithstanding, this version did follow the novel pretty closely. I don't usually consider 1940s Hollywood adaptations of classic novels to be a particularly good way to experience the book, but this one actually captured both the letter and the spirit of the novel. (A young Elizabeth Taylor also made one of her early appearances in this film, as Jane's poor doomed childhood friend.)

Jane Eyre (The 1973 BBC serial)

Jane Eyre (1973)

Over-acted and resembling a stage production, like most old BBC serials, this adaptation is long and thus keeps most of the details from the books, but strips young Jane of most of her feistiness. It's a stolid, decent adaptation, and I give it props for the fact that the actress who plays adult Jane is much as I envisioned her, a much plainer girl than in most versions:

Sorcha Cusack as Jane Eyre (1973)

However, this adaptation was possibly the most boring of all the ones I watched. I only finished it out of ornery stubbornness.

Jane Eyre (The 1983 BBC serial)

Jane Eyre (1983)

Zelah Clarke as Jane Eyre (1983)

Bad boys totally go for big black bonnets.

Ten years later, the BBC produced another 11-episode Jane Eyre miniseries. This one was better than the 1973 version. Longer, more thorough, and with better acting, including Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester. (Timothy Dalton also starred as Heathcliff in the 1970 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and he's pretty good at playing a smirking, sardonic asshole, though I think he's too pretty either for Heathcliff or Edward Rochester.) Jane is very serious and Jane-like, and her puffy black dress made her look just like the nobody governess that everyone but Rochester sees her as. Nearly every significant event and conversation from the book was preserved faithfully: if you want a good, complete adaptation that doesn't change or trim much from the book, this is probably the one to see.

Jane Eyre (1996)

Jane Eyre (1996)

Anna Paquin

Somewhere, someone has written a Jane Eyre/X-Men cross-over fanfic.

This was another "pretty period piece." A young Anna Paquin stars as young Jane Eyre. I liked this version for the acting and the visuals, but I saw it towards the end of my Jane Eyre marathon and I have to be honest, it didn't make much of an impression me, not enough to really distinguish it from the others, except that it kept most of the Lowood details (and invented a few more). Another adaptation that preserves most of the novel's essentials without preserving the dialog or many of the details, the ending was a bit rushed and it seemed to emphasis pretty visuals at the expense of plot. There wasn't really much chemistry between the actors, like they were just going through their roles because hey, it's Charlotte Brontë, we all know how it ends, right? Also, both young Jane and adult Jane were very pretty, which became one of the "-1"s I started assigning to these adaptations. I considered the versions that made her a plain girl in a drab black dress more faithful.

Jane Eyre (The 1997 A&E movie)

Jane Eyre (1997)

Made for TV, this movie captured most of Brontë's plotting, and Jane and Mr. Rochester were cast well. Samantha Morton (who was 20 at the time) really looks like the barely-adult teenager Jane was in the book. This was a pretty production, and preserved the most important scenes. However, it abridged her childhood and most of her post-Thornfield time with the Rivers. Neither the best nor the worst of the bunch.

Jane Eyre (The 2006 Masterpiece Theatre production)

Jane Eyre (2006)

If some other adaptations made little Jane bratty but meek, this version shows Jane as a young wildcat. As usual, Masterpiece Theatre films a much better version than the BBC, but is less faithful to the novel, though this version didn't make any significant changes in the story or characterizations. Few lines from the book are used word for word; almost all dialog is rewritten, even when the meaning and the scenes are mostly the same. Yet I think this was my favorite adaptation. It was quite pretty while keeping an appropriate grim and gothic atmosphere. At 4 hours total, it had time to include almost all the content of the book, and was one of the few versions to include a lot of details the others skipped, like the complete Lowood sequence, everything that happened when Jane returned to Gateshead to visit the dying Mrs. Reed, and her time with the Rivers.

Jane Eyre (2011)

Jane Eyre (2011)

It seems you can never make too many Jane Eyre remakes. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in this 2011 British release. A very artful production that starts with Jane's trek across the moors and collapse at the Rivers' door, and tells the rest of the story in flashbacks. Probably the prettiest and the nicest filmography of all the adaptations, though not quite the most faithful. (There were a few too many un-Victorian open-mouth kisses.) Worth seeing as one of the better productions "based on" the novel without making a great effort to be completely true to it.

Verdict: An early milestone in the romance genre, Jane Eyre is imaginative, passionate wish-fulfillment fantasy. I hate some of the norms it established in the genre, but it is made memorable by complicated characters, a complex story with numerous twists (and a few improbable ones bordering on silly), a genuinely strong and likeable female protagonist, and writing that shines. Contrary to my expectations, this book is not boring, not hard to get through, and it is, for its time, original. But I still hate that asshole Rochester.

Jane Eyre is of course on the list of 1001 books you must read before you die, but I did not read it for the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, literary, movies, netflix, reviews

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