I knew the story. I must have seen several BBC adaptations and movies of the story, growing up in London. And I knew of her; refreshed by a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London. The short lives of all three Bronte sisters. (At medical school, we learnt that Charlotte died of hyperemesis gravidarum: dehydration from vomiting of pregnancy.)
But I had not read Jane Eyre until now. How is it not possible to fall in love with Jane? I feel compelled to share her. Published in 1847, Charlotte Bronte’s novel gives us her inner life, a remarkable window into a beautiful soul. Jane is born triply orphaned. Despite her sad life and lack of physical beauty, she has inner beauty, vitality and strength. Jane kept me entranced, through her journey to union with her soul mate. A role model of how I would like to react to adversity and immorality; and achieve harmony.
The novel is not set in a specified year, nor are there references to historical events. It is set in the ‘now’ of mid-nineteenth century England. (The stable prices that Piketti refers to.) There are no references to the social transitions caused by the machine age. The year after Jane Eyre was published, Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto.
This was a good time to be English, with its wealth and power rising. Peace in Europe, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, allowed investment in industrialisation that England was leading. For the gentry, property-owners, life was enhanced by wealth extracted from the colonies, trade and the new industries. And Rochester’s story is not just connected with the Caribbean colonies, but is also the source of his sin.
Jane Eyre captivated me from first encounter. As Jane describes her inner life, she entrances me. I suffer with her as she describes the tortures from living in a home with no love. I love the strength and purity of her character.
Her sad origin story must have been common in the 19th century: an orphan infant. Her parents were star-crossed lovers; she was the only child. Her mother was disowned for marrying a poor pastor. They both died when Jane was an infant. Her mother’s brother took Jane in, but died soon after. On his deathbed, he got his wife to promise to care for Jane.
A promise poorly kept. But Jane works hard, survives the harsh school where we observe her inner strength respond to her outrageous fortune. She becomes a governess for the young ward of Mr Rochester. Another complex, strong and strange character, Edward Rochester is her soul mate. And her inner dialogue as well as their converse were the heart of the book for me. When they have been through all the trials and misunderstandings, finally there is a marriage where the book could have happily ended.
But we need the gothic. At the wedding, it turns out that Rochester is already married. His wife is insane, and he has been keeping her hidden. Jane’s reaction is not what you might expect, given her love for Rochester. She walks out on him. Taking nothing with her, she is destitute for three days before finally finding help from St.John. Not a saint, this is just one of those strange English first names.
But St. John is a saint. A magnificent mind and body. He has all the virtues, including intelligence and classical good looks: Grecian nose and blue-eyes. And his life is focussed on serving others and Jesus.
He is the one who saves Jane, when the maid wants to turn her away. A happy episode follows for Jane in the home of St.John and his two sisters. Under St.John’s guidance, Jane sets up a school of the village children. This is hard but good work for Jane, who then discovers that her uncle, only recently known to Jane, had left his estate to her. At the same time she learns that St.John is her cousin.
St. John asks Jane to marry her, so that she can help him in his planned missionary work in India. Jane refuses to marry, but will go with him. St.John refuses that option, so ends up leaving by himself.
So, now the story has to close with Jane finding Rochester, burnt and blind. His wife caused a fire, died in the fire. Jane loves Rochester, and the novel ends happily. And what a pleasure to have made such intense knowledge of Jane and the very puzzling character of St.John.