If you’re really concerned about spoilers, I’m sorry, but you’ve had 175 years to read this thing.
On the subject of spoilers: I said I was going to give this book two stars if Jane ended up with either Rochester or St. John, and, well. Let it never be said that I am not a woman of my word.
On the subject of the broader issues I tend to have with classical Western literature, which this book did not fix: I have been on a personal quest to read the classics I skipped earlier in life because my knowledge of the classics is greatly lacking, though in most cases I know enough to understand the memes. (I know, sad.) Thus I read Jane Eyre for the first time in my life last year, and, having read it, don’t plan to read it again. This comes with some obvious caveats: the book was progressive for its time; I am approaching this from a liberal American perspective 175 years after the book was published, so there is going to be a disconnect between myself and the author; I am not a professional critic. As someone who did not major in English and has always royally sucked at symbolism, I will not be attempting the high-brow literary analysis typically found on Google. I can only tell you what I think, and what I think is that this book kinda sucks.
I’m sorry. I really wanted to like it (and actually did like it up until the literal moment Rochester appeared), but it promised me the moon and then failed to deliver, and I don’t handle betrayal well. This was indeed a grievous disappointment, because the vibes – you know, until Rochester – were immaculate. Boarding school in historical England, followed by life in a country manor with lots of books and just enough French dialogue to make me feel clever? Say less. I will sign myself up for that every goddamn time. Not that that school sounded particularly cozy, especially with their slight typhus problem, but for some reason I’m extremely attracted to boarding school stories even though I would’ve hated boarding school.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman named Jane Eyre, orphaned early and sent to live with her awful relatives in a manor called Gateshead Hall. Here she is subjected to physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from her aunt, Sarah Reed, and her three cousins, who lock her up and gaslight her on the reg. After several hellish years, she is sent to Lowood School, a boarding school fifty miles away, where she manages to survive to adulthood. At eighteen she leaves the school and becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, home of the tediously mysterious Edward Fairfax Rochester and his dog Pilot, and a rather exasperating romance ensues. Sure, there are some creepy incidents and possibly a ghost walking around the house at night and setting things on fire, but Jane still agrees to marry Rochester. Though she is uncomfortable with the gap between their respective incomes, as well as Rochester’s overwhelming desire to spend lavish amounts of money on her, they make it all the way to the altar before Jane learns that Rochester is already married to a woman named Bertha; that he never obtained a divorce, and is therefore not single in the eyes of the law; and that his wife has been living in his attic for the last several years, but regularly gets out of her cage – pardon me, I mean her chambers – when her attendant is too drunk to keep an eye on her.
All of this is obviously a huge shock to Jane, who sensibly flees before she can get stuck with Rochester’s baggage. From Thornfield she makes her way across the moors to a more unassuming house, where she meets a bunch of cousins she never knew about and eventually becomes the unexpected inheritor of a deceased uncle she never met, who never produced an heir. The new cousins are mostly fine, but their number includes St. John Eyre Rivers, a humorless clergyman whose burning passion is to go to India to convert every person he can get his hands on. Even with the looming specter of St. John, Jane settles down quite nicely in her own little house and starts teaching the local village school, and if the book had ended there it would’ve been a full five stars. Instead St. John takes advantage of Jane’s pliant nature and demands that she stop learning German in favor of Hindi-Urdu (referred to in the book as Hindustani), ostensibly to help him study but really because he wants to groom her as a two-for-the-price-of-one wife and assistant. Jane, learning that he wishes to drag her into a loveless marriage, attempts to compromise by offering to accompany him on his mission trip as his sister rather than his wife, but he insists that he cannot work with a female curate who is not married to him. Not really sure I follow his logic, but religious men have always been a mystery to me.
Whether St. John makes sense or not, Jane refuses to trek to India on his terms and instead returns to Thornfield Hall after a disturbing dream in which she hears Rochester calling her name. She (not unreasonably) expects to find it exactly as she left it, but learns that Bertha burned it to the ground some time ago before leaping to her death, and that Rochester lost a hand and the use of his eyes while trying to save her. None of this seems to be a deterrent to Jane, because reader, she marries him – albeit on a more equal footing, given that she is now wealthy. She then settles down for a lifetime of taking care of him, though he later recovers partial eyesight. This is the part that pissed me off, because the synopsis promised me “Jane’s eventual evolution into a whole woman…[with] love, independence, and forgiveness.” I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: never tell me a woman is independent if she ends up married to a man she has to take care of.
To be clear, I don’t object to her caring for him if she so chooses. I object to the fact that his needs drown out everything else she wants to do, to the point that “[Jane’s] time and cares were now required by another – [her] husband needed them all.” She can’t even tutor Adèle, Rochester’s ward, because that would take time away from her damn husband. This dude is obscenely rich. His money did not go up in flames. Don’t fucking tell me he can’t afford to hire dedicated staff to help Jane take care of him. None of this is helped by my general impression of Jane, who mostly struck me as a doormat. You can argue that her and Rochester’s love is just that strong because apparently it is, but after that whole fight to become independent she immediately offers to be “[his] neighbor, [his] nurse, [his] housekeeper…[his] companion” the minute they’re reunited. Though she is no longer employed by him, she also still addresses him as “master.” Earlier in the book, she went back to Gateshead to visit her dying aunt – who, by the way, was an absolute bitch to her up to the very last second – and then stayed on for a month as an unpaid servant to her spoiled, bitchy cousins. When she was studying with St. John, she capitulated to almost all of his demands (except, of course, the most life-changing one) with absurd ease. After a certain point this starts to read less like forgiveness and more like masochism. Was this the Victorian idea of female independence?
Then there’s Bertha, who is (1) allegedly insane and (2) mostly kept locked up where nobody can see her shame. The few times we do see her, she’s lurching around the house in the middle of the night, making eerie screeching noises and setting beds on fire. There’s no real method to her madness because she’s supposed to be Creole, which gave Brontë a convenient excuse to make her a psychopath. Her entire raison d’être appears to be an all-consuming desire to set her husband on fire. I mean, I get it. At the same time, though, I needed to know more about her, because all I know right now is that she’s seriously unhinged and she’s probably not entirely white. When you set her side by side with Jane, who is regularly extolled for her virtue and purity, the results are infuriating. Jane is small, modest, and well-spoken. The book is a little too hung up on the fact of her plainness, but, though she’s more of a seven than a ten, she is intelligent and is therefore considered a worthy partner for Rochester. Bertha is large, coarse, and nonverbal. She was none of these things when Rochester first met her, which later leads him to complain that he was duped into accepting a lemon of a bride, and it does make me wonder how she went downhill so fast. I have no immediate answer, other than the same Victorian racism that drove Rochester to wear blackface when he was still trying to figure out if Jane, like, liked him at all. (What is he, twelve?)
The dressing-up-as-a-fortuneteller-to-find-out-if-his-crush-likes-him-back thing only happens once, but its singularity does nothing for my main problem with Rochester. I am so over the grouchy romantic hero archetype. The synopsis describes him as “gruff yet kind,” which is literary code for “he’s rude as hell but he’s cute and he has a lot of money, please feel sorry for him.” (See also: the Mr. Darcy model, known somewhat more recently as the Edward Cullen model. I feel like I just kicked over a hornets’ nest, but I said what I said.) I am so tired of being told that I need to excuse rudeness in men because it conceals a heart of gold. I’m tired of being told that their emotional labor is my problem, but that they can be fixed if I’m willing to put in the work. I’m tired of this pervasive idea that women need to be patient and nurturing and adept at accommodating the moods of the men in their lives. To wit: I don’t like that Jane consistently and consciously adjusts her behavior to soothe Rochester’s gruff moods. No person, woman or man or anyone in between, should find themselves in a relationship in which they have to monitor their partner’s moods. I’ve had that done to me, and I’m still dealing with the cost of it. If Jane could have met just one potential romantic partner who wasn’t an overbearing asshole I would’ve thrown this book a fucking party, but she didn’t and I am so very tired.
In conclusion, fuck St. John. Fuck Rochester. Jane should’ve shoved them both off a cliff and opened her own school on the moors, and maybe adopted a dog. Though our opinions on the quality of the story don’t entirely align, I have to agree with Eleanor Oliphant on one crucial aspect: this book would have been a lot better if we had seen more of Pilot.