Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Jane Eyre

"What’s your name?"

"Eyre.

Jane Eyre"

And with that, I expected Ms. Eyre to tuck her beretta back inside her gown, before ordering a martini with very specific serving instructions. Because with a bit of training, I think Jane Eyre would make a good 007. She’s clearly got the courage for it, but I’m unclear whether she would find the idea of being a superspy morally repugnant. Of course, scared as I’m to receive even imagined vituperations from Jane Eyre’s eponymous heroine, I’ll refrain from any more action-hero comparisons, for now...

Not having read Jane Eyre felt like a big hole in my life. The kind of all-consuming black hole that leads one to break down weeping in the supermarket before panic buying shredded wheat. I’ve previously read two pieces of fan fiction – the Wide Sargasso Sea (eurgh), and the Eyre Affair (awesome fun) – so I was long overdue to snuggle down on the sofa with Jane Eyre, a bottle of scotch, and some evening primrose oil to calm me down if it all got too much.

Jane Eyre tells the tale of a plain girl, brought up short on love, but long on pluck. After being sent to a tough school - somewhere between Twist and Copperfield in severity -  she goes to work as a Governess in a large, and largely abandoned home. One day, the master returns; a severe, crotchety, particular gentleman named Mr. Rochester. He is quickly drawn to Jane, and singles her out as someone he is comfortable talking to. A hop, skip and a tumble later sees Jane and Rochester in love, and, what is more, betrothed to be married. Of course, circumstance gifts them testing times, and the path of their loves runs not smooth. So, can these luck-crossed lovers make it across the desert of despair? Will they endure the outrageous fortunes that hope slings them? The answer is, emphatically, YES, and as Jane so winningly tells us, ‘Reader, I married him’.

Wonderfulness baked in

Buried in this book is a great big dollop of optimism. It’s been alleged that in double blind trials, Jane Eyre fairs somewhere between lithium and barbiturates at helping to cure depression. Unfortunately, no one bothered to try and get legal clearance since, now out of copyright, there’s just no money to be made in its marketisation. Damn you drug companies, you profit seeking fiends!

Anyway, although Jane Eyre has an almost savage facade, much like its main character, the book is 100% heart. Jane isn’t just a woman, she is also a plain, slight Governess, and back then, all of those attributes were seen to diminish her value. Obviously they don’t, and Jane knows it; commanding equality and respect wherever she finds herself. I worried for a while that Rochester seemed to see Jane a bit like a pet or plaything, something to be bossed around. He married ‘below his station’, seemingly purposefully, because he prefered his wife to have ‘pliability’.  But in the end, Jane thoroughly owns him - taking care of him, baiting him and in nearly all senses ‘wearing the trousers’.  

For me, Jane Eyre was like finding an old World War 1 unexploded bomb under my house. I felt I was looking at something that was once explosive but no longer. I imagine that when it was written, the straight-talking, equality-claiming Jane Eyre was a molotov-cocktail into an age of stuffy, cigar-filled gentleman’s clubs. But these days, it’s a bit toothless. I mean, the idea of Governess marrying a richer man isn’t exactly fall-off-your-chair shocking. So I appreciated the novel’s once-revolutionary nature, and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but I think this fighting book has been transformed by time into a simple society romance. And that’s good and bad. Bad, because the book is less impactful than once it was, but good because society has moulded round it and overall become a much more equal and much fairer place.

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