Mr Brocklehurst: “Do you know, Janey Eyre, where the wicked go after death?”
Jane Eyre: “They go to hell.”
Mr Brocklehurst: “And what is hell?”
Jane Eyre: “A pit full of fire.”
Mr Brocklehurst: “Should you like to fall into this pit and be burned there forever?”
Jane Eyre: “No sir.”
Mr Brocklehurst: “How might you avoid it?”
Jane Eyre: ” I must keep in good health and not die.”
And so we are introduced to the `never say die` attitude of one of literary fiction`s greatest, and most inspirational heroines. To pinch a quote from her ferociously talented sister, Emily……..” No coward`s soul is mine”: life has been cruel – will continue to be so, but young Jane has iron in her soul which will never rust or buckle under the hardships inflicted upon her, because she has made an island of her soul in order to protect herself, and repel the likes of the odious, and sanctimonious Mr Brocklehurst.
Why is Jane Eyre still so popular today? The suspense laden, melodramatic plot – featuring child cruelty and attempted bigamy, along with the celebrated mad woman – goes a long way to explain it`s lasting, Gothic Horror appeal. But for the most part, it`s success depends upon it`s internal dynamics: we are taken on a journey through Jane`s psyche which allowed readers in a completely new way, to familiarize and identify with our heroine. A wonderful example of this is given to us early in the novel, when the young Jane is hiding behind a curtain on a window seat from her spiteful cousins, escaping from the torments and tribulations of the real world, into the welcoming fantasy warmth of a book.
Jane Eyre is a book into which generations of avid readers have escaped. But it is far more than an ordinary, generic romance story, because of it`s capacity to nourish and feed us at every stage of our lives. It is a dark and sinister variation on the Cinderella story which offers something deeply emotional and recognisable to all ages. Because of the dangerously formulaic plot, many have come to see Jane as just another, ultimately, weak female, quivering in the arms of the strong and manly Rochester – not so. Bronte`s original character is the ultimate character of force and ego, who can easily be seen as a proto-feminist creation. None of the Bronte sisters were interested in weak women as their heroines – they were all as mentally strong and self resilient as granite.
“I married him.” That`s a firm statement from a strong willed woman, entirely in control of her own destiny: what she does, she does by her own intent, and by none other. She marries Rochester at least as an equal; and after his injuries render him a semi-invalid, she undoubtedly wears the trousers. Jane has a healthy dose of moral courage and self esteem, which is a welcome respite from the Bridget Jones`s of modern fiction, to such an extent, that the sheer force of her character upset the sensibilities of a Victorian culture which liked it`s women to be docile and subservient to their husband`s firm hand. Jane Eyre was castigated for it`s excessive passion, use of swear words and coarseness. If they were outraged by Jane Eyre, then they hadn`t seen anything yet – Wuthering Heights was lurking like an out of control wild child, just round the corner.
For decades after it`s publication, Jane Eyre was seen as a transgressive book, from which the delicate sensibilities of children should be protected – even Mrs Gaskell forbade her daughter to read it until she was twenty. Charlotte Bronte`s technical skill in writing this novel is awesome to behold: all the words are carefully chosen for the maximum impact; she draws the reader into the intimacy of her intent and purpose, asserting the power of the heroine`s personality by making her the active partner in the marriage with Rochester. Everything is as Jane wills it to be by the sheer force of her ego and mental power. If she doesn`t like something, she digs her heels in, regroups her forces, and hunkers down until matters improve to her benefit.
“Reader, I married him”, says it all: the “I” is all that it`s ever been about. Charlotte Bronte`s genius was in centering the strong, romantic, individualistic focus of her novel on a “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess. Jane has become the romantic lead when she states that ” women feel as men feel”, and that women have the same sexual desires as men, and should be able to facilitate them without being called out for censorious behaviour. Jane Eyre lives on in splendour as a seemingly little, ineffectual, powerless female, who put two fingers up to the Victorian view of the submissive, supine woman, and showed that women were at least the equal of men………..And very likely more so.