Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. One of the greatest books ever written and one of my personal favorites. Certainly my favorite romance novel. Exceptionally well-written in an easy conversational tone, Brontë’s choice to use a first-person narrative style was spot-on. She, speaking as Jane, makes the reader feel as if she were an old friend who dropped in for a pot of tea and a nice long talk.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the poignancy of Charlotte Brontë’s writing in Jane Eyre is the semi-autobiographical nature of the story. As a child, she attended a harsh boarding school which she would later base Lowood upon. Both of her older sisters died there of tuberculosis, just as Jane’s young friend Helen Burns died at Lowood. Charlotte blamed the harsh and unhealthy conditions of the school for her sisters’ deaths. Charlotte and her younger sister Emily were removed from boarding school after Maria and Elizabeth died. They returned home to their clergyman father, younger sister Anne, and brother Branwell. Charlotte later attended a much better boarding school, where she eventually became a teacher. Again, this correlates with Jane Eyre’s history. So too, does the fact that Charlotte worked as a governess when her days as a teacher were over.
Published under the nom de plume of Currer Bell (both for anonymity’s sake and to hide her gender), Jane Eyre was initially a huge success. Critics adored it and it was immediately a commercial smash hit. Once the critics suspected that Jane Eyre had been penned by a woman, the reviews were less than favorable. Sales remained strong, however, whether in spite of or because of the criticism no one can say. I maintain that Jane Eyre’s success is due to its first-rate writing, gripping plot, and innovative first person style.
Our story begins with young orphan Jane, her hateful Aunt Reed, and 3 horrid cousins. Cast off by Mrs. Reed and sent to Lowood, a charity school, Jane Eyre survives hardship and privation and the wretched Mr. Brocklehurst for 10 years (8 as a student and 2 as a teacher). When she advertises her services as a governess, she is hired by Mrs. Fairfax to teach Adele Varens, ward of Edward Rochester. Thornfield, the Rochester estate, is a grim and gloomy place; and Adele, but lately arrived from France, speaks little English and has even less discipline. But Mrs. Fairfax is kind and Adele is sweet and Jane is determined to make the best of it. At the end of 3 months, Adele is much improved and Thornfield has begun to feel like home. Just as a comfortable routine is formed, the absent master returns and tumbles Jane’s world topsy-turvy.
Intelligent, well-educated, and widely travelled, Edward Rochester is life and nourishment to Jane’s hungry soul. She, in turn, is a breath of sweetness and innocence to world-weary and heart-sick Rochester. They two form an unlikely friendship and, as time passes, settle into a new routine. The first upheaval comes in the form of Miss Blanche Ingram and her party of friends and family, who come for a several-week stay at Thornfield. Mr. Rochester seems much taken with Miss Ingram, and rumor has it that the engagement will be announced any day. The second twist is Mrs. Reed’s deathbed request to see Jane. Before she dies, she confesses to Jane that she has a wealthy uncle who, through Mrs. Reed’s deception, believes Jane to be dead.
When Jane returns to Thornfield, the Ingram party has left, but there is no talk of an impending marriage. This puzzles her for some time, until Edward Rochester declares his love for her and asks her to be his wife. One month of nearly-perfect bliss follows. Until, on her wedding day, a secret is revealed that tears Jane irrevocably from her beloved’s side. Dark days follow for our plucky heroine, but she ultimately finds peace and, eventually, happiness, although not in the way one might expect. Jane Eyre is truly a masterpiece of narrative fiction.