Jane Eyre is serious.
That’s why we loved her when we first read the novel. After I saw the old movie starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine at school, I begged my mother to take me downtown immediately to buy the book. (I still have my original 50-cent copy.) I didn’t just read Jane Eyre, I was Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre is intense. Intense women readers all over the world are thrilled by Jane’s intensity.
Because intense women aren’t often taken seriously.
“Get shallow,” my husband used to say.
Hillary Clinton has been an intense First Lady, Senator of New York, and Secretary of State. My mother hoped she’d be president. She didn’t get to see a woman president in her lifetime. Is it because Hillary is too intense? Clinton has supporters for the 2016 campaign, but are there other female candidates?
When Sally Field won her first Oscar in 1980 for her role in Norma Rae, she said, “You like me, right now, you like me!” She’s a great actress, and of course we like her. But perhaps intense women aren’t liked as much as they’d like to be liked.
Women writers are allowed to be intense, but they don’t win many awards. Although Doris Lessing said “Oh, Christ,” when she stepped out of a cab and heard she’d won the Nobel, she was obviously very pleased. There have been only 13 female winners of the Nobel.
I loved Mr. Rochester, the dark, almost sadistically flirtatious character, and then in my thirties said, “Oh no, I’m done with that.” The Byronic heroes are mad.
When Mr. Rochester says to Jane,
In about a month I hope to be a bridegroom….and in the interim, I shall myself look out for employment and an asylum for you.”
she is shattered.
His teasing hurts her very much. She is in love with him.
Now we see significance in his use of the word “asylum,” with its double meaning of mental hospital and refuge. Is Charlotte Bronte thinking of Rochester’s mad wife when she introduces this word? The wife’s asylum is in the attic, but is it an asylum to a woman who bites men and sets fire to the house?
In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a sequel to Jane Eyre, we see Mr. Rochester from the point of view of Antoinette/Bertha, his mad wife.
Mr. Rochester is just another man with a mad wife who wants to get involved with a younger woman.
Nowadays the younger women would feel sorry for him. Oh dear, the mad wife. Then they’d forget her.
Poor Jane almost spirals into a depression before she knows that Rochester wants to marry her. She passionately tells him,
I grieve to leave Thornfield! I love Thornfield: I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life–momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high…. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to know I must be torn from you forever. I see the necessity of departure: and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”
If we were Jane, we might well become a little mad: she learns at her wedding that he has a wife.
It is a brilliant book, but in many ways it is a girls’ book. If you want to read Charlotte Bronte at her best, you must read Villette, a more mature version of Jane Eyre. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, wins affection, but it is not the affection she wants. She is a teacher, and she remains a teacher.