I’m racing through Jane Eyre, and of course it is a masterpiece, but I have read it too many times. As I wrote here in 2013:
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.
Did this apply to all women? Or do some reject Jane Eyre? I first read Jane Eyre at 12, when I was very intense and rebellious; and this is (I think) my fourth reading, at what has turned out to to be a very slightly mellower but still rebellious age. (We shall skip the number.)
But I also agree with this observation from my 2013 post:
[At 12] 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.
And this still applies.
The orphan Jane’s horrifying childhood world is peopled by sadists: she lives with her Aunt Reed and three cousins, who dislike her: John Reed hits her and draws blood; Mrs. Reed locks her in the terrifying red room and poor Jane screams to be let out and then faints in a fit; and she is dumped at Lowood School, a charity school run on principles of humiliation and starvation by rich, pompous Mr. Brocklehurst.
But not all is grim. The years pass. The school is reformed after Mr. Brocklehurst is fired: Jane gets proper nutrition, becomes Head Girl, and is later a teacher at the school. But as a governess for Mr. Rochester’s bastard child Adele (though he denies she is his), she finally is in control and happier–for a while. She loves ugly Mr. Rochester, who is witty and charming, though his teasing is sometimes sadistic. Still, It’s nothing Jane hasn’t seen or heard before. By her standards, he is totally benevolent. But I do think it is cruel to insist she attend his evening parties, even though she does sit in the corner. His houseguests are insensitive: the upper-class Ingrams are a variation on the monstrous upper-class Reed family. Blanche Ingram, the buxom brunette assumed to be Mr. Rochester’s future bride, launches a tirade against governesses in front of Jane (does she view Jane as an inanimate doll, or as a threat?). She suggests Mr. Rochester should practice economy and send Adele to school. In other words, he should fire Jane, because governesses are useless.
“No, you men never do consider economy and common sense. You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi—were they not, mama?” …
“My dearest, don’t mention governesses; the word makes me nervous. I have suffered a martyrdom from their incompetency and caprice. I thank Heaven I have now done with them!”
And the tirade continues.
I’m not all about Power to the People every single minute of the day, but I have had a Jane Eyreish moment. I once attended a a country club dinner the night before a boring conference I was writing about. I was sitting with the other writers at our end of the table, and we quickly learned we needn’t ask the aging ex-debutantes to pass the bread or butter because we did not exist for them! They literally did not answer! They were the Ingrams/Reeds, and we were the Jane Eryes. They must have thought of us writers: “half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi—were they not, mama?”
Now let me entertain you with all my copies of Jane Eyre.
MY FIRST EDITION OF JANE EYRE was a Washington Square paperback. Inside I scrawled my name in very fat penmanship.
THEN WE USED THE PENGUIN IN COLLEGE. (First we read Jane Eyre as autobiography and then Mrs. Gaskell’s marvelous biography.)
Then I acquired an ex-library book copy of the Heritage Press edition of Jane Eyre (1975) with lithographs by Barnett Freedman from the original 1942 Heritage Press edition. Oh, dear, I bought it for the pictures! Do I need pictures? I LIKE pictures!
THE DOWNSIDE TO BUYING AN EX-LIBRARY BOOK? YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO PEEL THESE STICKERS OFF THE SPINE. THEY ARE SUPER-GLUED ON, I SWEAR!
Now here is the luxury edition. MY FAMILY AND I BOUGHT THE FOLIO SOCIETY EDITION OF JANE EYRE (2014) AND ARE SHARING IT: a month here, a month there. Beautiful paper, and the strange illustrations by Santiago Caruso are very effective: they capture the grotesqueries of the Reed household and Lowood School from the child Jane’s point of view. Everything looks so big to her!
There are so many editions of Jane Eyre: something for everybody! I recommend buying new books if you can afford them. The problem with used books: sometimes they ARE in excellent shape, but other times you’ll find tea or chocolate stains (usually on the first pages, and then the person abandons the book!), and it is just not nice. According to the Date Due card in the back of my Heritage Edition, no one in Rome, Georgia, ever checked it out! And yet there are coffee and chocolate stains on the first five pages.
Well, it’s only five pages…