“Sensible, but not at all handsome” – ‘Jane Eyre’ revisited

Knowing that Charlotte Bronte’s birthday was approaching, I thought I’d skip back through ‘Jane Eyre’ to refresh my memory of a novel that had been a firm favourite when I first read it in my early twenties. It deeply moved me then, but I was apprehensive returning to it, as since then I have read ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys, – the post-colonial prequel to ‘Jane Eyre’, which is a telling of the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife – as well as a good deal of feminist literary criticism about ‘the mad woman in the attic’ as a construct of the Victorian literary imagination.

In truth, Mr Rochester’s brooding hidden depths and tortured soul had indeed lost appeal. Despite clearly being trapped and deceived into a disastrous marriage, his repeated unapologetic emotional torture of Jane did not endear him to me, especially considering the wide power differential in their relationship. However, Jane remained as resplendent in my memory as she did the first time. What I love about her character is that she defies the limitations of the typical female heroine. She lacks beauty, but is not cowed by that. She is no timid mouse, but has strength of character, resilience, and is not afraid to speak her mind. I so enjoyed re-reading it, that I couldn’t bear to rush through as I’d planned, but have luxuriated in it.

It’s not long ago that I re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Charlotte’s sister, Emily, and while ‘Jane Eyre’ is not as committed to inflicting relentless sorrow and misery on all who enter it’s pages, both novels are drenched in bleakness. The sense of wilderness and vulnerability to the elements reflects the dramatic emotional landscape of the characters. Life must have been very hard for the Brontes stuck out there on the Yorkshire moors, but from a purely selfish point of view, I’m glad, because even all these years later we are still basking in their genius, and thank goodness they confine their talents to what were considered to be feminine arts.

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Haworth parsonage Charlotte Bronte Jane eyre