Sometimes, despite the overuse of the term, a novel is deemed a classic with good reason. This work of art by Charlotte Bronte is a fixture of the English Literature canon because it is a fantastic read. Yes, I am a former member of the academic criticism world, a place where nothing is taken as fact, and everything is up for argument, but I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t believe with all their heart that Jane Eyre is literary magnificence.
I am currently reading the book for the third time in my existence. With each reading, at different stages of my life, I have found something completely new. As a 14 year-old girl, I deemed Jane’s rags to riches romance with the arrogant Mr. Rochester to be an ideal romantic fantasy. As an unhappy teenager, I often dreamt of the Prince Charming who would love me for who I was, and whisk me off to a life of foxhunts in the English Countyside.
When I picked up the book for the second time as an undergraduate, I felt a painful kinship that I could not believe I had previously overlooked, with Bertha, the “mad woman in the attic,” the forgotten and isolated first wife of Rochester. The presumed disposability of this woman, on the part of both the author and her character, angered me. As a rebellious young adult in the full throws of a 1990s post-gothic malaise, I identified with the helpless dependency of Bertha’s predicament. I wished to rescue her, to empower her, even if I didn’t yet grasp how to do that for myself.
As I round the corner toward 32, a little wiser, and at the top of my physical and psychological game (that’s right people, this is as good as it gets), I have taken up my old favorite (or one of about 15 anyway), greedily consuming it with another pair of fresh eyes. I am now older than Jane is when she finally gets her “happy ending,” and I now realize that happiness is a slippery term. The truth is that finding your destiny is oftentimes a simple combination of mistakes and calculated choices. Jane and Rochester’s union is indeed a love match. And like all imperfect loves (for is there any other kind?), theirs is full of untruths, and disfigurements of the literal and metaphorical kind. They are equal partners in the sense that Rochester provides the money, and Jane, the sight and strength. Neither of them are much are on their own, but as a whole, it works. Jane Eyre is not a fairytale, as I believed when I was 14 years old. Somehow I like this even more.
I have a humanist approach to my take on the act of reading. The book acts upon you as much as you act upon it. A great text allows room for the the reader to step into the story, letting it become personal. Depending on the moment, and your environment, the narrative can make you laugh, cry or feel disgust. One of the reasons I will always love Jane Eyre so much is that book feels so essentially me. I wonder what I will look like when I take up the book again in my 40s.