Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Bookface is red-faced to admit this, but I just read this novel for the first time.  Oh, what the hell...  Let's go for full disclosure:  I've never read any of Charlotte Bronte's books, nor those of any other Bronte.  I read whatever Jane Austen my school-teachers assigned and none more, and I've picked up a Henry James novel from time to time with a niggling sense of obligation -- and set each of them back down again.  I listened to an outstanding recording of A Tale of Two Cities a while ago; BBC actor Martin Jarvis brought all of the characters to vivid life and piqued my appetite for more Dickens.  That was only the 2nd of his novels that I'd read.  A dog waiting to be shot couldn't hang its head much lower.

In my own lame defense, I'm not a complete English Lit philistine, just very limited in scope.  I've read almost all of Hardy's novels.  I even liked them.

I took Jane Eyre on a week-long trip to Bali.  She was a bit out of place there, but then again, the tropics brought to mind Mr. Rochester's ill-fated first marriage in Jamaica.  I think there are quite a few contemporary Mr. Rochesters roaming the streets of Kuta and Ubud with their Balinese Berthas.  Let's hope they all come to their senses before their relationships end in madness and fire and attic imprisonments.

The sorry truth of why I brought this particular book to Bali was its weight:  it was a small Bantam paperback edition I'd bought at a warehouse sale in Kuala Lumpur.  It has a splendid introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, and it added only an ounce or two to my handbag.  When I bought it, I was thinking I was decades overdue to read it, and when I finished it, I wondered why I had waited those decades to meet its protagonist.  Jane first appeared in the world in 1847, but so many of her character traits ring perfectly true in 2011.  Yes, her manners and behaviours are Victorian, but her self-reliance, independence of thought, stolidity and passion transcend her own era.  I like Jane enormously, and I respect her. She's one of those fictional characters I would most certainly invite for a dinner party.

I belonged to a book group a few years back, and we read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  I admired the dense prose and profound plot -- especially considering Shelley's youth when she wrote it -- but fluidly pleasurable reading it was not. As I re-read the introduction to Jane Eyre, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates had also contrasted the two writers' styles:  "Compare the slow, clotted, indefatigably rhetorical prose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, of 1818..."   Bronte's prose, while elegant, requires less mental bush-whacking than Shelley's.

Although I met Jane Eyre for the first time when reading her story, I had actually met Mr. Rochester before.  He made an appearance in The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys.  I first read this novel after traveling to Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic), a Caribbean island.  Ms. Rhys was born in Dominica, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a creole mother.  The Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's creole Jamaican wife, and I'm afraid Mr. Rochester does not come off very well from that angle.  It's a dark commentary on English colonialism and culture clash.  Did he drag her back to England and lock her into an attic because she was mad, or did dragging her from her tropical home to frosty, fusty England drive her mad?  It's an evocative story, and I need to re-read it soon.


  1. Well THIS is interesting: I read Jane Eyre for the first time in Fiji! And I LOVED it. In fact, I remember sitting in a squalid little hostel (having run out of money), finding great pleasure in making Jane's acquaintance. I have returned to the book several times since, as to an old friend.

    I entirely agree: the manners are dated and the dialogue stilted, but the characters fresh and relevant.

  2. Wow, that's so many books since I last checked the blog! I need to subscribe to your blog... I have never read any Charlotte but I have read Emily :-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.