Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I can't say anything new or particularly insightful about Jane Eyre. I wouldn't like to guess how many 'O' and 'A' level essays have been written about, how many dissertations sweated over, how many reading group arguments caused by discussing Charlotte Bronte's most famous creation. And I wouldn't like to suggest that I have anything ground-breaking to add or share.
I read Jane Eyre because I thought I should. I thought it was about time. Strangely for such a bibliophile I am particularly poorly read in those classics (Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Victor Hugo, Trollope etc.) that everybody seems to have done - even if only cursorily many years ago back in school. So I promised myself recently that over the next couple of years I would try not only to 'dispatch' most of the titles on the Guardian 100 list but also get a fair few 'classics' under my belt. So, I read Jane Eyre. And I was very glad that I did!
First published in 1847, the story (of the eponymous orphan governess and the mysterious Mr Rochester for whom she comes to work) hardly needs rehearsing. We get a brooding almost supernatural beginning (reminiscent of sister Emily's Wuthering Heights) when Jane is locked in a red room by her uncaring Aunt; her initially awful treatment at the hands of her family continues at the shocking Lowood Institute; conditions in the school improve with the introduction of a new inspection regime and Jane becomes a teacher; she then moves to Thornfield, Mr Rochester's country estate, to become a governess for his young, French ward. There she discovers Rochester's secret and her own passion for the master of the house.
I was moved by Jane's story and found the narrative compelling and continually engaging. There are, undoubtedly, narrative 'techniques' which are glaring and somewhat annoying: coincidences abound and the scope of possibilities allowed to the characters kept very narrow; whilst the 'twist' is exhilirating (still), the ending is far too neat. Bronte chooses to narrate the novel entirely from Jane's perspective which I found a little constricting too (especially - perhaps unfairly - compared with say the sweep of Middlemarch). But most importantly for a novel, especially if it is to keep being read and seen as a relevant read and not merely a period piece (the failing, for me of e.g. Madame Bovary), is has to continue to speak: the character's need to be complex (they are) and their interactions need to transcend their parochial setting (they do); the plot needs to be tight enough to remain engaging even if it has drifted almost into commonplace (it is); the books' message(s) need themselves to be multi-faceted (even contradictory) enough for it to cope with the continual contestation of rereading (they are - just).
For those who haven't yet done one of English Literature's 'big ones' I'd certainly recommend it. The language is sometimes quite lovely, always exact, and the romance just sophisticated to not be cloying (despite the denoument). Jane Eyre isn't my favourite book, not even my favourite 'classic' of this 'type' and era, but its a great book and deserves its place in any canon.