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Droewyn


April 16th, 2013

Project Edification: April @ 07:31 pm

Jane Eyre

I knew next to nothing about Jane Eyre going into it.  I knew it was a romance, I knew it was written by one of the Bronte sisters, and I knew it was generally loved by the sort of girl who starts planning her wedding before losing her baby teeth.  I was kind of dreading it, to be honest.  I cringed when I saw that it was over 500 e-pages.

 I really enjoyed it.

 The thing is, I like Regency romances.  I like the improbable plotlines, the wacky misunderstandings, the antics of people with more money than sense, the exhaustive descriptions of muslin gowns and food.  I like happy endings.  I like easily identifiable villains getting what’s coming to  them.  I really really like sex that’s offscreen, vague, implied, or absent altogether because for me pleasure reading and “pleasure reading” are two foods that don’t belong on the same plate, let alone close enough to touch each other and mingle flavors.  Once pulsing, thrusting, throbbing, and melting starts, I roll my eyes and skip ahead.  But I also like Regency novels written from a modern perspective.  Sweet, pious, and submissive heroines make me gag.  Historically accurate or not, I want independence and spunk.

 Jane Eyre is pious, but she’s also intelligent, creative, curious, forthright, and outspoken.  As a poor orphan child at the mercy of wealthy relatives who see her as an unwelcome burden, she rejects the idea of enduring their bullying without complaint because she might one day be rewarded in heaven for her suffering.  She demands social justice as a basic human right and argues that Christian charity should apply to everyone, not just the upper class.  How could I not fall in love with this character?

 Jane is no beauty, and I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.  She’s actually plain, too, not that “Oh, I’m so ordinary and that’s why all the men who encounter me walk into doors and babble incoherently with their tongues hanging out” crap that you see when the author wants to highlight how virtuous the heroine is while not making her, you know, actually unattractive.  The leading man, Mr. Rochester, isn’t appearing on any topless calendars, either; he’s consistently described as a rather ugly man.  As a result, their relationship sparks are entirely formed by the two strong personalities interacting.  One of the cool things about their romance is seeing each of them slowly become beautiful in the other’s eyes as they fall in love.

 I loathed the other romantic prospect, St. John.  He is a missionary, and supposedly a good man, but he is cold and emotionless, coming off as doing good solely out of obedience and not because he feels any real compassion or has a working moral compass of his own.  He decides he wants to marry Jane, not because he loves her – he candidly admits that he does not – but because she is intelligent and hard working.  He feels that if she suppressed her “unsavory” traits of curiosity and independence she would make an ideal missionary’s wife.  When she doesn’t leap at the chance to wed a man she does not love and who wants to stamp out her personality, he becomes angry and manipulative and tells her that if she denies him she is also denying God and her immortal soul may be forfeit.  Jane is clearly affected by this tactic; her choice is ultimately not between two men, but between secular love and religious duty.  I’m not sure how much I’m “supposed” to dislike St. John, other than his being the obviously inferior choice according to the romantic narrative.  Did “Team St. John” shipping exist in Victorian literary circles?  Is he really supposed to represent a viable alternative to Mr. Rochester instead of the creepy fanatic I’m seeing?  I suspect I was intended to be drawn into the “is this really what God wants her to do” question, but my secular feminist heart was screaming for Jane to cut off all contact and file a restraining order, asap.

 The story was, well, kind of ridiculous.  Tragic orphan?  Check.  Unyielding authority figures who do evil while paying lip service to good?  Check.  Sudden very large inheritance from a previously unknown wealthy relative?  Check.  Secret insane wife kept locked in a hidden cell in the mansion only to be discovered on the day of the wedding in order to keep the lovers apart for another two hundred pages before said fruit loop ultimately kills herself and frees them to finally wed?  Wait – what?  Okay, okay, I get it.  This book and its contemporaries are the originals that spawned the clichés, but wow this story reads like a fourteen year old wrote it on the Internet.  That said, I was wrapped up enough in the characters to not think… much… about the crazy plot points.

 So… yeah.  Good book.  I’m glad I read it.  I’m about ready to read something set in the twentieth century for next month, though.

 
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From:thewayne
Date:April 17th, 2013 05:20 pm (UTC)
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There's a podcast that my wife and I quite enjoy called Stuff You Missed In History Class. They recently did a couple of eps on the Bronte family, interesting stuff. If you're interested and can't find it online, I might be able to email them to you.
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From:droewyn
Date:April 21st, 2013 01:11 am (UTC)
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Thanks, I'll check it out.
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From:wuglet
Date:April 17th, 2013 05:53 pm (UTC)
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Since this is a classic text, I've lost count how often I've read it (school, university, free time...).

As a nineteenth century literature specialist, I'm immensely glad about the second half of your last paragraph! So many people don't realise the chronology of literary motifs or plot devices, and frequently "accuse" 19th-century texts (and older) of being unoriginal because all this stuff is so commonplace in 20th century literature (aaaargh....)

Glad you enjoyed it!

I don't know if you have read this already, but if you want to read something completely fucked up (and I'm not exaggerating), try Wuthering Heights from one of the other Bronte sisters (Emily).

ETA: Probably my favourite English author from that time is Elizabeth Gaskell. She is an extremely precise observer of social behaviours and character types, some novels are pure socialist realism, and 'Wives and Daughters' is an example I use in class to illustrate indirect characterization, character development and implicit social criticism. I strongly recommend that book and her in general! :)

ETA2: Just noticed and can't keep still: Regency is just the period 1811-1820, so both in publication date as well as plot setting, 'Jane Eyre' is a Victorian novel, not a Regency novel. Sorry about being finicky (job requirement...), I'll slink away now.

Edited at 2013-04-17 06:07 pm (UTC)
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From:droewyn
Date:April 21st, 2013 01:10 am (UTC)
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Jane Eyre is set in Bronte's childhood. It takes place firmly in the Regency period. Hah! I out-pedanted you! So... I... win? Wait...

:)
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From:wuglet
Date:April 29th, 2013 07:24 pm (UTC)
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Hah, we are both right! I looked it up!
It's set in the Regency period, as you said, but because of the time it was written it is considered a Victorian novel. I find this a satisfying draw in pedantery. :)

Droewyn