When I first read Jane Eyre, I was in my early teens and at the start of my secondary school career. I’m now about the same age that Jane is during most of the events of the novel- the same age that seemed so grown up to me when I first read it. That’s a scary thought.
Whenever I reread classics that I first read around that age, I generally appreciate and like them more than I did when I first read them. Then, I finished them out of a sense of duty in the pursuit of seeming well-read and having an impressive reading list, now I genuinely enjoy reading most of them (though still not all which is okay- I have learned that it is perfectly acceptable to dislike a book no matter how venerated it or its author is). This proved true even for Jane Eyre, which I vaguely remember liking at the time, and now absolutely love and consider one of my favourite books, not even just classics, of all time.
I was particularly stirred and enraptured by Jane and Rochester’s romance, which didn’t particularly affect me when I first read the book, as much as by any love affair in the modern teen novels I occasionally indulge in. This time I eagerly anticipated each new development and devoured the section before the impassioned confession in front of the chestnut tree (with its incredibly precise symbolism), hating and loving Rochester’s attempts to ‘make Jane jealous’ and absolutely loving Jane’s cool acknowledgement that Rochester wasn’t actually in love with Blanche.
Also, I was more aware of the problematic elements of the novel this time around, particularly concerning the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ – Bertha Rochester. Having read around the novel to a greater extent and touched on various criticisms, I couldn’t help but read her sections with the thought in mind- is she actually ‘mad’? How much can we trust Rochester’s account (no matter how hard we want to believe him)? We are not given many details about the precise nature of her ‘madness’, and what we see is a stereotypical image of the violent and animalistic ‘madwoman’, one that sits uneasily with modern readers in its depiction of mental health issues and treatment of women if we take Bertha’s character (or at least Rochester’s account of it) as a whole. There is something deeply disturbing, no doubt intentionally so in the Gothic tradition, in the idea of someone hiding his wife in the attic for years on end because of her deeply stigmatised ‘madness’.
The character of Jane herself remains my favourite part of the novel. I love Jane’s independence and spirit, her refusal to submit to Rochester and her focus on curtailing his pride and checking his ego. I love how she ‘tells it like it is’, her determination when she comes into money to enjoy her own life with her new-found family and her refusal to be afraid of the domineering men and women throughout her life. Most of all I love how she is “poor, obscure, plain, and little” and acknowledges that this means that the fashionable upper classes will never accept her, but she refuses to hate herself or try to change for others, and her true friends love her as she is and for, as clichéd as it sounds, the beauty of her soul.
I actually reread Jane Eyre because of a recent visit to Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, which was very interesting and well worth visiting. The scenery was breathtaking and the weather appropriately grey and windy which certainly added to the atmosphere!
Images: Seeta Parmar