Reader, I’m sorry to say it’s taken me this long into adulthood to read “Jane Eyre.” If I had known what a fabulous story this was, I would have gotten around to it much sooner. I had just figured it was dated, gothic, dreary and a long slog.
I was so wrong.
Jane Eyre is a heroine worthy of being called such. She stays true to herself, no matter her trials and tribulations. And her Mr. Rochester? Well, he’s a brooding, complicated, adoring man. They get their fairy-tale ending, although it is tempered by tragedy.
“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte has it all: an orphan and a neglected heir, both terribly misunderstood; an English family manse steeped in history; a crazy woman hidden away; superstitions and the supernatural; witty dialogue; beautiful descriptions of the moody, isolated moors, and, of course, the love story.
I read the recent “Mr. Rochester” by Sarah Shoemaker first, and I think it made me love “Jane Eyre” even more. Shoemaker tells the story from Rochester’s point of view, fleshing out his story, the root of his misfortune, and the abandonment and loss he endured as a child and young adult. Just like Jane, he wonders why he has to face such misery and challenge. While he comes from money, he is no less alone in many ways.
An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. They weather each other’s flaws, flirt, cajole and play hard to get. When it appears Rochester is going to marry, Jane knows the beautiful, money-hungry Miss Ingram is not the best for him:
“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure. This was the point — this was where the nerve was touched and teazed — this was where the fever was sustained and fed: she could not charm him.”
(Reader, be prepared for punctuation the likes you don’t often see outside of 19th-Century literature.)
Both the reader and Mr. Rochester know just who is capable of charming him.
Just as it appears that the two will live happily ever after despite the misgivings of others, Rochester’s past comes to light in a shocking chapel betrayal. Jane could have acquiesced to a life of contentment but that would cost her dignity and honor, so she turns from happiness:
“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”
Both Shoemaker and Bronte give their characters depth and nuance. Together, the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester is much fuller. Written more than a century after Bronte’s story, Shoemaker adheres to the former’s voice and vision while fleshing out Rochester’s past.
A very poignant part of “Jane Eyre” finds Rochester bemoaning his fate and feeling unworthy: “I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard. And what right would that ruin have to bid a budding woodbine cover its decay with freshness?”
Jane’s response: “You are no ruin, sir — no lightning-struck tree: you are green and vigorous. Plants will grow about your roots, whether you ask them or not; because they take delight in your bountiful shadow; and as they grow they will lean towards you, and wind round you, because your strength offers them so safe a prop.”
In each other, they find home and companionship and refuge.