Re-reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Last year I wrote about wanting to re-read some books that I either loved, or had sort of forgotten but was sure I liked. Jane Eyre wasn’t on that list, but for some reason I recently felt compelled to re-read it. It might be because I wanted to finally get around to reading my copy of The Madwoman in the Attic, which of course made me think of Jane Eyre, and made me miss reading 19th century books – and so I got my copy out of the bookshelf one evening, and started reading.

My 2006 Pocket Penguin Classics edition
My 2006 Pocket Penguin Classics edition

I knew I remembered the overall story and the ‘important bits’, as well as the most upsetting, but as I read I realised there was as lot I had forgotten, like the details of Jane’s experience in the red-room and why that episode is often now used as an example of the limits or confines of women’s lives in the 19th century, along with things like The Yellow Wallpaper; and I was glad to have re-read this section and to have really felt like I now understood it. It sets in motion Jane’s determination not to give in to the will of others, and to live her life as she chooses.

The section at Lowood was almost as heartbreaking as the first time I read it, and I was still moved by Helen’s death in Jane’s arms (oh god). Which is pretty amazing considering I knew what was going to happen, which was of course the case with the whole book (mostly – as I say I had forgotten some details). Reading the book a second time meant that I knew exactly who was making that strange laugh on the third floor, who it was that set Rochester’s bed on fire; and why Rochester is so damn grumpy and moody all the time. I also knew that he was falling in love with Jane and never really intended to marry Miss Ingram; but this didn’t ruin the scene in which he finally tells her this. It was just as brilliant and exciting – which is testament to the skill and power of Charlotte Bronte’s writing, and the story itself. It is almost as good as the moment Darcy finally tells Lizzie how ardently he admires and loves her.

Jane’s discovery of Bertha, and her visit to the upstairs room in which she lived, was still intense and dramatic, but it lost some of its shock-factor in re-reading. It felt more sad than anything else, as I have had the time to consider Bertha’s fate, and also to read Wide Sargasso Sea (which you MUST read if you’ve read Jane Eyre). I pitied Bertha more than I feared her. I also wondered why Rochester decided to bring her to England in the first place if she was so ill. Surely she should have stayed in Jamaica with her brother? This bothered me throughout the book, so if anyone has the answer please let me know! (Aside from the fact that she and Rochester are married.)

I had forgotten a lot of the section when Jane is living with St John and his sisters, and runs the school, and discovers they are cousins and also that she is now rich; and this was probably because this is the lest exciting part of the book, despite the fact that quite a lot actually happens. Up to the point where Jane leaves Thornfield in the middle of the night, the book is full of drama and the style is very engaging and enjoyable. Once she has left Thornfield it all gets a bit ‘woe is me’, and while I still admire Jane’s resolve and bravery, the story does slow down somewhat and – especially on a second reading – you just want it all to hurry up. I’d also forgotten what a git St John is. The conversation in which she rejects him is just brilliant.

As for the ending – ah, the ending. It was as weird and brilliant as I remembered. As with the ending of Rebecca, it is bittersweet. Both books end with the couple, finally together and free of the past, moving on to their new future; but having to get over the trauma of the past as they do so. It is happy, but it is not lovers riding off into the sunset; this is not a fairy tale. This is Jane and Rochester confronting the bad in order to capture the good. It is a satisfying ending, but the story still stays with you after the book is closed.

One of the things I love about Jane Eyre is that none of the characters are perfect – they are all deeply flawed people that must make the best of things, whether they are responsible for them or not. While the whole thing is very dramatic and sometimes a bit far-fetched (the Rivers siblings just HAPPEN to be Jane’s cousins), it still feels down-to-earth and is filled with Charlotte Bronte’s clear understanding of the frailty of human nature. It was a joy to re-read and I think I will now either re-read some more of my favourtie 19th century books, or seek out some I haven’t read (I’m also dying to re-watch the film adaptation with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender). At the moment my list includes: Agnes Grey, Lady Audley’s Secret, Emma, Wuthering Heights (I’ve only read about half of it), and something gothic by Elizabeth Gaskell but I’m not sure what. I would love to hear some recommendations! But for now, I shall be working my way throught The Madwoman in the Attic, which I may blog about as I read, as it is so long! Has anyone else read it?

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Click here to buy Jane Eyre from Foyles.

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