(Original Review, 1981-01-31)
Ever since my first reading of Jane Eyre I've always viewed it as an account of the indelible effects of emotional abuse, and as such, a very grim book indeed. The novel opens with a recall of the emotional deprivation the 8-year-old Jane receives daily at the hands of her aunt. The story then continues with Jane's time at Lowood School, an institution devoted not so much to teaching the children of paupers, as to teaching them their place in life.
By the time she reaches adulthood Jane is really quite damaged, and she regards herself as a social inferior. This self-image is never really challenged, much less altered or dispelled. The many reviews that praise Jane's undoubted courage unfortunately gloss over this or omit it completely, giving a misleading impression. It is apparent that Jane never ever overcomes the effects of her ghastly childhood. Remember, she is only able to accept Rochester after he had been brought down in the world by the loss of his home and fortune, and his disablement. And while she does, in the end, reject St John, the reader should note how close she comes to succumbing to this emotionally remote, manipulative, hypocritical bully.
To my mind, the most astounding thing in Jane Eyre is Charlotte's implicit (explicit?) criticism of the saintly St. John Rivers. He's supposed to be a man of God, as beautiful as an angel, but with a will of iron and a heart of stone. The way he bullies Jane, using his power as a man and as a servant of God to try to force her to submit to him against her will, is horrific. It's as if he sees an independent woman as a threat which he has to destroy.
Where did this terrifying character come from? Imagination, or did Charlotte perhaps know someone like him?
I think it's Jane's raw, violent, unexamined sexuality. Having never really had much in the way of human warmth, guidance, or emotional education, Jane is quite literally wild. She seeks sensuality like a starving beast and has an almost animal understanding of what constitutes a connection between two human beings. Jane probably doesn't even know what sex is, yet she burns with desire. Rochester - depraved, debauched, debilitated by vice and excesses- sees this in her and in the purity of her passion, he is able to cleanse himself and transcend his baser instincts. I completely buy their relationship, and while it is, objectively, very iffy by today's standards (the gap in age, experience, social status! the mad wife in the attic! the illegitimate child!), it is also completely, viscerally believable. Jane Eyre still shows that lust within love should still be the (moral) goal. She actually effectively teaches Rochester this, as someone barely half his age. She teaches him some morals.
For me, the novel’s strength lies in vivid writing that brings the people and the scenes to life, whether or not one likes them, or approves. The style isn’t always to my taste (I don’t care for the 19th Century habit of addressing the reader) but is compelling in a way that is the hallmark of a great writer.
Maybe a modern politically-correct world that is obsessed with conformity no longer recognises this kind of gift.
The inherent craft of a storyteller is to use invention to more clearly express essential truths of ideas, emotions, impressions and events. Sometimes fiction contains more truth than a fact. What else can a reader expect from a group of authors other than some uncertainty between what's real and what's not?