Author: Charlotte Brontë (Currer Bell)
First Published: 1847, by Smith, Elder, and Co.
Poor Jane Eyre—the doormat of 19th-century literature. Everyone walks all over her, and her mistreatment by other characters throughout the novel is both infuriating and disgusting. From the Reeds and Mr. Brocklehurst in childhood, to the Ingrams and even her beloved Mr. Rochester as an adult, the abuse heaped upon the heroine of this book is difficult to endure. I actually need to put the book down at certain times because I can only take so much of Jane’s undeserved punishments at once.
But beyond that horrible aspect of the book—which, I must own up, is as artful as it is disturbing—there is so much to love about Jane Eyre. One of the things I love most about Jane Eyre herself is that she is one of literature’s great readers (even though she often disavows this). At ten years old we know that she has already devoured Bewick’s History of British Birds, Goldsmith’s History of Rome, The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels, and no doubt countless other unnamed books. Little Jane has read widely and with great feeling, and her reading has made her “passionate.”
And then there is the language—Brontë’s magnificent, dream-like language. Her imagery is as relentless as it is gorgeous, and I think I might be right in saying that her prodigious vocabulary surpasses that of any other Victorian writer (even Dickens). Here are but a few examples:
. . . it was the hebdomadal treat to which we all looked forward from Sabbath to Sabbath. (Chapter 7)
. . . the heavy supper she had eaten produced a soporific effect. (Chapter 10)
. . . she proceeded to arrange the cups, spoons, &c., with assiduous celerity. (Chapter 13)
To so practiced and indefatigable a horseman as Mr. Rochester it would be but a morning’s ride. (Chapter 22)
. . . you watched me, and now and then smiled at me with a simple yet sagacious grace I cannot describe. (Chapter 27)
The water stood in my eyes . . . but I would not be lachrymose . . . (Chapter 37)
And who but Charlotte Brontë could ever describe a wedding dress like this?
It was enough that in yonder closet, opposite my dressing-table, garments said to be [Mrs. Rochester’s] had already displaced my black stuff Lowood frock and straw bonnet: for not to me appertained that suit of wedding raiment; the pearl coloured robe, the vapoury veil pendent from the usurped portmanteau. I shut the closet to conceal the strange, wraith-like apparel it contained; which, at this evening hour—nine o’clock—gave out certainly a most ghostly shimmer through the shadow of my apartment.
Jane Eyre is a feast of words. And it is no wonder Virginia Woolf said that we read Charlotte Brontë not for her characters, not for her comedy, and not for her philosophic view of life, but simply “for her poetry.”