Well, I finally did it. I finally read Jane Eyre.
It was okay.
I know I'm treading on sacred ground here with many, many fans - and I did like it! I just didn't love it. Not like I love Austen, the most obvious comparison to be made by classic lit neophytes such as myself.
I loved the plotting and the story; I loved reading about the path Jane's life took and how she chose to shape her life in spite of circumstances. I loved the dialog between Eyre and Rochester and if I'd gone into this book having never known the first thing about it, I'd have been left gasping at the church along with everyone else. That Charlotte Brontë could write is without question.
But the characters.... eeehhhhh.... I'm a character-driven reader, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Or, at least, I can forgive a lot if I like the characters, but I can't forgive much of characters I don't like.
Jane Eyre - You can't dislike Jane, can you? I mean, she's not a special snowflake, she's well educated, she's willing to work, and she stands up for herself... eventually. But her need to please, to be loved, her starvation for affection... while they all came from a very understandable place, it was hard to respect her at times. Eyre (as narrator) makes a very astute observation early in the book when she says, looking back, that her Aunt could not like her because she was so needy. And yes, that was entirely the Aunt's fault, the witch, but it's one of those dooming, self-sustaining cycles. I'd have liked Jane more if she'd done something with that moment when, at 10, she breaks the cycle; I'd have liked Jane more if she'd learned from that experience.
More to the point, I lost a lot of respect for the book and for Eyre when, after all is revealed, not once does she so much as question Rochester's continual charade and methodical lies. I don't know what I'd have been more pissed about if I were her; the attempted bigamy or the fact that the man who professed undying love to me systematically lied to me while I lived under his roof about the existence of someone who liked setting beds on fire.
Also, I gotta say, the whole "sir" thing got creepy. Totally to be expected when she was working for him, but after he kissed her? No, no, no. Before kiss: sign of respect; After kiss: sign of submission. Don't care what time period it was, it was creepy.
Edward Rochester - I know that over time, Rochester and Heathcliff have become confused in my mind, but I was expecting someone broodier. Still, I really liked him and understood the appeal, until the scene in the orchard, where he struck me as hopelessly, delusionally (new made up word), romantic and - again, apologies for what's coming - something of a man-child. His optimism that he'd be able to marry Jane and keep Bertha in the attic indefinitely was ludicrous.
Question: If this man was so outstandingly rich, why didn't he just put Bertha in her own house with a nurse somewhere in the back of beyond? He says he was going to use his other manor house, but that it was too damp (although not too damp for him, apparently); if that's the case, why not just buy another cottage somewhere else? There were too many alternatives to this disastrous arrangement for me to fully buy into it.
St. John Rivers - What a prat! I liked him until his proposal, at which point he become one of those religious nuts I particularly loathe; the kind that use faith to manipulate and control. Brontë flat-out failed here, in my opinion; it seems clear she wanted readers to admire his purity and devotion, but all I really got from him after that scene was an abusive narcissist in the making.
Ultimately, I'm glad I read the book and I'll likely re-read it (although I'll probably skim some of the more verbose bits). That I don't think it the masterpiece of literature I do Austen's work is entirely down to my personal reading preferences and my own personality quirks.
I'll end with my favourite quote, which, oddly enough, doesn't come from the text of the story itself, but the preface Brontë wrote for the second edition:
"Conventionality is not morality. Self-rightousness is not religion."
Page count: 514
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