The year 1847 was a particularly eventful one for the Bronte family. Three novels were published by the Bronte sisters under various pen names: Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell; Agnes Grey by Acton Bell; and Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, edited by Currier Bell. Jane Eyre was published in five parts and was the talk of London. Charlotte Bronte’s novel continues to have great impact on the reading world. Her strong, lovely use of language and head-on confrontation of social issues of the day build a foundation for a story that is part personal, part allegorical, and as absorbing a tale today as it was over a hundred years ago.
Jane Eyre, an orphan whose care is considered an onerous duty to her aunt by marriage, never fits in with the spoiled, socially fixated family who consider her status far beneath them. Banned from the company of her cousins, she curls up in a window seat with a book. The nine-year-old Jane strikes back when her older cousin John finds her and punishes her for touching part of his future inheritance. She is sent to Lowood, a school run by a hypocritical minister. Though subjected to a starvation diet and branded a liar by the nefarious man of God, Jane endures. Her mettle is tested again and again, but through it all she remains faithful to the standard she has set for herself and others.
She reaches adulthood and leaves Lowood to become a governess at Thornhill. The mysterious, secret-burdened Mr. Rochester wins Jane’s love and she his respect, reminding him constantly that though she is a poor, plain governess, she is still his equal. He asks her to marry him, and it seems Jane will find happiness with this arrogant, sad man. Fate steps in to keep Jane from making the mistake of her life; the marriage is thwarted at the last minute, and Jane flees from Thornhill penniless and alone. She finds a new life, a new economic and social position, and eventually makes her way back to Thornhill to Rochester, a man laid low by his insane secret wife imprisoned in the attic.
Bronte uses her experience as teacher and governess to address certain social ambiguities common in the 1800s. Though often better educated than their employers, governesses were socially far below them, not quite servant but definitely not equal. Morally, our heroine is several notches above the man she refers to as Master. Jane’s assertion to Rochester on more than one occasion that she is his equal is especially poignant. She declines to become his mistress, preferring to choose a path that leaves her penniless but not morally bankrupt. She declares, “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
Stevie Davies’ introduction this edition is a rich with insight about Bronte’s life and the creation of this classic novel. This is a great book to visit for the first time during the long cold winter, or revisit for those of us who haven’t picked it up in a decade or so. Beautiful language never goes out of style.