Reader, I finally read Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Brontë's timeless classic, Jane Eyre, is one of the most beloved and widely-sold books of all time—and rightly so! But—perhaps to your horror and shock, and certainly my shame!—before this past week I knew nothing more about it other than the existence of a spooky mansion and a brooding hero by the name of Mr. Rochester. Oh, and that wonderful quote about being "poor, obscure, plain and little" and all that.
And that was all I knew about Jane Eyre. I'd neither read it or seen any of the many adaptations. Shocking, isn't it? I'm practically shivering to think of my former ignorance!
If I'm honest, I've been meaning to read this book since I was about 15. Why, oh why, did I let so many years pass until I finally read it, I can't tell you, but I was finally convinced to give it a go after I heard that this book was the inspiration behind Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca—a book I was enthralled by last month ahead of the newly-released Netflix film (which I didn't love, just saying). And so I made my endeavor, knowing little, expecting a lot, and feeling the pressure that I better swoon over the brooding master of Thornfield or else the Brontë lovers would come after me.
And what did I find in this mysterious little book? (Ha! "Little" at 682 pages! 😳)
I found, little expecting it, one of the greatest jewels of a book I've ever read. If you were to ask me today what I personally think is the best work of fiction ever written...I think I might just say it's Jane Eyre.
A Book So Bold and Beautiful Begins so Bleak!
From the opening chapters, let's just say I was prepared to call Jane Eyre the most oppressive, dark, depressing book I'd ever read! I was not feeling all the happy from that horribly bleak childhood of our lady Jane's. The abuse, the neglect, the horror of Lowood! If I'm honest, I was getting ready to accept that this book would be a tale of woe and heartbreak page after page. And I was not prepared to love it, no sir! I anticipated a loooong time getting through a horribly dark and depressing book.
But lo and behold I was 1/3 through within a day and I couldn't keep my paws off.
"It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection, uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted."
The change in my feelings? Helen Burns.
I wasn't sure whether Jane Eyre would be a moral story or a religious commentary, but Lowood seemed pretty symbolic to me of a Church-system that was entirely institutionalized with all the love and faith and mercy gone out, and nothing left but rules, regulation and judgment. As a Christian myself, this system was heart-breaking to read about, knowing that Christ upholds the poor and the fatherless and commissions us to care for them—and how Lowood School failed so miserably to do that!
And then you have Helen Burns. The tortured, afflicted soul who found peace amid her tribulation through her earnest faith in God. Helen is what marked, for me, the beginning of my love affair for Jane Eyre. That any young soul could have found the light and the heart of God's message despite the twisted teachings of Lowood, and clung to it with her whole soul and found comfort in it when nothing else in her life was there to comfort her!
I was so interested to learn why it is that Helen's death marks the shift in Jane's life, as the next chapter opens ten years later, when Jane is eighteen. Why did that event signify the end of Jane's childhood? I was curious to learn why and hoped that I'd understand in the end, and I think I do now. In effect, Helen's message of faith is the first real, true message Jane ever hears. Helen's comfort in heaven on her deathbed was something Jane had never known. But adult Jane does! Her faith is pronounced so strongly in her times of distress throughout the book! It's what moves her when she herself cannot be moved! And it all began with Helen.
Getting to Know Jane and Mr. Rochester
It's not too long after Jane is at Thornfield Hall (which at once is every bit as mysterious as its master) that she meets Mr. Rochester. This first meeting between our heroine and hero was different to anything I expected, because, contrary to conventional writing, especially for the time, our hero is in distress and our heroine comes to the rescue?!?! I'm here for this!!
The first conversations between Jane and Mr. Rochester are highly amusing, and it's clear from the start that the latter is trying to fluster her and test how she'll respond to anything he thinks will shock her—but to his suprise, Jane is the one who shocks him by handling him like nobody ever has!
"I don't think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience."
I loved reading these scenes and all the time was trying to piece together more about our brooding hero. If I'm honest, I felt a lot of pressure to like him because the classics community of readers was practically on my toes waiting to hear what I thought! And to be truthful, I wasn't sold on him at first. He is so gruff in this section of the book and feels mistrustful, aloof, mysterious and tormented. But, with that said, I can't deny that in the same way I feel about Maxim de Winter from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca....there is something undeniably sexy behind gruff Mr. Rochester, even in these early scenes! ;)
Then we come to the fire scene. Jane saves Mr. Rochester not just once (helping him onto his horse at their first meeting) but twice!!!! What a gal for 19th Century Victorian literature! Why in the world his bed was on fire, we weren't to know, that's apparently beside the point (for now)—but! Jane puts out the fire and saves his life! Oh, and, I'm going to be honest and say I thought it was laughably hilarious that it took Mr. Rochester so long to wake up from that fire—until a fellow reader told me it was because he was asphyxiating from the smoke-fumes. Oh. I guess it's not so funny! 😆
But we aren't done with this scene yet, no sir. I have to mention the sheer tension between Jane and Mr. Rochester (mainly on the latter's side) when—hoho!—he didn't want her to leave!!!!!!!! That amused me so much. Jane was oblivious!
Blanche Ingram needs to leave the party, ASAP.
Which leads us into the very strange, very frustrating dynamic between Mr. Rocehster and Blanche Ingram—who, I think I can speak for us all, we detest with every ounce of our being before we've even met her. Why does he need to bring her to Thornfield and torment Jane? And after the whole you-saved-my-life-and-now-I'm-making-heart-eyes-at-you incident, too?!?! When it's so clear that he has—feelings—for Jane! Grrrr!
Now, please remember, I had to read about Blanche without any clue in the world what would happen to her and how we'd get her out of the way. It was incredibly frustrating (for me and Jane!) to have to watch Mr. Rochester flirt with Blanche and make every signal known to 19th Century man that he was going to marry her. Have I mentioned how frustrating this was?!! Let's just say, I wasn't Team-Rochester at this point. No, sir!
One of my favorite scenes is actually during these highly frustrating chapters, in which Jane sees Mr. Rochester amid the party for the first time since the night of the fire, and we realize—as Jane realizes—that she actually loves him.
...My eyes were drawn involuntarily to his face: I could not keep their lids under control: they would rise and the irids would fix on him. I looked, and had an acute pleasure in looking,—a precious, yet poignant pleasure; pure gold, with a steely point of agony: a pleasure like what the thirst-perishing man might feel who knows the well to which he has crept is poisoned, yet stoops and drinks divine draught nevertheless.
[Mr. Rochester's looks] were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me: they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me,—that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him: the reader knows I have wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.
Oh, the sheer romance in those words! I was utterly transfixed reading that. Then follows the agony of Jane's conviction that she can never put hope into her love, but must smother it and remember that Mr. Rochester would never care for her.
"...And yet, while I breathe and think I must love him."
The heartache is so beautifully written by Brontë, and following this scene is another little moment that struck me! Jane leaves the room of the party and Mr. Rochester comes after her, they speak, he concludes with:
"Good-night, my——" He stopped, bit his lip, and abruptly left me.
Ahhhh! Oh, oh, oh! What would he have said?! "My love"? I must know! Safe to say, one-third through the book as I was now, I was utterly gripped and forced myself to read more and more until I could be sure that Blanche was out of the way for good! But why the torment, the jealousy, when it's so clear he loves Jane every ounce as much as she, him? The frustration continues...
I want to add here that I began to notice a real social/conventionality barrier broken down between Jane and Rochester. He calls her by her first name and treats her as an equal. For the 19th Century, this is pretty astounding. Blanche and the rest of Rochester's party treat Jane with contempt and scorn because she is "a lowly governess." If we're ever going to get to the Mr. Darcy vs. Mr. Rochester showdown...that's a point in Mr. Rochester's favor!
Gypsies and Vampires
In the midst of Mr. Rochester's little get-together party, a random gypsy woman pays a call to Thornfield Hall on the one day our mysterious master is away! How coincidental. The gypsy asks for an audience with Jane and pries into her private affections toward Mr. Rochester—only to find out that the gypsy woman is actually Mr. Rochester in disguise!!!
This was just too funny. Did this guy actually go through all that trouble of pretending he was a gypsy fortune-teller just to find out whether or not Jane had feelings for him?!?! I can hardly believe the man! And all the time he's been tormenting her by flaunting Blanche Ingram on his arm. However funny it is, at this point I was still not too keen on Mr. Rochester. Intrigued, entertained, yes, but my frustration was too strong, and rightly so!
And then we have a mysterious Mr. Mason show up at Thornfield, and when Jane tells Mr. Rochester, he's not too happy about it. And yet, after all he's put poor Jane through, he says things like this, and I begin to question whether or not he's so bad after all! :)
He sat down, and made me sit beside him. Holding my hand in both his own, he chafed it; gazing on me, at the same time, with the most troubled and dreary look. "My little friend!" said he, "I wish I were in a quiet island with only you; and trouble and danger, and hideous recollections removed from me."
Oh, dear, there's something undeniably sexy about him, isn't there? Even though I'm still frustrated with him. Frustrated—but allured! ;)
Now for the vampires!
Jane wakes up in the night to hear sounds of murder and mayhem from the third-floor! What in the world?! The guests awaken; Mr. Rochester subtly allays their fears. But when the house is again quiet, he goes to Jane's door and asks her to come up to the third floor with him. To my own astonishment and sheer horror, the mysterious Mr. Mason has been terribly wounded and is muttering "Rochester, she sucked my blood!" And can I just say—I was sure at this point it was a vampire in that attic and no mistake!
Love and Other Speeches
The next morning, Mr. Rochester begins to tell Jane a little bit about "his lovely one" and Jane believes he means Blanche Ingram. Frustrating as this is, I must say there is something utterly irresistible about Rochester and his hidden agonies and mind-games. And his nicknames for Jane! "My pet lamb," "Janet," and "my little friend"!
"Is the wandering and signful, but now rest-seeking and repentant, man justified in daring the world's opinion, in order to attain to him for ever this gentle, gracious, genial stranger; thereby securing his own peace of mind and regeneration of life?"
As though he could have possibly meant Blanche here. Jane, Jane, he means you!
But when she finally confronts Mr. Rochester and tells him she plans to leave Thornfield as soon as he is married to Miss Ingram (*groan!*), the truth comes out, and he (at last) confesses his true love for Jane. Finally! Oh, now they can both be happy! Can't they?
It takes Jane a full three pages to realize he's being serious this time—and hey, I can't really blame her, because he's been joking about Blanche in front of her for how long? And we get this gem of a speech, which I'd been looking forward to every since Isola Pribby quoted it in the wonderful Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society film.
"Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! [...] It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal,—as we are!"
And Mr. Rochester's answer!! *Swoon!!!!*
"My bride is here," he said, again drawing me to him, "because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?"
Did I mention how much I love Mr. Rochester now? No? Well, let me tell you. I'm definitely team Rochester now. Moody and mysterious and secretive as he is, I love him!
And so, Jane and Mr. Rochester were married, and they lived happily ever after. Oh, wait, so you thought.
Me (post-Jane Eyre)
@ me (during Jane Eyre)
We're only half-way through the book, remember! The wedding arrangements are going forth, but a lot can happen between now and then. Meanwhile the book is happier than it's ever been before, and Jane and Mr. Rochester are in love, and we get more nicknames for Jane. His "little elf" and his "girl-bride." Did I mention I love Mr. Rochester? So I did. But I'll do it again. I love Mr. Rochester.
During this time of courtship, Jane asks him a question we've all been asking for about two hundred pages. Where does Blanche Ingram fit into the picture?!?! And his explanation...
"Well, I feigned courtship of Miss Ingram, because I wished to render you as madly in love with me as I was with you; and I knew jealousy would be the best ally I could call in for the furtherance of that end."
Say what, now?!?!!?! Was I just saying how much I love Mr. Rochester? How dare he!!?!?!
The month of courtship is up, and just before the wedding, Jane has a very strange night visitation from our attic ghoul, who rips her wedding veil in two and tramples it underfoot. Um, what?! Is anybody going to question this?! I think something might be going on upstairs!?!?!?!
Mr. Rochester and Jane leave for the church, the wedding ceremony begins, they're in the middle of saying their vows. Finally—marry, marry, marry! I felt almost in as much of a rush to see them married as Mr. Rochester was, without knowing why! He knows something and it's clear that his whole I'll-tell-you-the-truth-in-a-year-and-a-day speech is going to come out a lot sooner. When lo, and behold! The marriage ceremony is interrupted—(and I absolutely lost it)—because some random Mr. Briggs enters the church to announce that Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester is married already!!!!!!!!!!
I hope I'm not the only one who came very close to falling off their chair. The shock, the horror! So it's not a vampire in the attic, but his lunatic wife?!!?!?!
Mr. Rochester leads an astonished Jane and the rest of the marriage-interrupters back to Thornfield and up to the third floor and shows them one Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Did I mention the shock and the horror? Just when I wanted to throw the book accross the room because I couldn't accept the horrible truth, I couldn't, because my eyes were absolutely glued to the page. It's times like these I felt really glad that I invested in a shabby paperback for my first reading of Jane Eyre and could litter the pages with pencil scribblings and hardly-legible exclamations of anger and frustration. This particular scene is emblazoned with "I CANNOT" at the top. Why did this have to happen??! Who dares to interrupt a wedding like that?! That's a level of disturber-of-the-peace to be reckoned with.
My heart was so sore for Jane, who was left alone in the midst of this upset and went to her room without anybody really paying attention to the poor young bride who almost got married an hour ago. Her time of private torment is heart-wrenching.
...In full, heavy swing the torrent poured over me. The whole consciousness of my life lorn, my love lost, my hope quenched, my faith death-struck, swayed fully and mighty above me in one sullen mass.
My Moral Dilemma
Jane has one conclusion for what she must do: leave Thornfield. She discovers that Mr. Rochester has been waiting outside her door the whole time, and at last they speak to one another and we get the backstory for where and when in the world Bertha Mason and her lunacy stepped in the picture. Jane, ever good and righteous and thoughtful, actually pities Bertha, who cannot help her madness, and thinks it is cruel of Rochester to hate her for it. Rochester explains to Jane that it isn't so, and compares the two: how he would've loved her if she had been mad. He makes this beautiful, heart-rendering speech that brought tears to my eyes—just as I had been beginning to hate him for his deceit, he wins me over again!
"Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat . . . I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her: in your quiet moments you should have no watcher and no nurse but me; and I could hang over you with untiring tenderness, though you gave me no smile in return; and never weary of gazing into your eyes, though they had no longer a ray of recognition for me."
I can't help it—it must be said! I love Mr. Rochester!!! Flawed as he is, agh, what a speech. So Jane listens to the full story, and my heart goes out to Rochester's suffering and torment. You really can't blame him for loving Jane, who is so untainted, while he is utterly stained. And here is where my moral dilemma comes in. Jane listens and reflects. . .
Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol. One drear word comprised my intolerable duty—"Depart!"
Oh, for the heart-ache these pages left my heart. The force of the emotions, the ardor, the suppressed passion, the imploring despair of Mr. Rochester—and Jane's heart-wrenching decision she must make! Never in my life has fiction left me with such a moral dilemma, because I realized: I wanted Jane to stay. I understood it would have been wrong, and as a Christian, I knew it would have been wrong, and as such I was majorly conflicted for several days over the thought: what would I have done?
Talk about conflict! I realized plainly that there was actually a chance I'd have stayed with Mr. Rochester out of pity and love, even if it meant a life of shame and sin apart from everything I believe in and hold dear. Part of what makes Jane Eyre so powerful is the fact that it actually has the ability to test me, the reader, in my own faith, as well as Jane's. She was forced to make that decision at 18, on the spot, while enduring all of Mr. Rochester's heart-rendering pleas! I was torn to realize I don't think I would have been as strong as she was in that moment. This scene left me with so much to think about.
Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips: for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love.
But it must be said that Mr. Rochester, pitiful and tragic and tormented as he is, is by no means blameless. I couldn't help but think how selfish it was of him to try and convince her to live a life of sin and deceit with him solely for his own benefit. And how many times he has deceived her! He's got a lot of changing to do if we're ever to get our happy ending...
An Interlude on the Moors
Jane leaves Thornfield, wanders from town to town on the verge of death from starvation, and at last she sees a light from a cottage window and meets the Rivers of Moor-house. I'm going to be frank—I didn't really care that much about this section of the book. Of course it's necesarry to know about what Jane did during this break from the central plot, but I couldn't help but wish things would start happening again.
St. John and his sisters look after Jane for a bit and we get to know more about the Rivers. From the first, I can't say I really warmed up to St. John—and if I'm honest, my opinion of him was doomed to decline and decline the more I read about him. The cold, heartless missionary has a very impersonal relationship to his faith, and Jane's observation of him after listening to one of his sermons is pretty eye-opening.
...The eloquence to which I had been listening had sprung from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment—where moved troubled impulses of insatiate yearnings and disqueiting aspirations . . . St. John—pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was—had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding.
St. John even admits to his restlessness to Jane. His faith is completely cold, fully encapsulated by the Law, and not of Love. He wallows in bitterness, as though he resents what he believes is his God-ordained duty. Still, he is responsible and sensible, and takes care to set up Jane as a school-mistress—meanwhile, Jane is suffering alone for her lost love and the consequences of the decision she made—and didn't make.
Whether it is better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool's paradise at Marseilles—fevered with delusive bliss one hour—suffocating with the bitterest remorse and shame the next—or to be a village-school mistress, free and honest, in a breezy mountain nook in the healthy heart of England.
Jane the Heiress and St. John the Control-Freak
St. John eventually discovers Jane's real name, and a huge revelation comes out that Jane is actually his cousin, and is an heiress of £20,000. This is shocking, of course, but I admit I saw it coming. When the Rivers candidly mentioned their late Uncle John sometime before this, I did suspect the possibility of it being the same Uncle John. But what Jane does with the money is even more shocking. Because St. John and his sisters are now her family, and they had taken such care of her when she had been about to die, she divides the money among the four of them equally. Selfless Jane, how I adore you!
She avows that it is better for her to have a real family, a brother and sisters, than it is to have riches. So St. John and his two sisters spend some time living together very comfortably at Moor-house. But things start to turn ugly pretty quickly. St. John sets his eye on Jane for rather something more than a sister! He asks her to marry him several times, and it becomes vastly clear that he has some major control issues.
"God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A misssionary's wife you must—shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you—not for my please, but for my Sovereign's service."
Wow. Is it just me, or does that sound like it's definitely not God talking, but St. John the cold-hearted control freak bent on getting his own way?
This goes on for weeks! Jane refuses, St. John sulks, Jane refuses again, St. John sulks even more sulkily, Jane is on the point of accepting—and finally she cries out to God in her despair and one of the most beautiful things happen that I have ever had the pleasure to read about in fiction.
"Show me, show me the path!" I entreated of Heaven [. . .] I saw nothing: but I heard a voice somewhere cry—"Jane! Jane! Jane!" nothing more. [...] I had heard it—where, or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being—a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently. "I am coming!" I cried. "Wait for me! Oh, I will come!"
Oh, how this scene struck me! It's so utterly beautiful.
"Is it Jane?"
And so...Jane goes back to Thornfield, and to her horror, she discovers it is burnt down! Apparently Bertha got out of her cell last fall and burnt the house down, and jumped from the roof before Mr. Rochester could stop her. Huge shock, I know, but oh—this means he's free!!! Now for the rest of the shock. Mr. Rochester lost one eye in the fire, and is now completely blind—and handicapped. Oh, oh, oh! And he's living thirty miles away!
Jane goes to see him! At last, finally they meet again—and throughout this entire chapter my heart was as full as my eyes were with tears! All of the horrible things Rochester has dealt with have had a purpose all the time, and it comes out now. He's been humbled. Proud, wild, restless Mr. Rochester is now a humble, gentle, sorrowful man who's been brought to repentance before God. He explains to Jane that before, he had been an irreligious dog, and now his heart swells with gratitude and prayers to God.
"Divine justice pursued its course; distasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His chastisements are mighty; and one smote me which has humbled me for ever. [...] Of late, Jane—only—only of late—I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayrs they were, but very sincere."
My heart!! He goes on to say that the other night he had been crying out to God and had cried, "Jane! Jane! Jane!" and heard her voice answering in return. And she had heard him!
I can't even begin to describe how this chapter left me. My heart was overflowing—and still is, a week later! It's this ending that made the whole book come together for me. Mr. Rochester's path to redemption is truly one of the most beautiful things I've ever read, and it's a major part of why this book is, to me, one of the greatest masterpieces ever written.
Reader, I married him.
So concludes Jane Eyre! It's been ten years now since Jane and Mr. Rochester were wed, and two after the wedding, Mr. Rochester was partially healed of his blindness and could see the face of his first-born son.
Oh, how this book made my heart ache. Are you crying too, or is it just me? Truly, Jane Eyre just made it to my top favorite books of all time. I've spent a week since dwelling on it and pondering its beauty, and the more days that pass, the deeper I fall in love with it. Last night I came to the conclusion that this might just be the greatest work of fiction ever written—and that's saying a lot! It spoke to my soul and my spirit so deeply.
This is the kind of story that feels at once life-changing in its power and poignancy. I feel like there's a pre-Jane Eyre Gracie and a post-Jane Eyre Gracie, and they're two different people. I can't imagine living my life without this story, now! Funny thing is, two weeks ago I was doing just that. I can hardly believe I began it without knowing the treasure I'd find inside those now-beloved pages.
Thank you for journeying through my first read of Jane Eyre with me! I documented my live-reading notes on Instagram as I was reading, and after much response, I've saved them as a story highlight for you to go see, if you like.
Special thanks to @themauvereader over on Instagram, who came up with the title for this post!
Until next time,