The 'poor, obscure and plain' heroine who succeeds against all odds
Charlotte's most famous novel depicts the emotional and spiritual development of the heroine, which is mirrored by her physical journeyings throughout the book. It describes her search for self-worth, for identity as an individual and for economic independence, in a world which did not expect such ambitions in women.
Jane first appears as an orphaned child, lodged with an aunt who resents her and shamelessly favours her own children. She is sent away to a charity school run by Mr Brocklehurst, where, through the harsh regime, she learns survival and eventually succeeds in becoming a teacher there herself. She advertises for a post as governess, and is appointed to care for Adele, the ward of the sardonic Edward Rochester at Thornfield Hall. Thus far, Charlotte is drawing heavily on her own and her sisters' lives, but it is not an autobiographical novel. The aunt who brought Charlotte up was a benevolent influence. By contrast, her experiences, and those of her sisters, as governesses were far bleaker than that portrayed here. And there was never any Rochester to fall in love with her.
What attracts Rochester to Jane is not her looks (she is small and plain, like her author) but the honesty with which she speaks her mind, and her practical common sense, which enables her to save his life. He proposes marriage, but she discovers at the altar that he already has a wife, Bertha, a lunatic who is kept in the attic at Thornfield. Jane refuses to become Rochester's mistress, and flees from him. Destitute, she is taken in by the Rivers family, who, coincidentally, turn out to be cousins, and reveal that she is heiress to sufficient funds to give her financial security for life. The Revd. St. John Rivers, who is planning to go to India as a missionary, asks her to marry him and follow him in his calling. Jane is on the point of acceptance, when she hears a supernatural cry from Rochester. She returns to Thornfield to find that the house has been burned down by Bertha, and that Rochester himself has been maimed and blinded in an unsuccessful attempt to save his wife. Now, Jane can marry him, not just because he is widowed but because his physical dependence gives her the equality to which she aspires.
Elements of the uncanny, the fairy tale and the supernatural abound in Jane Eyre. Storms and fires reflect the psychological turmoil of the protagonists, while hauntings and transformations give a sense of dream or nightmare.
The world through which Jane moves has a strong moral dimension (unlike Wuthering Heights) which initially oppresses her, but which she confronts and finally comes to terms with. Brocklehurst and St. John Rivers are pillars of the church, but their stony formalism precludes real emotional warmth. Jane has to seek her own salvation, but she does so in traditional Christian terms; by sacrificing her prospective life with Rochester, she ultimately saves it, herself and him.
For a free copy of Jane Eyre to download to your Kindle, click here.