This last week I read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for the first time. I found it fascinating, because it seems to sit right precisely in between Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.
Jane Eyre is a classic, and so I’m going to presume that you’ve already read it. If you haven’t, feel free to move on.
Jane Austen’s books are naturalistic. The people in them feel like real people, and the events seem like events that could really happen. Mr. Bingley really could rent a house nearby; and his great friend Mr. Darcy might really come to visit, and end up attending a local ball. A foolish young woman might really run away with a profligate army officer. A haughty old woman might really cavil at the thought of a loved nephew marrying someone of a lower class. The constraints of life among the gentry are finely drawn; and actions have real (and sometimes devastating) consequences. In short, although there’s a romance at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, there’s little in the book that is romantic in the artistic sense.
Georgette Heyer’s books, on the other hand, are pure romance in the light, frothy modern sense. Coincidences and absurd plot contrivances abound, troubles are mostly played for laughs, and everything ends happily, at least for the two (or four, or six) principals. The books are thoroughly entertaining, but they are not at all serious. Although they pay lip service to the strictures of society, they delight in flouting them. In Austen, a young woman might really ruin herself by traveling alone with an older man not her relation, even for the best of reasons; in Heyer it just adds zest.
Jane Eyre, written over three decades after Pride and Prejudice, sits intriguingly in between Austen and Heyer. Romanticism is in the air, in Jane Eyre’s drawings, in Mr. Rochester’s speech, in a way you’d never find in Austen. Absurd coincidences and plot points abound: Jane Eyre is an orphan and badly treated poor relation. She ends up at a badly run charity school. She becomes a governess to support herself. (In Heyer, no one ever actually becomes a governess; they just plan to, with no real knowledge of what it involves, and are rescued by the male romantic lead in the nick of time.) She falls in love with a man who has a mad wife shut up in the attic. Starving, she is not only saved by a kind family, but discovers that they are her long lost cousins. Nearly destitute, she becomes wealthy upon receiving a bequest from a long-lost uncle. The mad wife dies by her own hand, and at last her love is free to marry her.
About halfway through the book, I said to Jane, “This book is just like Shakespeare: it’s full of clichés.” In Brontë’s case, though, I don’t know whether they were original with her, or were simply typical of the fiction of the day. They certainly aren’t at all likely; we’ve come quite a way from the naturalism of Jane Austen.
And yet, Brontë is infinitely more serious than Heyer. Her book is not only romantic but also moral. It really will mean Jane Eyre’s moral destruction if she gives in and runs away with Mr. Rochester despite his mad wife in the attic. It really will mean her physical and emotional destruction if she goes in Indian with her cousin Mr. St. John. She is determined to do what is right and just, and she is not to be put aside by the demands of those around her. Jane Eyre’s decisions matter, not just in the context of the book, but in the context of real life, of true morality. If the events are somewhat absurd, the world-view is not.
I was particularly taken by two character sketches, of the two characters in the book who are seriously into religion; they also happen to be two of Jane Eyre’s cousins.
The first is Eliza Reed, who, when Jane Eyre last sees her, has taken up in her childhood home an orderly monastic life in which every day is precisely the same, in which she can concentrate on her God, and in which there is evidently no space for charity or love of neighbor. We are told that she goes to France, joins the Catholic Church, takes the veil, and ultimately becomes the superior of her convent. Perhaps so; perhaps at that time a convent would welcome one with the attitude (or fortune) of Eliza Reed. But she shows a love much more of order and of herself than she does of her God or of anyone else. One can only hope that her attitude changed during the formation process.
The second is Mr. St. John, vicar and would-be missionary, a man who is tireless in his service of the poor of his parish, who is utterly certain of his rectitude and his calling, who is utterly certain of God’s will for those around him, who emphasizes the intellect until he is almost devoid of normal human feeling, and who uses his rectitude and certainty to coerce those around him. He insists that Jane Eyre marry him and come with him to India, not because he loves her but because she is a fitting helpmeet. He tells her that if she doesn’t come she is flouting God’s will, and is abandoning herself to pleasure, dissipation, and ultimately damnation.
May I just say that Mr. St. John, for all his sterling and admitted qualities, is an obnoxious piece of work, and it was a joy to watch Jane Eyre refuse to give into his bullying.
The book begins with an author’s preface, in which appears the following quote:
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.
What’s fascinating to me is that Brontë gets it right: in his missionary work, Mr. St. John is motivated by ambition and pride; while in her teaching and in her care of Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre shows real virtue, especially patience, diligence, charity, and prudence.
So…I can’t call it a “fun” book, exactly, not in the way that a Heyer romance is a fun book; but I liked it, and stayed up late one night to finish it. On the other hand, I don’t think it will ever become comfort reading, quite the way Pride and Prejudice has. Eliza Bennett is my kind of girl.