Nearly 170 years after its publication, and 200 years since Charlotte Brontë's birth, why is Jane Eyre—a novel ostensibly preoccupied with the plight of a poor and plain orphan—still so enduringly popular?

Jane is no ordinary heroine

Jane Eyre

Despite the passing of nearly 200 years, the character of Jane Eyre still represents society’s underdog. She’s poor, without connections, family, friends or beauty—but she’s full of determination.

When Charlotte Brontë was penning the novel, she promised to show us “a heroine as plain and little as I am” and indeed, Jane identifies as “poor, obscure, plain and little” throughout her plight. 

Even today, Jane Eyre speaks to those who society has relegated to a space behind a curtain on a drizzly afternoon—as Jane is herself when we first meet her as a 10-year-old. 

Undeterred by her lack of privilege, Jane finds her way through the power of ‘advertising’. When she finds herself trapped in Lowood, a tough school institution for 'difficult' girls, she advertises her skills as a governess, escaping her depressing situation. It's a thoroughly modern 19th-century act that demonstrated a timeless sensibility; Brontë bestowed Jane with self-belief.  

Jane Eyre teaches its readers the importance of self-reliance in a time where it was not deemed proper for a woman to live independently.

In one unforgettable speech, Jane declares to her love Rochester; “I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” It's an incredibly powerful speech that still resonates today. 

Importantly, Jane is far from a perfect heroine. Her feminism is complicated by some of her ultimate choices, and her desires often overtake her moral judgement but that’s exactly what makes her character so compelling and so vivid after all this time. 

 

 

The writing itself was revolutionary

charlotte bronte
Image via Wiki

Jane Eyre was radical in its intimacy with the private workings of a woman’s mind. It's told in the first person, and the voice we hear throughout is Jane's, in fact, it was originally entitled Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, causing much speculation in Victorian society as to who the real Jane might be. 

This style of relaying the inner consciousness of the protagonist is something we take for granted today, but it was brand new when Brontë was writing and as such has the irresistible vitality of a new idea.

You can almost feel Brontë’s excitement for what and how she’s writing pulsing out from the book’s spine.

 

 

"We did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called "feminine"—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice"

–Charlotte Brontë

 

 

Just as Jane raises herself from obscurity to a place of self-fulfillment and true happiness, we can witness Brontë raising her own position through the very writing of her most successful novel.

Poor, toothless and single, Charlotte too defied convention by advertising. She sent her writing—novels that were full of thoroughly unladylike themes of mystery, sex, drama and betrayal—to several publishers, finally striking lucky under her male pseudonym, Curer Bell. 

She was met with immense success, and that bold first move to publish under a male name would lead to an established writing career where she could finally publish as herself. Travelling to London as a celebrated author, she would make friends with other bold literary minds such as Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

 

 

It still raises questions

Bertha Mason
Valentina Cervi as Bertha Mason in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Image via Bustle

It might be a work of literary genius, but Jane Eyre is by no means without problems. There are several moments throughout the novel that caused critics and readers alike reason to pause for thought.

Halfway through the book we are confronted with a scene in which Rochester dresses up—black face and all—as a gypsy woman, in an act that today it's impossible not to see as out and out racism. 

And who can forget Bertha Mason—the infamous mad woman in the attic, locked in there by her husband Rochester. Many critics have found issue with the treatment of her character. It is perhaps a reflection of the times, an age where women were frequently admitted to asylums for simply being ‘too passionate’ or indulging in affairs, Rochester's reasoning for locking her in an attic would have inevitably raised as many eyebrows at the time, as it does now.

Rochester is an unlikeable character by today's standards for many reasons: he earns an income through the slave trade, he lies to Jane about their relationship, flirts with other women, tries to trick our heroine into a bigamous marriage. Yet somehow Brontë makes it hard not to be on his side.

Brontë's writing takes a gothic style which makes the issues, that at surface seem incredibly 19th-century, worm their way into our modern sensibilities—eating into our ideas of what it means to be good, or innocent, or deserving of happiness, and challenging our modern moral code.

Many latter-day authors have found inspiration from the problems Jane Eyre presents to the modern readerJean Rhys’ prizewinning novel Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, was written as a prequel to Jane Eyre. It tells the story of Bertha Mason's childhood in Jamaica, of her unhappy marriage, and journey to England.

When she died, surrealist writer Angela Carter was part way through planning a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Adele, Rochester’s ward and Jane’s student.

 

 

Brontë teaches the importance of finding your own destiny

Jane Eyre
Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre in the 2008 BBC adaptation. Image via BBC

“I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had the courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”

—Jane Eyre

 

Brontë’s novel is inspiring because it speaks of the importance of seeking your own happy endings, and not settling for the lot you are born to. It inspires to not accept fate at face value but to pursue one's own idea of happiness, whatever that might be. As Jane says herself, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” 

Blinded by the fire that killed his first wife, Rochester has to rely on Jane, who is in every sense an independent woman with the money to match.

Even if we conclude that Rochester is, in fact, a wicked man undeserving of Jane’s affections, the important thing is, that Jane marries him of her own freewill, and when they finally unite, it is on terms completely under Jane’s control, and nothing says it so loudly as that self-assured infamous quote “Reader, I married him”.

 

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