Friday, May 16, 2008

Jane Eyre - creativity, revenge, and the art of the novel

I have been writing about a book called Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, published in 1847. The original title page did not have Brontë’s name on it. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, Edited by Currer Bell.

In the world of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, there exists this other book, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, written, obviously, by Jane Eyre. In the world of the novel, why was this book published? Why was it written?

In 1847, Jane is 58, and Rochester is – how old is Rochester? – 75, at least, maybe as old as 80. Perhaps the publication of Jane Eyre signals his decease. Perhaps they have both died.

Why does Jane write the book? One reason not to: it makes her beloved husband look pathetic, criminal, lunatic, perhaps worse. But that suggests a possibility: revenge. Jane calmly, systematically destroys all of the men who wanted to destroy her: Mr. Brocklehurst, her cousin John Reed, and, most of all, her cousin St. John, the only man who almost defeated her. Perhaps that’s why the last two paragraphs of the book are entirely about him.

Revenge on Rochester? I’m not willing to make that case. Rochester is such a perverse, peculiar fellow that I imagine him actively enjoying the worst that Jane could write about him, even encouraging her. This is one reason they’re such a lovely couple.

The voice of the narrator is not the voice of the character. The narrator is calmer, more rational. She’s channeled some of the wildness of her imagination. Channeled into what? Into an emotionally rich marriage, and into Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. This tension between young Jane and narrator Jane is one of the most interesting things in the book. I don’t understand this aspect of the book well enough to write about it now. When I reread, it's one thing I’ll look for.

The narrative voice harkens back to Defoe, and Pamela – the references to 18th century books are not coincidental – but creates something new, and more sophisticated. None of her predecessors were quite like her, nor her contemporaries. Dickens wrote seven novels before trying the first person in David Copperfield, published a few years after Jane Eyre. Brontë knew what to do with it right away.

So many more ideas in the book. I’ve barely scratched Brontë’s prose, which, besides the quality of the voice, includes some lovely metaphorical language (“the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop,” Ch. 12), and only a few real clinkers, mostly in dialogue.

Some readers of Jane Eyre may think I've skipped the heart of the book - Jane and Rochester, should Jane do this or that, and so on. Ethical aspects of the novel. Maybe so. But I think the ethics cannot be correctly understood without also studying the art of the novel, so that's what I usually try to write about. Charlotte Brontë was a literary artist of high caliber. Seems strange to me not to treat her as such.


  1. That tension in the narrative voice sounds very interesting (I've read the novel, but can't say I focused on that part before), and I agree with you about the value of focusing on the art of a novel, the way it's put together, just as much if not more than its ideas. Of course, the two can't be separated.

  2. The use of the narrator is really much more sophisticated than I had expected. A treat.

  3. I'll be in for a re-read of this very soon. Narrative tension is something I love looking at and I wouldn't have had an eye on it before. Its been maybe two or three years since my last Jane Eyre read, you've given me something specific to look for.

  4. I'm not saying Jane Eyre is The Good Soldier or Pale Fire, but its sophisticated, subtle use of the first person was the biggest surprise to me, and a great pleasure to read.